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Roman Wall Blues -- W H Auden

(Poem #491) Roman Wall Blues
 Over the heather the wet wind blows,
 I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

 The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
 I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

 The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
 My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

 Aulus goes hanging around her place,
 I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

 Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
 There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

 She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
 I want my girl and I want my pay.

 When I'm a veteran with only one eye
 I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
-- W H Auden
Note: This is song XI from Auden's 'Twelve Songs'

'Roman Wall Blues' is, in some ways, the antithesis of 'Horatius' - absent
is the stirring glory of ancient Rome, and the legendary bravery of her
sons; rather, the Roman soldier is presented as nothing more than an
ordinary guy doing an unpleasant job.

This is a somewhat modern genre of poetry (and fiction) - a body of work
whose central theme seems to be 'the more things change, the more they stay
the same'. It has given rise to several excellent works, blending the rich
tapestry of history and legend with the deeper, and more personally
involving concerns of the present, rendering the former more immediate and
accessible, while robbing it of none of its magic.

Wordsworth perhaps captured the dichotomy best in his 'Solitary Reaper':

      Will no one tell me what she sings? -
      Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
      For old, unhappy, far-off things,
      And battles long ago;
      Or is it some more humble lay,
      Familiar matter of today?
      Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
      That has been, and may be again?

Today's poem (and, indeed, the whole aforementioned genre) points out that
the two are not necessarily disparate; robbed of the softening effect of
time and distance, all our romantic history was merely the 'familiar matter
of today' to its participants, and that what has been and what may be again
are not too dissimilar.

Of course, there is another major body of work to which today's plaintive
(but oddly philosophical) poem belongs - the poetry (and novels, and songs,
and of late, movies) that seeks to deglamourize war, not by the graphic
portrayal of its horrors, but by the startling revelation that for the most
part the common soldier neither knows nor cares what the War is all about -
*his* personal battle reduces to "I want my girl, and I want my pay". The
'ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods' never enter into the


The poem is written in a series of rhyming couplets, with a predominantly
triple metre that fits the desultory monologue perfectly.

I must confess myself unfamiliar with the (mostly musical, though it has
spilled over into poetry) Blues movement, so I don't know how closely
today's poem follows the definition - could someone else comment on this


Auden is one of those poets with whom I have a love-hate relationship - as
I've remarked earlier, I can't stand most of his work, but when he's good,
he's *very* good. Life would be dull indeed if everyone had the same taste
in poetry, though, and there are no less than seven of his poems already in
the archive - see

You can find the complete Twelve Songs at
[broken link]

For some more poems that lend immediacy to a romantic past:

  poem #76
  poem #167
  poem #209
  poem #217
  poem #228
  poem #291
  poem #357

I won't bother linking to other war poems, since there are way too many of

Here's a Blues FAQ: [broken link]

and another webpage on the Blues:

An Auden biography: poem #50


26 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Abraham Thomas said...

> must confess myself unfamiliar with the (mostly musical, though it has
> spilled over into poetry) Blues movement, so I don't know how closely
> today's poem follows the definition - could someone else comment on this
> aspect?


The short answer is, no, it doesn't.

The longer answer is, well, any piece of writing which has as its theme "I'm
broke, it's raining, and I've lost my girl" could, I suppose, be described as
being the blues. The classic structure, though, has a repeated first line and a
whatsit, I'm forgetting the word, refrain sort of thingy. For example:

'Cross Road Blues'

I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above "Have mercy now - save poor Bob if you please"

Standin' at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Standin' at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me - everybody passed me by

Standin' at the crossroad babe, risin' sun goin' down
Standin' at the crossroad babe, risin' sun goin' down
I believe to my soul now, poor Bob is sinkin down

You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
You can run, you can run, tell my friend Willie Brown
That I got the croosroad blues this mornin' - I believe I'm sinkin' down

And I went to the crossroad mama, I looked east and west
I went to the crossroad yeah, I looked east and west
Lord, I didn't have no sweet woman - oh yes, in my distress

-- Robert Johnson

('Cross Road Blues' is one of _the_ standards of the field; it's been performed
by everyone from Robert Johnson to Cream to Lynyrd Skynyrd).

Auden's poem, though reflecting many of the same sentiments as Johnson's
original, nonetheless is not quite singable in the blues style, and hence
doesn't qualify as a true blues song.


PS. 'The Blues _movement_'? Yech, that sounds terribly coffee-house and
self-conscious - everything that the blues isn't.

Andreas Gahleitner said...

I had this poem with me while walking the lenght of Hadrians Wall in 2005.

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