Saturday, 29 September 2012

Flag, by John Agard


by John Agard

John Agard's poem entitled simply “Flag” is made up of five regular stanzas each of three lines. The opening line of each stanza consists of a question which is then answered in the following lines, so there are two voices in the poem.

In the questions that begin the first four stanzas, the speaker asks what something is that he can see. In each case it is a flag, and the second line of each of these four stanzas is identical: “It's just a piece of cloth.” In material terms a flag is of course a mere piece of cloth, but flags are very powerful symbols.

The question at the beginning of the first stanza is “What's that fluttering in the breeze?” After the response that it is “just a piece of cloth,” the answer continues in the third line with the statement that it “brings a nation to its knees.” This is an idiom that implies defeat or surrender, and Agard is introducing the theme of war or conflict that runs throughout the poem.

In the second stanza, the person asking the question sees the flag “unfurling from a pole.” The person answering comments that it “makes the guts of men grow bold.” Agard sees the flag as a symbol that will stir men up to fight for their country. The question implies that a flag is just being hoisted, as though an army has perhaps just won a battle and is taking over another nation.

The flag is seen “rising over a tent” in the question at the start of the third stanza. This could imply that it is in a military camp, or it might be the tent of a group of explorers who are claiming that the land now belongs to them. The answer that concludes this stanza says that the flag “dares the coward to relent.” Agard is commenting that people may not be brave enough to stand up to those who are taking over their land; this is more than likely a reference to colonialism.

The question in the opening line of the fourth stanza sees the flag “flying over a field.” The field could be simply a piece of land, or it could be a battlefield. The person answering this time states that the flag “will outlive the blood you bleed.” With this alliterative phrase Agard refers once again to war and conflict. Once a flag has been hoisted in a nation it will stay for more than a lifetime. The use of the word “you” implies that the person asking the question is someone that is fighting for his country.

The question at the beginning of the fifth and final stanza takes a different form. It asks “How can I possess such a cloth?” The person asking has seen from the previous answers that the “piece of cloth” is something powerful and therefore desirable. The answer is “Just ask for a flag my friend.” This is the first time that the word “flag” has been used in the poem, apart from the title. Whereas the word “just” was used in the first four stanzas in the phrase “It's just a piece of cloth,” now it is used to introduce the answer. It makes it sound as though obtaining a flag is a simple thing to do. The final line, however, clearly shows the implications of possessing a flag: “Then bind your conscience to the end.” Anyone who raises a flag to signify the taking over of a nation by another has no conscience.

Agard uses repetition and rhyme in his poem “Flag” to convey his message. The first and third line of each stanza rhyme, or half rhyme in the case of the second and fourth stanzas. In the fifth stanza, however, it is the second and third lines that rhyme. The contrast of the final stanza with the previous four is particularly effective as a conclusion to the poem. John Agard is making a clear statement in “Flag” that an army or nation that takes control of another land has no sense of right and wrong. Man's lust for power is a corrupting influence that leads to bloodshed and loss of conscience on the part of the aggressors.

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