‘The Hill Fort’ reflects on the habit of a father and son before the son’s death, going to visit the fort together. Several stanzas span their story, focusing on the theme of family and heritage. In stanza 7 a Volta occurs, drawing the poem into the present, watching the father tipping ashes into the fort, watching them slowly drift away from him. The poem focuses on family, grief, and nature’s ability to support. It is tragic and reflects the father’s loss of a son.
‘The Hill Fort’ is divided into 10 equal 3 line stanzas. Concerning nature, the poem is appropriately written in the epic Welsh form calls tercets, each stanza having three lines. The implementation of the Welsh form binds together nature and man, drawing upon the Welsh identity in a poem that explores a settlement in the Welsh countryside.
The language within ‘The Hill Fort is colloquial and easy to follow. It is more so a poem that focuses on the raw emotion and events, rather than poetic beauty. It is a tribute to grief and family and is rightfully respectful in its calculated style. You can read the full poem here.
The Hill Fort Analysis
On a clear day he’d bring him here,
as wild as the long-maned ponies
The contrast to the other half of the diptych (paired with Y Gaer) is instantly made through the focus on weather. In Y Gaer the landscape is at the storm, representing the father’s grief. Yet, in this early stanza of ‘The Hill Fort’, the boy is still alive, and the happiness of the father is represented by the ‘clear day.’
Owen Sheers presents the energy of youth thought ‘charging the hill’. Firstly, this portrayal of the boy is perplexing, the reader knowing the boy is now dead. This shows the shock of the father, losing a child which seems healthy and energetic.
Moreover, the link between the boy’s movements ‘charging’ and ‘the hill’ itself furthers the connection between man and nature. They are one in the same, presented in harmony.
who’d watch a moment
When he finally got him still
The fleeting nature of life is suggested by the ‘moment’ in which the horses watch the boy. One moment he is there, the next he is gone, the tone of ‘The Hill Fort’ quickly changing. The change which life can bring is tragic, this subtle nod to the transience of life explored through this volatility.
The end of the first stanza is enjambed, flowing directly into the second. This freedom of form is emblematic of the boy’s movements, running between the stanzas like the meter of the poem.
he’d crouch so their eyes were level,
the other tracing the horizon,
This stanza focuses on the deep connection between the father and son. Firstly, the father ‘crouch[es]’ to get on the same level as the son. They are face to face, ‘eyes were level’, presenting the connection between them through equal levels.
This presentation is then furthered by physical contact, one hand on the ‘small of his back’, being a tender image of the connection. The connection between man and nature is also explored here, with the father with one hand touching the boy, and with the other ‘tracing the horizon’. This simultaneous movement connects the two ends of the father’s arms, drawing together the image of the beautiful ‘horizon’ and the boy.
pointing out all the places lived in
Tretower, Raglan, Bredwardine …
The importance of ‘father’ and ‘son’ relationships is enforced within this stanza. In a typical Welsh society, it is common that the father will teach the boy what it means to be a man. The father in this scene evaluates this concept, pointing out all the families ‘before them’. This documentation of heritage is a point of pride for the Welsh man, furthering the tragedy of not being able to participate when it arrives.
The three names the father lists are typically Welsh, grounding ‘The Hill Fort’ in the strong sense of Welsh identity.
And what he meant by this but never said, was
the line is before you – how in these generations
The unspoken communication between father and son is reflected, again, in the anthology. Appearing here, ‘but never said’, occurs in Trees as well, the focus on physical communication surpassing that of verbal. This disregard of verbal communication is a faucet of Welsh masculinity which Sheers finds perplexing. Being a writer, his very means of living is communication, something Welsh men are normally reluctant to do.
This stanza begins a quotation, what the father had been trying to tell his son. He focuses on the idea of generations of fathers and sons, the connection in a ‘line before you’. The importance of family is paramount here. Sheers understands the man’s pain at not being able to contribute to this line of heritage.
were no more than scattered grains;
are much the same …
The ‘scattered grains’ is an image that can be broken down into individual connotations and words. The ‘scattered’ action is often collocated against the scattering of ashes. This is indeed a reference to the father’s own movements in stanza eight. The verb is one that is almost always relating to death and passing.
The idea of ‘grains’ brings the idea of new life through nature. The planting of grains means the growing of plants, this seasonal change bringing new life.
These two images then, contrasting in meaning, draw out an idea of life and death. The ’scattered grains’ suggest the infinite cycle of life and death. ‘Scattered’ being pulled from the semantics of death, and ‘grains’ being pulled from life. This idea of an endless cycle of life and death reflects the ‘generations’ which have come before them. The continuation of father and son, father and son, over and over has been broken in ‘The Hill Fort’. This is a large portion of the tragedy, the loss of tradition in the child’s passing is deeply moving to the poet.
that it isn’t the number of steps
but the depth of their impression;
This stanza contains the key philosophical message of ‘The Hill Fort’. Sheers states, perhaps in an attempt to provide comfort to the father, that is is not ‘the number of steps… but the depth of their impression.’ Sheers argues that it is not the number of people born in this endless chain of father and son. Rather, it is the ‘depth of their impression’, the impact they have made in their life which is to be remembered. The impact someone can have during their life is the thing that makes them important. The impact the son has on the father, even if for too short a time, is still important, valued, and to be cherished.
And that’s why he’s come back again
and watch them spindrift into the night.
This stanza of ‘The Hill Fort’ shows the scattering of the child’s ashes, the father spreading them around the fort. The ‘tongue of the wind’ suggests that nature envelops the child. Much like how the fort is completely encapsulated by nature, the son will now be protected by nature, drawn into its being.
The movement of the wind, carrying the ashes in ‘spindrift’ creates a quiet moment of reflection. The image is beautiful, man and nature coming together in a silent moment of reflection. The enveloping ‘night’ gives closure to the father, the day coming to an end representative of the child’s life.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
Not just to make the circle complete,
protect as much as they defend.
The ‘circle’ which Sheers refers to is the endless father-son circle of life. The father comes back here to complete the circle, returning his son to nature. The comforting force of nature, ’to heal or mend’ is elevated here, with nature being a mechanism to cope with grief.
Although the structure itself has ‘sunk’, becoming depleted over time. The magic of nature which runs through the fort will always remain, the power of nature reigning over the landscape. The ability of nature is multifaceted, it ‘protects’ and ‘defends’. This relationship is perhaps best related to the difference in perspective the two poems ‘Y Gaer‘ and ‘The Hill Fort’ have. Within ‘Y Gaer’, nature is attacking, providing a punching bag for the anger of the father. Yet within ‘The Hill Fort’, nature is soft and comforting, providing a ‘defence’, a final resting place for the father’s lost son.
The diptych poems ‘Y Gaer‘ and ‘The Hill Fort’ and deeply moving. They are a testament to the complexities of grief. Presenting nature as a mechanism to cope with loss, the strong links between man and nature are central to the understanding of these poems.