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

 

 

 

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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.

 

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) in “hollow ground,” the little concave dips in the ground here and there, one can find wild primroses growing,

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.’