09 November 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/45

"Is my team ploughing,
     That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
     When I was man alive?"

Ay, the horses trample,
     The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
     The land you used to plough.

"Is football playing
     Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
     Now I stand up no more?"

Ay, the ball is flying,
     The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
     Stands up to keep the goal.

"Is my girl happy,
     That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
     As she lies down at eve?"

Ay, she lies down lightly,
     She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
     Be still, my lad, and sleep.

"Is my friend hearty,
     Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
     A better bed than mine?"

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
     I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
     Never ask me whose.

A E Housman

This poem is from Housman's celebrated collection A Shropshire Lad. Even though it was published in 1896, you can see why it became particularly popular during and after the First World War, which ended 97 years ago this Wednesday, 11 November (celebrated as Veterans Day in the United States). The collection's pervasive and deeply emotional, even erotic, engagement with young men and death struck a chord in a country devastated by the loss (to death or lasting wounds, physical and psychological) of a generation of young men. Although there is not much religious comfort offered, that also suited a generation made cynical about pieties by the war. (This pointed avoidance of the expected Victorian religious uplift may have helped the poems seem modern despite their very traditional form and language.) But the work does suggest some sort of continuity with an after-life, as in this poem, in which a man speaks to the spirit of his dead comrade, though I wouldn't call the conversation consoling.

A Shropshire Lad also offers an ideal view of England: written at the height of the British Empire, we are presented instead with an intensely local, pastoral setting, in which the complications and pains are the ever-lasting ones of loss, death, grief, and betrayal, rather than the complications of, say, modern urban capitalist alienation. (This is not a negative criticism of the collection, in my view; writers write what speaks to them, and that's what produces work of value and interest. But you can see why these poems appeal to some readers as a kind of authentic England, shorn of imperial and industrial complications.) Even when published the poems were considered "old-fashioned" in their style and language; unconnected to the Decadent Movement or to increasingly influential contemporary French poetry or other movements towards the birth of Modernism, Housman's poems speak with a formal purity and concision of language that may strike us not so much as old-fashioned as nearly close to timeless, or as timeless as any human artifact can get. This is less of a problem for later readers than it is for contemporary ones, who are more concerned with what is current and new. Everything changes and it matters less to us, who read later on, where writers fit with the movements of their times. In fact, the great writers create their times for us, no matter how out-of-step or obscure or elitist they seemed in their own day.

This is an England in which the land is still plowed by farmers driving teams of horses. The call-and-response structure of the poem starts with the dead man asking about his team of horses. In four brief lines in the first quatrain, we are told that the speaker is dead (used to drive, but that could imply he's simply moved elsewhere, so we also get When I was man alive), that he is recently dead (it's reasonable for him to think his horses are still at work), and that he was a rural man, a farm-worker. The jingling harnesses are one of those details that bring the scene vividly before us (vividly and, to many readers, picturesquely; this is not the daily life we lead).

The dialogue proceeds with mounting emotional intensity. After asking about his horses, the dead man asks about his friends, the other young men he played football with. (Football would be what Americans think of as soccer.) After that he asks about his girlfriend, remembering her grief as he was dying. The speaker suggests, as tactfully as you can say such a thing, that she has moved on: she is now well contented (which is gentler than the happy that the dead man used in his question). And at this point the drama increases a bit: for the first time, the living man suggests to the dead one that he should not ask any further questions: Be still, my lad, and sleep. But the dead man persists, asking about the living man himself, his friend. And the answer brings up complicated questions about grief and endurance and moving on in the face of death and pain – or maybe about indifference and a sort of betrayal.

It's interesting that the question about his friend comes after the one about his girlfriend. Partly this is so that the poem can end with the revelation that the living man and the girlfriend are now a couple. But given the increasing emotional charge of the questions, and the reference to sharing a bed, there's pretty clearly an erotic suggestion here as well, even surpassing the one between the man and his girlfriend. The dead man, perhaps with some surviving jealousy, asks if his friend has found a better bed than mine to sleep in. The friend replies that he lie[s] as lads would choose: perhaps the implication there is that the dead man's love, at least in its possibly erotic aspect, was to some extent unrequited. The somewhat odd use of pine (Now I am thin and pine) strengthens this idea: pine, which is used here roughly in the sense of I have pined away, suggests physical and mental decline, particularly as caused by a broken heart; it also suggests to pine, as in to long (unsuccessfully) for someone, usually in a romantic sense. (There may also be a "reference by resonance" to a coffin made of pine wood.)

It's important to note, though, that sharing beds was not uncommon among friends through the early twentieth century, especially in rural areas. It's also important to note that A Shropshire Lad was published the year after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison for "gross indecency" in one of the notorious scandals of the day. Sexual relations between men were criminal in Britain and would remain so until 1967, much too late for Wilde or Housman. Since the collection was self-published, it seems unlikely that Housman would put himself in legal and professional danger: that is, the same-sex elements of the poems could, in the context of the time, be seen either as a deep (but non-physical) friendship between two men, or as an erotic attachment (however one-sided or temporary) between them. Though I am resistant to reducing all male emotions to sexual ones, and resistant to forcing an interpretation on a poem based on what we know, or think we know, about an author's life, it seems to me that at this point it would be foolish to deny that element in this poem, or to deny that it enriches the emotional complexity of this dialogue between the living and the dead. But we should also remember that in a society intensely fearful and contemptuous of gay male relationships, thousands read these poems without suspicion and loved them enough to make them an enduring icon of an ideal England and to use them to mourn their war-time dead. So that element is there in them to the extent that each reader wants to see it. Ultimately we take from poems what we individually find useful.

Given A Shropshire Lad's popularity and cultural standing, it's not surprising that selections from it have been set to music by many English composers. The most famous is perhaps that by George Butterworth, one of the young artists killed during war (he saw action in France). I have heard this song, with its alternation between the living and ghostly voices, sung to devastating effect by artists such as Simon Keenlyside, Ian Bostridge, and Gerald Finley.

There are many editions of A Shropshire Lad, including some very elegant limited editions; I took this from The Collected Poems of A E Housman.

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