Week 508: Her Strong Enchantments Failing, by A.E.Housman

The A.E. Housman psychodrama, featuring a somewhat romanticised stoicism or defiance of a hostile or at best uncaring universe, may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it has to be admitted that it finds a perfect expression in poems like this where he is able to harness the power of myth in the service of his own inner conflict.

I say ‘myth’, but there is a bit of a puzzle here. I had always assumed that the title of the mysterious and sinister ‘Queen of air and darkness’ was a traditional one – that Housman, renowned for his classical scholarship, was drawing on some appellation of, for example, Hecate, the goddess of the witches. The Wikipedia entry, however, identifies her with Morgause, the enchantress of Arthurian legend who is (unknown to him) Arthur’s half-sister and the mother of the ‘Orkney faction’, comprising Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. But this identification, I suspect, may be based purely on the work of T.H.White, who used it as the title of one of the books in his Arthurian quartet, and White may simply have taken the title from the Housman poem.

In short, I have been unable to find the phrase ‘queen of air and darkness’ existing before Housman, so suspect it is his own resonant invention, though no doubt inspired by traditional lore in some form. Do let me know if you can cast any further light on the matter.

‘limbecks’: a variant of ‘alembic’,  a kind of alchemist’s still, consisting of two vessels connected by a tube, used for the distillation of liquids.

‘towers of fear’: possibly an echo here of the Dark Tower in Browning’s poem, to which Childe Roland came. The poem, of course, predates Tolkien and his version of the Dark Tower, Barad-dûr.

Her strong enchantments failing

Her strong enchantments failing,
  Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dried of poisons
  And the knife at her neck,

The Queen of air and darkness
  Begins to shrill and cry,
‘O young man, O my slayer,
  To-morrow you shall die.’

O Queen of air and darkness,
  I think ’tis truth you say,
And I shall die to-morrow;
  But you will die to-day.

A.E. Housman

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