Y Gaer (The Hill Fort) by Owen Sheers

Y Gaer tells the narrative of Sheers visiting the place where a man comes to grieve for his dead son. The poet rides on horseback to the fort, reflecting on the connection between nature and man, and how one can draw strength from the other. The poem is one half of a diptych, with the other half being reflected within the title, ‘The Hill Fort’ coming on the following page.

 

Structure of Y Gaer

Y Gaer is divided into 7 stanzas of three lines each. This 3 line form is known as tercets, and is an ancient Welsh form of writing poetry. By using these tercets, Sheers embodies the sense of Welsh identity which stems from their association with nature. This poem is one that explores nature’s influence on man, and the form is therefore appropriate to channel this idea into the very structure of the poem. You can read the full poem here.

 

Y Gaer Analysis

Stanza One

Owen Sheers begins Y Gaer by focusing on ‘defences’, instantly projecting a need for protection. The poem is one of deep grief, exploring a father’s loss of his son, and therefore poses the vulnerability of this man. Yet there is ‘only’ one form of defence, showing that the structure is weakened. This could be a representation of the man’s inability to deal with the grief of the loss of his son.

The passing of time is also a focus of this opening stanza. The change from ‘Winter’ to ‘Summer’ shows the slow progression and change of colour. By presenting this passing of time, Sheers is suggesting that the father has been coming here for a long time. Each time there is bad weather, the father returns to mourn, it is an ongoing process which doesn’t seem to have a resolution. This is incredibly tragic, with the father’s inability to move on from his grief a key part of Y Gaer.

 

Stanza Two

The impenetrability of the hill fort is presented through the harsh descriptions of the structure. The ‘trench and rampart’ are difficult to surpass, the ability to ‘view’ but not quite arrive presenting the distance between Sheers and the structure. The sounds present in this stanza reflect the difficulty, with plosive ’t’ and harsh ‘g’ repeated throughout. The very description of the structure is represented through the aural elections Sheers makes within this stanza.

Nature has completely taken over the structure. The once man made structure has become infused with ‘mossy’, nature quite literally becoming infused with the manmade construction. This is a representation of the cohesion between nature and man, being the thing that helps the father to cope with his grief within Y Gaer.

 

Stanzas Three & Four

Two simultaneous scenes of domination are presented within stanza three of Y Gaer. The first is man dominating over nature, with Sheers using his horse to the point of exhaustion. The horse becomes tired after their journey, presented as ‘jittery’, its erratic movements reflecting its tiredness. Man has dominated over nature for its own gain. The strain of the horse’s body is palpable, the ‘twitching muscle’ and heavy breathing of ‘her nostrils’. It is also interesting to note that the horse is female, perhaps linking with The Farrier.

Yet, nature is also shown to have dominated over the man made hill fort. It seems that it has been whittled down over the years until all that remains is ‘a stone pile’. A fort which once was grand upon the scenery has been reduced to a pile of stones. Nature has triumphed over the structure of man.

 

Stanza Five

The complete encapsulation of Sheers by nature, the land being ‘three-sixty’ is incredibly comforting. It is understandable why the father would come here to mourn, with Sheers relating to the feeling of security the hill fort provides. The 360 degree expanse of nature also elevates the beauty of the scene, the ‘river silver’ running through the landscape a spectacular image of Welsh countryside.

The ‘answer to any question’ which nature provides is at the core of Sheers’ Welsh identity. This sentiment is echoed in the very final poem of the collection, Skirrid Fawr, nature being the ‘answer to any question I have ever known’.

Another reference lies within this stanza, one to the middle poem of the collection, Intermission. Intermission also seeks for realisation, and Sheers’ ‘I think I understand’ is echoed in both of these poems. The cross-textual links within this poem are echoed in the ‘three-sixty’ of nature around the poet.

It is within this stanza which the true purpose of Sheers’ visit is revealed, he is retracting the footsteps of ‘the man who lost his son’. Typically Welsh, the man has been using nature as a way to cope with the grief. Sheers is moved by the image of the man coming here to mourn among nature in Y Gaer.

 

Stanza Six

The exploration of the father’s actions comes in the final two stanzas of Y Gaer. This stanza focuses on the physicality of the man, ‘lean[ing] full tilt’ into the wind. The presentation of the man ‘lean[ing]’ shows the desire for support, he is using nature as a crutch to cope with his son’s passing. By categorising the lean as ‘full’, Sheers presents the complete reliance on nature. This is inherently Welsh, dealing with issues through their close links with nature.

The ‘wind’ is personified to reciprocate the father’s need for comfort. Presented as ‘wind’s shoulder’, Sheers gives the father a crutch within nature, being able to lean on the shoulder of nature for support.

The coming within ‘bad weather’ is a use of pathetic fallacy, the bad weather representing the father’s grief. The storm conditions present his fury, unable to understand why his child was taken from him. He is furious, upset and unable to direct his grief anywhere but back towards nature.

 

Stanza Seven

The man comes to the hill fort in a storm to shout into the wind, his voice being whipped away by the wind. He stands in warlike conditions within nature, ‘rain’s beating, the hail’s pepper-shot’. This is again pathetic fallacy, with the nature representing and echoing the man’s emotions. This is another device which links man and nature, both inherently connected.

It is obvious why the man comes within the storm, the cathartic ability to ‘shout’ at the top of his lungs bringing comfort to the man. Moreover, the wind would mean that the man’s ‘shouts’ wouldn’t be heard. This could be relating to the need to show a masculine front within Welsh society, meaning that the man can grieve without others overhearing and deeming him weak. It is tragic that the man has to come to the middle, ‘three-sixty’ of nowhere to feel like he can show emotion.

The unfair tragedy of losing a child is impossible to comprehend. Sheers acknowledges this, and instead presents nature as the only thing that can truly comfort. In the enormity of nature, the father has ‘at last’ found ‘something huge enough to blame.’ The man shouts into nature, blaming the biggest thing he knows for the loss of his son. Yet within this anger brings catharsis, nature providing the mechanism of dealing with grief.

Y Gaer is a dedication to the restorative purpose of nature, man taking comfort from the endless power it represents.

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  • Avatar Joyful says:

    This website is incredibly helpful, ive had to do my alevels alone for months now. ive never actually had a lesson with a teacher on sheers’ collection so coming here helps with multiple interpretation and different outlooks on the poems. thank you so much

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      No worries, glad to be of assistance.

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