I shall do nothing but look at the sky

Roman Wall Blues

W.H. Auden


Over the heather the wet wind blows,

I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.


The rain comes pattering out of the sky,

I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.


The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,

My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.


Aulus goes hanging around her place,

I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.


Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;

There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.


She gave me a ring but I diced it away;

I want my girl and I want my pay.


When I’m a veteran with only one eye

I shall do nothing but look at the sky.



Years ago my professor opened one of our English History classes with this poem. It was a nice introduction.


The poem imagines what it would have been like to be a soldier stationed at Hadrian’s Wall.


The soldiers garrisoned there were non-legionary units. They wouldn’t have had Roman citizenship, which meant limited rights. (The legions had citizenship and a pension to look forward to if they survived.)  A number of the soldiers probably did come from the Tungria mentioned. This was the Roman name for the modern Holland and Belgium. Others probably came from Gaul (France). So they were in a chilly area far from home.


(The Roman Empire was enormous, but centered on very few people-that old ‘all roads lead to Rome’line. Lots of people lived in the empire, but comparatively few were citizens.)


Hadrian’s Wall was a fortification in northern England that cut across the island. It was begun under the rule of the emperor Hadrian (bet you guessed that) in 122. Large parts of the wall still exist and there are footpaths to follow it, I hope to be able to do that someday.


The wall wasn’t a standard size across the island. The height, width and fortification depended on local materials and manpower. It’s generally just shy of 8’ wide by 10’ high.


Historians still aren’t sure why the Romans went for such a massive undertaking.


One argument says it was an expression of the empire’s strength, trying to impress those outside the empire and those within. Another stays that it was a physical political statement emphasizing a shift in defense over further expansion. Part of the problem is that no one is sure how much of a threat the people beyond the walls really were. Some historians think the wall was as much a chance to collect taxes from goods passing through than to keep an eye on military matters.


Later emperors tried to conquer lands beyond the wall periodically, so it would become a backup wall, then the front line again as they fell back. By 410 the Romans had pretty much abandoned Britain, but archaeological evidence suggests that the wall was inhabited at least until the end of that century.


Filed under Historical Facts and Trivia, Poetry

2 responses to “I shall do nothing but look at the sky

  1. See, this is where I come from. (The wrong side of the wall, obviously) We learned the Auden in junior school, when I was about 8, and I thought he had ‘ice’ in his tunic. Had to come to Arkansas to understand how vile lice are. Yes, it’s bloody cold. Yes, there’s lots and lots of the wall standing, although the forts and towers are mostly down to foundations. Go, if you get the chance. There aren’t many places in England that are rural and isolated, but much of the Wall is. There’s castles, too. And beer. And fish and chips.

    • Well, if you have a bunch of soldiers from different outlying regions they might well have shared vermin.

      I’d like to someday. Fish and Chips yes, castles certainly, I’ll pass on the beer!

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