Sunday, June 28, 2015

The land of lost content - A. E. Housman sings the tunes that killed the cow

A. E. Housman is chronologically a poet of the 1890s, and since I have been reading some of them I took the excuse to revisit A Shropshire Lad (1896).  Any excuse is a good one, since he is a great favorite of mine.  Aesthetically, he is about as far from the elaborate, Decadent world of Dowson and Wilde as I can imagine.  The 1890s did not know what to do with Housman (although British composers liked his songful poems right away), but soon enough England learned, to its sorrow, that Housman had somehow, twenty years in advance, written a classic of war poetry, ready for when England needed it.

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.  (poem LIV)

Pure, melancholy lyric poetry as song-like as possible, with hints of old ballads and Robert Herrick but hardly anything to suggest composition in the 19th century, much less 1894.  I might even call Housman’s poems simple, grudgingly – the compliment, for me, is “complex” – but if the poems are so simple why are there so few like them?  Housman’s poetry is still much read but little studied.  Study seems pointless.  Memorization is rewarded, though.  Housman is easy to memorize.

Into my heart an air that kills
    From yon far country blows:
What are these blue remembered hills,
    What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
    I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
    And cannot come again.  (XL)

“Heart” is a favorite word.  So is “lad,” “man,” “young.”  Neither of the above has “grave” or “earth,” even though they are present in the first poem, veiled by metaphor.  At least the sad sack in the second poems is presumably alive.  Housman can become repetitive and morbid, sometimes comically so, especially when the 63 poems of A Shropshire Lad lead directly to Last Poems (1922) and the posthumous More Poems (1936), published much later but I believe mostly from Housman’s youth.  More young men wandering the earth or falling in love only to die.

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 left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
    There’s nothing but the night.  (LX)

I have included these little eight-liners simply in order to enjoy complete poems, but they rarely go over forty or fifty lines.  One that does, one of my favorites, is proof of Housman’s sense of humor about his low key excesses:

  ‘Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be 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.’  (LXII, ll. 1-10)

The poet spends the next sixty lines or so describing his method, comparing it to the taking of tiny doses of poison to build immunity for when, as is inevitable, your enemies try to assassinate you.  He also recommends beer as a cure for the ills untempered by poetry.

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.  (ll. 17-20)

The poetry will be more help on “the dark and cloudy day.”  Housman’s poems have never seemed so bitter or poisonous to me, though, but perhaps I had been previously immunized and thus developed a taste for mournful tunes.


  1. Housman is a poet of youth, mostly. Many of his poems would appeal to Goths and LOTR fans.

    Her strong enchantments failing,
    Her towers of fear in wreck,
    Her limbecks dried of poisons
    And the knife at her neck,

    The Queen of air and darkness
    Begins to shrill and cry,
    "O young man, O my slayer,
    To-morrow you shall die."

    O Queen of air and darkness,
    I think 'tis truth you say,
    And I shall die tomorrow;
    But you will die to-day.

    1. ...I shall die tomorrow;
      But you will die to-day.

      One of the best examples of the difference between "shall" and "will" I know.

      "More young men wandering the earth or falling in love only to die."

      You chose an unfortunate instance as an example when you chose "Now hollow fires burn out to black", Tom. It's surely an example of Housman's other theme- "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do", but more elegantly put; obedience to duty and the need to fulfil obligations. There were no doubt other reasons for Housman's obsession with soldiers and soldiering, but one of his brothers was a sergeant in the regular army.

    2. It's the last line - "There’s nothing but the night" - that is the one that kills the cow. But really that poem is about perfect. The first few lines are unusually specific and descriptive. Housman could be relying on something his brother told him or wrote to him.

      I forgot to mention Kipling. This one reminds me a bit of Kipling, another anti-1890s poet of the 1890s.

  2. A poet of youth, oh yes. "And the youth at morning shine." Even if the youth is in the distant past.

    The comparison sounds so odd, and it has only occurred to me because of your comment, but Housman, the poet, not the classicist, is a bit of a male Emily Brontë.

  3. That's why I come here! Insight. Yes, Housman is kind of a male Emily Brontë; and now that I think about it, so was Housman's greatest fan, Charles Kinbote, alleged king of Zembla.

  4. Yes, Kinbote has some of that Emily Brontë temperament.

    Kinbote's affection for Housman at one point made me doubt my own, but I have moved past that.

  5. As you say, there's little to connect Housman with the fin-de-siècle decadents, but the melancholy ballad-like lyrics don't seem too far from Hardy. Hardy's rhythms are admittedly a bit knottier and a bit more irregular, but Housman's poetry, and also Hardy's pre-1914, seem to be full of some sort of prophetic foreboding.

    Or perhaps it's best not searching out connections at all, and to take each wtiter on his or her own terms!

  6. Many connections with Hardy, whatever the differences in the two poets. Seems odd that Hardy's first book of poems comes two years after A Shropshire Lad, even if the poems were written 20 or 30 years earlier.

  7. If the aftermath of the An Lushan's revolution has taught us anything, it's that the poems most likely to survive societal collapse are short, musical (and thus easy to remember), and sentimental (in the good sense of the word). It wouldn't surprise me if, say, Lowell, Olson or Merrill are lost to the vagaries of history and Hardy and Housman endure.

  8. I have the same suspicion. May humanity remain baroque and decadent for a long, long time.