History – John Burnside

The poem ‘History’ by John Burnside is based around the tragic events on 9/11, I think the speaker is looking at all of the things around him and remembering how this event in history has even effected the way he sees the little things around him. There is also this sense of worry in the fact that he wants to protect his child from any type of tragedy like 9/11.

Themes and tone

  • Uncertainty – the speaker shows a hopeless feeling for the future and recovery of mankind as a whole after this heart breaking event. It is as if ‘war planes’ have shadowed over the ‘morning light’, therefore people do not feel as if a new day can begin as it is being overshadowed by disastrous events like 9/11. There is also uncertainty around what is really important in life, he feels ‘lost’ however knows that what defines us is ‘neither kinship nor our given states’, meaning that it is not our family or our appearance that makes us who we are but our generosity.
  • Humanity – there is this theme that humans ‘trade so much to know the virtual’, meaning that we lose focus on whats important and rather devote our time to things that in reality mean nothing. It is quite sad that we as humans are so engulfed in our own lives that ‘we scarcely register the drift and tug of other bodies’, meaning that we aren’t aware of what other people are going through because we are trapped in our own virtual reality.


  • The first line of the poem (‘Today’) is separate from the rest of the poem. I think that Burnside has chosen to do this it emphasises the fact that ‘Today’ is an important and memorable day that will never be forgotten. The fact that it is alone also may be a symbol of how alone people feel in a world full of war and death.
  • The length of the stanzas and lines vary, by looking at the random, free flowing structure of the poem I get the image of the ocean tide drifting in and out. However, it could also be argued that the fact that the line lengths fluctuate could be replicating how peoples emotions were all over the place after catastrophic events like 9/11.
  • The poet also placed the word ‘people’ alone maybe to represent the lack of unity in humanity.
  • There is also a use of plosives in the line, ‘puzzled by the pattern’ which could be replicating the sounds of explosions and war.


  • Burnside uses sibilance in the line, ‘sand spinning’, which I think could be reflecting the movement and sound of the waves.
  • The poet also uses imagery in lines such as, ‘snail shells; shreds of razorfish; smudges of weed and flesh on timeworn stone’. That instantly gives me a visual of carcasses that are left there to rot and be forgotten.

Important quotes

‘quail-grey in the distance’

I think that this is a symbol of how like a bird (quail) represents freedom, this freedom is in the distance and unattainable to people. They can see it, but not reach it.

‘petrol blue’

I think that the petrol is a representation of the way that peoples lives are polluted by this event in history, petrol can kill. It could also represent people’s fuel to keep going.

‘kite plugged into the sky’

I think that this is a symbol of hope, the same sky that is used for warplanes to kill is also where they put up their kite to symbolise hope. The kite is plugged, showing that this is an act of power over tragic events in history.






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