Owen Sheers

Skirrid Fawr by Owen Sheers

‘Skirrid Fawr’, the final poem in the Skirrid Hill collection, discusses the importance of nature, a loadstone of relief in Sheers’ life. The poet explores how nature can provide help in answering questions and finding out more about the self. It references many themes from within the anthology, stemming from women, nature, national identity, and the generational divide.

Skirrid Fawr by Owen Sheers


Skirrid Fawr Analysis


‘Skirrid Fawr’ is divided by Owen Sheers into 8 stanzas of two lines each. The use of coupled lines leads to the suggestion of unity. Indeed, within the poem Sheers is exploring the link between man and nature, which can be understood further through the structure – a paired structure to represent the strong link between these two concepts.

Yet, Sheers writes ‘Skirrid Fawr’ without any sense of rhyme. The suggestion of connection implied by the couplet lines, however lacking any rhyme, leads the poem to also have a sense of disruption. This could relate to the fact that although Sheers loves the skirrid, he doesn’t quite understand it, ‘an unlearned tongue’ being indecipherable to the poet.


The Title

‘Skirrid Fawr is the title of the anthology, with ‘hill’ being the anglicization of the Welsh ‘fawr’. In leaving the name untouched by the influences of English, Sheers is drawing upon his Welsh identity in a final poem that perfectly summarises the majority of the themes of the anthology. You can read the full poem here.


Stanza One

Just like the farmers who once came to scoop
handfuls of soil from her holy scar,

Sheers begins ‘Skirrid Fawr’ by thrusting the reader back in time, looking at how the mountain has been around long before the development of tools. ’The farmers’, using ‘handfuls’ instead of any tool suggests that people having been using and living on and around the skirrid for a long time. This is not something that is individual to Sheers, but rather that the world has been drawing upon for long before he was born. This landscape and everything it represents is a point of pride for the poet, backing his Welsh identity.

The Skirrid is feminised, Sheers implying this through the female pronoun, ‘her’, when discussing the mountain. This draws upon the theme of the relationship between the sexes within the anthology, with Sheers presenting the idea of female power through the importance of the hill.

The reference to ‘holy scar’ is in conversation with the myth of how the hill became split, the idea of God splitting the hill in the moment of grief following Jesus’ cruxifixction. This bares links to the poem Farther, in which Sheers and his father climb the skirrid together on the day after Boxing Day.


Stanza Two

The idea that he is drawn to the hill ‘for the answers to every question I have never known’ suggests the idea of nature being the key to human problems within ‘Skirrid Fawr’. Just like in ‘Y Gaer‘, this is an image of man using nature as a mechanism for support, getting the truth from the land. Sheers, as a Welsh poet, holds nature close to his own identity, with the theme of the innate connection between man and nature.

The idea of ‘question I have never known’ suggests that in the future the hill will also be the solver of Sheers’ problems. The fact that he has ‘never known’ pushes the idea that he will one day think of a question, or perhaps realise a question, and already the hill will know the answer. This gives nature an omnipotent power, seemingly having all the knowledge in the world. Again, Sheers elevates the power of nature in comparison to man.


Stanza Three

To the sentence of her slopes,
the blunt wind glancing from her withers,

The ‘sentence of her slopes’ refers to two ideas in ‘Skirrid Fawr’. At first, it seems like Sheers is referencing how his writing is infused with ideas that stem from the land. The poet takes great inspiration from nature and the influence of the Skirrid itself is undeniable within his work. The second connotation of the homonym ‘sentence’ is that of a prison sentence. Sheers draws into question the link that Welsh has with nature, the constant drawing back to the natural influences perhaps being seen as something that can hinder just as much as it can help.


Stanza Four

The ‘split view’ that Sheers’ references within stanza four can be literally interpreted as the crack within the hill, also discussed in the first stanza. Moreover, the idea of ‘split view’ could relate to the generational divide within Wales. The other poem which deals in depth with the Skirrid is Farther, one which outlines a father and son relationship, within which they have very different opinions on the modern world and how to do things. Sheers could be using the physical geography of the hill as a representation of the split views of the generations, differing in opinion and method of doing things.


Stanza Five

This edge of her cleft palate,
part hill, part field,

The multi-faceted presentation of ‘part hill, part field’ in ‘Skirrid Fawr’ further relates to Sheers’ own identity. As a poet born in Fiji, but raised in Wales, Sheers has a sense of divided identity, stemming simultaneously from both locations. This idea of the duality of nature is a mechanism to represent Sheers’ own multi-national identity, part one, part another. Once again, Sheers relies on the natural to express something that is hard to explain with words, using the Skirrid as a representation of his own identity. The blend of man and nature is hugely important within Skirrid Hill, and this is an excellent example to demonstrate this.


Stanza Six

Two main ideas stem from stanza six of ‘Skirrid Fawr’. The first is from the employment of ‘rising’, with the verb suggesting an element of hope. This could be Sheers referencing a possible change coming in the future, focusing on the economic hardships of Wales and how the country could rise to overcome them. In this metaphor, the ‘low mist’ represents the economic depression, with Wales slowly rising out of it.


Stanza Seven

Her east-west flanks, one dark, one sunlit,
her vernacular of borders.

The ‘vernacular of borders’ expresses the idea of a border between countries. This is relating to the land border division between England and Wales, with Sheers exploring how one piece of land can be divided up into differing countries. Indeed, these two countries have developed very different traditions and realities within each society. The reference to ‘east’ could also be an idea of the work that is exported elsewhere, both referenced within The Steelworks and Stitch in Nine.

Following from this representation, the idea of ‘one dark, one sunlit’ relates to the differing levels of economic prosperity across England and Wales. Whilst Wales suffers through a period of deep economic depression, England continues to be a global economic superpower, the land connected having a severely differing economic hold. The ‘dark’ represents the lack of economic opportunity, whilst the ‘sunlit’ England has seeped in sunlight, a symbol of economic prosperity.


Stanza Eight

The ‘unspoken words’ and ‘unlearned tongue’ relate right back to the first poem in the anthology, Last Act, discussing the difficulty of self-expression. The hill representing Sheers’ Welsh identity, and those who identify with this, is defined by a difficulty in communication. Indeed, for many Welsh men within this society, brought up to act with a certain level of ‘manliness’, communication, opening up, and emotional connection cause frustration.

The final reflection of the anthology, the ‘unlearned tongue’ draws forth another aspect of nature. The pure brilliance, although inspirational, is ultimately complex and difficult to understand completely. Sheers respects nature, bowing before the unending possibility, power, and transcendence of time.

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Jack Limebear Poetry Expert
Jack is undertaking a degree in World Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team in 2019. Poetry is the intersection of his greatest passions, languages and literature, with his focus on translation bridging the gap.
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