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.

A.E.Housman

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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.

A.E.Housman

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.

A.E.Housman

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.

A.E.Housman