Hadrian’s Wall by R. H. Forster

Published in 1903 in his collection Idylls of the North, R. H. Forster‘s poem Hadrian’s Wall is typical of its time and probably exactly the sort of thing Edward Thomas disliked amongst Edwardian poetry (although, so far as I know, he never reviewed it). Nevertheless, it is what it is and at least has the virtue of having been written by somebody who had actually excavated on the Wall. Having performed it at the Late Shows 2016 several times (no small feat), I’ve grown rather fond of it and make no apology if it is not to your taste.

 

Hadrian’s Wall

Robert Henry Forster

Wave upon wave of tawny autumn moor, –
A sea of rolling upland, flecked and seamed
With here a crag, and here a monstrous stone,
Here a gaunt patch of heather, half in bloom
And half new-faded to a sickly white.
Yonder a blue lake edged with waving reeds,
Where wildfowl love to nestle, and the wind
Makes wistful music; by the western shore
A fringe of pine trees, – stems of ruddy brown,
Straight as a smoke-wreath on a windless morn,
Like pillars of a woodland shrine, upholding
A deep and solemn verdure. Over all
Lower the grey-pillared foreheads of the cliffs,
Hill ranked by hill, a marshalled battle-line
Of brother giants frozen into stone
Even in the onset; and upon their heads,
Wreathing those foreheads with a mural crown,
The wasted relics of an empire dead
Still brave the storm and sunshine, as they braved
The warrior-tempests of the ancient North.

A silent ruin on a silent waste,
Now rising to the tallness of a man,
Now lost beneath a natural mound of turf,
Like one whom time has laid in sepulture.
A silent ruin, silent to the sense,
But to the finer hearing of the heart
Still vocal: echoes of a life forgot,
Strange notes of far-off music here resound
Above the wind that whistles in the crags.
Some dying whisper of the alien tongue,
Which once spake sternness to a subject world,
Shall linger here, where erst it rang aloud,
Backed by the brazen trumpet notes of power.

Oh that some Muse would wander o’er the hills,
And voice the fainting echo! ’Tis a spot
Almost as quiet as those hidden dells
Amid the woodland heights of Helicon,
Where the Nine Sisters, when the world was young,
Sang to the music of Apollo’s lyre.
A lone bleak wilderness beside the charm
Of those enchanted uplands, like the brow
Of an old shepherd, weather-tanned and grey,
Beside the rosy softness of a girl:
Yet here is more than outward eye can see;
Here lurks the pathos of a buried past,
The glory of endeavour and success,
The bitterness of failure; joy has led
Triumphant revel o’er this sward of green,
And grief has swelled yon murmuring brook with tears,
And love has whispered yonder by the trees;
Here pleasure held her riot in the town,
A handsbreadth space from hunger: everywhere
Has life seethed manifold, everywhere has death
Claimed new a single victim, now a score,
Now the full hundred, and at last the whole.

Come, let us climb to yonder pointed hill,
Which, jutting out toward the naked North,
Captains its basalt fellows. East and west,
Northward and southward, all is pastoral peace,
Or sleepy marsh and moorland: the few sheep,
That nose among the rushes for a meal,
And yon grey heron, winging o’er the waste
To keep his fishing-vigil by the mere, –
These are the only visible things that live.
The few lone farms that speck the southward view,
Sparse as the ships upon a winter sea,
Seem almost relics of a younger past,
Less shattered, scarce less desolate and still.

But come, O Muse of Memory, and tread
With quickening feet this solitary waste;
Stretch out thine hand, and turn the wheel of time
Backward, yet backward to the misty dawn,
The infant years of Britain: bid the charm
Of solemn music breathe upon the moor;
And lo! as sweetness of Amphion’s lyre
Drew stones to rear the battled walls of Thebes,
Here shall a mightier fabric rearise,
Stretched o’er these summits like a monstrous snake
With scales of stone and, dorsal crest of spears.
See, how the moorland seethes again with life!
Hark, how the stillness iof the autumn air
Vibrates with all the myriad sounds of man!
The trumpet blows a warning from the tower;
The measured tramp and clang of weaponed men
Floats upward from the fortress, and the wheels
Creak harshly through the grey dusts of the road.
And yonder, where the little city basks
Behind the cosy shelter of the Wall,
A hum of many voices intermixed
Swells up, and seems to hover like the smoke,–
A murmur of the market and the street,
A snatch of song from one whose work is done,
The clamorous anger of a tavern brawl,
The shrill impeachments of disputing wives,
The noisy comments of a boyish game,
The plaint of children’s lightly wakened grief.

So lived and rung this shred of rugged moor
For some three hundred summers. Who can stand
On this hill-head, and see no more than hills,
Bare moorlands, marshy hollows, fit for sheep
And not for human minds to browse upon?
Nay, let us listen with the soul, and catch
Each moment some lost music of romance,
Some strain of wordless poetry to thrill
Hearts capable of feeling. Here the wind
Shall whistle out a stirring tale of war,
Of clamorous nights when blaze of beacon fires
Brought the grim Tungrians in the nick of time,
As painted thousands from the barbarous North
Came seething upward with a murderous roar
Against this gateway or yon lonely gap,
Or scaled the pillared basalt, thick as flies,
And slew the watch that slumbered in the tower.

Nor shall a strain of softer note be dumb;
For love-tales murmured in a score of tongues
Shall wake our fancy, claim our sympathy,
Or, it may happen, wet our eyes with tears.
Three hundred years, and twenty thousand men
Of twenty diverse races; – stolid folk
From the cold confines of the northern sea
Made neighbours here to some whose hotter blood
Could boil with passion of the amorous south.
Ten thousand common episodes of love,
But surely something greater, something strange,
Some love more fiery than the wonted flame,
Has left the embers of a tortured heart
To move our pity. Many a thrilling tale
Is whispered faintly by the waving grass,
Or muttered by the lapping of the mere:
And some have happy ending, like the calm
Of a pure sunset after hours of storm;
And some end softly with a gentle moan,
And some in blood and throes of tragic pain.

Here in this sunny hollow of the hills
Mayhap some crass Batavian long ago
Has dallied with a maiden of the south,
Toyed with her ebon tresses, sunned his soul
In the deep blaze of dark and passionate eyes;
And after, wearied by her fulsome worship,
Passed with a laugh and proffer of his purse,
And left her with strained eyes and parted lips,
Hands clenched, voice frozen, and a heart on fire, –
Passion of love transformed to passion of hate,–
And but one thought, one hope, one prayer, – revenge.
And soon another meeting in the dusk;
A torrent of reproaches, checked and changed
To soft persuasive blessing as of love,
Still strong though unrequited, and a prayer,
Timidly breathed, for one memorial kiss,
A clutch, a stab, – and so the story ends.

Even thus about a hundred lonely spots
Might Fancy weave the garland of her thoughts
To deck the graves of those who loved and died
A thousand years ago. These massive stones,
Which once upheld the iron-studded gate,
Mayhap could whisper of a summer night,
When some Delilah of the northern moors
Witched the lone sentry to her arms and death.
And here, where once a villa wooed the sun,
A British youth, made hostage for his clan,
Perchance has voiced the passion of his soul,
And pleaded for a Roman maiden’s love;
Or it may be that fury of assault
And lurid menace of devouring fire
Have here shot terror through a woman’s heart; –
A tribune’s daughter, haply, – till at last,
When death has all but gripped her by the throat,
A trumpet-note of rescue, and a man,
Who long has loved her with a bashful love,
And often prayed for such a chance as this,
Leaps with strong arms to hear her through the press,
And wins the homage of a grateful heart,
Which ripens to the harvestage of love.

Nor only love shall whisper out the tale
Of joy or sorrow. Here as everywhere,
Through every region of the Roman world,
Hangs the dusk cloud of slavery. The word
Is poignant in itself: what depths of woe,
What pangs of yearning, and what tales of shame
Are summed in those few letters! Aye, and here
The moan is surely more pathetic still,
Which rises from the captives who of late
Were free barbarians of the northern wilds,
And now are slaves almost in sight of home.

See yon slight figure of a growing boy,
Who longs to weep, but will not weep for pride,
And burns to curse, but dare not curse for fear.
’Tis but a month since in the flush of youth,
A chieftain’s son, he ruled his fellow boys,
And raced in sport across the summer hills,
Shouting with joy to feel the leaping blood
Of young existence and the dawn of strength,
Or plunged and splashed the river into foam,
Clomb forth and waged mock battles on the bank,
Till wind and sunshine dried his naked limbs
And kissed the water from his waving hair.

Or see this weary maiden, who must spin,
That he who slew her lover may he clad
Against the northern winter. Were e curse
In every tear she drops upon the wool,
Not Nessus’ robe were deadlier. But alas!
There is no venom mingled with her tears;
They only scald the fountains whence they rise,
And only mar the smoothness of the cheek
O’er which they chase each other as they fell.
And he, mayhap, her master and her shame,
This very while, luxuriously couched
Beside the seasoned dishes and the wine,
Revels and riots with his drunken friends,
And boasts of things he ought to tell with tears

A mist of weeping hangs about the moor;
A scent of blood steals upward from the grass,
And everywhere a savour as of death
Pervades these relics of a dying age.
Here at the climax of imperial power
This Wall was built; and here within the space
Of one man’s life that power began to die.
Like some death – stricken giant here it lay,
And writhed, and sobbed, and passed from fit to fit,
Now smitten unto semblance of the end,
Now rising with a paroxysm of life,
But never to the pitch of life that was.
Here came a night of pillage and of flame,
Of blood and ruin and barbaric hate,
When the red fury of the rebel north
Burst without warning like a summer storm
Upon the fortress and its slothful guards:
And here a day of vengeance and repair,
A building up of shattered tower and wall,
A cleansing of the rubbish-cumbered street,
But never to completion. Year by year
Worse follows better: year by year the work,
Of old so strong, so thorough, so immense,
Is patched and clouted with a feebler hand;
And all the arts and energies of life
(The stones bear record); wane to something worse,
Something less vigorous, something less exact.
The lamp is dying: ever and again
There leaps a flicker of its wonted flame,
But every flash is lower than the last,
And as it sinks it leaves more smoke behind.

So the smoke thickens and obscures the end, –
The latest and most lurid scene of all;
And dimly through the vapour and the mark
Appear vague shapes of agony and shame,
And shrieks of inarticulate distress
Ring out half stifled through the choking air.
Then darkness and the quietude of death
Succeed, and close the tragedy of Rome.

THE END

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