A reader requested that I discuss poem XXVIII  in Alfred Edward Housman’s anthology A Shropshire Lad. It is often known by its first line — “High the Vanes of Shrewsbury Gleam” — or by the title “The Welsh Marches.”
First, we need to understand the meaning of “Welsh Marches.” In medieval geographic usage, a “march” was a border land — a boundary land — between one region and another. We find the term used in two forms, for example, in Tolkien. You may recall that he speaks of the “East and West Marches,” and in regard to Rohan, he uses it in the form “mark,” writing of the East-mark and the West-mark
In the British Isles, the “Welsh Marches” is the name given the border region between England and Wales, and Shrewsbury was one of the most important cities in this border region.
There is much history in this, because as you perhaps know, the old inhabitants of the British Isles — the Britons — gradually lost control of England after the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century, and the last Briton stronghold in the West was what is known today as Wales, because the Britons and the Welsh are one and the same people. The rest of England came under Anglo-Saxon control, and the language changed there from an old form of Welsh spoken by the Britons — which is a Celtic language — to Old English — the language of the Anglo-Saxons and the ancestor of the language in which I am writing this.
The Welsh Marches were thus from very early times a region of contention and division, with the Welsh on one side and the ever-pushing English on the other, and of course inevitably some mixing of the two. And that mixing of the two is the subject of this poem, set in Shrewsbury. We shall see this dichotomy — this being pulled in two directions psychologically — in Housman’s poem. The speaker in the poem is a son of the Welsh Marches who feels this division within himself.
High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
Islanded in Severn stream;
The bridges from the steepled crest
Cross the water east and west.
The “vanes” are weathervanes on the high steeples. They gleam on the buildings built on the hill that rises on the North side of the “island” that is nearly enclosed by a wide loop of the Severn River — “Severn stream.” Old Shrewsbury was built inside this loop of the river, so it was almost like an island, being nearly surrounded by the loop of the Severn. The “steepled crest” was that hill — the highest place in Shrewsbury, upon which St. Alkmund’s Church with its high steeple was built.
There were bridges that crossed that loop of the Severn, both on the East side and the West. They were named by where the roads across them led: the bridge on the East was the “English Bridge.” That on the West was the “Welsh Bridge.”
The flag of morn in conqueror’s state
Enters at the English gate:
The vanquished eve, as night prevails,
Bleeds upon the road to Wales.
Housman calls the dawn the “flag of morn,” and of course it comes to Shrewsbury from the East. But the setting sun is to the West — the side of Wales. Housman makes quite clear that the “flag of morn” that comes “in conqueror’s state” — that is, as a conqueror — the rising, overcoming power — is that of the English, which like the morning sun, enters “at the English gate.” And to the West, as darkness comes — “the vanquished eve[ning]” symbolizes the defeated Britons/Welsh, and Housman makes it quite visual in his statement that the vanquished eve [i.e. the Welsh] “bleeds upon the road to Wales” — the defeated Welsh retreating into their last western strongholds.
Ages since the vanquished bled
Round my mother’s marriage-bed;
There the ravens feasted far
About the open house of war:
Here he is referring to an ancient battle. It has been ages, he says, since the vanquished Britons lay bleeding “around my mother’s marriage-bed.” He tells how at that place the “ravens feasted far / About the open house of war.” The ravens were feeding on the dead bodies of those slain in battle. Of course by “mother” he is speaking of a long-ago ancestor. But why does he picture his mother’s “marriage-bed” in the middle of this violent chaos? We shall see as we read on.
When Severn down to Buildwas ran
Coloured with the death of man,
Couched upon her brother’s grave
That Saxon got me on the slave.
The writer tells us it was when the river Severn — “Coloured with the death of man” — that is, red with blood — ran down from Shrewsbury to the town of Buildwas some 12 1/2 miles to the southeast, that was when his mother — a Briton — was raped by a Saxon on the site where her dead brother lay, in the middle of the battle. And now we know what the “marriage-bed” in the previous stanza was — a place of death and violence for his “slave” mother.
The next stanza takes us up to Housman’s present — centuries after the battle:
The sound of fight is silent long
That began the ancient wrong;
Long the voice of tears is still
That wept of old the endless ill.
The sounds of warfare in the Welsh Marches has long been silent — the warfare that began the ancient wrong of Saxon against Briton. And the voices all those who shed bitter tears over the wrongs done to them by the Saxons in those days have long been silent.
In my heart it has not died,
The war that sleeps on Severn side;
They cease not fighting, east and west,
On the marches of my breast.
The writer tells us that even though in the outer world, the sounds of battle and the tears are long past, they still exist in his heart — he still feels that struggle of East and West — of Saxon agains Briton at the Severn river — “on the marches of my breast,” which contains his heart — and the heart is the ancient symbol for the innermost feelings of a person.
Here the truceless armies yet
Trample, rolled in blood and sweat;
They kill and kill and never die;
And I think that each is I.
He still fees that dissension — that division — within himself, the struggle between his English and his Welsh side. It is there that the ancient war goes on, never knowing a truce or pause. He still feels the killing and death that seems to go on perpetually, and in each person killing and killed, he feels himself always in the battle.
None will part us, none undo
The knot that makes one flesh of two,
Sick with hatred, sick with pain,
Strangling– When shall we be slain?
So we know the writer feels an endless inner conflict of his Briton and Saxon ancestry — he is both, and the conflict pulls him in two directions perpetually. This knot that binds his Saxon/English and Briton/Welsh ancestry will never be untied, and he suffers psychologically from the internal struggle — “sick with hatred, sick with pain,” and wonders “when shall we be slain,” that is, when this terrible inner conflict will end.
When shall I be dead and rid
Of the wrong my father did?
How long, how long, till spade and hearse
Puts to sleep my mother’s curse?
In this final stanza, he continues the thought expressed in the previous one — wondering when his internal struggle will be over. When will he die, and at last be free “of the wrong my father did” — that is, of the great wrong the Anglo-Saxons — the English — did the Britons — the Welsh. And he finishes by wondering how long he must suffer this internal division, how long it will be until he himself is finally dead, thus putting an end to the mental conflict though the spade that digs his grave and the hearse that bears his body there.
This is a rather unusual poem for Housman, with its sense of a person struggling over his internal dual nature. It is not unique in its theme, however. We find a similar conflict in Thomas Mann’s novel Tonio Kröger. In it, the protagonist Tonio is the son of a rather cold and authoritarian north German merchant father, and a very different artistic and sensuous Italian mother. The polarization in his parents’ personalities is reflected by an ongoing conflict in his own. Of course this is without the extreme violence of the Housman poem, but the sense of being pulled in two different directions by one’s own nature is much the same. The question in both cases is when (or whether) the internal opposites will be united and harmonized. In the case of Housman’s poem, the sufferer thinks it will never happen, but will end only in death.
Housman is deliberately vague about dates and times, because it is the psychological conflict of a border lad with both Welsh and English ancestry that he wants to portray. As in his poem “On Wenlock Edge,” he moves from ancient times to his own time. And it is set in Shrewsbury, because of its historical position in the Welsh Marches as the doorway between England and Wales — and the site not only of ancient conflicts but also of the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403.
The Welsh-English conflict did not end with the defeat of the Britons. Even in the beginning of the 20th century, students were flogged in Wales for speaking Welsh to one another in schools — English being the only permitted language. An old Welsh term for England was Gwlad y Saeson — “Land of the Saxon,” and even today the Welsh term for the English language is Saesneg — “Saxonish.”
There is much discussion among scholars today as to how accurately the early accounts describe the coming of the Anglo-Saxons to Britain, particularly how violent the transition was. Archeologists claim to find little evidence of such violence, and tend to regard the Anglo-Saxons as mostly just peaceful farmers — but in Housman’s time the early accounts of the violence of the “Anglo-Saxon invasion” were generally accepted.