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Lazy grey cattle dozed in the August heat, between sharp falls of rain from dark explosions of cloud, a half mile or so to the west of Crag Lough, where the Whin Sill marks the vertical edge of the old Roman Empire.

Nearby lay a dip to Turret 38, stuck in the bottom of a gulley with hills to the west, east, and north. What a stupid place, you can’t help thinking, to put a watchtower, when a hundred yards to one side or the other would have brought you to a hilltop with views 360 degrees around, and for miles in each direction. It tells us something about the men who made the wall, the men who planned it that is. It wasn’t a military mind, I think, that planted the watchtower there, but a bureaucratic one, marking off the right number of paces from tower to tower –there’s a mile castle on the Cumbrian coast does something similar, missing the hilltop viewpoint by a few yards. And that tells us something about the wall, and what it meant.

This wasn’t a line of passive, desperate defence. There are too many holes in it for that. This was a base line for attack – doors at the cavalry forts made two horsemen wide to get a unit through as quickly as possible, not to make it difficult to shore up under attack. Every garrison having its door to the north, so that they could get into the field at short notice, not so that an enemy could beat it down. The turret in its dip could pass it’s messages of smoke and fire, I expect, as well as necessary, but there are no doorways through to the killing grounds of the north at turrets, where pickets of two or three at most, passed the time with dice and Brigante girls until the next message has to be sent through. Nobody, I suspect, ever thought of storming this wall while it was being defended. It stood at the back of the tribes to the north, offering quick and powerful support against enemies further north still, not facing them.

Whenever I visit Hadrian’s Wall I remember a poem by Andrew Young, called simply, The Roman Wall. Norman Nicholson, the Cumberland Poet, told me that he had met Andrew Young when Young was a hale and hearty old man, still in love with the English countryside, though he was a Scot by birth, and lived most of his adult life in the South of England. He is associated with the Georgian Poets, and his nature poetry was always said to be written from direct contact with, and observation of his subject. I have the first four volumes of the Georgian’s, but his work is not included, presumably because he was younger, and slower to come to prominence than his contemporaries.

I have Young’s poem almost by heart, save for the second verse being so like the third that I always mix them up. It’s a simple, descriptive poem, reminding us how the wall evokes its past, ours. Five stanzas, each of four lines, the lines rhyming AB,AB, and with a short line of 6 syllables at first and third, a longer one, of ten, for second and fourth.

That sort of formality isn’t favoured by the cognoscenti nowadays, but this simple poem is a song. Read it aloud, and enjoy the rhythm, the music, of what is a reflection upon time passing and things changing, staying the same. There is a man in this poem whose experience you can replicate, and at the very same place. Two thousand years have not changed it.

A generation of state educated poets grasped the idea that rhyme belonged to poetry, and sacrificed the meanings and the sounds of words to it. Rhyme suffered as a consequence – being seen as something that turned poems into meaningless jingles. It has fought back over time, because it does have a lot to offer us, bringing emphasis to key words, and music to lines. Some have pointed out that we only know we have a rhyme when we get to the second sound-alike, but that’s not always the case. Where the rhythm is strong, a line can seem to demand a rhyme – hence that jingle risk!

In Young’s poem the rhyme scheme, allied to the long and short lines, gives a particular effect, particularly in the last two stanzas. In the fourth, for example, ‘once’ is not quite rhymed with ‘stones’, though both end words have a soft, rather than a hard consonant. So too in that final stanza, and here, perhaps the shortness of the first and third lines emphasises the sharpness of the single syllable rhyming words, while the longer lines, at lines two and four make their  effect from the softer endings of their rhyme words.

One rhyme in The Roman Wall always worries me. I’d like to have heard Young read the piece aloud, so that I could get the proper sound: He rhymes ‘thorn trees sough’ with ‘lapping on Crag Lough’ – did he sound them both like ‘cough’, or like ‘prow’, or am I way out in both cases? Certainly people these days, in my hearing, rhyme Crag Lough with ‘tough’, and ‘sough’ is a word I’ve never heard spoken. ‘Saughtree’, not far off across the Northumberland fells is sounded more like ‘saw’, but with a rougher ending than that ‘w’, and but a little tuning would bring it to rhyming with ‘trough’, but is it the same word?

  Here’s the poem, for your enjoyment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Roman Wall, by Andrew Young (1885-1971)

 

Though moss and lichen crawl,

These square-set stones still keep their serried ranks

Guarding the ancient wall,

That whitlow grass with lively silver pranks.

 

Time they could not keep back

More than the wind that from the snow-streaked north

Taking the air for track

Flows lightly over to the south shires forth.

 

Each stone might be a cist

Where memory sleeps in dust and nothing tells

More than the silent mist

That smoke along the heather-blackened fells.

 

Twitching its ears as pink

As blushing scallops loved by Romans once

A lamb leaps to its drink

And, as the quavering cry breaks on the stones,

 

Time like a leaf down-drops

And pacing by the stars and thorn-trees’ sough

A Roman sentry stops

And hears the water lapping on Crag Lough.

 

[from Ten Twentieth-century Poets, ed. Maurice Wollman, Harrap,1965(1957)]

 

For me the poem has something of that question and answer quality that you get with a Petrachan sonnet, where the poem splits, not quite at the half way mark and takes a different tack. The change here is with that ‘Twitching its ears…’, which brings the poem back from a more reflective description, to an action of the moment. There’s a subtle change too, in the structure, for the meaning, and the sentence flows over from the end of the fourth and into the fifth stanza – the previous stanzas have all been complete observations – which begins with a present tense leap – into the past!

You might have noticed that three out of the last five lines begin with ‘and’. This might cause problems for some – it certainly did when I used about a dozen to kick off paragraphs in a short story – but one of the effects is to roll the meaning on at gathering pace, it is after all, unlike ‘but’, a joining word rather than a separating one.

The choice of words to end on, having to rhyme with the soft-ending ‘sough’ – however you sound it – means that the final line does not carry the punch of ‘A Roman sentry stops’, but it does echo the gentle lapping of the water it refers to, which is in keeping with the reflective quality of the poem, and its philosophical observation. I almost experience the silence and stillness of the sentry as he listens.