History – Revision Notes

Image: West Sands, St. Andrews © Welcome to Scotland

Excerpt From History by John Burnside

St Andrews: West Sands; September 2001
     as we flew the kites
- the sand spinning off in ribbons along the beach
and that gasoline smell from Leuchars gusting across
the golf links;
               the tide far out
and quail-grey in the distance;
jogging, or stopping to watch
as the war planes cambered and turned
in the morning light - 

    - with the news in my mind, and the muffled dread
of what may come -

                   I knelt down in the sand
with Lucas
           gathering shells
and pebbles
           finding evidence of life in all this
          snail shells; shreds of razorfish;
smudges of weed and flesh on tideworn stone.

At first glance, this poem can seem to make very little sense; the structure is erratic, the sentiments are vague, and many of the lines give the impression of being unfinished. However, there are several details which give clues as to the poem’s meaning, and the poet’s own thoughts and feelings.

Title and Context:

The title of this poem is very important in helping the reader to understand the poet’s mindset at the time the poem was written. The word “History” would suggest that the poem is about an event which has happened in the past, and yet the first two stanzas of the poem both begin with the word “today”, which suggests that the poem is about an event happening in the present. This implies that the poem is written about an important event – one which was happening at the time the poem was written, but which will make history. The line underneath the title tells us what this event is; the poet specifically states that the poem was written in “September 2001“, which strongly implies that it is about the aftermath of 9/11.


The poem is written in free verse structure, with no set line or stanza lengths, and no rhyme scheme. As you can see in the excerpt above, the length, spacing and placement of lines on the page is quite erratic, which creates a sense of falling. This could mirror the literal falling of the Twin Towers on 9/11, but could also suggest that, in the aftermath of such an event, the poet feels that his sense of security is collapsing. The structure does seem to become slightly less disjunct as the poem progresses, which could perhaps indicate that the poet does manage to gather his thoughts somewhat.

At the end of the first page there is a quatrain – “At times I think what makes us who we are / is neither kinship nor our given states / but something lost between the world we own / and what we dream about behind the names”. This stanza stands out from the ones before it due to its more organised structure, which could imply that this is a significant message in the poem. In this stanza, the poet indicates that he feels there is nothing concrete which defines a person, and that people’s thoughts and actions cannot always be explained using logic, which may be his rationale as to why a person could bring themselves to commit acts which others consider to be unthinkable, such as terrorist attacks.

Themes, Imagery and Tone:

The key theme of this poem is a sense of uncertainty: the poet is uncertain of what makes us who we are, what is important in life, and how he can be expected to live a normal life after an awful event has shattered his worldview and made him aware of his mortality and the finality of actions.

One way in which this theme is conveyed is through the repeated use of contrast between the concrete and the abstract. For example, he mentions “the news in my mind, and the muffled dread / of what may come”, which is a very vague and abstract idea (particularly given the use of the word “muffled”, which implies that even the poet himself does not know what it is about the future he fears), but then goes on to list specific items which he finds on the beach with his son – “shells … pebbles … snail shells; shreds of razorfish”, which he describes as “finding evidence of life”. This could suggest that the poet takes comfort in finding tangible and familiar things, as they remind him that the small and fundamental aspects of the world have not changed.

Another idea which the poet explores is his attempts to find a connection between these concrete and abstract elements. One way he does this is by specifying that the poem takes place on a beach; a beach is comprised of either sand or stones, which individually are solid, but collectively behave somewhat like a fluid, giving the impression of being partway between the two. Additionally, beaches sit between the land (which is solid) and the sea (which is fluid), providing a kind of bridge between them (an image which is echoed later, when the poet describes being “on the dune slacks with a kite / plugged into the sky”). This could suggest that the poet is trying to make sense of the world by connecting abstract ideas and concepts with the things he can see around him.


Overall, the poet seems to feel that experiencing a disaster (even if this is only a second hand experience – the poem specifies that the poet has still been affected by the events of 9/11 despite being on another continent) can shatter your perception of the world, and that the only way to rebuild it is by focusing on the tangible things in the present moment, which are real and unchanging.


30 thoughts on “History – Revision Notes

    • year12englishblog says:

      To My Nine-Year Old Self – looking at the innocent childhood
      Chainsaw V Pampas Grass – loss of control (male hardships). Manmade V Natural
      Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled – Juxtaposition with similar main ideas
      Map Woman – Both narrators struggled with pressures of adulthood – travel?
      Disappointed Man – Both men are disappointed with life
      Leisure Centre – Pessimistic tone


  1. izzyjuly7 says:

    Any thoughts on the following question:

    Compare the ways in which the poets use children to reflect on the adult world in History and one other poem of your choice.



    • year12englishblog says:

      You could also talk about the innocence of the child contrasting with the destruction going on elsewhere. The poem is concerned with living in the present moment and so through natural imagery, a setting of peace is created. The child is involved with this place, as he collects and examines shells etc…
      The contrast in feelings mirrors the contrast of the free structure (like a child) and the constraints the poetic voice explores through language (as an adult)

      Liked by 2 people

    • year12englishblog says:

      You could also link it to chainsaw V pampas grass or The War Correspondent to explore the negative results of humans using machinery in conflict (9/11, the Crimean War, the destructiveness of the chainsaw)
      -Ella x

      Liked by 1 person

    • year12englishblog says:

      Hi! I think that Burnside expresses a feeling of conflict over what the meaning of life is, and perhaps suggests that it is somewhat unimportant. He certainly ackowledges the difficulty of living on Earth and preserving it at the same time, and feels as though his view of the world has been shattered by the events of 9/11.


  2. BKhan says:

    How does this poem (“History”) and Inheritance attempt to make sense of the big events in life?

    I feel like I’ve made a mistake by choosing Inheritance as my chosen poem, but I feel like there’s an underlying big event in the poem and I kind of need help. Thanks!! 🙂


    • year12englishblog says:

      Hello! I’m not sure I would have chosen Inheritance as there is no ‘big’ and influential event in the same way as History which is linked to 911. However, if did you did pick these two, you could mention the difference, in that in Inheritance, the big event may be something that is on a personal level for the narrator as she reaches the conclusion that she had motherly instinct. She cared for the child until they were well again “I knew the secrets of health and air…I must have learned that somewhere”. These are the only lines that rhyme showing how the uncertainty goes way at the end and she is able to see that it is only because of society pressures that people feel they have to leave valuables to their loved ones, but teaching them important skills, as she learned from her mother, is far more important. It is a climatic point (as she discovers that materialistic possessions are not as important for the role as mother, then instinct and care). Hope this reply didn’t come too late 🙂 Ella x


  3. aimeecaitlinn says:

    Hi there- do you know a poem not in the POTD anthology you could compare History with? I am sitting the A2 exam this June so need to focus on unseens as much as possible!
    Thanks 🙂


    • year12englishblog says:

      Hi, I think the best approach to unseen poetry would be to speak to your teacher (they might have some sample questions from the exam board) or try and find some modern poetry books in your local book shop/library. Most post-2000 poems won’t be online as they’re still protected under copyright law. Hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Jazzy-Jeff says:

    Hi, I was reading your past comments and I know that Ella posted on here about how History could link to The War Correspondent but I’m still struggling with finding a definitive link between the 2. I was wondering if you could possibly please elaborate a bit more on the link, as I know machinery was mentioned but I’m not sure how use that as a comparison point if that makes sense??
    Thanks, your revision notes have really helped.


    • year12englishblog says:

      HI! I think was i was trying to get at was that both of those poems deal with the idea of destruction, of which machinery plays a big role in – weapons in war and planes in 911. The two poems look at the responses to detruction by such conflicts and the human impact they hold. You could perhaps draw a thesis on how the two poets demonstrate the self destructive nature of humanity and how humans instrument their own means to kill, yet ironically suffer as well as a result. Does this help?


  5. APH says:

    I’m doing a question on how History and one other poem present personal experience. Does any one know a good poem I could compare to answer this question?


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