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A Short Analysis of A. E. Housman’s ‘On Wenlock Edge the Wood’s in Trouble’

‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble’: it’s one of A. E. Housman’s most arresting opening lines. Why, or indeed how, is the wood ‘in trouble’? What follows is one of the greatest poetic meditations on the smallness of the individual life when set against the grand sweep of history.

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.

’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.

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.

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.

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.

‘On Wenlock Edge’ is one of the most famous poems from A. E. Housman’s collection of 63 poems, A Shropshire Lad (1896). Although Housman barely knew Shropshire – he was born in neighbouring Worcestershire, and the closest he appears to have got to the county before he wrote A Shropshire Lad is peering at the steeples of Shropshire churches across the county boundary – his 1896 volume is the book that gave Shropshire its lasting literary reputation, and many of the poems in A Shropshire Lad mythologise and romanticise the county as a microcosm of provincial England.

The poet and critic William Empson once suggested for his epitaph: ‘No more bother.’ In a way, Housman’s ‘On Wenlock Edge’ offers a similar sentiment: life may be nasty and brutish, but it is also short, and no matter how great our troubles may seem to us now, they will soon be no more, because we will be no more. Like many poems in A Shropshire Lad, ‘On Wenlock Edge’ is about the brevity of life – but, as elsewhere in Housman, this is seen as having its positive aspects as well as its obvious downside.

Uriconium was the name of the ancient Roman settlement which stood on the site of modern-day Wroxeter in Shropshire, and it is this ancient and long-vanished world, some two thousand years earlier during the Roman occupation of Britain, that ‘On Wenlock Edge’ calls up. This was not some remote outpost of Roman Britain: it had a substantial population, and is thought to have been perhaps the fourth-largest Roman settlement in Britain.

Housman’s speaker, the fictional Shropshire lad of the volume, sees the wind blowing violently through the nearby woods near the hill known as the Wrekin, shaking the leaves from the trees, and reflects that the wind used to blow like this through the wooded hill (‘holt’) and the wood by that hillside (‘hanger’) in the days when Uriconium stood on the same site. In those days, some hapless Roman, much like his latter-day counterpart the poem’s speaker, would stand and watch the wind threshing the forest. The same thoughts which worry and plague Housman’s Victorian speaker were, essentially, also present in the mind and heart of the Roman. But such troubles soon pass: today, the speaker reflects, the Roman and his worries are ashes under the ground.

‘On Wenlock Edge’ is written in iambic tetrameter, with each stanza rhymed abab, a common quatrain form and rhyme scheme Housman uses many times in his slim body of poems. It’s a decidedly effective rhyme scheme and metre for this poem, which has the ring of the ballad about it (an oral, indeed lyrical, form which reflects ordinary people’s lives), drawing as it does a link between the present and the past.

Image: View of the Wrekin by Jeff Buck, via geograph.org.uk.

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Posted on May 15, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. isabellacatolica

    Iambic tetrameter as you say. What give this poem its attractiveness is the strength of the lines; by which I mean that they are reasonably dense. There is some alliteration and also some flipped syntax, such as His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves, and The thoughts that hurt him, they were there. This means that in reading it, the reader is slowed down, the thoughts appearing to have greater weight. It seems to me that some poetry on this theme – the fleeting quality of life, and the cyclical quality of history – can be a little fey and namby-pamby. A couple of lines from The Passionate Shepherd to his Love, though on a different topic, (May 10th post) seem like this:
    And we will sit upon the Rocks,
    Seeing the Shepherds feed their flocks,
    These lines threaten to read in a fluent and facile way, whereas AEH seems to avoid this trap. (BTW, I like The Passionate Shepherd very much, but I think it successful for other reasons; and thank you very much for this daily injection of interesting stuff.)

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