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Romans and Greeks in AE Housman and HBO’s The Wire

A.E. Housman’s poem “On Wenlock Edge” describes a man standing in the woods during a big windstorm. In stanza two, the speaker realizes this isn’t the first windstorm the forest has faced: “‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger/ When Uricon the city stood” (Uricon was an ancient Roman city). In the third stanza, the speaker imagines a Roman man standing in the exact same spot, staring at the exact same hillside: “before my time, the Roman/ At yonder heaving hill would stare.”

But that’s not all they have in common. When the Roman soldier stood in this spot “The blood that warms an English yeoman,/ The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.” I love those two lines because they create such a poignant, human connection between the Englishman of the present and the Roman of the past. Human nature hasn’t changed much throughout the centuries; experiencing strong feelings is, and always has been, part of life: “Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.” The critic Michael Schmidt notes that “When anguish borrows a historical perspective, Housman’s poems take on magnificent authority. The particular anguish is seen to recur down through the ages. . . . Recurrence is inevitable and harshly consoling.”

Written in the ballad stanza (four-beat lines, with a rhyme scheme of abab), the poem is easy to memorize; I’ve got the first three stanzas down. Here is the full poem:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And think 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.

The Baltimore middle-school students depicted in season four of HBO’s The Wire also have something in common with classical tragedy but — unlike Housman’s speaker — they are unaware of the connection. In episode nine, “Know Your Place,” the students are practicing for a statewide standardized test. Cop-turned-teacher Roland “Prez” Pryzbylewski, reads a summary of a classical myth about Pythias, Damon, and the Pythagorean idea of friendship.

I had never heard of this myth. In it, Emperor Dionysius of Syracuse sentences a man named Pythias to death. The emperor refuses Pythias’s request to go home and say goodbye to family — that is, until Pythias’s friend Damon offers himself up as collateral. True to his word, Pythias returns (thereby saving Damon) and the emperor is so impressed by their trust in each other that he let both men go free.

The themes of friendship and loyalty arise multiple times throughout this episode. For example, when the police demand to know which member of Bodie’s crew goes by “little Kevin,” no one will admit to being Kevin, even though this loyalty results in three of the teens getting hauled to the station.

Ever since season one, lovable junkie Bubbles has worked as a confidential informant to police officer Kima Greggs. While their relationship is mutually beneficial — he earns income (and gets revenge on cruel, violent dealers) by acting as her confidential informant — they also tease each other like friends. Greggs even vows to help Bubbles stay clean. But in this episode, Greggs’ new assignment to Homicide prevents her from protecting Bubbles after he asks for help dealing with a bully. She enlists a different officer to help out, but the officer doesn’t make Bubbles a priority and leaves him in jeopardy.

And then there are the deep-seat loyalties in Baltimore’s political system. City Council President Nerese Campbell has the city’s community leaders and ministers under him thumb, and uses that power to challenge Carcetti, the mayor elect.

In class, Prez calls on one of his favorite students, Duquon, to summarize the myth. Duquon replies “Everybody’s safe in the end, right?” — an answer befitting a child who constantly deals with danger. Duqon’s drug-addicted family members alternate between squalid housing and homelessness.

In a New Yorker article, The Wire’s creator, David Simon, explains that he and his team have

basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy and applied it to the modern city-state…. What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.

In Housman’s poem, the bad guy is life itself. Life tosses everyone around, much like a gale tosses all the trees in the woods — and the consolation is that we’ve all been there (“we” being every human since the dawn of man). But in Simon’s world, Baltimore’s poor are particularly susceptible to “the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomic forces that are throwing the lightning bolts,” explains writer John Gray in his illuminating essay The Rebirth of Tragedy. They’re doomed to cycles of addiction and poverty and — lacking Housman’s classical education — they don’t have the comfort of a historical perspective.

Gray goes on to say that when The Wire

shows human lives ending in a lack of meaning, the series confronts us with the absurd in its most pitiful form. When it shows human beings joking, cursing and carrying on despite the absurdity, it achieves something like the liberating catharsis that Nietzsche imagined being produced by ancient Greek drama.

I agree with this, though I think season four provides the least amount of catharsis. In season four, the characters who are pawns in the systems are children, not adults, which makes their fates seem especially harsh.