Today’s poem, even in its austerity, is one of the great mourning poems of the English language. Whitman has his poems on the death of Lincoln, but those are “state” poems; Auden has his effectively-overstated “Stop All the Clocks.” And Housman has this poem, which manages to take us from stiff-lipped objectivity to a moving cry of the heart. Let’s take it verse by verse:
THE RAIN IT STREAMS ON STONE AND HILLOCK
The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.
Since all is done that’s due and right
Let’s home; and now, my lad, good-night,
For I must turn away.
The speaker of the poem is in a cemetery. The church and graveside rites are over, the grave has been filled in and the tombstone set in place. Out of a grey and darkening sky, the rain beats down on the stone and on the new-piled dirt of the hillock that marks the burial. The writer speaks in his thoughts to the one buried there, and as he does so, speaks to himself as well. All has been done that’s due and right — the memorial services and ritual words, the flowers, the black garments. Yet he stands there in the rain, the freshly-dug clay clinging to his boots.
Now he says farewell: “My lad, good-night, for I must turn away.” Everything is ended, including your life and all it meant. It is time to leave.
Good-night, my lad, for nought’s eternal;
No league of ours, for sure.
To-morrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.
And still he pauses. “Good-night, my lad,” he repeats, “for nought’s eternal.” Nothing is forever. Nothing lasts. Everything ends. Even our relationships, yours and mine — that is certain and obvious. The mourner tries to tell himself that “Tomorrow I shall miss you less.” This ache of loss, the heaviness of spirit, are things that only time may ease.
Over the hill the highway marches
And what’s beyond is wide:
Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.
The highway — the main road — passes over the hill and beyond into the wide world and all it holds, a world and time that the person in the grave will not see. The highway means a future, new experiences. It is a symbol that the mourner’s road of life will continue, while that of the deceased has ended here at this soggy hillock of earth. Given all that must await out there, the mourner again tells himself that the sorrow and painful memories will gradually fade away; sad thoughts of the deceased will come less and less, until the ache is no longer felt.
The skies, they are not always raining
Nor grey the twelvemonth through;
And I shall meet good days and mirth,
And range the lovely lands of earth
With friends no worse than you.
He tells the departed, and in doing so himself, that the skies are not always raining and grey through the year; life now will not always be gloom and sorrow. There are sure to be sunny times, and the mourner will no doubt have pleasant days, and meet new and good friends in his wanderings.
Through all this he has repeated to himself, in various ways, that the painful memories will lessen, that he will be happy again, that he will make new acquaintances — but at the last verse he drops this would-be objectivity in a wrenching cry of sorrow:
But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.
“The house is fallen that none can build again.” The house is the body and life of the friend, once filled with joy and hopes. But now that house is fallen, and none can build it again. No one can change that. And the mourner expresses his own profound sorrow and the sorrow of the human condition by projecting it onto the mother of the deceased:
“How full of joy and woe your mother was all those years ago, when in the happiness of having a child and in the pains of childbirth, she brought you into this world. And now all her hopes and wishes for you have come to nought. You are dead, and tonight you lie in the earth and the dark and the beating rain.”
Though it is thought that the poem was influenced by the death of Housman’s brother Herbert, who died in Africa in the Boer War, the first draft of the last stanza was actually written before that event.
This verse is number XVIII (18) in the volume titled Last Poems, published in 1922.