‘The Steelworks’ explores the deindustrialization of Wales, losing its prime industry and forcing its workers into unemployment. The men, once priding themselves on their typically masculine job, are emasculated by the work moving abroad, now spending their days mindlessly lifting in the gym.
The Steelworks Structure
‘The Steelworks’ is split by Owen Sheers into six stanzas of three lines each. Sheers employs the ancient Welsh form of tercets to house a poem which deals with national identity. The poem follows Flag in the anthology, with both poems being a consideration of the decline of Wales. By using this form, Sheers draws upon a structure that reflects the content of Welsh identity, with the poem presenting modern-day Wales against an industrial past. You can read the full poem here.
The Steelworks Analysis
except it doesn’t anymore.
becalmed on the valley’s floor,
‘The Steelworks’ begins as a run on from the title, having a comma written into the title. Sheers instantly grounds the poem in a tragic stillness, the continuation from the title revealing the failure of the industrial industries in Wales. The harsh end stop, especially after this run-on sentence is abrupt, forcing the reader to appreciate the sentiment of the ‘Steelworks’ now not actually working.
The complete emptiness of the industrial lots, ‘a deserted mothership’ suggests a very lonely and sterile image. It is vast, but empty inside, with the lack of movement tragic in this moment.
The positioning within ‘the valley’s floor’ links the industrial with nature. Two of the things that Wales is known for, one still beautiful and functioning, the other a remote stillness within the valley. The use of ‘becalmed’ suggests something grown still, this was a gradual change which has now culminated in the complete deindustrialization of Wales.
sheep passing through the car park,
and birds nesting in the breathless vents.
The lack of activity from the industrial sight is represented through the ‘breathless vents’. The very life, breath, of the site has been taken away. ‘The Steelworks’ is still, rusting away. The focus on the padlocks suggests a finality, the impossibility of being reopened now leaving them ‘rusting on the gates.’ The focus on metallic imagery furthers the scene of the pure industrial nature of the lot.
The overtaking of nature is reminiscent of ‘Y Gaer’ and ‘Hill Fort’, the complete encapsulation of Welsh structures by nature oddly calming. Although human life has deserted the place, it has returned to nature – Sheers suggests that at least nature has not faded from Wales. ‘Sheep’ ambling past and ‘birds nesting’ have taken home within the deteriorating lot. The fact that animals have now moved into the lot also suggests that it has been out of action for quite some time.
Stanzas Three and Four
The work happens elsewhere now,
sometimes all day – men pressing and dipping
or just kneeling and bowing
to the benediction of a lateral pull.
The blunt comment of ‘work happens elsewhere’ suggests the defeated attitude of the Welsh people. The fact that it is ‘sometimes all day’ suggests that the mechanization within other countries meant that Wales could not compete, still relying on manual industrial labor.
Instead of their jobs in factories, men have now retreated to the gym as a pastime. This element of Welsh identity, pride stemming from masculinity, and having a functional role in society, has been taken from the men. In an attempt to regain it they spend their time in the gym, ‘pressing and dipping’.
These two stanzas of ‘The Steelworks are filled with semantics reflecting a gym environment. The use of the gerund tense, constantly using ‘ing’ suggests an ongoing repetitiveness to the men’s actions. ‘Pressing’, ‘dipping’, ‘locking’, ‘rolling’, ‘kneeling’, and ‘bowing’ all culminate in a sad presentation of an endless cycle. The men have turned the gym into their place of worship, ‘the benediction of a lateral pull’ saving them from boredom and keeping them in shape while they are out of work.
Pumping iron under strip lights,
with screwed tight eyes, pneumatic sighs,
The men in ‘The Steelworks’ are presented through descriptions that could be understood as a form of pain. From the loss of their jobs, and essentially their purpose, they have been reduced to shadows of what they once were. This pains the men, ’screwed tight eyes’ trying to block out the reality of the situation.
The suggestion of sickness within the ‘pneumatic sighs’ permeates as a reference from the previous poem, Flag. The idea that Wales is a country sick in its deindustrialization has now infected the people that live there. They have no purpose anymore, they go to the gym each day as a method of trying to exhaust themselves, lacking any real direction. The ‘sighs’ are a form of giving up, a somber note of sadness within the directionless poem.
The harsh reality of the ’strip lights’ suggests the rawness of the scene. They are working under intense lights, the harshness being unforgiving to the men. The image could also be understood as Sheers’ method of presenting the realization of the men. Normally brutishly stuck in their ways, they are realizing the loss of what they had.
while at the window – still the rain,
across a brushed-metal sky.
The barrier between the men and the outside world is represented through the structure of this stanza. The hyphen breaks apart the men inside ‘the window’ and ‘the rain’ outside. They are penned within the gym, trapped inside in endless repetitions that shape their days with mindless lifting. The image of the men looking out of the window upon a grey and raining day fits the somber tone of ‘The Steelworks’.
The pathetic fallacy suggested by the ‘rain’ is a representation of the men’s defeated spirits. They have been reduced from what they once were, the silent tragedy of the loss of their way of life presented through the depiction of the scene.
The link between the ‘sky’ and ‘metal’ elicits an image of a deep grey sky, furthering the sense of pathetic fallacy being at use here. Moreover, it links two concepts that are typically welsh: industry and nature. While the industry has now failed, nature is still eternally providing for Wales. Sheers elevates nature by placing it as the final image within ‘The Steelworks’, he affirms that Wales can still rely on its nature as a point of pride.
‘The Steelworks’ ruminates on the emasculation of the Welsh men, once priding themselves on their hands-on mechanical labor in industry, now reduced to echoing their former movements in an isolated gymnasium. Sheers feels pity for the men, knowing they, like Wales, cannot return to their former glory.