Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Poems I Journey With 15

Old depiction of Horace

There is much richness in the classics, that is in Latin and classical Greek texts. Unfortunately, I never got to study classical Greek at school, though I did study Latin to Leaving Certificate level. Being reasonably good at languages, I also loved studying the poems of Virgil, Horace and Ovid and so on. Much of what I learned over forty years ago is unfortunately lost somewhere in the recesses of my memory.  Retirement will certainly entice me to reacquaint myself with the Latin language and some of the texts of those old poets. I remember well Horace’s agricultural metaphors and his love for wine. I’m sure the reader of these lines will know that most famous of quotes from his pen, namely “carpe diem” or “seize/pluck the day.”  These few lines from that famous Ode are worth quoting here for the beauty of the language: “Tu ne quaesieris — scire nefas — quem mihi, quem tibi finem di dederint, Leuconoë .... dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.” = “Do not ask — it is wrong to know (it is impossible to know) — what end (quem finem) the gods have in store for you or for me, Leuconoë .... while we talk (discuss) envious time flees away: pluck the day, and believe as little as possible in tomorrow!”  I wish I was at home in Latin so that I could translate the verses given on my own. I had to use an on-line dictionary and Google translate and compare to other translations.  Still I enjoyed the activity as I began to remember some of my old Latin skills.

The reason I begin this post with a diversion into an Horatian Ode is that I should like to share a poem from the great Professor, classical scholar and poet A.E. Housman (1859 – 1936) with you all this evening. He was steeped in all things classical and is reckoned to be one of the greatest classical scholars of the twentieth century. Such poets as those listed above and many others from both Latin and Greek would have influenced my chosen poet.


On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

Briefest of Commentaries

A.E. Housman
This poem occurs in a collection called A Shropshire Lad and was first published in 1896 at Housman's own expense after several publishers had turned it down. His colleagues and students were surprised by the emotional depth and vulnerability it revealed in an apparently distant and self-contained man.  This poem is the 31st poem, its title designated in Roman numerals as XXXI of some 63 poems in the collection.  In the distance, some five miles to the north of Wenlock Edge, is a forested hill, the Wrekin (pronounced REE-kin).

“Holt” is an old Germanic word (and English, with its Anglo-Saxon ancestry, is a Germanic language) for a wood, a forested area.  “Hanger” also comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term; it means a wood on a slope, like the forest on Wenlock Edge. The wind blew through those woods “when Uricon the city stood.”  He is taking us back to Roman Britain — Britain after the Romans had invaded and settled there.  His “Uricon” was the Roman city Viriconium/Viroconium, also called Uriconium, which lay where the present day town of Wroxeter lies, several miles west of the Wrekin.  It was the fourth largest Roman City in ancient Britain.

As a classicist, A.E. Housman is reminded of Roman Britain.  As he views the restlessness of the fleecy trees on Wenlock Edge and on Wrekin hill or mountain he becomes aware of his own restlessness and realises that such discomfort has been part of the human condition for hundreds of years. We are in the province, of course, of what was classically called “pathetic fallacy,” namely the attribution of human feelings and responses to inanimate things or animals, especially in art and literature. Here “'Tis the old wind in the old anger,” and then we have the recalling or imagining of how a Roman soldier or official might have felt over 1500 years before:
Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
A.E. Housman is moved by the restlessness of the wind in the trees and by his own inner restlessness as part of the human condition. He feels deeply his own continuity with the sympathies and emotions of another human being from more ancient times, especially with how a Roman soldier or official might have felt standing in the same spot as the poet. This is a wonderfully simple but an extraordinarily powerful poem from a very fine poet.

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