Week 547: Into my heart an air that kills, by A.E.Housman

Much as I have always admired George Orwell’s lucid prose, I have the feeling that he didn’t really ‘get’ poetry. There is evidence for this in his novel ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’, where he tries to get inside the head of his poet character Gordon Comstock (unlike the more prudent P.D.James who, as far as I recall, never made any attempt to demonstrate her detective poet Adam Dalgliesh’s prowess in his alternative occupation). It is clear that Orwell thought of poetry as some trick of thinking rather than a way of being – definitely a case of ‘Don’t give up the day job, Gordon’.

Orwell was, it seems to me, particularly wrong-headed about A.E.Housman in one of his essays in ‘Inside The Whale’. To quote: ‘In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the Shropshire Lad by heart. I wonder how much impression the Shropshire Lad makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever — probably that would be about all…. It just tinkles’.

Well, I was about seventeen in 1961 when I first read that essay, and also about seventeen when I first read Housman, and it struck me even at the time that it was a pity Orwell couldn’t have asked me – did he really think that seventeen year olds, as least those uncorrupted by any literary ideology, differed so much from generation to generation? No, it didn’t just tinkle then, and it doesn’t now, and I am pleased to observe that Housman has continued to occupy a high place in the regard not only of the public but also of many of my fellow-poets, so sucks to you, Orwell.

All of which is a preamble to presenting one of his best-loved lyrics, a perfect distillation of that emotion which the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’, a little more than mere nostalgia, an intense love and longing for a lost place, a lost culture, a lost past.


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

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


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

Week 438: ‘Tarry, delight’ by A.E.Housman

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.


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.


Week 344: From far, from eve and morning, by A.E.Housman

Another of my favourite A.E.Housman poems, from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. When I first read it I thought the ‘twelve-winded sky’ sounded mysteriously poetic but also a little puzzling: I supposed that one could divide the compass up how one wanted, but convention seemed to require four or eight winds. But that’s just the modern convention: the Greeks and Romans did indeed see the compass in terms of twelve points, each wind being given its own name: Boreas, Zephyrus etc.. It seems very appropriate for Housman the classical scholar to hark back to that, but he also manages in this poem to neatly prefigure a modern scientific idea about the stuff of life: that the atoms that make up our bodies were forged in the heart of stars and then borne hither on some cosmic wind to be assembled before dispersing again. 

From far, from eve and morning

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.


Week 274: On Wenlock Edge, by A.E.Housman

I walked along Wenlock Edge once. Still plenty of trees to be seen, but this was on a quiet evening of silver sun, far removed from Housman’s inner and outer weather. I suppose that Housman’s landscapes, compared with, say, those of Edward Thomas, may lack solidity and particularity, but for me they make up for it, as in this poem, with a luminous, time-layered, mythical quality.

On Wenlock Edge

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.


Week 199: To An Athlete Dying Young, by A.E.Housman

The Olympic Games are with us again, and as a one time runner myself of rather modest accomplishment – as many a poet must come sadly to accept, it is quite possible to be passionately devoted to a pursuit while having no great talent for it – I take as much pleasure as anyone in watching the world’s young strut their hour upon the global stage, bringing to mind those lines of Marlowe’s: ‘Is it not passing brave to be a king/And ride in triumph through Persepolis’ (or, as the case may be, Rio de Janeiro). And yet, how brief that hour really is, and how quickly our heroes and heroines must come to terms with physical decline and the anonymity of oblivion. For which of those golden lads and lasses, I wonder, will be remembered in a hundred years’ time, or even fifty? The mighty Bolt, maybe, in the way that some fabled racehorse is remembered. But all those others, now for a short while instantly recognisable by forename alone, Jess and Mo, Laura and Jason, Max and Adam, Alistair and Johnny? Almost certainly not. Well, as usual A.E.Housman has the words to match a mood tinged with rue.

To An Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.


Week 73: Far in a western brookland, by A.E.Housman

At seventeen, away from home for the first time, I walked by a river at night reciting this poem to myself. I don’t know why lines of such profound desolation, such hiraeth, should have been a comfort to me, but they were. 

Far in a western brookland
That bred me long ago
The poplars stand and tremble
By pools I used to know.

There, in the windless night-time,
The wanderer, marvelling why,
Halts on the bridge to hearken
How soft the poplars sigh.

He hears: no more remembered
In fields where I was known,
Here I lie down in London
And turn to rest alone.

There, by the starlit fences,
The wanderer halts and hears
My soul that lingers sighing
About the glimmering weirs.