Week 219: Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries, by A.E.Housman

I do have a strong preference for poems that seem to me to be not just eloquent but true, by which I mean, I suppose, in accordance with the facts of life as I perceive them. Because of this these two poems taken in combination give me an acute case of cognitive dissonance, since both are eloquent and I feel that both have something to be said for them, yet their viewpoints could hardly be more diametrically opposed. As a peace-loving child of risk-adverse times, I count it one of the blessings of my life that my country has allowed me to get to a fairly advanced age without requiring me to get myself killed or, a prospect I view with an almost equal lack of enthusiasm, to kill anybody else. To that extent, I am with MacDiarmid. But then I am minded of the quote (often attributed to Orwell, though it appears he never used these exact words) ‘We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us’. One also has to consider that while Housman may have been somewhat given to the romanticisation of things military, in a way that became rather more difficult after World War I and the reports of poets who had actually seen the face of modern warfare, this possible flaw in his moral stance is surely far outweighed by MacDiarmid’s adulation of totalitarian Russia: the proposition that Stalin’s regime was a better bet than Housman’s ‘Old Contemptibles’ when it came to preserving ‘elements of worth’, seems, to put it mildly, dubious. So, in the end, Housman for me.

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

A.E. Housman

Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride,
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and their impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

Hugh MacDiarmid

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Week 147: When I watch the living meet, by A.E.Housman

There was a catchphrase in my childhood ‘It’s being so cheerful keeps him going’, applied ironically to any particularly lugubrious utterance, and this can certainly seem the case with A.E.Housman, though it’s far from the whole picture. I found this little poem eerily disturbing when I first read it, since it seemed to suggest an afterlife with a kind of robotic sentience but not volition, and I have wondered if its closing lines provided part of the inspiration for the vision of the dry land of death that Ged and Arren cross in what for me is the most profound and satisfying of Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’ books, ‘The Farthest Shore’. I believe, however, that Le Guin herself has said that the debt is to a line in Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’.

When I watch the living meet,
And the moving pageant file
Warm and breathing through the street
Where I lodge a little while,

If the heats of hate and lust
In the house of flesh are strong,
Let me mind the house of dust
Where my sojourn shall be long.

In the nation that is not
Nothing stands that stood before;
There revenges are forgot,
And the hater hates no more;

Lovers lying two and two
Ask not whom they sleep beside,
And the bridegroom all night through
Never turns him to the bride.

A.E.Housman