WHY DID I WAKE? WHEN SHALL I SLEEP AGAIN?

In the past few days,  have noticed a great many people coming to this site for my discussion of the “Days of Wine and Roses” poem by Ernest Dowson.  In it, he discusses the brevity of life, which appears as though out of a dream, and is soon gone again.

Musing on that poem and its theme, these lines popped into my head:

Oh, why did I awake?  When shall I sleep again?

They are from poem #XLVIII  (48)– “Be Still My Soul, Be Still” — In Alfred Edward Housman’s great anthology A Shropshire Lad.  Let’s examine it stanza by stanza:

Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle,
Earth and high heaven are fixt of old and founded strong.
Think rather,– call to thought, if now you grieve a little,
The days when we had rest, O soul, for they were long.

The poet is telling his soul — his mind in modern terms — his “self” — to calm down.  “The arms you bear are brittle” — meaning his “weapons” — his resources to struggle against the problems of life — are fragile, weak and easily broken, while earth and sky — the universe in which we live — was “fixt [fixed, set firmly in place] of old”  — made to be what it is long ago — and was made strong, and will not become other than it is.  His feeble resources will not change it.  So instead of fretting about it all, he tells himself that he should instead be calm and think of “the days when we had rest,” that is, the time before he was born, when he was still free of all earth’s troubles.  And those days of his non-existence were long, far longer than the brief period of grief allotted to him in his life here on earth.

Men loved unkindness then, but lightless in the quarry
I slept and saw not; tears fell down, I did not mourn;
Sweat ran and blood sprang out and I was never sorry:
Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.

Before he was born, men loved unkindness as they do now, but then he was “lightless in the quarry,”  he was still not removed from the darkness of non-existence.  “Lightless” means without consciousness.  “The quarry” here means that he was not yet “cut out of the rock” to become an individual, conscious entity.   So before birth he “slept and saw not.”  Living people wept over their sorrows, but he did not then mourn.  People sweated and bled, but he was never sorry, because he was not yet conscious, not yet in the world  “Then it was well with me, in days ere I was born.”  “Ere” is an old word meaning “before.”

Now, and I muse for why and never find the reason,
I pace the earth, and drink the air, and feel the sun.
Be still, be still, my soul; it is but for a season:
Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.

Now the poet muses over the matter of life and death.  He thinks about it all, but can find no reason for it for why he was born.  But the fact is that for the present, he walks the earth, breathes, feels the sun on his skin.  He exists.  So he again tells his soul to be still, because this existence is only “for a season,” for a short time.  He tells it to be patient in spite of the injustices of life and the cruelty of man:  “Let us endure an hour and see injustice done.”  “An hour” here means the relatively brief time left in his life.  He tells himself, that we must just endure life as it is, with all its flaws, including the cruelty of man to man, and hold on, because it will soon be over.  Life will come to its natural end.

Ay, look: high heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation;
All thoughts to rive the heart are here, and all are vain:
Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation–
Oh why did I awake? when shall I sleep again?

Yes, he says, look at the human condition.  Heaven and earth “ail from the prime foundation,” that is, there is an inherent flaw, a suffering built into the universe from its very origin.  All the thoughts that “rive the heart,” (“rive” means “split”) that tear us apart emotionally — are all here in our world — in life — but they are all vain — empty — they end ultimately in nothing.  These emotions we suffer — horror and scorn, hate and indignation — they only move  the poet to ask the fundamental questions:  “Oh why did I awake?  When shall I sleep again?  That is, why was I born, made conscious — and when shall I return to the sleep of death and unconsciousness?

You may recall  the Housman poem discussed earlier, On Wenlock Edge.  In it, he discusses the same topic, though in a wider view.  He tells us that

The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The simple fact of being born makes one subject to the pain of emotions, to suffering.  And in that earlier poem, as in this one, Housman says,

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon. 

The gale of human life and emotions, however strong and turbulent, will soon be gone.  One returns to the nothingness out of which one came,  back to the “quarry” of unconsciousness, and

To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon. 

Then all the wind of emotion that troubles us is ended.  This was Hopkins’ view.  It was also the view of Ernest Dowson:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
   Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
   We pass the gate.

Buddhism would agree that suffering is inherent in the structure of the universe, of existence.  Humans are plagued by endless desire and aversion.  But, it would add, dying does not end them, because this life is only one small link in a long chain of existence.  We have all heard stories of children who claim to recall previous lives.  So Buddhism offers a different solution — coming to know the true nature of that which we call the “self,” that which suffers, which ultimately it is said, is found to have no real existence, and when that happens, suffering ends.

In Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, we find stanzas that express much the same sense of the brevity and vanity of life that we find in Housman, for example:

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.

And as for the meaning of life, the reason for birth, and what comes before and after it, the answer given in the Rubaiyat is this:

There was a Door to which I found no Key:
There was a Veil through which I could not see:
Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There seemed — and then no more of Thee and Me.

 

David

 

 

 

HOUSMAN’S FLOWERS: I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED

Today we will take a look at poem # 63 — LXIII in Latin numerals — the last poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad:

I HOED AND TRENCHED AND WEEDED

I hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not the wear.

The writer has been a diligent grower of flowers, hoeing them, keeping them free of weeds, and trenching (mixing the lower and upper levels of soil).  The result is blooming flowers that he gathers and takes to the fair to sell.  An English fair, in those days, was a place where one could buy all kinds of things, as well as see various simple entertainments.  But his efforts to sell his flowers failed.  People paid no attention to them, because they were not the popular color to wear.  So he took them back home, where they will wilt unappreciated.

So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.

Having found the locals had no interest in what he had grown, he decides to take the flower seeds and sow them — scatter them to grow and flower — “up and down,” meaning in all kinds of random places, all over the countryside.  Places where young men are likely to happen upon them in future springs and summers, after the writer is dead and buried and forgotten.

Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower
The solitary stars,

Some of the seeds he scatters will of course be eaten by the birds.  And some will be ruined by the bad weather of the season.  But nonetheless, here and there some of them will sprout and flourish, and so here and there will be flowers growing alone — “solitary stars.”

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

Every year the flowers grown from his scattered seeds will bloom again in the country fields, when spring with its tender leaves appears.   And other lads who have similarly not had good fortune in life will pluck the blossoms, and wear them on hat or pinned to the shirt or coat,  when the writer who planted them has long been dead and gone.

Now we can understand this poem on two levels.  First, it is the simple tale of a country lad who fails in what he tries, but nonetheless thinks what he has grown is worthwhile, so he scatters the seeds abroad so that they may flower for other fellows like him to find and enjoy in future years.

The second level is that of the writer himself.  He carefully composes his various poems (his flowers), but finds they do not seem to be popular with those around him.  They just don’t “get” what he creates.  Nonetheless, he does not give up, but scatters his verses out where the public can see them (has them published), so that those few young men who will understand the writer and share his sentiments will find them and appreciate (“wear”) them.

As you can see, this poem is a kind of summary and finale to A Shropshire Lad.  And Housman was right.  Those “luckless lads” do find and appreciate the beautiful results of his efforts — the scattered flowers of his poetry — these many long years after his death.

Housman, of course, was quite familiar with the King James Bible.  He once remarked “I think I should describe myself as a High-Church atheist,” meaning he did the dutiful formalities of a normal Englishman in his relations with the national Anglican Church, while not at all believing its doctrines and dogmas.  It is not surprising that we find in this poem an echo of Matthew 13:3-9:

And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;  And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:  Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:  And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.  And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:  But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

David

DUST IN THE WIND: HOUSMAN’S “FROM FAR, FROM EVE AND MORNING”

Today we will return to Alfred Edward Housman’s anthology A Shropshire Lad, though we will skip ahead for now to poem #32, which is titled

FROM FAR, FROM EVE AND MORNING

From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

In stanza one, the speaker tells us that the elements that compose him, body and mind, came together from all directions and were “knit together” into an individual human life.  Though Housman is speaking poetically, we can say that scientifically there is much to what he says.  We are all “knit together” from food that comes from the earth, grown in various places, from water, from the air we breath, from sunlight, and from all the elements that compose our bodies and those of our ancestors, which scientists tell us, are ultimately made of the dust of exploding stars.

The speaker says all that makes him comes “from far, from eve and morning,” meaning from East and West, from where the sun sets and where the sun rises, from light and from shadow.  It all somehow “blew together” into an identity, a sense of self.  And so, seemingly out of nothing, “Here am I.”

When he speaks of “yon twelve-winded sky,” we see Housman’s classical background.  The modern  “compass rose” that backs a compass needle shows eight, sixteen, or thirty-two points or directions.  But Housman is using the old “wind” directions of the classical Greek and Roman world, which has twelve winds of different directions blowing in the sky, as in this illustration.  The wind names in blue are Greek, in red Latin.  Houseman knew both languages.

Now that the elements have “blown together” into an individual, that individual speaks to another:

Now — for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart —
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

“I am only  pausing here for a short time,” he says,” before I dissolve and return to the elements;  so connect with me quickly — take my hand and tell me what you think and feel.”  He likens the brief span of human life to the taking of a breath.  That is in harmony with his mention of the twelve winds, and of the materials of his life being “blown hither” (blown here); and the breath  is also a very ancient symbol of life and the spirit.  So he is saying, “Quick, tell me your hopes and fears while we have this brief moment of life together, do not miss the opportunity, because soon I will be gone again.”

He tells his temporary companion,

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

He is saying, “If you open yourself to me, I will respond; tell me what you need, how I can help you in this life.  But be quick about it, because soon it will all be over and the ingredients that make up my being will disperse, and I will be gone.”

It is not difficult to see that the point of this simple but well-written poem is that life is very short, and we have only a brief opportunity in which to relate to  and help another being, and then we will be gone again.   Just as we are blown together from all directions of the winds, so we will fall apart again and disperse back into the universe.  It reminds me of  a line from the song “Pastures of Plenty”:

I come with the dust, and I’m gone with the wind.”

But we can go farther back to Fitzgerald’s rendition of a quatrain from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
Nor Whence, like Water, willy-nilly flowing; 
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not Whither, willy-nilly blowing.

David

NOT LONG TO STAY: HOUSMAN’S LENTEN LILY

If you read the earlier posting on Alfred Edward Housman’s poem Loveliest of Trees, you will notice a similarity of spirit with today’s poem, which is the 29th in his collection A Shropshire Lad. Also a “spring” poem, it is called The Lent Lily, or from the first line, “‘Tis spring; come out to ramble.”

“Lent Lily” is another name for the wild daffodil that grows in the British Isles and is, along with the leek, a plant symbol of Wales. It is the daffodil that Wordsworth wrote of in his “I wandered lonely as a cloud” poem. Its alternate name “Lent/Lenten Lily” comes from the belief, often fact, that the daffodil would go through its blooming between Ash Wednesday and Easter, by which time the flowers would have faded.

The Lent Lily


’Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.

wildprimrose

The speaker gives an invitation: spring is here, so come out and ramble through the hilly brakes. A brake, as used here, means bushes and thickets. He tells us that the reason for rambling the brakes is that in them, under the thorns and brambles (both prickly plants) about the “hollow ground,” one can find wild primroses growing.  “Hollow ground” is an old term for a narrow dale or valley, though it can also mean a cemetery — “hallowed/hollow ground.”

And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

anemonenemorosa

In addition to wild primroses, one can also find the simple, pale-white windflower (Anemone nemorosa) on its delicate stalk that nods to and fro as the still chilly winds of spring blow; and there is the Lenten Lily — the daffodil — that traditionally fades and dies by Easter Sunday

And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,

In the countryside the girls used to “go maying,” to gather together to celebrate the arrival of May with garlands and with dancing and celebration. So the speaker tells us that up until as late as May, one may still find the primroses blooming, and still find the windflowers dancing in the wind — but one will no longer find the daffodils in bloom. Therefore, he advises,

Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring’s array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.

“To sally” means to leap suddenly forth, to bound forth or dance,” but here the speaker means simply to go energetically out into Nature, to advance upon the wildflowers with which spring is arrayed (clothed, ornamented), and to pick the daffodils blooming in the hills and valleys before they are faded and gone.

This is a less strong version of the lines from Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees”:

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

It is the same sense of transience and the consequent underlying sadness of things that we find in Japanese hokku about cherry blossoms, which also call to mind the brevity of life and how quickly beauty passes.

Note the irony in the repetition that the daffodil “dies on Easter day.” Easter, of course, is the traditional Christian day of resurrection, of supposed new life; but for Housman, who was an agnostic, it is not that at all, but rather a day on which another beautiful thing dies.

David

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.’

WHEN THE LAD FOR LONGING SIGHS

The next poem from A Shropshire Lad relates in spirit to the previous posting. Again we have the subject of a young man (a lad) and a young woman (maid) — When the Lad For Longing Sighs:

When the lad for longing sighs,
Mute and dull of cheer and pale,
If at death’s own door he lies,
Maiden, you can heal his ail.

When the young man sighs because of his longing for a girl, when he goes about silent and unhappy and pale, and if he becomes so “lovesick” that it seems to affect his health and make him very ill, then you, young woman, can cure him.

Lovers’ ills are all to buy:
The wan look, the hollow tone,
The hung head, the sunken eye,
You can have them for your own.

All of the symptoms of lovesickness are a young woman’s for the taking. If she regards them seriously, and takes them on as HER responsibility, then they become hers, just as if she bought them off a peddlar’s cart or at a booth in a country fair.

Buy them, buy them: eve and morn
Lovers’ ills are all to sell.
Then you can lie down forlorn;
But the lover will be well.

Buy them! the speaker advises (but his meaning is just the opposite); no matter the time of day, one can have all a young man’s troubles as one’s own responsibility. They are yours to accept (“buy”). But be aware that if you buy what is being sold, then you can lie down forlorn, but the young man will be cured of his lovesickness.

What does all this mean? Well, men know that a good deal of the interest in a romance lies in the chase; if the young man does not get what he wants, he feels despondent and downcast (or sometimes just pretends to be). But if he does get what he wants, if the girl gives in to him, then she has cured him of his problem, and he is free to go on to look for someone new to chase, while she is left alone to deal with and suffer the consequences. That is one possible application, though no doubt you can think of several others. Housman has left the details deliberately vague.

The sum of the poem, however, is that the girl who takes a young man’s lovesickness as HER responsibility, is asking for trouble, one way or another. In Housman’s time this could mean the ruin of her reputation and her life if she were seduced and abandoned, or possibly being trapped in an unhappy marriage with someone she did not love.

In either case, HIS problem becomes HER problem.

It is, of course, a rather cynical view of male-female romance, but a view based on events all too common both then and now.

David

– – –

WHEN the lad for longing sighs,
Mute and dull of cheer and pale,
If at death’s own door he lies,
Maiden, you can heal his ail.

Lovers’ ills are all to buy:
The wan look, the hollow tone,
The hung head, the sunken eye,
You can have them for your own.

Buy them, buy them: eve and morn
Lovers’ ills are all to sell.
Then you can lie down forlorn;
But the lover will be well.

OH SEE HOW THICK THE GOLDCUP FLOWERS: A SMART GIRL MAKES HER ESCAPE

Today’s poem from Alfred Edward Housman’s A Shropshire Lad is a dialogue between a young man and, it turns out, a rather clever girl:

buttercups


OH SEE HOW THICK THE GOLDCUP FLOWERS

Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers
Are lying in field and lane,
With dandelions to tell the hours
That never are told again.
Oh may I squire you round the meads
And pick you posies gay?
—’Twill do no harm to take my arm.
’You may, young man, you may.’

“Goldcup” is here a common name for wild buttercups, a kind of ranunculus — simple country flowers. The speaker points out how thickly the buttercups are blooming (it is spring) in the fields and along the country lanes. And along with the buttercups, there are plenty of yellow dandelions to “tell the hours” that once past, will never return. By “tell the hours,” he means count the hours, and that refers to a folk practice: one “tells time” by seeing how many puffs of breath it takes to blow away the fluffy seeds on a dandelion head. The seeds stick to the head more firmly as the hours progress to noon, and after noon they begin to grow looser again. That is the principle behind it, which is well explained at this site:

https://madvice.wordpress.com/2009/11/25/puff-time/

Ah, spring was sent for lass and lad,
’Tis now the blood runs gold,
And man and maid had best be glad
Before the world is old.
What flowers to-day may flower to-morrow,
But never as good as new.
—Suppose I wound my arm right round—
‘’Tis true, young man, ’tis true.’

It is a very old tradition that spring is the time for “lass and lad,” a time for young romance (and reproduction); and it is in youth, the springtime of life, that “the blood runs gold” — it is a golden precious time. So the smooth-tongued young man with seduction on his mind says that it is time to be happy “before the world is old,” meaning both before spring passes and before one grows old. He adds that what blooms today (now) may bloom tomorrow (in the future) as well, but it will never again be just as wonderful as it is right now. He is trying to convince the young woman to seize the moment, and he makes his move by saying “Suppose I wound my arm around your waist….”

The young woman agrees that there is truth in what he says.

Now, having made his first move, the young man pleads sincerity, trying to convince her that he is not like the other lads:

Some lads there are, ’tis shame to say,
That only court to thieve,
And once they bear the bloom away
’Tis little enough they leave.
Then keep your heart for men like me
And safe from trustless chaps.
My love is true and all for you.
‘Perhaps, young man, perhaps.’

“Court” is a term seldom heard these days, but it means the effort to grow a romance by “going out” with another. Here the young man says that unfortunately, there are other young men who “only court to thieve,” that is, they only want to have sex with the girl, stealing her chastity, and once they have accomplished that and go (“bear the bloom away”), they leave the girl with a ruined reputation, which in those days was quite serious. So our young man tells the young woman, “keep your heart for men like me,” because I am not like those untrustworthy (“trustless”) fellows; I really love you, and only you.”

The young woman is unconvinced; she merely says “Perhaps.” Maybe what you say is true, maybe it is not.

Oh, look in my eyes then, can you doubt?
—Why, ’tis a mile from town.
How green the grass is all about!
We might as well sit down.
—Ah, life, what is it but a flower?
Why must true lovers sigh?
Be kind, have pity, my own, my pretty,—
‘Good-bye, young man, good-bye.’

Our young man senses she is not buying his line; so he pleads his case more enthusiastically. He tells her to look in his eyes and see the honesty there. How can she doubt those eyes? And sensing that he had better move fast, he remarks that they are a mile from town — “Well, how far we have come! The grass is so green here away from prying eyes; why don’t we sit down here in the fields? Life, after all, is just a flower that blooms and quickly withers, so why don’t we make the most of it? Why do you make me, a true lover, sigh in longing for you? Won’t you have pity on me and be kind?”

At this point the clever girl sees quite well where he is trying to lead her, and into what trouble he may get her. So rather than trying to argue the matter, she shows her spirit and her wisdom by telling him bluntly, “Good-bye, young man, good-bye,” and there she leaves him. Smart girl!

Housman said that one of the influences on his poetry was William Shakespeare, and we can see that easily in today’s poem, which we may liken (aside from the ironic turn) to Shakespeare’s poem It Was a Lover And His Lass. Note particularly the lines:

This carol they began that hour…How that life was but a flower….”

It was a Lover and his Lass

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
These pretty country folks would lie,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

This carol they began that hour,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that life was but a flower
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And, therefore, take the present time
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
For love is crown`d with the prime
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

David

– – – –

Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers
Are lying in field and lane,
With dandelions to tell the hours
That never are told again.
Oh may I squire you round the meads
And pick you posies gay?
—’Twill do no harm to take my arm.
’You may, young man, you may.’

Ah, spring was sent for lass and lad,
’Tis now the blood runs gold,
And man and maid had best be glad
Before the world is old.
What flowers to-day may flower to-morrow,
But never as good as new.
—Suppose I wound my arm right round—
‘’Tis true, young man, ’tis true.’

Some lads there are, ’tis shame to say,
That only court to thieve,
And once they bear the bloom away
’Tis little enough they leave.
Then keep your heart for men like me
And safe from trustless chaps.
My love is true and all for you.
‘Perhaps, young man, perhaps.’

Oh, look in my eyes then, can you doubt?
—Why, ’tis a mile from town.
How green the grass is all about!
We might as well sit down.
—Ah, life, what is it but a flower?
Why must true lovers sigh?
Be kind, have pity, my own, my pretty,—
‘Good-bye, young man, good-bye.’

TILL LUDLOW TOWER IS DOWN: HOUSMAN’S RECRUIT

Yesterday I discussed the first poem in Alfred Edward Housman’s A Shropshire Lad collection. It was largely a remembrance of Shropshire men who died in the British military. The next poem in the collection, Loveliest of Trees, was discussed on this site quite some time ago, so today we shall proceed to The Recruit, which has much in common with the first poem. It is not at all difficult, but is a simple farewell to “one of the lads” who has joined the military:

Leave your home behind, lad,
And reach your friends your hand,
And go, and luck go with you
While Ludlow tower shall stand.

The first stanza is the parting. A young man is leaving his home, shaking the hands of his friends, and with him go the best wishes of the narrator, wishes for good luck “While Ludlow tower shall stand.”
We are of course in Shropshire, in the vicinity of “Ludlow tower,” which is in the town of Ludlow. Ludlow lies some distance southeast of Wenlock Edge (see the posting On Wenlock Edge), and a shorter distance southwest of Titterstone Clee (see the posting Fire on the Heights).

“Ludlow tower” is the bell tower of the very old Church of St. Laurence (founded in Norman times, rebuilt in 1199), which in Housman’s time was a high landmark seen from some distance. Here it is a symbol of endurance, applied to the loyalty of friends.

LUDLOW TOWER
LUDLOW TOWER

The next three stanzas are best discussed together:

Oh, come you home of Sunday
When Ludlow streets are still
And Ludlow bells are calling
To farm and lane and mill,

Or come you home of Monday
When Ludlow market hums
And Ludlow chimes are playing
‘The conquering hero comes,’

Come you home a hero,
Or come not home at all,
The lads you leave will mind you
Till Ludlow tower shall fall.

“Of Sunday” is an old way of saying “on Sunday.” People used to say things like “I like to read of a Sunday,” meaning “I like to read on Sundays.”

Sunday, in Housman’s time, was a quiet day of rest when the bells of churches rang to call people to worship. The streets of the town were thus largely still. On Monday the week’s labors resumed, and the outdoor market in Ludlow would be busy with sellers and buyers of farm produce and such things, and if the soldier would return on that day, the chimes in the tower would play “The Conquering Hero Comes.” “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” was a tune from a longer work by the composer George Frideric Handel titled Judas Maccabeus. It became a popular melody for important events in the 19th century. Here it signifies that the recruit would have returned “victorious” from the wars. The St. Laurence bells, aside from use by bellringers, were set by clock to play a different tune depending on the day of the week.

The third stanza recognizes the possibility that the recruit may not return at all, having been killed by battle or disease in some foreign land. But whether the recruit returns as a hero or whether he does not return at all, the Shropshire lads who are his friends will be faithful to his memory “Till Ludlow tower shall fall.” The poet does not say “forever,” because nothing is forever, but he uses Ludlow Tower, as we have seen as a symbol of long, long endurance and thus remembrance.

And you will list the bugle
That blows in lands of morn,
And make the foes of England
Be sorry you were born.

The narrator, as his friend leaves, looks ahead to what the recruit’s life will be. He will hear the bugle blown to call the soldiers “in lands of morn,” meaning in the far East, in places like India. He calls them “lands of morn” because the sun rises in the East. An old German term for the East was the Morgenland — the “Morning Land.” The recruit will be a fierce and brave fighter who will “make the foes of England,” England’s enemies, sorry that he was ever born, because of his prowess as a soldier.

But again, there is the possibility of death:

And you till trump of doomsday
On lands of morn may lie,
And make the hearts of comrades
Be heavy where you die.

The “trump of doomsday” is borrowed from the Bible. It is the trumpet blown by an angel to announce the ending of the world and the day of the Last Judgment (“Doomsday”), when all the dead are awakened and rise from their graves to be judged. The famous old 11th-century land and taxation census of England and Wales called the Domesday Book (“Domesday” is the older spelling) came to be so called because the taxpayers listed in it were thought as unlikely to evade paying their taxes as people were to evade their final sentences on the Day of Judgment, when the book recording the deeds of all humans was opened.

The narrator is saying that the recruit may be killed in the eastern lands, making his military companions sorrowful, and may lie in his foreign grave until the end of all things.

And now the narrator returns to a variation on lines in the first and third stanzas:

Leave your home behind you,
Your friends by field and town:
Oh, town and field will mind you
Till Ludlow tower is down.

This is the final parting word: As you leave your home behind, and leave your friends from town and country, those friends will “mind” you — that is, they will remember and not forget you — “Till Ludlow tower is down.” Their faithful remembrance will endure as long as Ludlow tower stands. This is, of course, hyperbole (exaggeration for effect), but it is sincere hyperbole to show lifelong, enduring loyalty.

(Courtesy of John Cartwright)

Here is an old pen and ink sketch from about 1909 by W. M. Meredith showing Broad Street in Ludlow as it was. In the background at right the top of “Ludlow tower” is visible.

BroadStreetLudlow

The ashes of A. E. Housman are buried on the grounds of St. Laurence Church in Ludlow.

(Courtesy of John Cartwright)

Here is a closer view of the memorial plaque:

(Courtesy of John Cartwright)

A reader has asked me to repeat each poem discussed at the end of the posting, so it may be read “all at one go” after the explanation. You will find it below.

David

COMMENTS:

ASH wrote:

The sketch by Meredith is wonderful as is the town of Ludlow today.

* * *

THE RECRUIT

Leave your home behind, lad,
And reach your friends your hand,
And go, and luck go with you
While Ludlow tower shall stand.

Oh, come you home of Sunday
When Ludlow streets are still
And Ludlow bells are calling
To farm and lane and mill,

Or come you home of Monday
When Ludlow market hums
And Ludlow chimes are playing
‘The conquering hero comes,’

Come you home a hero,
Or come not home at all,
The lads you leave will mind you
Till Ludlow tower shall fall.

And you will list the bugle
That blows in lands of morn,
And make the foes of England
Be sorry you were born.

And you till trump of doomsday
On lands of morn may lie,
And make the hearts of comrades
Be heavy where you die.

Leave your home behind you,
Your friends by field and town:
Oh, town and field will mind you
Till Ludlow tower is down.

FIRE ON THE HEIGHTS: HOUSMAN’S FROM CLEE TO HEAVEN

If you have seen the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, you may recall the rather thrilling scene when, in great need, a fire was lit atop a height to call far-off warriors to battle and to aid.  That fiery message was seen and transmitted in a sequence of fires lit from peak to peak across a great distance.

This was an ancient practice in Britain, and such a fire kindled on a height, called a beacon fire or simply a beacon, was also, at times over the years, lit in celebration.

That leads us to this first poem of the New Year and of Alfred Edward Housman’s landmark collection A Shropshire Lad.  It begins a series of poems with the simple title “1887.”

Why 1887?  Because that year, on the 20th and 21st of June, when Housman was nearly 28 years old, Britain celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria — 50 years of her reign.

Please keep in mind that the poems in A Shropshire Lad are very much poems of place, set in the landscape of the county of Shropshire, with its place names and landmarks. That does not mean Housman always used places with great literalness. He once said he had not spent much time in Shropshire. He uses Shropshire as a kind of topographical framework upon which he places his poetry. His home place was Bromsgrove, far to the east of Ludlow and across the border in Worcestershire, but Shropshire and its hills were for him his western horizon, and his Shropshire is both of the map and of the mind.

So here, part by part, we begin what I hope to be a discussion of the whole of A Shropshire Lad over time.  And we commence with From Clee to heaven the beacon burns:

From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.

There are two main Clee summits, both of which lie southeast of Wenlock Edge in Shropshire.  Brown Clee Hill is the higher, while Titterstone Clee lies farther south and closer to the town of Ludlow. Brown Clee itself has a higher and a lower prominence: that to the north is Abdon Burf, 1,790 feet, and that is where the beacon was lit to commemorate Queen Victoria; that to the south is Clee Burf, at 1,650 feet.

Housman tells us that the great beacon fire on Clee rises from hill to sky, clearly visible even from other shires.  Looking north and south, one sees other beacon fires on other heights, repeating the celebratory signal for Victoria’s Jubilee.

Look left, look right, the hills are bright, 
The dales are light between,
Because ’tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.

Looking to left and to right, one sees other hilltop beacon fires, and the villages in the dales — the lowlands between — are lit up as well, all in honor of 50 years of Victoria’s reign.  “That God has saved the Queen” repeats the old wish for good fortune for a British monarch, “God save the Queen!” (or King).  Thus fifty years have passed and the Queen’s reign over British territories remains secure.

So this seems, on the surface, to be a poem celebrating Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.  But is it?

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod, 
Lads, we ’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

This stanza may be a little confusing at first glance.  I will rearrange and rephrase it to make it clear.  The speaker in the poem is addressing his companions:

“Lads, we’ll remember the dead friends of ours who shared the work of saving the Queen with God; we’ll remember them now, when the beacon fires that they cannot see tower high above the soil of Shropshire, upon which they once walked.”  So he is speaking of dead soldiers, of Shropshire lads who fought to protect and maintain the British Empire.  To see how ironic the words “who share the work [of saving the Queen] with God” are, we must keep in mind that Housman is reported to have once said “I became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one.”  Whether one considers him an atheist or an agnostic, the irony in this poem is that it was not God who “saved the Queen,” it was the men who fought in her armies, as we shall see.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night 
Themselves they could not save.

The dead “Queen’s” soldiers, those who “saved” her and therefore are her “saviors” (American spelling), are not able to come home this Jubilee night to the Shropshire skies that “knit their heartstrings right,” (gave them the proper emotions and affections) and the Shropshire fields that “bred them brave” (gave birth and raised them to be brave).  The speaker wants to emphasize that the dead soldiers were the product of the land and air of Shropshire, and this shows a great pride in so being.  Though they “saved the Queen” (the Empire), they could not save themselves from death in that cause.

Anyone who studies English literature soon discovers the necessity of familiarity with the King James version of the Bible, which had a tremendous influence on the language.  In Housman’s time its phrases were easily recognized and often used.  So it is not difficult to see in

The saviours come not home to-night
Themselves they could not save

two biblical reflections: first the old practice of referring to Jesus — considered God as the second person of the Trinity — as “the Saviour,” and second, these words in reference to the crucifixion of Jesus from Mark 15:31:

“Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save.”

Of course in the poem it is the Shropshire soldiers who are the saviors who could not save themselves, not Jesus/God.

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.

Though it is Jubilee night in Shropshire, in Asia it is dawning.  There tombstones bear the names of dead soldiers from Shropshire.  And on the Nile River in Egypt, which makes its annual rise, soldiers from Shropshire are buried, soldiers born and raised where the Severn river flows.

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

Those celebrating Victoria’s jubilee in the farms and towns of Shropshire pledge their loyalty to her in a time of peace and set beacons afire in her honor, the same Queen those dead Shropshire lads served in her wars.  The beacons flame up and down Shropshire, the home for which the dead gave their lives.  The speaker is emphasizing the gulf, yet the link, the unity, between living and dead at this Jubilee time.

‘God save the Queen’ we living sing, 
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

The voices of all the living in Shropshire this Jubilee night sing the British anthem “God Save the Queen,” and their voices are heard from hill to hill.  And along with that great chorus are heard, in spirit, the voices of the dead “lads of the Fifty-Third.”  The 53rd was the Shropshire Regiment that in 1881 was united with the Buckinghamshire 85th Regiment to become part of the King’s Light Infantry, Shropshire Regiment. Under one name or the other, young Shropshire men fought in far-off places such as India, Egypt, the Sudan, and the 2nd Boer War.

Housman finishes with,

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you ’ve been, 
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.

The speaker (as we know) has no faith in God, so he says ironically, “Oh, God will save her,” don’t fear!  For as long as the men of Shropshire continue to be of the quality that they were and are, as long as they beget the same kind of sturdy and brave and loyal fellows to which their fathers gave birth, “God” will “save the Queen.”

So Housman is giving us another version, in poetry, of the old saying “God helps those who help themselves” — “Get you the sons your fathers got, and God will save the Queen.

Thus we find that instead of a poem in praise of Queen Victoria, this is actually a poem in memory of  Shropshire’s dead in far-flung wars — the preservers, representative of other “ordinary” British soldiers, of Britain and the Queen’s empire — and simultaneously a praise of the living people of Shropshire, who through their celebration and the lighting of the beacons felt and demonstrated their bond and unity in spirit with the dead.

It would be easy to read this poem, from our 21st-century perspective, as a criticism of the now-disgraced notion of Empire, but that was not Housman’s purpose.  Instead it was to honor the patriotrism and the loyalty of Britain’s soldiers, exemplified by the brave lads of Shropshire who had preserved and made secure the Britain Housman knew in his day.  His focus in this poem is not on the politics of the matter, but rather on basic traits he honored, traits which ideally were taught in the schools of his time — loyalty, bravery, and love of the land, traits as old as the Latin classics Housman taught.

It is worth noting that on June 4, 2012, the beacons of Shropshire were again set aflame in honor of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, 60 years of reign in times and circumstances vastly different than those of Victoria.

There used to be an oft-heard but modified quote in praise of the schooling of the English aristocracy, which stated that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.  Housman draws our attention instead to the role of the farming fields of Shropshire, giving us a far more balanced and realistic view.

Incidentally, I began this posting with mention of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. One can perhaps overlook his changes to Tolkien’s classic work with the excuse that he was summarizing a very long and detailed book, and that he did create some very effective scenes such as that of the lighting of the beacons, and that the film no doubt encouraged many to read Tolkien’s original. But I must add that there is no excuse adequate to overlook the abomination he performed on Tolkien’s book The Hobbit by needlessly expanding a much shorter text into three separate, highly-padded movies, in the process degrading Tolkien’s sprinkling of light humor amid the seriousness of the original book into mere offensively ridiculous absurdity.

So my advice for movie watchers is to see The Lord of the Rings if you will (but be sure to go back and read Tolkien’s original work after); however, you are cautioned to avoid the movie version of The Hobbit entirely. It does not have enough redeeming qualities to warrant viewing, at least not for those who care about Tolkien’s legacy. Read the book instead.

David

COMMENTS:

ASH wrote:

An excellent piece David. It is good to remind readers that research of past works is often eye-opening.