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‘Roman Wall Blues’: W.H. Auden’s unlikely hero grapples with his own powerlessness

ROMAN SOLDIER

Miroslav Vajdic | CC

Anna O'Neil - published on 06/27/17

We are all wall guards, pacing out our measures, wondering why the rain must fall, why we can't have what we want.

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

This poor, unnamed Roman soldier; he sure is miserable, on this wet, windy day, left to his own sour thoughts. But don’t hate him for his sullen tone. He knows more than you might think.

So he’s pacing, and at a fairly agitated pace. If you read the couplets aloud, you can feel the his footsteps. A wall soldier would have to stay at his station, but standing still day in and day out would be intolerable. Anybody would pace. Four steps this way, and four steps back, over and over, an endless monotony.

He’s not a very sympathetic fellow. I don’t know any more about Aulus than you do, but if the speaker gambled away the ring that his girl gave him, then maybe there’s a reason why she’s hanging out with other men? And he pretty scornful of Piso, the Christian. The fish he’s talking about is the ICHTHYS, an acronym for Christ’s name. (But he wouldn’t know that.) As for “there’d be no kissing if he had his wish,” you just want to roll your eyes at him. Doesn’t he think Christianity might be more complex than that?

What jumped out at me right away is the dampness that runs through this whole piece. The wet wind, the rain, the mist, and even that dripping nose? Brr. Hand in hand with the pervasive, unendurable sogginess is a sense of frenzied motion. Blowing wind, biting lice, pattering rain, creeping mist, combined with his incessant pacing, and the rate at which his mind jumps from Aulus, to Piso, and back to his girl, all gives an overwhelming sense of chaos.

And chaos, of course, is exactly the problem with his life. He’s not in control of a single thing. He can’t stop the cold, can’t stop his nose from dripping, and the lice from biting, can’t get closer to his girl, can’t do anything about Aulus, can’t even hold onto a paycheck. Can’t, can’t, can’t.

So why on earth, the reader has to ask, doesn’t he say “When I’m a veteran … I’ll have all the money and peace and women that I could want, because I’ll have earned it”? That’s what I’d expect of him. Instead, “When I’m a veteran with only one eye/ I shall do nothing but look at the sky.”

Wait a second, hasn’t he been looking at the sky this whole time, stationed on the top of a lonely wall in the middle of nowhere? No, actually. He’s been peering into the distance, but downwards, looking for invading troops.That’s his job. And it’s not a job that you could do with one eye.

Have you ever stared at the sky with one eye closed? You completely loose your sense of depth perception. You can’t tell whether the sky is close enough to touch, or miles away, and it becomes almost surreal. Losing depth perception means losing your sense of your relationship with the world.

Our soggy, angry wall soldier is crude, uneducated, and selfish, but he’s also undeniably human. He’s wrenched this way and that by his desires, for women, for money, for comfort, and for answers to the questions that plague him like lice: Why does the rain come? Why does that idiot Piso worship a fish, of all things? Why can’t I have what I want?

He’s powerless over those desires, but he knows, on some level, that it’s his desire for things he can’t understand, and can’t control, that is to blame for his bone-deep unhappiness. So his solution is a very human one, an instinct to finally leave behind the frantic pacing, to sit down, and stare into the blue, stop grasping for control, power, pleasure, and even understanding. None of those things were ever really attainable anyway. He’ll finally be able to stay still, to quiet his mind, and take the world in on its own terms, and maybe, just maybe, that will be his salvation.

~

Follow the series at Poetry Talk.

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