Another of those lapidary Housman poems that I find slip so easily into the memory. In case anyone has forgotten the story, the youth Leander fell in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, and would swim across the Hellespont every night to spend time with her. Hero would light a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.
I particularly associate this poem with the early days of my marriage, when for the first seven weeks I had to live away on a residential training course, just coming home on a Friday evening and going back Sunday night. I remember quoting its lines to my wife one Sunday as I prepared to depart. She, who has always felt that self-dramatization in poets is not a tendency to be encouraged, suggested that a fifteen mile bike ride on a pleasant autumn evening was not quite the equivalent of swimming the Hellespont at night. I suppose she had a point.
Poem XV (from ‘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.