WHISTLE AND I’LL BE THERE

If it were not for the one great love in Alfred Edward Housman’s life — which also proved to be the one great sadness — it is doubtful that he would have become the poet we know.

It can all be traced to his remarkably deep but unrequited love in his youth for his friend and fellow Oxford undergraduate student, Moses Jackson — a love that Jackson — not being homosexual by nature — could not return.  Nonetheless, Housman never abandoned that love, never got over it.

It is a hard lesson those with homosexual affection for a heterosexual person — or the reverse — must learn (often with great pain): the necessity to let it go and move on, learning from it as part of the experience of life.  But Housman could not let it go.  Instead, he enshrined it in his heart as the classical lifelong, deep bond between males — though in reality he was the only one bound by it.  Moses Jackson made that clear when he left England for work in India, then married a young woman, then moved to western Canada, where he eventually died.  None of this change in time and space  lessened Housman’s long-distance attachment.

(MOSES JACKSON)

Just what it was about Jackson that caused Housman to be so smitten is hard to say.  Jackson was good-looking and sturdily built and what in modern terms would be called a “jock”; Housman was more the intellectual.  But such differences mean little when one is struck by the romantic obsession known as limerence.  It is not something you choose; it is something that happens to you, like getting hit by a car.

Dorothy Tennov, author of the book Love and Limerence, defined it as:

“an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.”

Some characteristics of limerence may be:

• Idealization of the other person’s characteristics (positive and negative)

• Uncontrollable and intrusive thoughts about the other person

• Extreme shyness,stuttering, nervousness and confusion around the other person

• Fear of rejection and despair or thoughts of suicide if rejection occurs

• A sense of euphoria in response to real or perceived signs of reciprocation

• Fantasizing about or searching obsessively for signs of reciprocation (“reading into things”)

• Being reminded of the person in everything around you

• Replaying in your mind every encounter with the other person in great detail

• Maintaining romantic intensity through adversity

• Endlessly analyzing every word and gesture to determine their possible meaning

• Arranging your schedule to maximize possible encounters with the other person

• Experiencing physical symptoms such as trembling, flushing, weakness or heart palpitations around the other person

We can certainly say that for Housman, “maintaining romantic intensity through adversity” is an understatement.  Some people get over limerence within a few months, some within a few years, and some — well, those some who never do include Housman.

Among all of Housman’s extraordinary verses, there are three in particular that exemplify his unfading and deep affection for Jackson. The first and second must be, in their simplicity, among the greatest love poems ever written.  Both deal with the two parting to go their separate ways, after Housman’s rejected declaration of love for Jackson.  Here is Housman speaking in poem XXX from his volume More Poems:

Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over;
I only vex you the more I try.
All’s wrong that ever I’ve done or said,
And nought to help it in this dull head:
Shake hands, here’s luck, good-bye.

But if you come to a road where danger
Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share,
Be good to the lad that loves you true
And the soul that was born to die for you,
And whistle and I’ll be there.

Though the poem begins by saying “we shall never be friends,” and “all’s over,” it really makes quite clear that for Housman, it will never be over.  In spite of Jackson’s rejection, Housman remains

“…the lad that loves you true,
And the soul that was born to die for you,”

Accepting and living in a homosexual relationship at the time was quite accurately “where danger / Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share.”  It was a socially hostile environment in which Housman — without Jackson — had to go his own way alone and manage as best he could, which was the lot of countless other homosexual young men.

Here is the second poem, XXXI from his More Poems:

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Good-bye,’ said you, ‘forget me.’
‘I will, no fear’, said I.

If here, where clover whitens
The dead man’s knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.

“Because I liked you better / Than suits a man to say.”  In Housman’s day, homosexuality was something that for social and legal reasons, and as Housman knew well — had to be hidden: “the love that dare not speak its name.”  People did not then understand that it is just a normal part of human variation, as some people like strawberries and others do not.  So Housman’s love for Jackson was something that it did not “suit a man to say” in those times, and Jackson was troubled by the admission. 

Housman, outwardly accepting Jackson’s rejection, promised to “put the thought aside,” (which of course was impossible), and the two eventually parted “stiff and dry,” with Jackson asking Housman to forget him — at least as a romantic interest — and Housman promising “I will.”

But Housman — speaking to Jackson in the poem, tells us the true state of affairs.  He says in essence, “if you ever pass the bare, clover-covered knoll where my grave lies, stop by the tombstone with my name on it.  There I will be, with my heart no longer stirred with love for you — but only because I am dead.”  And so it was to be only finally and in the grave that Housman eventually was to keep his word and forget Jackson.  So at last, keep it he did:

“And say the lad who loved you
Was one who kept his word.”

And that was very much how it was, though of course as it turned out, Housman outlived Jackson. 

The third poem revealing Housman’s deep love for Jackson is actually his rather loose translation of an ancient poem originally written by the Roman Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 b.c. – 8 c.e.), better known in English as Horace.  Housman rendered it in a formal, deliberately old-fashioned English, using words like “shaws” (a grove or copse of trees), “mead” (meadow), “aye” (always), “wintertide” (wintertime), “assize” (a trial/judgment), and of course the old “thee” and “thou” (you).  I will put Housman’s stanzas in bold type, each followed by an explanation:

DIFFUGERE NIVES  [The Snows Depart]

 The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.
The snows have melted and disappeared; the leaves on the trees and the grasses in the meadow spring up again, and the river level goes down between its banks, and the appearance of the world changes.

A student of Housman has this memory of a lecture he gave his Latin class:

“One morning in May 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace’s Fourth Book, ‘Diffugere Nives, redeunt iam gramina campis‘. This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in a quite different voice said: ‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion first in Latin, and then in an English translation of his own.
‘That’, he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, ‘I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature’ and walked quickly out of the room.

Afterwards another undergraduate, a scholar of Trinity, commented: ‘I felt quite uncomfortable. I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.’

“Almost like a man betraying a secret.”  We know what that secret was.  The poem brought to Housman’s mind the brevity of life and his own deep love for Jackson — his hopeless and unrequited love.  He considered his love for Jackson a classic friendship, like that of Theseus and Pirithous — who in some versions were also lovers — something that Housman and Jackson were not to be.

Here is the letter Housman wrote to a friend on receiving news of Jackson’s death:

Trinity College
Cambridge

Jan 17 1923

My dear Pollard,

Jackson died peacefully on Sunday night in hospital at Vancouver, where he had gone to be treated for anaemia, with which he had been ailing for some years. I had a letter from him on New Year’s Day, which he ended by saying “goodbye”. Now I can die myself: I could not have borne to leave him behind me in a world where anything might happen to him.

Yours sincerely,

AE Housman

One might consider Housman’s lifelong devotion to Jackson the height of foolishness — but one cannot help but see in it also a kind of classical nobility — a faithfulness that neither rejection nor time could erase.

In any case, out of the pain and sadness of his love for Jackson, Housman created a cluster of memorable poems that continue to speak to us today.

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THE FIRST OF MAY

In A. E. Housman’s Last Poems, we find this:

The First of May

The orchards half the way
From home to Ludlow fair
Flowered on the first of May
In Mays when I was there;
And seen from stile or turning
The plume of smoke would show
Where fires were burning
That went out long ago.

The plum broke forth in green,
The pear stood high and snowed,
My friends and I between
Would take the Ludlow road;
Dressed to the nines and drinking
And light in heart and limb,
And each chap thinking
The fair was held for him.

Between the trees in flower
New friends at fairtime tread
The way where Ludlow tower
Stands planted on the dead.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say;
Theirs now’s the laughter,
The fair, the first of May.

Ay, yonder lads are yet
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.
The sumless tale of sorrow
Is all unrolled in vain:
May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.

One might call the theme of this poem the “human comedy,” the fact that humans repeat essentially the same actions — the same thoughts and at times even the same words — as those who came before them.  In this poem the narrator looks back to his youth, when he and his friends would walk past green and blooming orchards to the May Day fair at the town of Ludlow.  They were young and foolish, each looking forward to what he expected to find at the fair, where Ludlow Tower (the tower of St. Laurence’s Church) lay “planted on the dead” — that is, where those of previous generations were buried.  By that phrase, Housman introduces the transient and repetitious nature  of human life, noting later that the young men now off through the blooming orchards in the morning light to Ludlow Fair are “still the fools that we were then.”  Human nature is the same from generation to generation.  The young men hope for the same pleasures as those who came before them — and make the same foolish mistakes.  It is the same tale told over again.

Alfred Edward Housman was buried at St. Laurence Church in Ludlow.  Here is his grave marker there:

(Photo: Detail from photo by Brian P. Harris)

 

David

BLOSSOMS AND THORNS

Today we will look at poem XXII (22) from Alfred Edward Housman’s Last Poems.  Like his poem V (5) from A Shropshire Lad, “O See How Thick the Goldcup Flowers,” this one deals with a seduction. In the latter poem, it fails; but in the former — the one we read today — the outcome is unhappy:

The sloe was lost in flower,
The April elm was dim;
That was the lover’s hour,
The hour for lies and him.

If thorns are all the bower,
If north winds freeze the fir,
Why, ’tis another’s hour,
The hour for truth and her.

The sloe (Prunus spinosa) is a small, rather spiny tree found in Britain that bears white flowers in spring and purple-blue small fruits in autumn.

This poem is the contrasting story of two people — a man and a woman, or let us say a young man and young woman, because it begins in spring.

The sloe — also called the blackthorn — is “lost in flower,” meaning it is covered over in its beautiful white blossoms that hide the “thorns” — the spines.  And the “April elm  was dim” — the large elm tree, freshly leafed out, provided an overshadowing.  We already see a contrast here between the bright white of the sloe boughs and the shade of the elm.  There is also a contrast between the blossoms of the sloe and the thorns they conceal.  We shall see a similar contrast between the first verse, which deals with the male, and the second, which deals with the female.

“That was the lover’s hour,”  it was the time when the young man was succeeding in seducing the girl, and because of the enticing but untrue and faithless words he spoke to lure her, it was “the hour for lies and him.”  In short, he told her “pretty lies” and got what he wanted.

About nine months later, things have changed.  Now “If thorns are all the bower,” that is, if in place of the beautiful spring blossoms on the sloe where they lay, there are now only wintry thorns (both real and metaphorical), and “If north winds freeze the fir” — if the warm air of April has become the icy winds of December that chill the branches of the firs, now that the elm is bare — then “’tis another’s hour.”  The “another” is the woman; it is her time to pay the price for her gullibility in believing those seductive springtime words.   It is the “hour for truth and her,” the time when allowing her young man to seduce her in the spring bears its winter fruit:  she has a baby “out of wedlock,” as the old saying goes, and all the countryside knows of the scandal.  Her reputation is ruined in those very conservative times.

Notice that Housman mentions no similar reckoning for the young man, showing the unfairness of the society of those days, which judged women more harshly than men in such matters.

 

David

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

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 THOROUGH

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

THE RAIN IT STREAMS ON STONE AND HILLOCK: Alfred Edward Housman

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.