WHEN SMOKE STOOD UP FROM LUDLOW

The River Teme, Evening near Ludlow – The Clee Hills in the Distance:  by Philip Wilson Steer ;Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

The River Teme, Evening near Ludlow – The Clee Hills in the Distance: by Philip Wilson Steer; Dundee Art Galleries and Museums Collection (Dundee City Council)

Today’s poem, the seventh in A Shropshire Lad, is often found in school anthologies. It is titled

WHEN SMOKE STOOD UP FROM LUDLOW

When smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off from Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team,

The narrator is recalling a morning in the fields near the market town of Ludlow. which in 1887 had a population of about 5,935.

He tells us that “smoke stood up from Ludlow,” meaning the morning fires were lit in the houses and shops of the town, and their smoke was rising into the sky from the chimneys. And “mist blew off the Teme”; the mists that had gathered over the Teme River that flows through and past Ludlow during the cool of night were dispersing as the rising sun began to warm the air. Our narrator is a young farmer, and he has gone “blithe afield to ploughing,” happily enough off to the work of ploughing the field in preparation for planting. So we know it is spring as well. He is walking with his team of work horses “against the morning beam,” that is toward the East, toward the beams of the rising sun.

The blackbird in the coppice
Looked out to see me stride,
And hearkened as I whistled
The trampling team beside,
And fluted and replied:

As the young man walks along vigorously with his team, whistling a tune, a blackbird looks out from a coppice, which is a little grove of trees, and the bird “flutes,” that is, sings out, as if in reply to the young man’s whistling. The blackbird is a poetic device that reveals a gnawing doubt deep in the young man’s mind, his doubt about life. This is what the blackbird, which we can take as a symbol of the dark unconscious, sings:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise.’

A yeoman is a man who owns and cultivates his own property.

What point is there, the thought comes to the young man via the blackbird, in this constant rising every morning, day after day? What purpose is there in rising and going off to work, when inevitably one must at last lie down in death?

This is the same ancient concern about the ultimate futility of life that we find at the beginning of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose…

We find it expressed also in Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes — or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two — is gone.

Our hopes may be fulfilled or not fulfilled, but no matter, it all turns to nothing in the end.

It is the old question: We work to eat, and eat to live, but for what do we live? It is a question each person must answer.

I heard the tune he sang me,
And spied his yellow bill;
I picked a stone and aimed it
And threw it with a will:
Then the bird was still.

The young man sees the blackbird, with its yellow beak, picks up a stone, and throws it with such force and accuracy that he kills the bird, and it is silent. But that is not the end of the doubt:

Then my soul within me
Took up the blackbird’s strain,
And still beside the horses
Along the dewy lane
It sang the song again:

The same doubt about life that was heard through the blackbird’s song now is perceived to come out of its real source, the mind of the lad. And he hears the doubt repeated as a song over and over as he walks along the dewy morning lane, a kind of temptation to nihilism:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
The sun moves always west;
The road one treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest,
And that will be the best.’

You may recall from the discussion of William Blake’s poem Sunflower Weary of Time that since time immemorial the West has symbolized the end of life, the place of death. The sun is always moving west, always moving toward rest and for humans, ultimately death. So the same road that leads the lad eastward to work, will lead him at last home to rest, and finally home to death, “eternal rest.”

The point of the poem is the seeming purposelessness of life, which, as the old saying goes, is a disease whose prognosis is always fatal.

Young people in their late teens and early twenties often go through a period of this kind of existential Angst, of questioning the point of it all. It can also happen later, in what psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the “Mid-life Crisis,” when one realizes one’s youthful hopes either have not been achieved and never will be, or else one has achieved them and found them to have “turned ashes,” as Fitzgerald wrote. The important thing is to get beyond this and to search for what is beyond both material acquisition and beyond one’s limited idea of “self.” But one can go through a lot of suffering in the process.

David

WHEN smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off from Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team,

The blackbird in the coppice
Looked out to see me stride,
And hearkened as I whistled
The trampling team beside,
And fluted and replied:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise.’

I heard the tune he sang me,
And spied his yellow bill;
I picked a stone and aimed it
And threw it with a will:
Then the bird was still.

Then my soul within me
Took up the blackbird’s strain,
And still beside the horses
Along the dewy lane
It sang the song again:

‘Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
The sun moves always west;
The road one treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest,
And that will be the best.’

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