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Poems of the Decade (Edexcel)

4. John Burnside – History

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About this Lecture


In this module, we read through John Burnside’s ‘History’, focusing in particular on: (i) the precise setting and timing of the poem – “St Andrews: West Sands, September 2001” – but the lack of any explicit mention of the September 11th attacks; (ii) the graphology of the poem, i.e. how it looks on the page, reflecting the ebb and flow of the waves on the beach; (iii) the various contrasts in the poem – father and son, ground (shells) and sky (kite), stillness and movement, man and animal (in this case fish), etc.; (iv) the anxiety of loss (“I am dizzy with fear of losing everything”); (v) the contrast between the real and the virtual (“We trade so much to know the virtual”); (vi) the various potential meanings of the word “bodies” (“the drift and tug of other bodies”) – other people, the creatures that live on or near the beach, heavenly bodies, etc.; (vii) the influence of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ (1867); (viii) the contrast between big, global history (e.g. the September 11th attacks – hinted at, but not explicitly mentioned) and “the quiet local forms”; (ix) the sense in which we ourselves are “the fish lodged in the tide”, cf. the “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” metaphor at the end of the Great Gatsby; and (x) the hint of trouble with the mention of “warplanes”.


In this course, John McRae (University of Nottingham) explores the twenty poems that make up the ‘Poems of the Decade’ cluster for A Level English Literature (Edexcel). Each poem is read in detail, with a short commentary highlighting aspects of language, style, themes, motifs, and so on. In the case of Patience Agbabi’s ‘Eat Me’, for example, we think about the extent to which we can identify the speaker of the poem with the author herself, the question of whether the couple of the poem can be decribed as happy, and the influence of Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ (1836) and Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ (1865). When we come to Simon Armitage’s ‘Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass’, we think about the theme of man versus nature, the concept of ‘anthropomorphisation’, and the final lines of the poem in which it has become clear that the pampas grass has beaten the chainsaw. And so on for the whole selection.

The poems discussed in this course are:
1. Patience Agbabi – Eat Me
2. Simon Armitage – Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass
3. Ros Barber – Material
4. John Burnside – History
5. Julia Copus – An Easy Passage
6. Tishani Doshi – The Deliverer
7. Ian Duhig – The Lammas Hireling
8. Helen Dunmore – To My Nine-Year-Old Self
9. UA Fanthorpe – A Minor Role
10. Vicki Feaver – The Gun
11. Leontia Flynn – The Furthest Distances I’ve Travelled
12. Roderick Ford – Giuseppe
13. Seamus Heaney – Out of the Bag
14. Alan Jenkins – Effects
15. Sinéad Morrissey – Genetics
16. Andrew Motion – From the Journal of a Disappointed Man
17. Ciaran O’Driscoll – Please Hold
18. Adam Thorpe – On Her Blindness
19. Tim Turnbull – Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn


John McRae is Special Professor of Language in Literature Studies and Teaching Associate in the School of English at Nottingham University, and holds Visiting Professorships in China, Malaysia, Spain and the USA. He is co-author of The Routledge History of Literature in English with Ron Carter, and also wrote The Language of Poetry, Literature with a Small 'l' and the first critical edition of Teleny by Oscar Wilde and others.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

McRae, J. (2021, January 09). Poems of the Decade (Edexcel) - John Burnside – History [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

McRae, J. "Poems of the Decade (Edexcel) – John Burnside – History." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 09 Jan 2021,