TILL LUDLOW TOWER IS DOWN: HOUSMAN’S RECRUIT

Yesterday I discussed the first poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s A Shropshire Lad collection. It was largely a remembrance of Shropshire men who died in the British military. The next poem in the collection, Loveliest of Trees, was discussed on this site quite some time ago, so today we shall proceed to The Recruit, which has much in common with the first poem. It is not at all difficult, but is a simple farewell to “one of the lads” who has joined the military:

Leave your home behind, lad,
And reach your friends your hand,
And go, and luck go with you
While Ludlow tower shall stand.

The first stanza is the parting. A young man is leaving his home, shaking the hands of his friends, and with him go the best wishes of the narrator, wishes for good luck “While Ludlow tower shall stand.”
We are of course in Shropshire, in the vicinity of “Ludlow tower,” which is in the town of Ludlow. Ludlow lies some distance southeast of Wenlock Edge (see the posting On Wenlock Edge), and a shorter distance southwest of Titterstone Clee (see the posting Fire on the Heights).

“Ludlow tower” is the bell tower of the very old Church of St. Laurence (founded in Norman times, rebuilt in 1199), which in Housman’s time was a high landmark seen from some distance. Here it is a symbol of endurance, applied to the loyalty of friends.

LUDLOW TOWER

LUDLOW TOWER

The next three stanzas are best discussed together:

Oh, come you home of Sunday
When Ludlow streets are still
And Ludlow bells are calling
To farm and lane and mill,

Or come you home of Monday
When Ludlow market hums
And Ludlow chimes are playing
‘The conquering hero comes,’

Come you home a hero,
Or come not home at all,
The lads you leave will mind you
Till Ludlow tower shall fall.

“Of Sunday” is an old way of saying “on Sunday.” People used to say things like “I like to read of a Sunday,” meaning “I like to read on Sundays.”

Sunday, in Housman’s time, was a quiet day of rest when the bells of churches rang to call people to worship. The streets of the town were thus largely still. On Monday the week’s labors resumed, and the outdoor market in Ludlow would be busy with sellers and buyers of farm produce and such things, and if the soldier would return on that day, the chimes in the tower would play “The Conquering Hero Comes.” “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” was a tune from a longer work by the composer George Frideric Handel titled Judas Maccabeus. It became a popular melody for important events in the 19th century. Here it signifies that the recruit would have returned “victorious” from the wars. The St. Laurence bells, aside from use by bellringers, were set by clock to play a different tune depending on the day of the week.

The third stanza recognizes the possibility that the recruit may not return at all, having been killed by battle or disease in some foreign land. But whether the recruit returns as a hero or whether he does not return at all, the Shropshire lads who are his friends will be faithful to his memory “Till Ludlow tower shall fall.” The poet does not say “forever,” because nothing is forever, but he uses Ludlow Tower, as we have seen as a symbol of long, long endurance and thus remembrance.

And you will list the bugle
That blows in lands of morn,
And make the foes of England
Be sorry you were born.

The narrator, as his friend leaves, looks ahead to what the recruit’s life will be. He will hear the bugle blown to call the soldiers “in lands of morn,” meaning in the far East, in places like India. He calls them “lands of morn” because the sun rises in the East. An old German term for the East was the Morgenland — the “Morning Land.” The recruit will be a fierce and brave fighter who will “make the foes of England,” England’s enemies, sorry that he was ever born, because of his prowess as a soldier.

But again, there is the possibility of death:

And you till trump of doomsday
On lands of morn may lie,
And make the hearts of comrades
Be heavy where you die.

The “trump of doomsday” is borrowed from the Bible. It is the trumpet blown by an angel to announce the ending of the world and the day of the Last Judgment (“Doomsday”), when all the dead are awakened and rise from their graves to be judged. The famous old 11th-century land and taxation census of England and Wales called the Domesday Book (“Domesday” is the older spelling) came to be so called because the taxpayers listed in it were thought as unlikely to evade paying their taxes as people were to evade their final sentences on the Day of Judgment, when the book recording the deeds of all humans was opened.

The narrator is saying that the recruit may be killed in the eastern lands, making his military companions sorrowful, and may lie in his foreign grave until the end of all things.

And now the narrator returns to a variation on lines in the first and third stanzas:

Leave your home behind you,
Your friends by field and town:
Oh, town and field will mind you
Till Ludlow tower is down.

This is the final parting word: As you leave your home behind, and leave your friends from town and country, those friends will “mind” you — that is, they will remember and not forget you — “Till Ludlow tower is down.” Their faithful remembrance will endure as long as Ludlow tower stands. This is, of course, hyperbole (exaggeration for effect), but it is sincere hyperbole to show lifelong, enduring loyalty.

Here is an old pen and ink sketch from about 1909 by W. M. Meredith showing Broad Street in Ludlow as it was. In the background at right the top of “Ludlow tower” is visible.

BroadStreetLudlow

The ashes of A. E. Housman are buried on the grounds of St. Laurence Church in Ludlow.

A reader has asked me to repeat each poem discussed at the end of the posting, so it may be read “all at one go” after the explanation. You will find it below.

David

COMMENTS:

ASH wrote:

The sketch by Meredith is wonderful as is the town of Ludlow today.

* * *

THE RECRUIT

Leave your home behind, lad,
And reach your friends your hand,
And go, and luck go with you
While Ludlow tower shall stand.

Oh, come you home of Sunday
When Ludlow streets are still
And Ludlow bells are calling
To farm and lane and mill,

Or come you home of Monday
When Ludlow market hums
And Ludlow chimes are playing
‘The conquering hero comes,’

Come you home a hero,
Or come not home at all,
The lads you leave will mind you
Till Ludlow tower shall fall.

And you will list the bugle
That blows in lands of morn,
And make the foes of England
Be sorry you were born.

And you till trump of doomsday
On lands of morn may lie,
And make the hearts of comrades
Be heavy where you die.

Leave your home behind you,
Your friends by field and town:
Oh, town and field will mind you
Till Ludlow tower is down.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s