A. E. Housman: Selected Poems
This page contains selected poems of A. E. Housman. The following brief
introduction has been excerpted from an article on Housman by Tom Merrill:
Housman began writing poetry at age eight, while still at home under
tutelage of a governess, and then won a few awards for poems he wrote at The
Bomsgrove School, which he attended on scholarship for seven years before
entering Oxford on scholarship at age eighteen. During his college years he
wrote only three poems, not to resume poetry-writing until considerably
later, at age thirty-five, after a ten year stint as a clerk at the
Government Patent Office and a couple years after being appointed, in 1892,
to fill the Latin Chair at the University of London. The ease and naturalness
and perfect cadence of Housman’s poetry no doubt account for his enduring
stature as one of the foremost lyric poets of the past century and a half.
From "More Poems"
I - EASTER HYMN
If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
When Israel out of Egypt came
Safe in the sea they trod;
By day in cloud, by night in flame,
Went on before them God.
He brought them with a stretched out hand
Dry-footed through the foam,
Past sword and famine, rock and sand,
Lust and rebellion, home.
I never over Horeb heard
The blast of advent blow;
No fire-faced prophet brought me word
Which way behoved me go.
Ascended is the cloudy flame,
The mount of thunder dumb;
The tokens that to Israel came,
To me they have not come.
I see the country far away
Where I shall never stand;
The heart goes where no footstep may
Into the promised land.
The realm I look upon and die
Another man will own;
He shall attain the heaven that I
Perish and have not known.
But I will go where they are hid
That never were begot,
To my inheritance amid
The nation that is not.
For these of old the trader
Unpearled the Indian seas,
The nations of the nadir
Were diamondless for these;
A people prone and haggard
Beheld their lightnings hurled:
All round, like Sinai, staggered
The sceptre-shaken world.
But now their coins are tarnished,
Their towers decayed away,
Their kingdom swept and garnished
For haler kings than they;
Their arms the rust hath eaten,
Their statutes none regard:
Arabia shall not sweeten
Their dust, with all her nard.
They cease from long vexation,
Their nights, their days are done,
The pale, the perished nation
That never see the sun;
From the old deep-dusted annals
The years erase their tale,
And round them race the channels
That take no second sail.
I promise nothing: friends will part;
All things may end, for all began;
And truth and singleness of heart
Are mortal even as is man.
But this unlucky love should last
When answered passions thin to air;
Eternal fate so deep has cast
Its sure foundation of despair.
How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.
To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
The mill-stream, now that noises cease,
Is all that does not hold its peace;
Under the bridge it murmurs by,
And here are night and hell and I.
Who made the world I cannot tell;
'Tis made, and here I am in hell.
My hand, though now my knuckles bleed,
I never soiled with such a deed.
And so, no doubt, in time gone by,
Some have suffered more than I,
Who only spend the night alone
And strike my fist upon the stone.
The world goes none the lamer
For ought that I can see,
Because this cursed trouble
Has struck my days and me.
The stars of heaven are steady,
The founded hills remain,
Though I to earth and darkness
Return in blood and pain.
Farewell to all belongings
I won or bought or stole;
Farewell, my lusty carcase,
Farewell, my aery soul.
Oh worse remains for others
And worse to fear had I
Than here at four-and-twenty
To lay me down and die.
Ho, everyone that thirsteth
And hath the price to give,
Come to the stolen waters,
Drink and your soul shall live.
Come to the stolen waters,
And leap the guarded pale,
And pull the flower in season
Before desire shall fail.
It shall not last for ever,
No more than earth and skies;
But he that drinks in season
Shall live before he dies.
June suns, you cannot store them
To warm the winter's cold,
The lad that hopes for heaven
Shall fill his mouth with mould.
Crossing alone the nighted ferry
With the one coin for fee,
Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
Count you to find? Not me.
The brisk fond lackey to fetch and carry,
The true, sick-hearted slave,
Expect him not in the just city
And free land of the grave.
Good creatures, do you love your lives
And have you ears for sense?
Here is a knife like other knives,
That cost me eighteen pence.
I need but stick it in my heart
And down will come the sky,
And earth's foundations will depart
And all you folk will die.
Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all's over;
I only vex you the more I try.
All's wrong that ever I've done or said,
And nought to help it in this dull head:
Shake hands, here's luck, good-bye.
But if you come to a road where danger
Or guilt or anguish or shame's to share,
Be good to the lad that loves you true
And the soul that was born to die for you,
And whistle and I'll be there.
Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.
To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
`Good-bye,' said you, `forget me.'
`I will, no fear', said I.
If here, where clover whitens
The dead man's knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,
Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.
Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
Farewell to a name and a number
To darkness and silence and slumber
In blood and pain.
So ceases and turns to the thing
He was born to be
A soldier cheap to the King
And dear to me;
So smothers in blood the burning
And flaming flight
Of valour and truth returning
To dust and night.
XLVII - FOR MY FUNERAL
O thou that from thy mansion
Through time and place to roam,
Dost send abroad thy children,
And then dost call them home,
That men and tribes and nations
And all thy hand hath made
May shelter them from sunshine
In thine eternal shade:
We now to peace and darkness
And earth and thee restore
Thy creature that thou madest
And wilt cast forth no more.
From "Additional Poems"
When Adam walked in Eden young,
Happy, 'tis writ, was he,
While high the fruit of knowledge hung
Unbitten on the tree.
Happy was he the livelong day;
I doubt 'tis written wrong:
The heart of man, for all they say,
Was never happy long.
And now my feet are tired of rest,
And here they will not stay,
And the soul fevers in my breast
And aches to be away.
It is no gift I tender,
A loan is all I can;
But do not scorn the lender;
Man gets no more from man.
Oh, mortal man may borrow
What mortal man can lend;
And 'twill not end to-morrow,
Though sure enough 'twill end.
If death and time are stronger,
A love may yet be strong;
The world will last for longer,
But this will last for long.
He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,
And went with half my life about my ways.
When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did.
XII - AN EPITAPH
Stay, if you list, O passer by the way;
Yet night approaches; better not to stay.
I never sigh, nor flush, nor knit the brow,
Nor grieve to think how ill God made me, now.
Here, with one balm for many fevers found,
Whole of an ancient evil, I sleep sound.
'Tis five years since, `An end,' said I;
`I'll march no further, time to die.
All's lost; no worse has heaven to give.'
Worse has it given, and yet I live.
I shall not die to-day, no fear:
I shall live yet for many a year,
And see worse ills and worse again,
And die of age and not of pain.
When God would rear from earth aloof
The blue height of the hollow roof,
He sought him pillars sure and strong,
And ere he found them sought them long.
The stark steel splintered from the thrust,
The basalt mountain sprang to dust,
The blazing pier of diamond flawed
In shards of rainbow all abroad.
What found he, that the heavens stand fast?
What pillar proven firm at last
Bears up so light that world-seen span?
The heart of man, the heart of man.
The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.
Oh grant me the ease that is granted so free,
The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,
That relish their victuals and rest on their bed
With flint in the bosom and guts in the head.
Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.
Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they're haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.
Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.
XXII - R.L.S.
Home is the sailor, home from sea:
Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world.
Home is the hunter from the hill:
Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
And every fowl of air.
'Tis evening on the moorland free,
The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
The hunter from the hill.
From "Last Poems"
As I gird on for fighting
My sword upon my thigh,
I think on old ill fortunes
Of better men than I.
Think I, the round world over,
What golden lads are low
With hurts not mine to mourn for
And shames I shall not know.
What evil luck soever
For me remains in store,
'Tis sure much finer fellows
Have fared much worse before.
So here are things to think on
That ought to make me brave,
As I strap on for fighting
My sword that will not save.
IV - ILLIC JACET
Oh hard is the bed they have made him,
And common the blanket and cheap;
But there he will lie as they laid him:
Where else could you trust him to sleep?
To sleep when the bugle is crying
And cravens have heard and are brave,
When mothers and sweethearts are sighing
And lads are in love with the grave.
Oh dark is the chamber and lonely,
And lights and companions depart;
But lief will he lose them and only
Behold the desire of his heart.
And low is the roof, but it covers
A sleeper content to repose;
And far from his friends and his lovers
He lies with the sweetheart he chose.
V - GRENADIER
The Queen she sent to look for me,
The sergeant he did say,
`Young man, a soldier will you be
For thirteen pence a day?'
For thirteen pence a day did I
Take off the things I wore,
And I have marched to where I lie,
And I shall march no more.
My mouth is dry, my shirt is wet,
My blood runs all away,
So now I shall not die in debt
For thirteen pence a day.
To-morrow after new young men
The sergeant he must see,
For things will all be over then
Between the Queen and me.
And I shall have to bate my price,
For in the grave, they say,
Is neither knowledge nor device
Nor thirteen pence a day.
VI - LANCER
I 'listed at home for a lancer,
Oh who would not sleep with the brave?
I 'listed at home for a lancer
To ride on a horse to my grave.
And over the seas we were bidden
A country to take and to keep;
And far with the brave I have ridden,
And now with the brave I shall sleep.
For round me the men will be lying
That learned me the way to behave,
And showed me my business of dying:
Oh who would not sleep with the brave?
They ask, and there is not an answer;
Says I, I will 'list for a lancer,
Oh who would not sleep with the brave?
And I with the brave shall be sleeping
At ease on my mattress of loam,
When back from their taking and keeping
The squadron is riding at home.
The wind with the plumes will be playing,
The girls will stand watching them wave,
And eyeing my comrades and saying
Oh who would not sleep with the brave?
They ask, and there is not an answer;
Says you, I will 'list for a lancer,
Oh who would not sleep with the brave?
The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers
Stream from the hawthorn on the wind away,
The doors clap to, the pane is blind with showers.
Pass me the can, lad; there's an end of May.
There's one spoilt spring to scant our mortal lot,
One season ruined of our little store.
May will be fine next year as like as not:
Oh ay, but then we shall be twenty-four.
We for a certainty are not the first
Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled
Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed
Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.
It is in truth iniquity on high
To cheat our sentenced souls of aught they crave,
And mar the merriment as you and I
Fare on our long fool's-errand to the grave.
Iniquity it is; but pass the can.
My lad, no pair of kings our mothers bore;
Our only portion is the estate of man:
We want the moon, but we shall get no more.
If here to-day the cloud of thunder lours
To-morrow it will hie on far behests;
The flesh will grieve on other bones than ours
Soon, and the soul will mourn in other breasts.
The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.
Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what's to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I've done my best
And all's to do again.
The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man's bedevilment and God's?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
XIII - THE DESERTER
`What sound awakened me, I wonder,
For now 'tis dumb.'
`Wheels on the road most like, or thunder:
Lie down; 'twas not the drum.'
Toil at sea and two in haven
And trouble far;
Fly, crow, away, and follow, raven,
And all that croaks for war.
`Hark, I heard the bugle crying,
And where am I?
My friends are up and dressed and dying,
And I will dress and die.'
`Oh love is rare and trouble plenty
And carrion cheap,
And daylight dear at four-and-twenty:
Lie down again and sleep.'
`Reach me my belt and leave your prattle:
Your hour is gone;
But my day is the day of battle,
And that comes dawning on.
`They mow the field of man in season:
Farewell, my fair,
And, call it truth or call it treason,
Farewell the vows that were.'
`Ay, false heart, forsake me lightly:
'Tis like the brave.
They find no bed to joy in rightly
Before they find the grave.
`Their love is for their own undoing,
And east and west
They scour about the world a-wooing
The bullet to their breast.
`Sail away the ocean over,
Oh sail away,
And lie there with your leaden lover
For ever and a day.'
XV - EIGHT O'CLOCK
He stood, and heard the steeple
Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
One, two, three, four, to market-place and people
It tossed them down.
Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour,
He stood and counted them and cursed his luck;
And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength, and struck.
XVI - SPRING MORNING
Star and coronal and bell
April underfoot renews,
And the hope of man as well
Flowers among the morning dews.
Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter's pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains.
Easily the gentle air
Wafts the turning season on;
Things to comfort them are there,
Though 'tis true the best are gone.
Now the scorned unlucky lad
Rousing from his pillow gnawn
Mans his heart and deep and glad
Drinks the valiant air of dawn.
Half the night he longed to die,
Now are sown on hill and plain
Pleasures worth his while to try
Ere he longs to die again.
Blue the sky from east to west
Arches, and the world is wide,
Though the girl he loves the best
Rouses from another's side.
XVII - ASTRONOMY
The Wain upon the northern steep
Descends and lifts away.
Oh I will sit me down and weep
For bones in Africa.
For pay and medals, name and rank,
Things that he has not found,
He hove the Cross to heaven and sank
The pole-star underground.
And now he does not even see
Signs of the nadir roll
At night over the ground where he
Is buried with the pole.
The rain, it streams on stone and hillock,
The boot clings to the clay.
Since all is done that's due and right
Let's home; and now, my lad, good-night,
For I must turn away.
Good-night, my lad, for nought's eternal;
No league of ours, for sure.
To-morrow I shall miss you less,
And ache of heart and heaviness
Are things that time should cure.
Over the hill the highway marches
And what's beyond is wide:
Oh soon enough will pine to nought
Remembrance and the faithful thought
That sits the grave beside.
The skies, they are not always raining
Nor grey the twelvemonth through;
And I shall meet good days and mirth,
And range the lovely lands of earth
With friends no worse than you.
But oh, my man, the house is fallen
That none can build again;
My man, how full of joy and woe
Your mother bore you years ago
To-night to lie in the rain.
The night is freezing fast,
To-morrow comes December;
And winterfalls of old
Are with me from the past;
And chiefly I remember
How Dick would hate the cold.
Fall, winter, fall; for he,
Prompt hand and headpiece clever,
Has woven a winter robe,
And made of earth and sea
His overcoat for ever,
And wears the turning globe.
The sloe was lost in flower,
The April elm was dim;
That was the lover's hour,
The hour for lies and him.
If thorns are all the bower,
If north winds freeze the fir,
Why, 'tis another's hour,
The hour for truth and her.
XXV - 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 drowns 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.
The half-moon westers low, my love,
And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
And seas between the twain.
I know not if it rains, my love,
In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
You know no more than I.
Now dreary dawns the eastern light,
And fall of eve is drear,
And cold the poor man lies at night,
And so goes out the year.
Little is the luck I've had,
And oh, 'tis comfort small
To think that many another lad
Has had no luck at all.
Wake not for the world-heard thunder
Not the chime that earthquakes toll.
Star may plot in heaven with planet,
Lightning rive the rock of granite,
Tempest tread the oakwood under:
Fear you not for flesh nor soul.
Marching, fighting, victory past,
Stretch your limbs in peace at last.
Stir not for the soldiers drilling
Nor the fever nothing cures:
Throb of drum and timbal's rattle
Call but man alive to battle,
And the fife with death-notes filling
Screams for blood but not for yours.
Times enough you bled your best;
Sleep on now, and take your rest.
Sleep, my lad; the French are landed,
London's burning, Windsor's down;
Clasp your cloak of earth about you,
We must man the ditch without you,
March unled and fight short-handed,
Charge to fall and swim to drown.
Duty, friendship, bravery o'er,
Sleep away, lad; wake no more.
When I would muse in boyhood
The wild green woods among,
And nurse resolves and fancies
Because the world was young,
It was not foes to conquer,
Nor sweethearts to be kind,
But it was friends to die for
That I would seek and find.
I sought them and I found them,
The sure, the straight, the brave,
The hearts I lost my own to,
The souls I could not save.
They braced their belts around them,
They crossed in ships the sea,
They sought and found six feet of ground,
And there they died for me.
When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.
Now times are altered: if I care
To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here's the fair,
But where's the lost young man?
--- To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long 'tis like to be.
XXXVI - REVOLUTION
West and away the wheels of darkness roll,
Day's beamy banner up the east is borne,
Spectres and fears, the nightmare and her foal,
Drown in the golden deluge of the morn.
But over sea and continent from sight
Safe to the Indies has the earth conveyed
The vast and moon-eclipsing cone of night,
Her towering foolscap of eternal shade.
See, in mid heaven the sun is mounted; hark,
The belfries tingle to the noonday chime.
'Tis silent, and the subterranean dark
Has crossed the nadir, and begins to climb.
XXXVII - 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.
Tell me not here, it needs not saying,
What tune the enchantress plays
In aftermaths of soft September
Or under blanching mays,
For she and I were long acquainted
And I knew all her ways.
On russet floors, by waters idle,
The pine lets fall its cone;
The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing
In leafy dells alone;
And traveller's joy beguiles in autumn
Hearts that have lost their own.
On acres of the seeded grasses
The changing burnish heaves;
Or marshalled under moons of harvest
Stand still all night the sheaves;
Or beeches strip in storms for winter
And stain the wind with leaves.
Possess, as I possessed a season,
The countries I resign,
Where over elmy plains the highway
Would mount the hills and shine,
And full of shade the pillared forest
Would murmur and be mine.
For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know
What stranger's feet may find the meadow
And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
If they are mine or no.