A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
The following introduction to A. E. Housman has been generously provided by T. Merrill.
Having been asked by [THT Editor] Michael Burch to assemble a page on A. E. Housman to start off his new
“Blasts from the Past” series, I hastily picked out a generous handful of typical gems from
Housman’s slender poetic corpus, not so much for their being representative of his style, as
virtually any selection from this deservedly famous author would be, but
more because as well as being, for the most part, lesser known works of
his—they particularly appealed to me.
Housman began writing poetry at age eight, while still at home under
tutelage of a governess, and then won a few awards for poems he wrote at The
Bomsgrove School, which he attended on scholarship for seven years before
entering Oxford on scholarship at age eighteen. During his college years he
wrote only three poems, not to resume poetry-writing until considerably
later, at age thirty-five, after a ten year stint as a clerk at the
Government Patent Office and a couple years after being appointed, in 1892,
to fill the Latin Chair at the University of London.
By his own account, Housman’s most prolific period were the first five months
of 1895. He ascribed it to “physical conditions,” in particular to “a relaxed sore throat.” Poem
XXX in his first poetry collection, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896,
possibly sheds light on that curious explanation: “Agued once like me were
they….,” and then, going on to recount the feverishness he may have been suffering at the time:
“…fire and ice within me fight
beneath the suffocating night.”
If the poem indeed records, in part, an actual physical illness, as opposed to some fever
of the heart or spirit, maybe it was as that ailment lifted that he felt more inclined to
take those London walks he tells us were the occasion of the afflatus to
which he seems to ascribe all his best poems. When stanzas didn’t just pop
into his head, and come easy, he sometimes had to wait a year before the final
puzzle-piece, sometimes only a single line, needed to finish a poem finally
came to him. And one can't help wondering if Frost’s famous little poem
“Fire and Ice,” published twenty five years later, in 1920, may owe its
title and theme to these lines by Housman.
The ease and naturalness and perfect cadence of Housman’s poetry no doubt account for
his enduring stature as one of the foremost lyric poets of the past century
and a half, and in reading over most of his oeuvre for this short
introduction, I found only one line that seemed to founder a tad, the sixth
in “Astronomy,” from his second slim volume, Last Poems, published in
1922. I’ve often thought it was this deceptive ease, so
characteristic of masterly poetry, that encouraged and reinforced the notion
that rhymes like Housman’s, so fluid and freeflowing, are proper only as an
exercise for beginners in the nursery school of poetry, and perhaps not so
difficult to compose. It seems to me far more likely the case that the vast
majority of soi-disant poets today could not nearly approximate common
meter, or any kind of meter, as accomplished as Housman’s, nor produce even
a single example as polished and convincing. Well, like many things, it is
easier said than done, and the sayers will doubtless remain adamant on the
point, without ever venturing to prove it by doing. And no wonder, since
that afflatus Housman credited for his poetic composition may not after all
be an instrument at everyone’s disposal.
The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.
Oh grant me the ease that is granted so free,
The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,
That relish their victuals and rest on their bed
With flint in the bosom and guts in the head.
When I watch the living meet,
And the moving pageant file
Warm and breathing through the street
Where I lodge a little while,
If the heats of hate and lust
In the house of flesh are strong,
Let me mind the house of dust
Where my sojourn shall be long.
In the nation that is not
Nothing stands that stood before;
There revenges are forgot,
And the hater hates no more;
Lovers lying two and two
Ask not whom they sleep beside,
And the bridegroom all night through
Never turns him to the bride.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
You smile upon your friend to-day,
To-day his ills are over;
You hearken to the lover's say,
And happy is the lover.
'Tis late to hearken, late to smile,
But better late than never;
I shall have lived a little while
Before I die for ever.
Now hollow fires burn out to black,
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go.
Oh never fear, man, nought's to dread,
Look not to left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
There's nothing but the night.
The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man's bedevilment and God's?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
XV - Eight O'Clock
He stood, and heard the steeple
Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
One, two, three, four, to market-place and people
It tossed them down.
Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour,
He stood and counted them and cursed his luck;
And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength, and struck.
The night is freezing fast,
To-morrow comes December;
And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past;
And chiefly I remember
How Dick would hate the cold.
Fall, winter, fall; for he,
Prompt hand and headpiece clever,
Has woven a winter robe,
And made of earth and sea
His overcoat for ever,
And wears the turning globe.
The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.
I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.
Wake not for the world-heard thunder
Nor the chime that earthquakes toll.
Star may plot in heaven with planet,
Lightning rive the rock of granite,
Tempest tread the oakwood under:
Fear you not for flesh nor soul.
Marching, fighting, victory past,
Stretch your limbs in peace at last.
Stir not for the soldiers drilling
Nor the fever nothing cures:
Throb of drum and timbal's rattle
Call but man alive to battle,
And the fife with death-notes filling
Screams for blood but not for yours.
Times enough you bled your best;
Sleep on now, and take your rest.
Sleep, my lad; the French are landed,
London's burning, Windsor's down;
Clasp your cloak of earth about you,
We must man the ditch without you,
March unled and fight short-handed,
Charge to fall and swim to drown.
Duty, friendship, bravery o'er,
Sleep away, lad; wake no more.
When I would muse in boyhood
The wild green woods among,
And nurse resolves and fancies
Because the world was young,
It was not foes to conquer,
Nor sweethearts to be kind,
But it was friends to die for
That I would seek and find.
I sought them and I found them,
The sure, the straight, the brave,
The hearts I lost my own to,
The souls I could not save.
They braced their belts around them,
They crossed in ships the sea,
They sought and found six feet of ground,
And there they died for me.
XXXVI - Revolution
West and away the wheels of darkness roll,
Day's beamy banner up the east is borne,
Spectres and fears, the nightmare and her foal,
Drown in the golden deluge of the morn.
But over sea and continent from sight
Safe to the Indies has the earth conveyed
The vast and moon-eclipsing cone of night,
Her towering foolscap of eternal shade.
See, in mid heaven the sun is mounted; hark,
The belfries tingle to the noonday chime.
'Tis silent, and the subterranean dark
Has crossed the nadir, and begins to climb.
I - 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.
When Israel out of Egypt came
Safe in the sea they trod;
By day in cloud, by night in flame,
Went on before them God.
He brought them with a stretched out hand
Dry-footed through the foam,
Past sword and famine, rock and sand,
Lust and rebellion, home.
I never over Horeb heard
The blast of advent blow;
No fire-faced prophet brought me word
Which way behooved me go.
Ascended is the cloudy flame,
The mount of thunder dumb;
The tokens that to Israel came,
To me they have not come.
I see the country far away
Where I shall never stand;
The heart goes where no footstep may
Into the promised land.
The realm I look upon and die
Another man will own;
He shall attain the heaven that I
Perish and have not known.
But I will go where they are hid
That never were begot,
To my inheritance amid
The nation that is not.
For these of old the trader
Unpearled the Indian seas,
The nations of the nadir
Were diamondless for these;
A people prone and haggard
Beheld their lightnings hurled:
All round, like Sinai, staggered
The sceptre-shaken world.
But now their coins are tarnished,
Their towers decayed away,
Their kingdom swept and garnished
For haler kings than they;
Their arms the rust hath eaten,
Their statutes none regard:
Arabia shall not sweeten
Their dust, with all her nard.
They cease from long vexation,
Their nights, their days are done,
The pale, the perished nation
That never see the sun;
From the old deep-dusted annals
The years erase their tale,
And round them race the channels
That take no second sail.
I promise nothing: friends will part;
All things may end, for all began;
And truth and singleness of heart
Are mortal even as is man.
But this unlucky love should last
When answered passions thin to air;
Eternal fate so deep has cast
Its sure foundation of despair.
The mill-stream, now that noises cease,
Is all that does not hold its peace;
Under the bridge it murmurs by,
And here are night and hell and I.
Who made the world I cannot tell;
'Tis made, and here I am in hell.
My hand, though now my knuckles bleed,
I never soiled with such a deed.
And so, no doubt, in time gone by,
Some have suffered more than I,
Who only spend the night alone
And strike my fist upon the stone.
How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.
To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
The world goes none the lamer
For ought that I can see,
Because this cursed trouble
Has struck my days and me.
The stars of heaven are steady,
The founded hills remain,
Though I to earth and darkness
Return in blood and pain.
Farewell to all belongings
I won or bought or stole;
Farewell, my lusty carcase,
Farewell, my aery soul.
Oh worse remains for others
And worse to fear had I
Than here at four-and-twenty
To lay me down and die.
Good creatures, do you love your lives
And have you ears for sense?
Here is a knife like other knives,
That cost me eighteen pence.
I need but stick it in my heart
And down will come the sky,
And earth's foundations will depart
And all you folk will die.
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.
'Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There's nothing much amiss, 'tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, 'tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship 'tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.'
Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith, 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour
The better for the embittered hour;
It will do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.
There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that sprang to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white's their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
— I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
Here Dead Lie We Because We Did Not Choose
Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
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;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
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.
Is My Team Plowing
"Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?"
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
"Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?"
Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.
"Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?"
Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep,
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
"Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?"
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
Please click here to read the Selected Poems of A. E. Housman.