Flags are highly symbolic objects. However, in the poem Flag Agard juxtaposes his simple description of a flag as a ‘piece of cloth’ with the powerful symbolism of a flag. In other words, it’s just a piece of cloth but has the power to bring a nation to its knees. Remember the use of the indefinite article (a) suggesting this could be any flag, in any country belonging to anyone.
The poem is structured in to five three-line stanzas (tercets). Each stanza follows an eight-six-eight syllable count which gives the poem a very fixed, rigid form. Note the change in the rhyme scheme in the final stanza. The repetition of questions at the start of each stanza suggests that this poem constitutes a form of dialogue. There appears to be more than one voice in the poem, although this isn’t completely clear. Is some one asking these questions or is the speaker merely voicing a general question on behalf of others?
Within the context of the poem the collective term ‘men’ can also be said to posses a metonymic (a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept e.g. Hollywood is a metonym for the US Film Industry) quality in as much as ‘men’ in stanza 2could also represent an army, a nation, or a general term for humanity. Can you find any other oblique/subtle references to the military in this poem?
In the third stanza the flag is ‘rising’ over a tent, but what kind of tent? The image certainly suggests a campaign/military tent although peculiarly it is a somewhat old fashioned image. In this instance the flag personifies courage and antagonism, daring the coward to relent, but relent to what? To fight? To surrender? Again this image suggest conflict.
In stanza 4 the flag is flying across a field which carries a colonial connotation as if the field is being claimed on behalf of someone. The field could be a battlefield or even the green pastures of a rural and agricultural nation. what is important is that the speaker offers something of a guarded warning in saying that the flag with outlive ‘you’. Who is the ‘you’ in this poem? Is it ‘you’ the reader’ or the ‘you’ the absent voice in this poem?
The last stanza stands out from the rest of the poem. The tone of the poem has changed from direct questioning to a more open, philosophical tone – ‘how can I possess such a cloth’? During the course of the poem the speaker has warned how this simple piece of cloth possess a power and symbolism of its own. When the second speaker asks how they can possess such power the speaker warns that should you want to possess such power you must ‘bind your conscience to the end.’ Your conscience is your sense of justice, fair play and right and wrong, so to ‘bind’ or handcuff your conscience is to prevent it from working. So we could say that overall the speaker is presenting the flag as a dangerous object and one that changes the way people think and see.
In tomorrow’s lesson we will look at Hughes’ Hawk Roosting.