A reader asked me to discuss “March” — The tenth poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s classic anthology A Shropshire Lad. March is now past, but better late than never. So here it is, discussed stanza by stanza.
The sun at noon to higher air,
Unharnessing the silver Pair
That late before his chariot swam,
Rides on the gold wool of the Ram.
That might at first seem cryptic, but Housman is referring to the signs of the zodiac that mark the change of the seasons. Housman was a teacher of the Latin and Greek classics, so well familiar with mythology. The sun is of course the sun god Apollo, who rides his solar chariot drawn by four horses across the sky each day. “Unharnessing the silver Pair” means that the chariot of the sun is moving chronologically out of the sign Pisces (two silver fish). The sun moves through the constellation Pisces from February 19th to March 20th. Then it enters the sign of the Ram, Aries, from March 21 to April 19th. The Spring Equinox (Vernal Equinox) — that time when the length of day and night is equal — happens yearly on either March 19th, 20th, or 21st in the Northern Hemisphere. So Housman is setting this poem at that time of change — the Spring Equinox, when the sun moves from the silver Fish sign Pisces to the golden-wooled Ram sign Aries. Now in one calendrical system, the Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of spring. So to make all this short, the first stanza is telling us that in March, Nature has moved from winter to spring.
So braver notes the storm-cock sings
To start the rusted wheel of things,
And brutes in field and brutes in pen
Leap that the world goes round again.
Stormcock is a common English name for the bird called mistle thrush. It is called “stormcock” because it even sings in windy, rainy weather. And March in the British Isles is often windy and rainy. That it sings “braver notes” means that it sings more boldly and confidently with the coming of spring. And with the spring singing of the stormcock, “the rusted wheel of things” is started, meaning all the workings of Nature that were stilled in winter now become active with the spring. This is seen in the leaping of “brutes” — that is, animals — in the fields and in pens, a sign of the increasing activity of spring. This is much in keeping with the notion of Yin and Yang, with Yin being the stillness of winter that begins in the fall, and Yang the active element that increases in the spring. Think of the leaping of lambs in spring. The leaping and gamboling of animals showed that now that spring has come, “the world goes round again” — Nature has once more become active.
The boys are up the woods with day
To fetch the daffodils away,
And home at noonday from the hills
They bring no dearth of daffodils.
The village lads go in the morning to the wooded hills to gather wild daffodils, that golden flower that commonly begins to bloom in March in Britain. At noon they come back bringing “no dearth” of the flowers, meaning they return with a great many daffodils.
Afield for palms the girls repair,
And sure enough the palms are there,
And each will find by hedge or pond
Her waving silver-tufted wand.
As the boys are out gathering daffodils, the girls are out to gather “palms.” That is a folk term for the branches of the willow with the grey, cat-fur soft catkins — “pussy willows.” They were called “palms” in British country lore because the grey branches of pussy willow were brought into churches on Palm Sunday to represent the palm branches used in the biblical story of the welcoming of Jesus into Jerusalem by crowds waving palm branches. And there being no palms in the English countryside, pussy willows were used for this spring celebration instead. So each girl, whether she found it by a hedgerow or by a pond, would come back with a grey pussy willow branch — another sign of spring in Britain.
In farm and field through all the shire
The eye beholds the heart’s desire;
Ah, let not only mine be vain,
For lovers should be loved again.
As Tennyson wrote in “Locksley Hall,” “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” So the young in rural England, seeing spring come and the return of activity to farm and field and all through Shropshire — “behold the hearts desire.” This means not only that they see the return of the beauty of spring, but also that the boys look with desire on those with whom they have become enamored. And Housman finishes the poem by saying, “Ah, let not only mine be vain,” meaning “Don’t let me be the only person who desires the person I love, and not have that person love me in return.” Why? Because those who love should, we cannot help feeling, be loved in return, so that their love be not in vain.
That, then, is Housman’s “March.” It is in reality a simple spring poem reflecting the joy of the season, the awakening of love, and the desire to be loved by the object of one’s affections.