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Housman, Masefield, Burns, Drayton



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.

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.

'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.

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:
Today the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.


A.E.Housman (1859-1936); A Shropshire Lad; 1896



A wind is brushing down the clover,
It sweeps the tossing branches bare,
Blowing the poising kestrel over
The crumbling ramparts of the Caer.

It whirls the scattered leaves before us
Along the dusty road to home,
Once it awakened into chorus
The heart-strings in the ranks of Rome.

There by the gusty coppice border
The shrilling trumpets broke the halt,
The Roman line, the Roman order,
Swayed forwards to the blind assault.

Spearman and charioteer and bowman
Charged and were scattered into spray,
Savage and taciturn the Roman
Hewed upwards in the Roman way.

There -- in the twilight -- where the cattle
Are lowing home across the fields,
The beaten warriors left the battle
Dead on the clansmen's wicker shields.

The leaves whirl in the wind's riot
Beneath the Beacon's jutting spur,
Quiet are clan and chief, and quiet
Centurion and signifier.


John Masefield (1878-1967); Salt-Water Ballads; 1902



from  More Poems: XXX

Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all's over;
          I only vex you the more I try.
All's wrong that ever I've done or said,
And nought to help it in this dull head:
          Shake hands, here's luck, good-bye.

But if you come to a road where danger
          Or guilt or anguish or shame's to share,
Be good to the lad that loves you true
And the soul that was born to die for you,
          And whistle and I'll be there.

A.E.Housman (1859-1936); Jonathan Cape 1936


Since there's no helpe, Come let vs kisse and part,
Nay, I haue done: You get no more of Me,
And I am glad, yea glad with all my heart,
That thus so cleanly, I my Selfe can free.
Shake hands for euer, Cancell all our Vowes,
And when we meet at any time againe,
Be it not seene in either of our Browes,
That We one iot of former Loue reteyne;
Now at the last gaspe of Loues latest Breath,
When his Pulse fayling, Passion speechlesse lies,
When Faith is kneeling by his bed of Death,
And Innocence is closing vp his Eyes,
  Now if thou woulds't, when all haue giuen him ouer,
  From Death to Life, thou might'st him yet recouer.


Michael Drayton (1563-1631); Sonnets; 1619



Aye vow and protest that ye care na for me,
And whiles ye may lightly my beauty a-wee;
But court na anither, tho' jokin ye be,
For fear that she wile your fancy frae me,
For fear that she wile your fancy frae me.
          O whistle an' I'll come to ye, my lad,
          O whistle an' I'll come to ye, my lad,
Tho' father an' mother an' a' should gae mad,
          O whistle an' I'll come to ye, my lad.


Robert Burns (1759-1796); Songs; c 1790



Masefield's On Malvern Hill is so close in rhythm, form, content, time, place, and sentiment to Housman's On Wenlock Edge that it could well be called a translation. It demonstrates one of the standard traits of almost all translations: it uses more words to say less. There is a shift in focus from a sense of personal isolation to the savagery of battle. Nevertheless, it is to my mind a good poem, and would have been even better were it not for Housman's memorable original. Masefield dilutes his version by echoing the elegiac note of Thomas Gray, with the cattle lowing home across the fields

Housman's conflation of Drayton and Burns, both far more remote in time, gains from the allusions, as well as adding piquancy when his gender reorientation is recognised. Drayton is speaking in a man's voice, but Burns seeks a whistle on behalf of a woman --- perhaps following a traditional song. The sentiments are standard. Shades of Bacall. "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, my Lad" was the title of a chilling ghost story by M.R.James, 1904.


Compare and Contrast

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Alfred Tennyson; from The Eagle fragment.

Against the burly air I strode,
Where the tight ocean heaves its load
Crying the miracles of God.                   (I)

The second day I stood and saw
The osprey plunge with triggered claw,   (II)

Geoffrey Hill; from Genesis, 1952; quoted by Peter Walton, in Towards Stasis: a reading in the poetry of Geoffrey Hill, an article in A Tribute to Geoffrey Hill, in Agenda, Vol 34 No 2, Summer 1996.

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