HUMAN LIFE, HUMAN NATURE: HOUSMAN’S “MAY”

Here is another poem by Alfred Edward Housman.  I will discuss it part by part:

MAY

Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.

The speaker sees “the morning blink,” that is, the sun rising.  And now that the sun is up, he too must rise from his bed, wash his face, put on his clothes, and have breakfast.  And he must begin human daily life, which is “to look at things and talk and think and work.”  And, he adds, “God knows why” — meaning he has no idea why humans must do as they do, day after day.  He sees no point in it all.

Continuing this latter thought, he says:

Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
And all’s to do again.

He is tired of the seemingly meaningless daily round of human existence.  After day after day after day of going through the cycle of washing and dressing, what does he have to show for it?  This is particularly the lot of people who work hard for a living, yet seem unable to get ahead, to derive any significant benefit from their round of labor beyond staying alive.  “What’s to show for all my pain?” he asks.  He feels he would be better just staying in bed and getting some rest, because in spite of the “ten thousand times” he has done his daily best, he must still continue with the same tiresome actions, over and over — “all’s to do again” — it never ends.  That has somewhat the same feeling as these line’s from Tennyson’s “The Lotos-eaters”:

Instead, it has more the feeling of  these lines from Tennysons “The Lotos-eaters”:

Why are we weigh’d upon with heaviness,
And utterly consumed with sharp distress,
While all things else have rest from weariness?
All things have rest: why should we toil alone,
We only toil, who are the first of things,
And make perpetual moan,
Still from one sorrow to another thrown:
Nor ever fold our wings,
And cease from wanderings,
Nor steep our brows in slumber’s holy balm;
Nor harken what the inner spirit sings,
“There is no joy but calm!”
Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?

Still, when he sees the beauty of morning, he is inspired:

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

How beautiful the morning beams of sunlight are, as they move across the fields and reflect from grass and leaf.  The skies “laugh out with glee,” that is, Nature as seen in the bright sun rising in the eastern sky — “up from the eastern sea” like a bird set free” — seems to make the morning and the prospect of the following day seem delightful — at least at first.

Today I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

The writer feels empowered by this sense of beauty and delight, and makes a resolution.  Today, he decides, he will be strong in his will.  He won’t give in to doing things he should not do, wasting time on them.  He will no more squander life, he says.  And all those days he has let pass without making good use of them — well, he will bring them back now by doing his utmost to keep this resolution for changing his life and his ways.

But…

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

Now we have reached the end of the day that began so brightly, with so much hope and resolution in the writer.  His mood, however, has changed.  Day is ending.  He sees the sun setting into the west, “ensanguining the skies,” that is, turning them reddish, like the color of blood.  The sun and the day seem to sink heavily into the West, because that is now the emotional state he is in — and the light of day dies away.

So that day is gone, never to be recovered or seen or felt or heard again.  It is “past touch and sight and sound”; it is over, ended.  And, the writer concludes, “How hopeless under ground falls the remorseful day.”  From this we know that things did not go as planned.  The delight of morning faded away.  His resolution to do better, not to give in to what should not be done was not kept.  And all he is left with is this feeling of remorse, as the sun and the day with it sink “under ground” — that is, below the horizon.  But by saying “under ground,” he also gives us a sense of death and burial, as though all hope is lost.

It is not a cheerful poem.  It reminds me of those poor communities where the inhabitants must rise and toil in the same monotonous round of labor, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until death.  And many of them try to find a little relief in escapes such as alcohol, which only makes things worse.  Numbers of them must have made morning resolutions to give up such bad habits, but found the day ending only with shame and failure.

Though this poem is not specifically about addictions such as alcoholism, one may certainly apply it to such situations.  That is why I have the greatest respect for alcoholics and other addicts of one kind or another, who struggle each day with resolutions to end their habits, and even when they fail, they continue on with the struggle, and do not let despair overcome them.

Of course it may be applied to lesser difficulties as well, such as those people who have great plans of one kind or another, but let each day pass without beginning to put them into effect.  Many people settle for the monotonous daily round, letting each day end without making full use of the opportunities the morning has brought them.  Thought of that way, this poem by Housman acts as a cautionary warning.  Carpe diem — seize the day.  It will not come again.

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4 thoughts on “HUMAN LIFE, HUMAN NATURE: HOUSMAN’S “MAY”

  1. I enjoyed your exploration of this poem, David. Now we’re living in Shrewsbury, I have looked again at Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad”, and am starting to appreciate his art. This is a powerful poem that you’ve chosen to post about. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Best wishes, Michael

  2. lmarshal

    Thanks for a little “kick in the pants.” After several weeks of rainy grey, I found myself feeling stuck in a rut of sameness (fixing food, washing dishes, doing laundry, running the sweeper, ho hum). Today is lovely and sunny, but even then the cloud of sameness may bring me down. Then I resolve to see the glory of that sameness (“I get to do these jobs again for another day. Hurray!”). It works. Thanks for the poem.

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