The Wake is a tribute to Owen Sheers’ grandfather. The man comes to terms with his death, accepting its embrace. Sheers’ grandfather was a doctor and knows the illness spawned in his lungs will be painful to cure, and therefore decides to live out the rest of his life instead of getting treatment. The poem is a reflection of the links between man and nature. The most prominent idea with the poem is the idea of memory, and how someone can live on through memories shared with others.
The Wake Analysis
The Title – ‘The Wake’
The Wake as a title is polysemous. On one hand, it suggests the ‘wake’ used to celebrate the life of an individual after their funeral. This is the most obvious and apparent meaning, considering the poem is one of death.
The other draws upon nautical language, with Owen Sheers looking at the wake of a ship, leaving waves in the water behind it. These waves, ripples on a pond, represent the memories that spread out behind a person, touching those they were shared with and never quite fading. You can read the full poem here.
He looks me straight in the eye,
folded in his favourite chair,
Sheers begins with a moment of the intimate connection between himself and his grandfather. The ‘straight in the eye’ creates a moment of eye contact between the two men, the poem centralizing itself on the theme of family. This idea is furthered by the first word of the poem, ‘he’ drawing attention to Sheers’ grandfather. Alike ‘On Going‘, this is a poem dedicated solely to one of Sheers’ grandparents.
The positioning of the grandfather on ‘his favourite chair’ develops a sense of comfort. Although the man is drawing to the end of his life, he is content with the life he has lead and the surroundings he is in.
Stanzas Two, Three, and Four
and tells me he doesn’t want this,
to watch himself die, to have the doctor
smudging those two pale oceans,
rising and falling in the rib cage’s hull.
Sheers’ grandfather, a doctor himself, is dealing with a terminal illness. Being a doctor, he knows the difficulties patients will go through during their treatments. Therefore, he ‘doesn’t want this’, not wanting to subject himself to the pain of treatment he knows will come.
His ‘scarred lungs’ are compared to a sea, through the semantics of depth. The idea of ‘plumb any further depth’ draws upon the idea that the lungs are a vast ocean, with Sheers’ grandfather not wanting ‘the doctor’ to ‘plumb’ deeper when he already knows there is no hope. Sheers connects man and nature, a prominent theme of the collection.
This is furthered in stanza four, with the idea of lungs being presented as ‘two pale oceans’, a harmonic blend of nature and man.
There is a certain confidence and strength in Sheers’ grandfathers’ refusal of medical intervention. He knows he will die, but he doesn’t want ‘to watch’, not wanting to prolong something that is already coming. The Wake is extremely comparable with ‘On Going‘, in which Sheers’ grandmother also refuses medical intervention.
The ‘forecast of storms’ is a beautiful metaphor for the development of illness. Sheers compares illness to ‘storms’ which brew in the bodies, medical professionals becoming meteorologists that can ‘forecast’ the oncoming sickness.
Holding ‘up to the light’ could also be a representation of learning or of finding out the truth. Sheers’ grandfather, working as a doctor, would tell people about their illnesses, enlightening them. The ‘light’ here, physically displayed through Sheers’ grandfather holding an x-ray to the light, is a metaphor for realization, with the patient learning of their illness. Sheers’ grandfather, having spent so long helping others to realize, has now realized himself that he has an incurable illness.
Here then is the old curse
collected along the shore of a century.
Nautical imagery is throughout his poem, the very title is a subtle reference to the passing of ships. This stanza of The Wake is no different, with the semantics revealing ‘driftwood’ and ‘shore’. Here, the nautical imagery is used to suggest the knowledge one picks up during their lifetime. Sheers’ father has ‘collected’ ‘knowledge’ for almost a ‘century’, being ‘ninety years old’. This stanza outlines his life, proving he has achieved something, even if it be the collection of knowledge.
Yet, the depiction of knowledge as mere ‘driftwood’ could also suggest that ultimately knowledge is pointless. In the end, everyone perishes, leaving behind nothing but memories in their wake. Personal knowledge is destroyed. Perhaps what is different in The Wake to other poems is that here Sheers outlines that nothing survives in the person that dies. Whereas in other poems he writes that memories will transcend, passing from person to person in stories and continuing on forever. For comparison of death and memory, good poems to look at would be ‘Marking Time’ and Keyways.
Stanza Six and Seven
He settles himself in the chair
we both know there has already been a passing,
Following stanza 5, there is a Volta that redirects the poem to explore the more tangible, the last moments Sheers has with his grandfather.
Sheers tries to talk with his grandfather, but they both know that words don’t really matter now. The presentation of the ‘words are spoken into a costal wind’ whips the words away into nothing. Perhaps in a family that prioritizes physical connection over superfluous use of words, silence is more meaningful between the men.
The silent connection in stanza seven, ‘he shows me’ is symbolized through the close collocation of the pronouns. Sheers’ grandfather uses his final moments with his grandson in an intimate silence. He leads him ‘to the door’ to ‘wave me away’. Yet, once they pass this moment, they both ‘know there has already been a passing’. Sheers’ grandfather has resigned himself to death, he knows it is coming and he has accepted this. These final moments are incredibly intimate, very still, and a strong depiction of a man on the point of death.
Although arguably indeed a sad poem, Sheers focuses more so on the strength his grandfather has in the face of death, holding his nerve and never cracking under the pressure.
one that has left a wake as that of a great ship
but leaves the water directly at its stern
The ‘wake’ of a ‘great ship’ resonates with Sheers’ ideas of memory. Indeed, for Sheers’ memories are something that lives on, touching the lives of those they are connected to. Here, Sheers is arguing that although his grandfather may be dying, his influence on the lives of those around him will continue on. It is a beautiful rendition of the idea of someone living on through the memories of the people that loved them.
The huge impact of his grandfathers’ life is suggested through ‘for miles’, the wake of the ‘great ship, representing his grandfather, touching all for miles around.
strangely settled, turned, fresh
like the first sea there ever was
The caesura which breaks up this stanza can be understood as a representation of the complexity of life and death. In this moment, although the reader is not completely sure, we can assume that the grandfather has now passed. The water in his wake disrupting by his passing.
The reference to ‘like the first sea there ever was’ perhaps draws upon a cosmic sense of connection. Sheers is arguing that all people are connected through memories passed down and shared, the first person who died having a tiny glimmer of life through his grandfathers’ life, now passed down to Sheers and all those who loved his grandfather.
or that ever will be.
The final line is disconnected from the rest of the poem. This can be understood as a representation of the grandfather’s passing. While Sheers, the grandfather, and their family was once together, represented through the employment of a Welsh form which signifies Welsh identity and traditional family values, the grandfather is now alone. He is separated from the remaining family, through death, represented by the structure.
Yet, the grandfather is still present, although separated. The line is still there, representing how he lives on through the memories of those that loved him.
The final rumination of ‘ever will be’ has an optimistic ring to it, Sheers looking forward with happiness to the future. This is not a poem of mourning, but of the celebration of the life of the man now passed.