Sean O’Brien’s Fireweed

My mother asked me about a poem in Sean O’Brien’s most recent collection, November, so I sent her a view of it. It turned out that I’d misunderstood which poem she meant, so I ended up critiquing “Fireweed”, the first poem in the collection, instead. It’s a long time since I’ve done any literary analysis, and I enjoyed it; it surprised me how much more richness a little research generated. Here’s the poem:

Fireweed by Sean O’Brien

Look away just for a moment.
Then look back and see

How the fireweed’s taking the strain.
This song’s in praise of strong neglect

In the railway towns, in the silence
After the age of the train.

Sean O’Brien lectures in Newcastle, as it says in his biography, and he grew up in Hull (and later studied there), and this is a poem about industrial decline: “in the silence/ after the age of the train”. Without being too literal I imagine he is evoking the railway-building towns, Swindon, Derby, York, where there is now mostly silence.

Fireweed tells its own story, but it is, specifically, rosebay willowherb, a pioneer species which quickly colonises open or cleared land.  There’s something filmic in this, of course, in the weeds taking hold of the disused site. And fireweed is particularly associated with the railways, Wikipedia tells me: its expansion from local rarity to widespread phenomenon was because it followed the railway lines as the soil was turned up to lay the rails. Indeed, willowherb is mentioned in Edward Thomas’ railway poem Adlestrop’. The rails are gone but the flower, or weed is left.

So far, so elegiac. But this is given a twist, an extra layer of meaning, by the fourth line, “This song’s in praise of strong neglect”, which also says that fireweed has its virtues too. This is perhaps underlined by the title. When in flower fireweed brings forth, as Wikipedia also tells us, “fields of colour” (I think we’re invited implicitly to contrast the drabber browns and greys and blacks of the railway town). So strong neglect brings forth colour, but other virtues, too:  the virtues of nature being allowed to remake the world, of the silence that it brings, of the benefits of fallowness.

And finally, one more layer of meaning. Again, from my newfound knowledge of rosebay willowherb, it seems that its seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years, waiting once again for the soil and light conditions that are propitious for its growth. And perhaps he’s saying this too about the railway towns, that, with “strong neglect” they too might one day thrive in a new blaze of colour.

The picture of rosebay willowherb is from English Wild Flowers, and is used with thanks.



  1. In the comments about Rosebay willowherb no-one seems to have heard of Norman Nicholson’s poem “Weeds” also about industrial decline and the redemptive quality of its summer growth.

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