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Flag
John Agard
John Agard was born on 21 June 1949 in Guyana (a British colony at
the time), on the coast of north-east S...
Flag
What’s that fluttering in a breeze?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to its knees.
What’s that unfurli...
What’s that fluttering in a breeze?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that brings a nation to its knees.
What’s that unfurling fr...
What’s that rising over a tent?
It’s just a piece of cloth
that dares the coward to relent.
What’s that flying across a fi...
How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag, my friend.
Then blind your conscience to the end.
Then the rhyming pa...
How can I possess such a cloth?
Just ask for a flag, my friend.
Then blind your conscience to the end.
Then the rhyming pa...
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Flag by John Agard

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Flag by John Agard

  1. 1. Flag John Agard John Agard was born on 21 June 1949 in Guyana (a British colony at the time), on the coast of north-east South America. Guyana gained independence from the UK in 1966, the year before Agard moved to London. He is a poet, playwright and children’s author, who often writes about issues of identity and racial conflict. He is well known for his eccentric and lively poetry readings, his poems benefitting greatly from being performed by their author. He likes to perform his poems, and believes humour is an effective way of challenging people's opinions. In this poem, Agard questions why people are so patriotic. The flag is a symbol of allegiance to one’s country and he wonders why it has such power over the decisions people make. In 1916 the British government felt it necessary to introduce military enlistment, because reliance on men to join up voluntarily could not keep pace with the ever-increasing casualties of the First World War. Those who had a ‘conscientious objection to bearing arms’ were freed from military service, but they had to plead their reasons in a tribunal and life was made very difficult for these mens who were either against war in general (pacifists), or did not believe the government of Germany to be their enemy, or would not fight for religious reasons. The poem is about the power of a national flag. It's presented as a conversation between a naive questioner and a more sceptical responder. One character asks questions about the flag, and the other character responds, explaining that the flag has the power to make people fight wars and die. You should compare this poem with other poems about the same themes: causes of conflict: 'The Yellow Palm’ : patriotism: 'Charge of the Light Brigade’ , 'next to of course god america i’ .
  2. 2. Flag What’s that fluttering in a breeze? It’s just a piece of cloth that brings a nation to its knees. What’s that unfurling from a pole? It’s just a piece of cloth that makes the guts of men grow bold. What’s that rising over a tent? It’s just a piece of cloth that dares the coward to relent. What’s that flying across a field? It’s just a piece of cloth that will outlive the blood you bleed. How can I possess such a cloth? Just ask for a flag, my friend. Then blind your conscience to the end.
  3. 3. What’s that fluttering in a breeze? It’s just a piece of cloth that brings a nation to its knees. What’s that unfurling from a pole? It’s just a piece of cloth that makes the guts of men grow bold. Flags are highly symbolic objects. However, here 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’. The poem has five three-line stanzas of equal shape — the shorter middle line and two longer lines giving the appearance of flags ‘fluttering in a breeze’. The first and last lines rhyme in verses 1 and 3, and half-rhyme with long vowel sounds ‘o’ (ll. 4, 6) and ‘ee’ (ll. 10, 12) in verses 2 and 4. Each stanza begins with a question and goes on to give the poet’s answer. There’s no sense at any time that somebody else is asking the question. The format allows Agard to put his opinions across in a stronger way. The sustained letter ‘f’ — ‘fluttering’ (l. 1), ‘unfurling’ (l. 4), ‘flying’ (l. 10) — gives the impression of a flag’s movements. This line can be interpreted in different ways: literally to kneel before a flag would mean to show respect, to worship what the flag represents. But the expression ‘to bring to its knees’ means to force someone into submission or cause someone to beg for mercy. The word ‘guts’ has two main connotations. The first suggests injuries of war and the other suggests bravery. Both of these connotations suggest the flag can evoke emotions that can cause conflct.
  4. 4. What’s that rising over a tent? It’s just a piece of cloth that dares the coward to relent. What’s that flying across a field? It’s just a piece of cloth that will outlive the blood you bleed. In this stanza the flag is 'rising' over a tent, but what kind of tent? The image certainly suggests a campaign 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 connotes conflict. The speaker is presenting the flag as a dangerous object and one that changes the way people think and see. The word ‘relent’ means to run away and therefore this stanza suggests the flag is a powerful symbol that can inspire men to fight despite their natural fear. Here 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'. The word ‘outlive’ suggests some personification of the flag indicating it doesn’t care how many people will die, the symbol will exist for longer than any soldier’s life. Alliteration of the letter ‘b’ further emphasises Agard’s anger and highlights the violence and reality of war.
  5. 5. How can I possess such a cloth? Just ask for a flag, my friend. Then blind your conscience to the end. Then the rhyming pattern changes in the last verse, where ‘cloth’ (previously at the end of the second line in each verse) sits at the end of the first line, leaving the last two lines as a rhyming couplet. The last two lines sum up the poet’s feelings about patriotism. The strong rhyming couplet at the end emphasises Agard’s dislike of patriotism, when there is the conviction that one’s own country is superior to all others and therefore must always be in the right. Agard feels that ‘blind patriotism’ can make people do what they would personally believe to be morally wrong. Instead of letting their conscience guide them, they support their country and its government at all times. The last stanza stands out from the rest of the poem. Note how 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.
  6. 6. How can I possess such a cloth? Just ask for a flag, my friend. Then blind your conscience to the end. Then the rhyming pattern changes in the last verse, where ‘cloth’ (previously at the end of the second line in each verse) sits at the end of the first line, leaving the last two lines as a rhyming couplet. The last two lines sum up the poet’s feelings about patriotism. The strong rhyming couplet at the end emphasises Agard’s dislike of patriotism, when there is the conviction that one’s own country is superior to all others and therefore must always be in the right. Agard feels that ‘blind patriotism’ can make people do what they would personally believe to be morally wrong. Instead of letting their conscience guide them, they support their country and its government at all times. The last stanza stands out from the rest of the poem. Note how 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.

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