This may not be Auden’s greatest poem, but I certainly find it one of his most engagingly offbeat, and I have a particular fondness for it since it brings back vividly a day spent visiting Hadrian’s Wall with my small daughter and smaller grandson (there are seventeen years between our first and last child – don’t ask).
We picnicked just north of the wall and I sat propped against it with legs outstretched, watching white clouds go by and grass shimmer in the wind, and thinking of those who once patrolled here, Tungrian or Frisian or German auxiliary. I discovered that I knew ‘Roman Wall Blues’ by heart, and somehow at that moment Auden’s brief poem managed to conjure up their past for me better than any history book. In fact I was just feeling myself to be on the edge of some pretty profound insight when small grandson announced that he needed a wee, so I never quite got there. I think it was something about how little time for private reflection those poor blokes must have had in their hard anonymous lives…
Roman Wall Blues
Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and 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 round 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.