Housman is arguably the saddest of English poets of the 19th century, for the most memorable of his poems are elegies. He writes both of individual deaths and of the very fact of death. The best known poem in the former category, To an Athlete Dying Young, is also unusually a celebration of life, even though the theme is the escape from the fading of reputation
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.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
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.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
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.
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.
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.
The theme is not very convincing, in that no one would actually choose to lose his life while still famous. What comes through rather is Housman’s sudden transition to the ‘strengthless dead’ and their appreciation of being joined by someone still at the height of his powers.
The perspectives of the dead is indeed a constant subject of a poet apparently half in love with death. His reflections on death in the midst of life end with a harsh reminder of the solitude of the grave
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 5
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; 10
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 15
Never turns him to the bride.
Pressures in life, hate and lust, may be oppressive, but the depiction of the absence of contact that death brings is scarce consolation.
Even more bleak is his presentation of memories of a dead young man, wondering about how life goes on without him. The answers are not in quotation marks, but at the end we realize they are given by the friend whom he asks about at the end.
‘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.
The unexpected revelation of the last verse, though prepared by the previous answer, is a depressing reminder of the realities of life continuing after death.
More orthodox is Bredon Hill, with its matter of fact account of young lovers whose plans to marry never came to fruition. The image of the girl going alone to church, with mourners following, not a groom, is immensely moving. The unusual rhyme scheme contributes to the sense of afterthoughts that hold our attention, with the extra line at the end rhyming with the one before.
In summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear.
Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie,
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.
The bells would ring to call her
In valleys miles away:
‘Come to church, good people;
Good people, come and pray.’
But here my love would stay.
And I would turn and answer
Among the springing thyme,
‘Oh, peal upon our wedding,
And we will hear the chime,
And come to church in time.’
But when the snows at Christmas
On Bredon top were strown,
My love rose up so early
And stole out unbeknown
And went to church alone.
They tolled the one bell only,
Groom there was none to see,
The mourners followed after,
And so to church went she,
And would not wait for me.
The bells they sound on Bredon,
And still the steeples hum.
‘Come all to church, good people,’ —
Oh, noisy bells, be dumb;
I hear you, I will come.
All this romance, I should add, was in a sense artificial, for Housman was homosexual, as was apparent from both the title of his first book of poems, A Shropshire Lad, and the incessant presence in its pages of attractive young men. Houseman himself fell in love with a fellow undergraduate who was not homosexual nor compliant, and seems to have pined for him all his life, though there have been suggestions that, like many Englishmen of that era, he found both sex and romance in southern Europe. One of his most moving poems was clearly addressed to his student friend, Moses Jackson, whom he shared rooms with after they both left Oxford, but who did not let Housman know when he got married.
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;
Goodbye, 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
Let me end though with a jollier poem, Housman’s celebration of drink, with one of the most inspired lines on the subject that I know
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man
Though in theory this is in a poem about the value of poetry, the counter arguments are put with an energy that suggests Housman did see their merit, in one of the few celebrations of life he allowed himself
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.