Week 388: The Oracles, by A.E.Housman

A.E.Housman’s philosophy of stoic defiance in the face of adversity found perfect expression in the closing stanza of this poem with its celebration of the Spartan resistance at Thermopylae to the invading Persian army of Xerxes. It is, of course, not without irony that these warriors of a grim, unlovely and anything but democratic society should have come to stand as the ultimate symbol of democratic resistance to tyranny, but still, courage is courage, and it stirs and inspires us. Just as, in a more humane form, it stirs and inspires us today as our doctors, nurses and a volunteer army make their Spartan stand against another enemy out of the East.

Dodona, in a remote region of Greece, was the site of one of the main Greek oracles, second only to the one at Delphi. Rulers and heroes would make their way there to consult with the priestess before major enterprises, though the answers they got tended to be so unhelpfully ambiguous that one wonders why they bothered.

Why ‘benight the air’? The story in Herodotus goes that the Spartans were told how the archers of the Persian host discharged enough arrows to blot out the sun, to which their laconic reply was ‘Good, then we shall be fighting in the shade’.

The Oracles

‘Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain.
When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled.
And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain.
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I heard the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
‘Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that dies must drink it;
And oh, my lass the news is news that men have heard before.

The King with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands will die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.



9 thoughts on “Week 388: The Oracles, by A.E.Housman

  1. For that line I’ve got “When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled”. Is that not right? Also, in my copy the first three lines of the last verse are italicised. If you can’t italicise them put them in quotes?

  2. I think that the italicised section is an example of “news that men have heard before”. And the Spartans take no notice of it?

    • That’s right. This was the Spartan ethic, as memorably captured by John Buchan in his short story ‘The Lemnian’. ‘It appears they breed men in the islands’, he [Leonidas] said. ‘But you err. Death does not threaten. Death awaits us.’ And from recent events it appears that the Spartan spirit is not entirely dead. The Greeks might have phrased it more elegantly, but ‘F—k off, Russian warship’ they would have understood.

  3. Regarding “combed their hair”. From Herodotus: Demaratus (a Spartan exile at the Persian court) explains the Spartans’ behaviour to Xerxes: “These men have come to dispute the pass with us; and it is for this that they are now making ready. It is their custom, when they are about to hazard their lives, to adorn their heads with care”.

    • Yes. And compare the title of a 1941 novel about life in the Coldstream Guards, by the once popular but now, I suspect, long-forgotten writer Gerald Kersh, entitled ‘They Die With Their Boots Clean’.

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