If you have seen the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, you may recall the rather thrilling scene when, in great need, a fire was lit atop a height to call far-off warriors to battle and to aid. That fiery message was seen and transmitted in a sequence of fires lit from peak to peak across a great distance.
This was an ancient practice in Britain, and such a fire kindled on a height, called a beacon fire or simply a beacon, was also, at times over the years, lit in celebration.
That leads us to this first poem of the New Year and of Alfred Edward Housman’s landmark collection A Shropshire Lad. It begins a series of poems with the simple title “1887.”
Why 1887? Because that year, on the 20th and 21st of June, when Housman was nearly 28 years old, Britain celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria — 50 years of her reign.
Please keep in mind that the poems in A Shropshire Lad are very much poems of place, set in the landscape of the county of Shropshire, with its place names and landmarks. That does not mean Housman always used places with great literalness. He once said he had not spent much time in Shropshire. He uses Shropshire as a kind of topographical framework upon which he places his poetry. His home place was Bromsgrove, far to the east of Ludlow and across the border in Worcestershire, but Shropshire and its hills were for him his western horizon, and his Shropshire is both of the map and of the mind.
So here, part by part, we begin what I hope to be a discussion of the whole of A Shropshire Lad over time. And we commence with From Clee to heaven the beacon burns:
From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.
There are two main Clee summits, both of which lie southeast of Wenlock Edge in Shropshire. Brown Clee Hill is the higher, while Titterstone Clee lies farther south and closer to the town of Ludlow. Brown Clee itself has a higher and a lower prominence: that to the north is Abdon Burf, 1,790 feet, and that is where the beacon was lit to commemorate Queen Victoria; that to the south is Clee Burf, at 1,650 feet.
Housman tells us that the great beacon fire on Clee rises from hill to sky, clearly visible even from other shires. Looking north and south, one sees other beacon fires on other heights, repeating the celebratory signal for Victoria’s Jubilee
Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because ’tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.
Looking to left and to right, one sees other hilltop beacon fires, and the villages in the dales — the lowlands between — are lit up as well, all in honor of 50 years of Victoria’s reign. “That God has saved the Queen” repeats the old wish for good fortune for a British monarch, “God save the Queen!” (or King). Thus fifty years have passed and the Queen’s reign over British territories remains secure.
So this seems, on the surface, to be a poem celebrating Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. But is it?
Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we ’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.
This stanza may be a little confusing at first glance. I will rearrange and rephrase it to make it clear. The speaker in the poem is addressing his companions:
“Lads, we’ll remember the dead friends of ours who shared the work of saving the Queen with God; we’ll remember them now, when the beacon fires that they cannot see tower high above the soil of Shropshire, upon which they once walked.” So he is speaking of dead soldiers, of Shropshire lads who fought to protect and maintain the British Empire. To see how ironic the words “who share the work [of saving the Queen] with God” are, we must keep in mind that Housman is reported to have once said “I became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one.” Whether one considers him an atheist or an agnostic, the irony in this poem is that it was not God who “saved the Queen,” it was the men who fought in her armies, as we shall see.
To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night
Themselves they could not save.
The dead “Queen’s” soldiers, those who “saved” her and therefore are her “saviors” (American spelling), are not able to come home this Jubilee night to the Shropshire skies that “knit their heartstrings right,” (gave them the proper emotions and affections) and the Shropshire fields that “bred them brave” (gave birth and raised them to be brave). The speaker wants to emphasize that the dead soldiers were the product of the land and air of Shropshire, and this shows a great pride in so being. Though they “saved the Queen” (the Empire), they could not save themselves from death in that cause.
Anyone who studies English literature soon discovers the necessity of familiarity with the King James version of the Bible, which had a tremendous influence on the language. In Housman’s time its phrases were easily recognized and often used. So it is not difficult to see in
The saviours come not home to-night
Themselves they could not save
two biblical reflections: first the old practice of referring to Jesus — considered God as the second person of the Trinity — as “the Saviour,” and second, these words in reference to the crucifixion of Jesus from Mark 15:31:
“Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save.”
Of course in the poem it is the Shropshire soldiers who are the saviors who could not save themselves, not Jesus/God.
It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.
Though it is Jubilee night in Shropshire, in Asia it is dawning. There tombstones bear the names of dead soldiers from Shropshire. And on the Nile River in Egypt, which makes its annual rise, soldiers from Shropshire are buried, soldiers born and raised where the Severn river flows.
We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.
Those celebrating Victoria’s jubilee in the farms and towns of Shropshire pledge their loyalty to her in a time of peace and set beacons afire in her honor, the same Queen those dead Shropshire lads served in her wars. The beacons flame up and down Shropshire, the home for which the dead gave their lives. The speaker is emphasizing the gulf, yet the link, the unity, between living and dead at this Jubilee time.
‘God save the Queen’ we living sing,
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.
The voices of all the living in Shropshire this Jubilee night sing the British anthem “God Save the Queen,” and their voices are heard from hill to hill. And along with that great chorus are heard, in spirit, the voices of the dead “lads of the Fifty-Third.” The 53rd was the Shropshire Regiment that in 1881 was united with the Buckinghamshire 85th Regiment to become part of the King’s Light Infantry, Shropshire Regiment. Under one name or the other, young Shropshire men fought in far-off places such as India, Egypt, the Sudan, and the 2nd Boer War.
Housman finishes with,
Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you ’ve been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.
The speaker (as we know) has no faith in God, so he says ironically, “Oh, God will save her,” don’t fear! For as long as the men of Shropshire continue to be of the quality that they were and are, as long as they beget the same kind of sturdy and brave and loyal fellows to which their fathers gave birth, “God” will “save the Queen.”
So Housman is giving us another version, in poetry, of the old saying “God helps those who help themselves” — “Get you the sons your fathers got, and God will save the Queen.”
Thus we find that instead of a poem in praise of Queen Victoria, this is actually a poem in memory of Shropshire’s dead in far-flung wars — the preservers, representative of other “ordinary” British soldiers, of Britain and the Queen’s empire — and simultaneously a praise of the living people of Shropshire, who through their celebration and the lighting of the beacons felt and demonstrated their bond and unity in spirit with the dead.
It would be easy to read this poem, from our 21st-century perspective, as a criticism of the now-disgraced notion of Empire, but that was not Housman’s purpose. Instead it was to honor the patriotrism and the loyalty of Britain’s soldiers, exemplified by the brave lads of Shropshire who had preserved and made secure the Britain Housman knew in his day. His focus in this poem is not on the politics of the matter, but rather on basic traits he honored, traits which ideally were taught in the schools of his time — loyalty, bravery, and love of the land, traits as old as the Latin classics Housman taught.
It is worth noting that on June 4, 2012, the beacons of Shropshire were again set aflame in honor of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, 60 years of reign in times and circumstances vastly different than those of Victoria.
There used to be an oft-heard but modified quote in praise of the schooling of the English aristocracy, which stated that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Housman draws our attention instead to the role of the farming fields of Shropshire, giving us a far more balanced and realistic view.
Incidentally, I began this posting with mention of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. One can perhaps overlook his changes to Tolkien’s classic work with the excuse that he was summarizing a very long and detailed book, and that he did create some very effective scenes such as that of the lighting of the beacons, and that the film no doubt encouraged many to read Tolkien’s original. But I must add that there is no excuse adequate to overlook the abomination he performed on Tolkien’s book The Hobbit by needlessly expanding a much shorter text into three separate, highly-padded movies, in the process degrading Tolkien’s sprinkling of light humor amid the seriousness of the original book into mere offensively ridiculous absurdity.
So my advice for movie watchers is to see The Lord of the Rings if you will (but be sure to go back and read Tolkien’s original work after); however, you are cautioned to avoid the movie version of The Hobbit entirely. It does not have enough redeeming qualities to warrant viewing, at least not for those who care about Tolkien’s legacy. Read the book instead.
An excellent piece David. It is good to remind readers that research of past works is often eye-opening.