Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Litmus Test War Poet

In my experience, connoisseurs of World War I poetry either love or detest  A.E. Housman.  [Full disclosure here: I discovered Housman's elegy "To an Athlete Dying Young" in high school and was a fan before I discovered WWI and the war poets.] Generally, I have found that those who particularly enjoy the early period Great War Poets (say, Rupert Brooke and John McRae) are in the pro camp and aficionados of the later, bitter and ironic phase (e.g. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon), tend to reject him.

Here are three examples of Housman's pertinent work:

"In Valleys Green and Still"

The soldier's is the trade:
         In any wind or weather
     He steals the heart of maid
         And man together.

"Here Dead We Lie" 

Here dead we lie 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.

"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.

Since I am a bit out of my depth here, I sought out some better informed commentary that might shed some light on this. I found these comments on Housman and "Here Dead We Lie" by critic Anthony Lane.

Housman has never really wilted out of fashion; “A Shropshire Lad,” his first and most celebrated book of poems, has remained in print since it was published, in 1896. After a slow start, it found particular favor during the Boer War, in which Housman lost a brother, and especially during the First World War, in which everyone lost brothers and sons. Housman was never Poet Laureate—he turned down almost all honors that came his way, managing to appear both lofty and lowly—but, to more than one generation, his poetry became an unofficial well of consolation:

That is Housman for you: the more simple, even heroic, the note he sounds—and the words of the poem above are as plain as crotchets on a stave—the more you catch a strain of discord or unease beating time below. After all, how consoling are those lines? If you were the parent of a dead soldier, Housman would give you plenty to take pride in; on the other hand, the poem—this is all it consists of—is spoken not by the mourners but by those who are mourned, and the last line, if read out loud, could easily sound bitter at the premature dashing of hopes.

From Anthony Lane, New Yorker, 19 February 2001


  1. Both interesting poems. I don't think I ever read Housman in school. But both poems strike a chord of one of an army mercenaries.

  2. Sorry to dash your hypothesis (or perhaps to be the awkward one in the squad!) but I enjoy both Housman and Sassoon, and their respective 'ilks'. However, if pressed, I would say that while Sassoon's (et al) vivid images may linger longer in the memory, Housman's (deceptively) simple, undemonstrative verses tend to stay longer in the heart, and for that reason I'd place him just in the lead. Or maybe it's a function of age: I used to go for symphonic/Sassoon; now my preference is for chamber/Housman. One could also note that Housman wrote from a desk, Sassoon and co from the trenches, and raise a theory or two on that point.

  3. You might not know that "epitaph on an army on mercenaries" was written about the BEF, regular soldiers of the British Army. What was left of the BEF was practically wiped out at the First Battle of Ypres, in October 1914, long before Kitchener's army of volunteers, and most of the Territorial Force units were ready to take the field.

  4. It's interesting that the men (the Old Contemptibles)were willing to do something God was not willing to do--hold things together. Nice comment on the received understanding of 'God'. DBeer

  5. I share your enthusiasm for Houseman. I have his collected works and I still read him occasionally just for pleasure. I also discovered him in college, in the 1940s. They go straight to the heart, as Brian Culross says.

    "'Tis mute the message that they came to hear beside the singing fountain,
    and echos list to silence now where Gods told lies of old."

    "Be still my soul, be still. The arms you bear are brittle..."
    ... and etc.

    Robert Warwick