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.

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.

 

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.

BROOKS TOO BROAD FOR LEAPING, FIELDS WHERE ROSES FADE

Today, one of the simplest and most effective poems of Alfred Edward Housman, from the collection A Shropshire Lad. Like other poems in that anthology, it has deep undertones of loss and bittersweet nostalgia. It is titled

With Rue My Heart is Laden

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

I will explain it part by part, though the overall sentiments are immediately clear:

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

The poet is recalling the boys and girls — the lads and lasses — he knew earlier in life, and is saddened. He tells us that his heart is laden — loaded, weighted down — with rue, that is, with sorrow and regret. It has a double meaning in that there is an herb called rue, a plant with a bitter fragrance that also traditionally symbolizes loss and regret. So we know the writer is made very sorrowful by remembering the “golden friends” he once had but has no more. By “golden” he means both precious and also beautiful in his memory, using “golden” as people do who recall pleasant days in the past and say, “Those were the golden years.” He remembers the dear friends of his youth.

And who were those friends? “Many a rose-lipt maiden” and “many a lightfoot lad.” He recalls the young girls he knew in the days when they had the beauty of youth, with their lips the pinkish-red color of rose petals. “Rose-lipt” is just a variant spelling of “rose-lipped.” They had rosy lips, which has undertones of the fragrance and fresh beauty of the rose flower, but also of its fragility and brevity. And he recalls “many a lightfoot lad,” many boys he once knew who were fleet of foot and agile in running and leaping, with all the energy youth and vitality gave them.

So the poet has told us first who he is saddened by remembering, and now, he finishes by telling us why he is saddened by the memory:

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.

He is speaking metaphorically. It was common, in the English countryside, for village lads to entertain themselves by seeing who could leap across small streams, sometimes with the assistance of a long pole that was pushed down into the water. The boy would come running with pole in hand, like a pole vaulter, and then would push the end of the long pole down into the stream and swing himself up into the air and across to the other bank. Of course either way, anyone who did not do it just right or was not agile enough would fall into the water. But now, the poet is saying, those lightfoot lads he once knew are laid by “brooks too broad for leaping.” By that he means they have died, their years ended by obstacles in life that they could not overcome, whether illness, or death in war, or some other fatal, impassable barrier. There were just some “brooks” in life they could not leap over, and so they now lie dead and buried.

Similarly, Housman tells us that “the rose-lipt girls” are sleeping “in fields where roses fade.” They too have died, because they were, in spite of their beauty and youth, mortal after all; and this world of change and impermanence is “the fields where roses fade.” All things that come into existence in our world, whether roses on a bush or metaphorical roses on the lips of girls, are fated to fade and die.

And that is why our writer is saddened, thinking of the impermanence of things in life, and of how the lively young girls and vigorous young boys he once knew and loved, his “golden friends,” are gone from his life and will not come again.

And of course we know that in mourning them, the writer is also mourning the loss of his own youth and the years that are no more.

That is the reality of life in the world. Nothing lasts, no matter how pleasant, no matter how beautiful. Part of our spiritual path in life is accepting that hard reality without letting the realization become destructive. We must not be too weighed down by the rue of remembrance of things past, but instead must learn to live in the present and appreciate our loved ones while we have them, knowing they will not be with us always.

That is a lesson hard for young people to learn, because it is the nature of the young to feel emotionally that they will live forever, even though their rational minds tell them otherwise. But inevitably, we all come to “brooks too broad for leaping,” and are laid in “fields where roses fade.”

The great gift of Alfred Edward Housman was the beautiful simplicity of his verse and how faithfully it reveals the bittersweet impermanence of life, the temporary nature of all things.

David

WHEN I WAS ONE-AND-TWENTY: PAID FOR IN PAIN

Romance is a very strange thing.

It is a kind of psychological obsession with another person — an obsession so strong that it gives that other person control over whether the obsessed is happy or unhappy.  It gives one soaring emotional highs and abyssal emotional lows.  It can lead to the most bizarre behavior.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about romance is that it is not voluntary.  One does not consciously choose to be “in love” with another person.  Instead, it is something happening on a largely unconscious level — something that seems to unaccountably happen to a person, the passive victim.

The Greeks and Romans thought of it as being shot by the arrow of Eros, the god of love, who lives on in our modern images of Cupid.  As in the old cartoons, once one is shot with Cupid’s arrow, one no longer has control over one’s feelings, and is led on a wild roller coaster ride of emotion.

To the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the process of falling in love involved the unconscious projection of one’s ideal inner concept of a male or female on another person.  Now that person was unlikely to really possess all of those idealized qualities, but as long as that “outer” person made a good screen onto which the unconscious mind could project those qualities, what the obsessed person saw was not the male or female as he or she actually was, but rather only the projection of the unconscious ideal.

English: Cupid with a Bow by François Joseph B...
Cupid with a Bow by François Joseph Bosio at the Hermitage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That accounts for all the stupid things people do when “in love.”

The American psychologist Dorothy Tennov — in her book Love and Limerence – the Experience of Being in Love —  had a very sensible approach to the whole matter.  She made a useful distinction between genuine love and what she called “limerence.”  Limerence is what we ordinarily think of as “falling in love,” the obsession with another person that fills our thoughts and forces us through those emotional highs and lows, depending on whether we think our “love” is being sufficiently reciprocated or not.  Real love, however, is something else — something less exciting but far more lasting than limerence, which glows with such a strong flame that it eventually burns itself out, leaving one wondering what he or she previously saw in the other person.

Now one can discuss all of this intellectually; one can warn the young against it, explaining the difference between real, lasting love and the obsession of limerence.  But such explanations are not likely to prevent the occurence of “falling in love,” simply because it is a largely unconscious process.  As Carl Jung wrote, we are not master in our own house.  It is all too easy for unconscious obsession to take control, in spite of the conscious will.

Alfred Edward Housman wrote one of the best-known poems about the first experience of this unconscious obsession with another.  It is called When I was One-and-Twenty:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;

A young man 21 years old hears a wise and experienced older person warning against “falling in love.”  It is better, he is told, to give away one’s money than to give away one’s heart — better, that is, than to allow one’s self to “fall in love” with another, to give them control over one’s emotional state.

“Crowns and pounds and guineas” were units in the British monetary system of Housman’s day (and right up to 1971).  A pound, when a gold coin, was called a sovereign; when paper, it was a pound note or in slang, a “quid.”  A pound consisted of 20 shillings, which in slang were “bob.”  A crown coin (seldom actually used) was five shillings, “five bob.”  A guinea was considered a more “formal” unit, more “gentlemanly,” though it may seem an odd concept.  Works of art, for example, were customarily priced in guineas.  Years ago, when I was quite young, I was in an English town on market day, and was examining some paintings in one of the open-air stalls.  I noticed that the prices were all in “guineas,” which puzzled me; I had seen pence and sixpence and shillings and half crowns and pound notes, but not guineas.  So I asked the young man in charge what that meant.  He promptly and correctly informed me that a guinea was a pound and a shilling (the equivalent of 21 shillings).

Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.

Now the wise man, continuing his advice, “ups the ante,” as is said in card playing.  He increases the amount one should be willing to part with before one parts with one’s heart.  Now it is not just crowns and pounds and guineas, but very precious things — pearls and rubies.  This is a way of saying, “Give anything away before you give your heart away to someone.”  In short, do not fall in love.

The advice is “to keep your fancy free,” that is, do not fixate and put all your attention on one person, but keep your mental options open:  continue meeting various people, experience them as individuals, get to know their good and bad points, enjoy being with them and do not be in a hurry to commit yourself.

But our young man is only 21 years old, inexperienced and not yet wise in the ways of the world.  Young people hear the advice to be cautious and slow and patient and careful in avoiding premature relationships with those of the sex to whom one is attracted, but do they take it to heart?  Do they take it seriously enough?

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again, 
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty, 
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

Our wise counselor tells the young man that whenever one gives one’s heart to another, that is, whenever one falls in love, there will be consequences.  Giving one’s heart was never done “in vain,” which here means “without results.”  And what are those results, those consequences?

Again, Housman speaks in monetary terms, but this time a different kind of coin — negative emotions.  Falling in love is paid for with “sighs a plenty,” that is, with many sad sighs of remorse.  And one’s heart is “sold for endless rue,” that is, traded for endless regrets.

In the last two lines, we find that our young man did not heed the warning:

And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

What a difference a year can make.  In just that short time, our young man has found by experience that the pain and regret he had been warned would follow “falling in love” were not just vain imaginings.  He has since allowed it to happen; he has fallen in love, and has experienced its pains.  And now he can tell us from his own bitter experience,

And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.

First-hand experience is often the best, but also the most bitter teacher.

David

ON WENLOCK EDGE: THE GALE OF LIFE AND EMOTION

Today we turn again to one of my favorite poets, Alfred Edward Housman, and to his poem On Wenlock Edge.

English: Wenlock Edge
WENLOCK EDGE  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is not a difficult poem, but we shall need to make sure we understand Housman’s vocabulary in order to comprehend the poem easily.  As usual, I shall take it part by part:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble; 

His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

We are in the county of Shropshire, England.  To the south is a large escarpment — a sudden, sharp upward slant of the land that rises to some height above us, and runs for some 16 miles across the countryside.  Its ancient limestone slope is covered in leafy forest.  This is Wenlock Edge.  In the distance, some five miles to the north of Wenlock Edge, is a forested hill, the Wrekin (pronounced REE-kin).

THE WREKIN (Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)
THE WREKIN
(Photo source: https://schoolsprehistory.files.wordpress.com)

The writer tells us the wood on Wenlock Edge is “in trouble”  meaning it is disturbed, agitated and stormy.  A great wind has come up.  If we look to the Wrekin, the forest on it is tossing in the same wind.  Housman terms the wood on the Wrekin “his [its] forest fleece,” because the wood covers the hill like the fleece on a sheep.  And it “heaves” — the countless branches bending in the wind seem, when seen from a distance, to rise and fall like waves on a green sea.  The gale — the very strong wind — bends (“plies”) the saplings — the slender, flexible young trees — double, bends them nearly to the ground.  And the countless leaves blown away by the awesome force of the gale fall like snow on the waters of the Severn River, which winds between the two heights.   Housman is giving us a scene filled with natural power and motion.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger

When Uricon the city stood:

’Tis the old wind in the old anger,

But then it threshed another wood.

The writer, having presented us with an event in the present, now expresses the thoughts it arouses in him.  He tells us the gale once blew like that through “holt and hanger” in a much earlier time.  “Holt” is an old Germanic word (and English, with its Anglo-Saxon ancestry, is a Germanic language) for a wood, a forested area.  “Hanger” also comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term; it means a wood on a slope, like the forest on Wenlock Edge.  The wind blew through those woods “when Uricon the city stood.”  He is taking us back to Roman Britain — Britain after the Romans had invaded and settled there.  His “Uricon” was the Roman city Viriconium/Viroconium, also called Uriconium, which lay where the present day town of Wroxeter lies, several miles west of the Wrekin.  It was the fourth largest Roman City in ancient Britain.

The writer muses that the same strong wind “in the old anger,” (meaning aroused and violent) that now blows on Wenlock Edge and the Wrekin, then blew on the earlier woods of the region when Uricon was a thriving city in Roman Britain.  He speaks of the wind in the old days having “threshed another wood.”  “Threshed” is an agricultural term used for beating ripe grain from stalks.  So, to repeat, Housman means that the same wind he sees blowing the forests of Shropshire also beat on the woods that grew there in Roman times.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman

At yonder heaving hill would stare:

The blood that warms an English yeoman,

The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

Just as the narrator now stares at the woods bending and waving in the strong wind, in ancient times a Roman would stand there watching the gale-blown woods of that earlier period.  And, the writer opines, the two men — the ancient Roman and the modern British yeoman (here it means a farmer who owns his own land) — are much the same, bodies warmed by human blood, minds troubled by the same human concerns and emotions.

The writer expands on this similarity of old Roman and modern Briton:

There, like the wind through woods in riot,

Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

There — in early Britain — the “gale of life,” the powerful force of life and emotion, blew strongly (“high) through the Roman like a wind blowing through woods “in riot,” that is, with violence and great disturbance.  And now the same, overwhelming force blows through the writer himself.   Housman likens a man under the force of his own internal, powerful emotions and desires to a tree blown by a gale:

The tree of man was never quiet.

And again, the likening of ancient and modern:

Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The hopes, fears, sufferings and sorrows of humans are the same, whether in ancient times or today, whether in Roman Britain or modern Britain, or anywhere else on earth.

And now he brings us back to the present, to the blowing wind and the agitated trees, for his summation of the matter:

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. 

As early as the Chinese book the Dao De Jing, it was said that a violent wind does not last the morning.  Our writer tells us that the wind he watches is so violent it will soon be gone.  We must know that he is also speaking here of the strong wind of human life and emotion — it blows so strongly that it too will soon be gone.  We should keep in mind here that Housman is giving us an equation:  wind = the force of life.  We see this made clear in the final two lines:

Today the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon.

And similarly, by extension, our narrator and his troubles will soon be ashes as well.  Nothing lasts, whether it be wind, or trees, or leaves, or sorrow, or joy, or human life.

If we were to express this poem very simply it would be this:

A violent wind is agitating the trees.

The same violent wind I see blowing the woods was seen by a Roman in early Roman Britain.

That Roman and I share the same human blood and human emotions.

Humans are like trees blown in the wind of emotion and desire.

Wind = the force of life and emotion in humans.

A violent wind will not last long.

Human life and emotions do not last long.

As the ancient Roman and his troubles are now nothing but ashes, so shall I and all my troubles be.

Of course Housman’s poetic way of saying it is far more pleasing to read than this kind of prosaic explanation.

As an aside, it might not occur to one immediately, but there is a connection between the name “Wrekin” and the name of the former nearby old Roman city, Viroconium.  Remember that in Latin, a “V” used to be pronounced as a “W.”  So think of “Wrekin” and “Wirocon [-ium].”  Of course the “W” in Wrekin is now silent.

Speaking of the “strong wind of human life and emotion” that is soon ended, we can think of the lines of George Gordon Byron from his poem We’ll Go No More A-Roving:

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast…

 
David

ELEGY TO AN ATHLETE DYING YOUNG

English: Study

Today I want to talk again about a poem by one of my favorite writers, Alfred Edward Housman.  He was, you may recall, a classicist — a professor of Greek and particularly of Latin, and in his poems we often sense the depth that background gives as he mixes the atmosphere of the English town or village with the lingering fragrance of the classic Greco-Roman world of antiquity.  In this poem we shall see also that he uses a mixture of objectivity and metaphor, that is, he speaks of things as they are while also speaking of  things or events in order to mean something else.

Housman was, as I have said before, a poet very much aware of impermanence, and so in that respect his poems are like hokku, which always has as its background the transience of life, the impermanence of all things.

One of his finest poems is this — To an Athlete Dying Young.

I will discuss it stanza by stanza:

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Housman is speaking to the athlete, recalling a past day on which the lad won a foot race.  He represented his town and thereby earned it and himself respect, so he was chaired through the market place.  That means the jubilant and proud people sat him on a chair or bench, and lifted him to their shoulders, carrying him through the market place — the real center and heart of the town — to honor him.  And as he was carried shoulder-high in triumph through the streets, the boys and the men cheered, and he was brought in that way to the door — the threshold — of his own home.

Now watch how Housman uses this past incident, bringing it into the present, and using the past realistically and the present metaphorically:

Today, the road all runners come, 
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Now we have come from remembrance of things past to the present.  The athlete — still a lad — has died early, while still a youth.  We are not told why he died, but we know it is just a hard fact.  So today, on the road all runners come, he is again brought home shoulder-high.  Here Housman uses metaphor.  By runners, he is speaking of the “race of life,” the course of life from birth to death.  So all who are alive are runners in this sense.  An old expression used by people near death was, “My race is almost run.”  But this lad has ended his race; he has died.  And now on the road all runners come — the road to the graveyard — he is once more brought home shoulder-high as his coffin is carried on the shoulders of the mourners.  They set him down at his new threshold — the grave — and he makes the transition from being their townsman in life to being a townsman of a “stiller town.”  By that is meant the silence of the cemetery and of death.  Henceforth he will be one of the quiet community of the dead.

Housman now does something we find in other poems of his, which is to speak paradoxically.  He does this through the contrast of telling the athlete that in spite of the sad situation, the boy was smart to die:

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose. 

You were smart, he says, to slip away from life “betimes” — meaning “early” here — because the fields of life — by which he means first the athletic fields and by extension the world itself — are places where glory does not stay.  Fame and the praise of the public do not last.  And, he says, though the laurel grows early, it withers more quickly than the rose.  We must not take this literally.  What Housman means is that though one may be crowned with laurel at an early age — the branches of the laurel were traditionally used to crown a victorious athlete in the Greco-Roman world — the laurel (by which he means fame) nonetheless fades more quickly than a real rose drops its petals.  Housman is emphasizing how brief and transient fame and praise are.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Eyes shut by the “shady night” — by death, that is, cannot see the athletic record one has set broken; and to one whose ears are stopped by earth — plugged with the earth of the grave — there is no distinction between cheers and silence.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,

Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

What excellent lines those are!  Now, he tells the athlete, you will not swell (increase) the rout (rabble-like crowd) of those who lived beyond the time of their youthful athletic glory.  The athlete, by dying young, will not be one of those men whom renown outran.  “Whom renown outran” means that their glory and praise reached its end long before the man reached his own end of life.

We all know what he means by this.  There are countless young people who seemingly reach their peak in high school or college — the quarterbacks and the gymnasts and the runners — and then the rest of their lives is a letdown to them; they become menial workers in jobs they hate, and some even become alcoholics or drug addicts, because they cannot get used to the great contrast between their lives in the “glory days” of high school and their dull present lives.  So they are “Runners whom renown outran / And the name died before the man.”  They are now nobodies; people have forgotten them.  The name — that is the fame of the person — has died long before the man himself has died.  This last line — “The name died before the man” — is exquisite, one of those lines that can be applied to countless individuals who, once famous and well-known, have been forgotten.  The common, cruel expression used of such people is “He peaked too early.”  But Housman tells his athlete that he has avoided this sad fate by dying early, when he was still famous and praised and loved by his townsmen.

Because of all this, Housman begins his final words to the departed lad:

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup. 

To the dear boy who is making the transition from the world of the living to the silent world of the dead, Housman says encouragingly that he should let his swift feet now step upon and cross the “sill of shade” — the border that marks off the living from the dead just as a doorsill separates the outside world from the inside world of the home.  And, he adds, do it before the echoes fade — before the shouts of those who cheered you and praised you in life have died away in forgetfulness of you.  And here again Housman speaks metaphorically, not literally:  He tells the lad to hold the cup he won — the award given him for winning the race — up to the low lintel.  By that Housman is again using his past-present analogy — his comparison of the door of the house to the edge of the grave.  The lintel of a door is the beam across the top.  The lintel of a grave is the lid of the coffin.  By this he means that the athlete may die without ever losing his glory; he can hold up his metaphorical award cup in the grave forever, and never lose it as would likely have happened in life when beaten by another, or beaten by the changes of time and the forgetfulness of others.

In this following last stanza Housman so closely mixes the sentiments of the ancient world with British town and village life that the two cannot be separated, and really that is the nature of the whole poem:

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s. 

When the athlete has stepped across the sill separating life from death, when he is in the land of the dead, the other spirits — “the strengthless dead” (which is a concept as old as the ancient world) — will gather about the lad and will see the laurel wreath of victory still unwithered on the curly hair of his head.  In life the laurel crown — meaning victory and fame — is all too brief, shorter even than the quickly-wilting garlands of flowers the village girls weave in spring and summer to wear in their hair.

If this were the only poem Housman had ever written, he would still be famous for it, which is rather paradoxical:  the renown of the dusty professor of Latin has outlived the athletic field victories of all the golden boys who studied under him in England before the Second World War.  But we sense his love of them in this poem.  It is their memorial.

The poem calls to mind the epitaph to a youth attributed to Plato, from the Greek Anthology:

Before you shone as Morning Star among the living;
Now you shine as Evening Star among the dead. 

ἀστὴρ πρὶν μὲν ἔλαμπες ἐνὶ ζωοῖσιν Ἑῷος·
νῦν δὲ θανὼν λάμπεις Ἕσπερος ἐν φθιμένοις.

It was written for a youth named Aster, meaning “Star.”  The Morning Star was Eosphoros, the “Dawn-bringer”; the Evening Star Hesperos.

David


HOUSMAN’S EASTER HYMN

In the previous posting I discussed the profound sense of insecurity and alienation expressed in Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold.  Now I would like to look at another poem by Alfred Edward Housman, his Easter Hymn.  In it the poet addresses Jesus directly:

EASTER HYMN

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

 But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

The poem might easily be titled The Agnostic’s Easter.  In it Housman expresses the matter in two opposing “ifs.”  

In the first part he tells Jesus that if he is merely dead and buried in his garden tomb, unaware that his mission failed, unaware that his life and death not only did not destroy hate but sometimes even fanned its flames, then Housman wishes him a peaceful eternal sleep.

But if, on the other hand, Jesus was resurrected from the tomb as many say in Christianity, and has ascended to heaven and assumed power, Housman asks him to remember his suffering on earth, and — it is implied — to consider the suffering of humanity, and to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  “Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.”  

It is a bold poem, and in it Housman is essentially saying, “I do not believe you are still alive and in heaven, and not just lying for some two thousand years in a tomb in the Near East, but if by chance you are living and up there, then look down at the sufferings of humanity (that of the poet included) and please help us.”

The unspoken result of the poem is, interestingly, the same conclusion reached by Arnold in Dover Beach:  no help is coming, and we are out here on our own in the universe, and must get by as best we can.  Housman made his “prayer,” and no help came in reply.  So one is left with the conclusion that of the two “ifs” in the poem, the first was the correct one.

That is why, again, there is a kind of underlying bitter humor in the poem, which makes the title Easter Hymn all the more meaningful.  It is not surprising, then, that Housman is said to have once described his own position as that of a “High-church atheist,” meaning that while culturally he had been influenced by the traditional Anglicanism of England in which so many were raised, intellectually he could not accept the notion of a “God” as the term was understood in Christianity.

That, of course, was a controversial position in his time, which accounts for his Easter Hymn being left unpublished until after his death in 1936, appearing among his Manuscript Poems published in 1955.

The poetic attitude of Housman is expressed briefly and succinctly in the preface he attached to the publication of his book More Poems:

They say my verse is sad; no wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity and sorrow,
Not mine, but man’s. 

This is for all ill-treated fellows
Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read when they’re in trouble
And I am not.

That is why the poems of Housman appeal so readily and effectively to us today.  He understood human suffering and the transience of life, and he speaks to us still.

What does he mean by writing his poems for “all ill-treated fellows, unborn and unbegot”?  He means all those who were, at the time he wrote this verse, not yet born nor even yet conceived.  And by saying the poem is “for them to read when they’re in trouble and I am not,” he means his poems are for those like him, who will have his poems in the future to read when they are in trouble, but Housman will by then be long dead and beyond all his troubles — “and I am not.”

 

David

 

 

POETRY, VERSE, PLASTIC FLOWERS AND INTELLECTUALISM

When it comes to the evaluation and criticism of poetry, all is opinion and personal taste.  Taste, it is true, can be developed, but who can say that a man’s liking for a painting of waterlilies by Monet is any more sincere than the liking of some people for plastic or silk flowers?

I have always had a great deal of difficulty in trying to initiate people into the appreciation of the hokku as opposed to modern haiku, precisely because of that difference in taste.  To me the preference for modern haiku is akin to those who are still on the plastic flowers level, but in spite of that one must recognize that people will like what they will like, and even the old Latin saying tells us that there is no arguing about taste.

Nonetheless, people will argue.  And of course people will criticize, whether the work in dispute is a painting or a poem.

No one, to my knowledge, has ever successfully and adequately defined poetry.  Alfred Edward Housman made a useful distinction between poetry and verse:  he said that the former is literature, the latter is not.  So William Blake may present us with poetry, while Hallmark is likely to give us only verse.

As for the nature of poetry, Housman fell back upon his version of the common saying of the uneducated buyer of antiques:  “I don’t know anything about it, but I know what I like.”  Housman, however, put it this way when asked for a definition:

I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.”

And that is indeed how most of us recognize what we call poetry — because of its effects on us.  Yet that leaves us back where we started:  individual ability to recognize poetry is a matter of education and taste.  Generations were moved by Trees, written by Joyce Kilmer, verse that to me is unquestionably on the “plastic flowers” level, and unbearable to read.

So there are differences in taste, and these differences are largely a matter of personal preference and education.  An unsophisticated taste in verse will leave one liking Trees.  An educated taste will find it appalling.  That is just one of the realities of life.  We may say that one who dislikes Trees has good taste while one who likes it has bad, yet that again is just a matter of personal taste and personal opinion.  It simply means that to us, “good” taste means educated and experienced taste, while “bad” taste means uneducated and inexperienced.

That is why I look on the bulk of modern haiku as simply bad taste.  I have had the benefit of knowing what hokku once was, and can recognize that modern haiku is just a mutated offshoot, the distorted creation, largely, of mid-20th century would-be poets who misperceived and misunderstood the nature of the hokku, and so created the “haiku” according to their own misconceptions.  If I had not had that education and experience, however, I might likely hold a different and less “advanced” view.

Housman tells us that poetry is not dependent upon meaning; that in fact there is much writing that is poetic yet devoid of real meaning.  And indeed, he tells us, some of the most poetic writers — among them William Blake — were actually mad to a greater or lesser degree.

I have to say that Housman is correct.  There are some works that have the logic of bedlam, yet are very poetic, such as the lines from Xanadu,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

We should not be surprised to learn that Xanadu is forever unfinished because Coleridge, while writing down the poem, which had come to him in an opium dream, was interrupted by the arrival of a visitor, and the remainder was forgotten.  It is mad poetry, but poetry nonetheless, and that is why it persists in finding a place in college anthologies.

Not all that appears in such anthologies is poetry, however.  Some of it is merely prose disguised as poetry, and that can be said of a good part of what has been written in the 20th century.  There is, for example, a good deal of attention given to the “rediscovered” verses of Lynette Roberts, but quite honestly I can find hardly more poetry in some of her writing than in a waiter’s description of the lunch menu, for example the beginning of her Poem from Llanybri:

If you come my way that is … 
Between now and then, I will offer you 
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank 
The valley tips of garlic red with dew 
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank 
In the village when you come. At noon-day 
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl 
Served with a ‘lover’s’ spoon and a chopped spray 
Of leeks or savori fach, not used now,
In the old way you’ll understand…

Yes, it has some Welsh terms like cawl (a kind of Welsh version of Irish stew) and “savori fach” — her spelling of Welsh safri fach — “little savory,” which is the herb Satureja montana, Winter savory in English), and mention of the traditionally Welsh “lover’s spoon,” but in my view that hardly qualifies it for the acclaim it presently receives.  So even though I have a weakness for things Welsh, I cannot, using Housman’s criterion, recognize “Llanybri” as poetry because of the absence of symptoms evoked by it.  So for me, it is merely verse.  “Swank” by the way, is used here as a verb meaning to “ostentatiously display.”  Oddly enough, Roberts eventually gave up writing after converting to the fundamentalistic, mind-controlling sect called Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Much of what has been written as poetry in the 20th century onward remains for me merely verse.  It has become too intellectualized, too consciously clever, too conventionally “poetic” according to what fashion at present considers poetry to be.  And the real poetry has been lost in the process.

What passes for poetry these days is little advanced from what it was in Louis Macneice:  a kind of over-intellectualized verbal assembly that seems to come from too much association with other “poets,” who encourage each other unhealthily into more and more writing with less and less poetry in it, for example these lines from Snow by Macneice:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural.  I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

All intellectualism, no poetry.  Macneice only talks about the “drunkenness of things,” but Coleridge, in Xanadu, gives it to us directly and unmediated.

All too often, modern would-be poets think that merely dividing prose into the lineation of poetry makes poetry.  It does not.  Yet this kind of pseudo-poetry, found often in the writings of Gary Snyder and many others, in my view, has even made its way into present-day college anthologies.  One can only hope that young poets will remain uninfluenced by their example, but so far that does not seem to be the case.  More and more genuine poetry has given way in English-language writing to mere lineated prose or  surrealistic constructions of words used in odd ways.

One may bemoan what has become of poetry, but then poetry has a very limited space in modern life.  It has become largely the province of those who want to think of themselves as poets or as poetic, a very ingrown little society that appears to be securely walled off from the rest of the world.  Would-be poets seem to write for, and be read by, other would-be poets.  That means a particular negative trend, if found in poetry journals and anthologies, can grow and overwhelm a period of writing like a tsunami.  It seems we are at present the victims of such a flood of bad taste in the “world of poetry,” and we can only hope that a recovery and reconstruction will come soon.

That, however, requires education.  It requires experience.  It requires stepping out of the limited and limiting circle of present-day poetry, so that the individual may rediscover what Housman found to be true –that poetry is recognized by its effect on us.  But there are effects and effects, and all too many people seem to have lost or forgotten the symptoms created by genuine poetry, and are settling for mere intellectualism and peer approval.  Both are death to poetry.

But again, that is personal taste and opinion.  So I encourage readers not to think they must like a poem simply because it is printed in a college anthology, or dislike a poem because it finds no place in such a work.  Educate your taste.  Experience poetry from all periods and of all kinds.  Do not rely merely on the opinions of “authorities” for your taste in poetry.  Take them into account if you will, but do not accept them uncritically.

David