Week 147: When I watch the living meet, by A.E.Housman

There was a catchphrase in my childhood ‘It’s being so cheerful keeps him going’, applied ironically to any particularly lugubrious utterance, and this can certainly seem the case with A.E.Housman, though it’s far from the whole picture. I found this little poem eerily disturbing when I first read it, since it seemed to suggest an afterlife with a kind of robotic sentience but not volition, and I have wondered if its closing lines provided part of the inspiration for the vision of the dry land of death that Ged and Arren cross in what for me is the most profound and satisfying of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ books, ‘The Farthest Shore’. I believe, however, that Le Guin herself has said that the debt is to a line in Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’.

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.

A.E.Housman

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