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Poet on Poet of the Week on Wednesday, 17 August 2022

A. E. Housman

Wendy Cope

It has been said of A. E. Housman (1859-1936) that he made despair beautiful. The despair in
these poems is that of a man facing life and death without religious belief, and without
marriage or a lover. Housman was a homosexual, in an age when homosexual behaviour was
punishable by imprisonment. The bleak music of his poems about lost, unrequited or impossible
love moves many readers, including me, to tears. Clive James has written of Philip Larkin,
'He faces the worst on our behalf, and brings it to order.' This is certainly true of Housman,
and it may explain the enduring popularity of his work.

Choosing my favourites has meant leaving out all the poems about lads going off to war (the
kind of thing that inspired Hugh Kingsmill's well-known parody 'What still alive at twenty-two,/
A clean upstanding chap like you?'). With more misgivings, I put aside much-anthologised nature
poems such as 'Tell me not now, it needs not saying' and 'On Wenlock Edge' - I like them less
than the poems below.

Housman was a classical scholar, Professor of Latin at University College, London and, later,
at Cambridge. He was a man of reserved and conventional demeanour. One of his sisters, on first
reading his poems, expressed surprise at the discovery that 'Alfred has a heart'. Some time
after I first discovered Alfred and his heart, I was delighted to find out that he also
possessed a rather ruthless sense of humour. The parody 'Fragment of a Greek Tragedy' shows
Housman at his funniest - I have included two extracts at the end of this selection.

Epigraph to 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.


A Shropshire Lad


Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

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.


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.


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.


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.


If truth in hearts that perish
      Could move the powers on high,
I think the love I bear you
      Should make you not to die.

Sure, sure, if stedfast meaning,
      If single thought could save,
The world might end to-morrow,
      You should not see the grave.

This long and sure-set liking,
      This boundless will to please,
 - Oh, you should live for ever
      If there were help in these.

But now, since all is idle,
      To this lost heart be kind,
Ere to a town you journey
      Where friends are ill to find.


White in the moon the long road lies,
      The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
      That leads me from my love.

Still hangs the hedge without a gust,
      Still, still the shadows stay:
My feet upon the moonlit dust
      Pursue the ceaseless way.

The world is round, so travellers tell,
      And straight though reach the track,
Trudge on, trudge on, 'twill all be well,
      The way will guide one back.

But ere the circle homeward hies
      Far, far must it remove:
White in the moon the long road lie
      That leads me from my love.


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

This is the land of lost content,
      I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
      And cannot come 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.


The Isle of Portland

The star-filled seas are smooth to-night
      From France to England strown;
Black towers above the Portland light
      The felon-quarried stone.

On yonder island, not to rise,
      Never to stir forth free,
Far from his folk a dead lad lies
      That once was friends with me.

Lie you easy, dream you light,
      And sleep you fast for aye;
And luckier may you find the night
      Than ever you found the day.


Last Poems


Could man be drunk for ever
      With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rouse at morning
      And lief lie down of nights.

But men at whiles are sober
      And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
      Their hands upon their hearts.


      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.


More Poems


Tarry, delight, so seldom met,
      So sure to perish, tarry still;
Forbear to cease or languish yet,
      Though soon you must and will.

By Sestos town, in Hero's tower,
      On Hero's heart Leander lies;
The signal torch has burned its hour
      And sputters as it dies.

Beneath him, in the nighted firth,
      Between two continents complain
The seas he swam from earth to earth
      And he must swim again.


Crossing alone the nighted ferry
      With the one coin for fee,
Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
      Count you to find? Not me.

The brisk fond lackey to fetch and carry,
      The true, sick-hearted slave,
Expect him not in the just city
      And free land of the grave.


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.


Additional Poems


It is no gift I tender,
      A loan is all I can;
But do not scorn the lender;
      Man gets no more from man.

Oh, mortal man may borrow
      What mortal man can lend;
And 'twill not end to-morrow,
      Though sure enough 'twill end.

If death and time are stronger,
      A love may yet be strong;
The world will last for longer,
      But this will last for long.


Fragment of a Greek Tragedy
 (lines 1-28; last 12 lines)

Alcmaeon. Chorus.
Cho. O suitably attired in leather boots
       Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
       Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
       To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
       My object in inquiring is to know.
       But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
       And do not understand a word I say,
       Nod with your hand to signify as much.
Alc. I journeyed hither a Boeotian road.
Cho. Sailing on horseback or with feet for oars?
Alc. Plying by turns my partnership of legs.
Cho. Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
Alc. Mud's sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.
Cho. To learn your name would not displease me much.
Alc. Not all that men desire do they obtain.
Cho. Might I then hear at what your presence shoots?
Alc. A shepherd's questioned mouth informed me that -
Cho. What? for I know not yet what you will say.
Alc. Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
Cho. Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.
Alc. - This house was Eriphyla's, no one's else.
Cho. Nor did he shame his throat with hateful lies.
Alc. May I then enter, passing through the door?
Cho. Go, chase into the house a lucky foot.
       And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
       And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
       For that is very much the safest plan.
Alc. I go into the house with heels and speed.


Eriphyla (within). O, I am smitten with a hatchet's jaw;
       And that in deed and not in word alone.
Cho. I thought I heard a sound within the house
       Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
Eri. He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
       Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.
Cho. I would not be reputed rash, but yet
       I doubt if all be gay within the house.
Eri. O! O! another stroke! That makes the third.
       He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
Cho. If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
       But thine arithmetic is quite correct.
Taken from 'Poets on Poets'...
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