The rainy Pleiads wester,
Orion plunges prone,
The stroke of midnight ceases,
And I lie down alone.
The rainy Pleiads wester,
And seek beyond the sea
The head that I shall dream of,
And 'twill not dream of me.
The constellation Pleiades - the Seven Sisters - sets in the west shortly before dawn in the late fall months, signalling the oncoming winter weather for civilizations that were guided by the stars. The constellation Orion follows after the sisters in heaven as the hunter Orion did on earth. This poem seems like echt Housman, with its sea and stars, its deep emotion held in by a strict structure, its spare lyricism, its stoic sense of loneliness and unrequited love. It seems like a deeply personal poem. And as children of the Romantics, we tend to think that this is what poetry is - what it must be: deeply personal, sprung directly from the writer's soul and closely linked to his or her daily life. But there's another tradition, dating in Western tradition back to the Greeks and Romans, one of which Housman, a classics scholar by profession, was well aware: that of building off existing tropes, revising, revisiting, and extending the work of past masters. And this very Housman-like poem is actually based closely on a centuries-old fragment from Sappho. Here it is in the Loeb Classical Library rendition:
The moon has set and the Pleiades; it is midnight, and time goes by, and I lie alone.
Sappho, Fragment 168B, translated by David A. Campbell
Since the purpose of the Loeb volumes is to provide a crib on the right-hand page for those working through the original Greek or Latin on the left, we can assume that this is a straightforward, fairly denotative version. Here's another rendition in English that takes a slightly more flexible approach. Several months ago I was suddenly gripped by a need to read Sappho in different translations; of all the ones I read, this is the version of this particular fragment that I found most haunting, most memorable as a stand-alone English poem:
Tonight I've watched
The moon and then
The night is now
goes; I am
in bed alone
Sappho, translated by Mary Barnard
Adding "Tonight I've watched" really sets the frame for this piece; it adds a note of self-awareness, as the speaker literally watches time, in the form of the regular movements of celestial bodies, pass her by. "The night is now half-gone" is equivalent to "it is midnight" and "youth goes" is surely the implication of "time goes by" but half-gone and youth goes emphasizes, in their repetition, the going, and though the moon and the Pleiades will continue their rounds, the watcher's youth will never come back. The line breaks slip downward and the stanza breaks emphasize the thoughts rising up in her sleepless night.
These lines make a very complete emotional statement, but of course, as with almost all of Sappho's surviving poetry, this is a fragment, and though the temptation is to read these lines as Sappho pouring her heart out, we have no idea what the actual context is (in fact, according to a note in the Loeb edition, some scholars reject the attribution to Sappho altogether). This might be a personal poem, it might be for some public ceremony, it might be about the speaker, or about someone else, it might be part of retelling a myth, it might be about any number of things. But does this really matter to us? This is what we have left, centuries later, and if the way the words are put together and the emotions they conjure are real and meaningful, do the personal and public pressures that went into these lines ultimately matter? (Leave it to a dramatist, and therefore a master of inventing intense emotions, to see the situation clearly: "What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?" Hamlet raises, but does not answer, the question; instead, he takes the emotions raised by the First Player's poetic speech and relates them back to his personal dilemmas and struggles.)
Back to what Housman did with this fragment. He brings out the atmospheric touch of the rain implicit in the mention of the Pleiades, and he changes the moon to Orion - another hunter, like the moon goddess Artemis/Diana, but one that never catches his prey - indeed, one who was punished for the pursuit. In Barnard's version of Sappho, it seems the speaker is already in bed, alone, lying awake (unable to sleep), pondering time - her life - passing her by. In Housman, just the conjunction "and" ("and I lie down alone") makes the speaker's lying down seem dependent on the stroke of midnight ceasing, as if he were waiting for something or someone and finally admitting to himself that nothing will happen and no one is coming.
Then Housman takes the Sapphic fragment and narrows the possibilities down to one: he makes it a poem about unrequited love. I'm fascinated by the use of "head" for the distant lover: there are several Housman-like possibilities that would have fit there: girl, lass, youth, lad, even one if he wanted to avoid specifying gender. Why is the loved one's existence reduced to a head? Specifying head reduces the physical aspects of the speaker's love, as if he is looking for an intellectual or emotional connection even more than a physical one (though he won't get any of them). It emphasizes the interior, unspoken and thoughtful, nature of the speaker's love, as if it exists only in his head, and may or may not ever be expressed outwardly. Given the loved object's distance and indifference, such expression seems unlikely. Whatever personal pressures and feelings went into Housman's, or Sappho's, urge to write their lines is mostly irrelevant for readers, for whom Housman's poem, like Sappho's fragment, now exists independently of the dead writers, as an arrangement of words waiting to strike a respondent chord in our possibly very different lives.
I took the Housman poem from this edition of his works, which appears to be out of print though available; there is also a Penguin edition. The Loeb Sappho is in Greek Lyric I: Sappho & Alcaeus. Mary Barnard's translation is available here.