Today we turn again to one of my favorite poets, Alfred Edward Housman, and to his poem On Wenlock Edge.

English: Wenlock Edge
WENLOCK EDGE  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is not a difficult poem, but we shall need to make sure we understand Housman’s vocabulary in order to comprehend the poem easily.  As usual, I shall take it part by part:

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.

We are in the county of Shropshire, England.  To the south is a large escarpment — a sudden, sharp upward slant of the land that rises to some height above us, and runs for some 16 miles across the countryside.  Its ancient limestone slope is covered in leafy forest.  This is Wenlock Edge.  In the distance, some five miles to the north of Wenlock Edge, is a forested hill, the Wrekin (pronounced REE-kin).

THE WREKIN (Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)
(Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)

The writer tells us the wood on Wenlock Edge is “in trouble”  meaning it is disturbed, agitated and stormy.  A great wind has come up.  If we look to the Wrekin, the forest on it is tossing in the same wind.  Housman terms the wood on the Wrekin “his [its] forest fleece,” because the wood covers the hill like the fleece on a sheep.  And it “heaves” — the countless branches bending in the wind seem, when seen from a distance, to rise and fall like waves on a green sea.  The gale — the very strong wind — bends (“plies”) the saplings — the slender, flexible young trees — double, bends them nearly to the ground.  And the countless leaves blown away by the awesome force of the gale fall like snow on the waters of the Severn River, which winds between the two heights.   Housman is giving us a scene filled with natural power and motion.

’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.

The writer, having presented us with an event in the present, now expresses the thoughts it arouses in him.  He tells us the gale once blew like that through “holt and hanger” in a much earlier time.  “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.

The writer muses that the same strong wind “in the old anger,” (meaning aroused and violent) that now blows on Wenlock Edge and the Wrekin, then blew on the earlier woods of the region when Uricon was a thriving city in Roman Britain.  He speaks of the wind in the old days having “threshed another wood.”  “Threshed” is an agricultural term used for beating ripe grain from stalks.  So, to repeat, Housman means that the same wind he sees blowing the forests of Shropshire also beat on the woods that grew there in Roman times.

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.

Just as the narrator now stares at the woods bending and waving in the strong wind, in ancient times a Roman would stand there watching the gale-blown woods of that earlier period.  And, the writer opines, the two men — the ancient Roman and the modern British yeoman (here it means a farmer who owns his own land) — are much the same, bodies warmed by human blood, minds troubled by the same human concerns and emotions.

The writer expands on this similarity of old Roman and modern Briton:

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.

There — in early Britain — the “gale of life,” the powerful force of life and emotion, blew strongly (“high) through the Roman like a wind blowing through woods “in riot,” that is, with violence and great disturbance.  And now the same, overwhelming force blows through the writer himself.   Housman likens a man under the force of his own internal, powerful emotions and desires to a tree blown by a gale:

The tree of man was never quiet.

And again, the likening of ancient and modern:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The hopes, fears, sufferings and sorrows of humans are the same, whether in ancient times or today, whether in Roman Britain or modern Britain, or anywhere else on earth.

And now he brings us back to the present, to the blowing wind and the agitated trees, for his summation of the matter:

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. 

As early as the Chinese book the Dao De Jing, it was said that a violent wind does not last the morning.  Our writer tells us that the wind he watches is so violent it will soon be gone.  We must know that he is also speaking here of the strong wind of human life and emotion — it blows so strongly that it too will soon be gone.  We should keep in mind here that Housman is giving us an equation:  wind = the force of life.  We see this made clear in the final two lines:

Today the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon.

And similarly, by extension, our narrator and his troubles will soon be ashes as well.  Nothing lasts, whether it be wind, or trees, or leaves, or sorrow, or joy, or human life.

If we were to express this poem very simply it would be this:

A violent wind is agitating the trees.

The same violent wind I see blowing the woods was seen by a Roman in early Roman Britain.

That Roman and I share the same human blood and human emotions.

Humans are like trees blown in the wind of emotion and desire.

Wind = the force of life and emotion in humans.

A violent wind will not last long.

Human life and emotions do not last long.

As the ancient Roman and his troubles are now nothing but ashes, so shall I and all my troubles be.

Of course Housman’s poetic way of saying it is far more pleasing to read than this kind of prosaic explanation.

As an aside, it might not occur to one immediately, but there is a connection between the name “Wrekin” and the name of the former nearby old Roman city, Viroconium.  Remember that in Latin, a “V” used to be pronounced as a “W.”  So think of “Wrekin” and “Wirocon [-ium].”  Of course the “W” in Wrekin is now silent.

Speaking of the “strong wind of human life and emotion” that is soon ended, we can think of the lines of George Gordon Byron from his poem We’ll Go No More A-Roving:

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast…