(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.
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 picture. Construction: 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 aspect? Links: 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 www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet.html You can find the complete Twelve Songs at [broken link] http://www.third-eye.org.uk/vl/poems/auden1.html 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 them. Here's a Blues FAQ: [broken link] http://www.dmoz.org/Arts/Music/Styles/Blues/faq.html and another webpage on the Blues: http://blueslyrics.tripod.com/about.htm An Auden biography: poem #50 -martin