NO HARM IN TRYING: HOUSMAN’S TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH

Those familiar with Alfred Edward Housman will know that a “sports” poem by him is not going to be simply a sports poem.  That is certainly the case with today’s example, which is poem XVII (#17) in his collection A Shropshire Lad.  We shall take it part by part.  It is titled:

TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THROUGH

Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

“Thorough” here is just an old spelling of “through.”  And “football” here is the British term for what Americans traditionally call “soccer,” though with the current spread of popularity for the game in the United States, the term “football” for it has become better known.

A man looks back to the youthful days of his life.  He is (at least in memory) on the playing field, and tells us that twice every week, all through the winter, he stood on this spot as goalkeeper (shortened to “goalie” or “keeper”).  But he was an unhappy young man, melancholy, and in those days football then was a way of fighting his sorrow, of keeping the sadness and depression out of mind.  It was a common belief in British schools of that time that sports were an important part of male education, helping to provide, as the Latin saying goes, mens sana in corpore sano — “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”

footballgoalie

He does not tell us why he was sad.  Housman himself was homosexual, and there would have been reason enough for a person so inclined to sorrow in those days when it was spoken of in whispers, the so-called “love that dare not speak its name.”  Not only was there the possibility of being a social outcast if word got out, but also there were sobering legal penalties.  So Housman knew well what it meant to be “acquainted with grief,” as the biblical expression puts it.

But speaking more generally, there are many reasons why a young man might be given to sadness and depression, with the reasons varying as widely as the individuals.  And one thinks too of William Blake’s notion that some are just “born that way,” recalling these lines from his poem Auguries of Innocence:

Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

So we know our young man was deeply unhappy, and used football as an escape all through the winter days.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

The season moves on to spring.  It is the month of May, and the seasonal sport now played is that quintessentially British game, cricket.  Our unhappy young man marches out to the rectangular “pitch,” that is, the playing area.  He has his flat cricket bat, and wears the customary knee pads.  He stands at the wicket.  In cricket there are two wickets, one at each end of the pitch, consisting of three short upright sticks in the ground topped with two loose crosspieces called “bails.”

So as he marches out with bat and pads to the wicket, he invites the reader to see him as he was then, a “son of grief,” that is, a very sad young man, trying again to keep his sorrow temporarily at bay, “trying to be glad.”

Housman uses the football season (approximately autumn to spring) and the cricket season (approximately spring to autumn) to show us how the speaker in the poem attempted to deal with his unhappiness throughout the year.

And now Housman comes to the summation of the matter, looking back on the youthful attempt of the lad to fight sorrow through sport:

Try I will; no harm in trying: 
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

As in those young days of playing sports, the speaker of the poem says, “Try I will.”  He will keep trying to keep sadness off, because trying certainly does no harm, though success may be limited.  Because after all, he says, it is a wonder how little mirth, how little enjoyment in life, keeps a person from just giving up on living entirely, and becoming merely dead bones lying in the earth.

Housman frequently turns to this kind of bittersweet paradox.  It takes but little pleasure in life to make a person want to keep living, and the speaker of the poem wonders that it takes so little — just the escape in a game of football, or in a game of cricket.  Or, of course, in any number of other things.

It reminds one of Woody Allen’s comments at the end of the movie Annie Hall:

“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’  Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

That is the “glass half empty” approach.  But there is also the “glass half full” approach that we find in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  The Spirit of Christmas Past takes miserly Ebenezer Scrooge back in time to a Christmas Party, small in cost, but rich in mirth, held by his kindly first employer, Mr. Fezziwig.  The Spirit comments on the party Fezziwig has provided, and thus evokes in Scrooge significant thoughts on the way Fezziwig treated his fellow humans:

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”
“Small!” echoed Scrooge.
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,
“Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

I hope in this holiday season. as the Midwinter Solstice approaches, that we may all try, in whatever way, to make the burdens on our fellow humans a little lighter, at minimum no more severe.  And as Housman wrote, “…no harm in trying.”

Here again is the whole poem, at one go:

Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.

Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.

Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.

 

David

 

 

 

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5 Responses to NO HARM IN TRYING: HOUSMAN’S TWICE A WEEK THE WINTER THOROUGH

  1. Ash says:

    Some of us humans will try to reduce the burdens of others but there is such a mood in the world just now that hope is almost a dream only. Sorry for being so depressing.

  2. anoop says:

    Nice way of presenting the poem.

  3. emma ross says:

    This presenting of poem was so amazing I got an A in my test….. loved it………keep up the good work.

  4. hanabasheer says:

    It’s an amazing summary of the poem…you did a clear justification to the poem.

  5. mehrin yusuf says:

    Love the justification of the poem…really helped me a lot in my school project and in test..keep up the good work.

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