In the previous posting I discussed the profound sense of insecurity and alienation expressed in Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. Now I would like to look at another poem by Alfred Edward Housman, his Easter Hymn. In it the poet addresses Jesus directly:
If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
The poem might easily be titled The Agnostic’s Easter. In it Housman expresses the matter in two opposing “ifs.”
In the first part he tells Jesus that if he is merely dead and buried in his garden tomb, unaware that his mission failed, unaware that his life and death not only did not destroy hate but sometimes even fanned its flames, then Housman wishes him a peaceful eternal sleep.
But if, on the other hand, Jesus was resurrected from the tomb as many say in Christianity, and has ascended to heaven and assumed power, Housman asks him to remember his suffering on earth, and — it is implied — to consider the suffering of humanity, and to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. “Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.”
It is a bold poem, and in it Housman is essentially saying, “I do not believe you are still alive and in heaven, and not just lying for some two thousand years in a tomb in the Near East, but if by chance you are living and up there, then look down at the sufferings of humanity (that of the poet included) and please help us.”
The unspoken result of the poem is, interestingly, the same conclusion reached by Arnold in Dover Beach: no help is coming, and we are out here on our own in the universe, and must get by as best we can. Housman made his “prayer,” and no help came in reply. So one is left with the conclusion that of the two “ifs” in the poem, the first was the correct one.
That is why, again, there is a kind of underlying bitter humor in the poem, which makes the title Easter Hymn all the more meaningful. It is not surprising, then, that Housman is said to have once described his own position as that of a “High-church atheist,” meaning that while culturally he had been influenced by the traditional Anglicanism of England in which so many were raised, intellectually he could not accept the notion of a “God” as the term was understood in Christianity.
That, of course, was a controversial position in his time, which accounts for his Easter Hymn being left unpublished until after his death in 1936, appearing among his Manuscript Poems published in 1955.
The poetic attitude of Housman is expressed briefly and succinctly in the preface he attached to the publication of his book More Poems:
They say my verse is sad; no wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity and sorrow,
Not mine, but man’s.
This is for all ill-treated fellows
Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read when they’re in trouble
And I am not.
That is why the poems of Housman appeal so readily and effectively to us today. He understood human suffering and the transience of life, and he speaks to us still.
What does he mean by writing his poems for “all ill-treated fellows, unborn and unbegot”? He means all those who were, at the time he wrote this verse, not yet born nor even yet conceived. And by saying the poem is “for them to read when they’re in trouble and I am not,” he means his poems are for those like him, who will have his poems in the future to read when they are in trouble, but Housman will by then be long dead and beyond all his troubles — “and I am not.”