Creation and Criticism
a literary e-journal
Creation and Criticism
(A Quarterly International Peer-reviewed Refereed e-Journal
Devoted to English Language and Literature)
Myths and Allusions in A.E. Housman’s Poetry
Dr Md Jawed Akhtar
This paper critically reassesses the nature of Housman’s poetry vis-à-vis the applications of myths and allusions in his poetry. As a classically trained poet drawing on several types of poetic techniques at his disposal, he seems to deliberately and effectively use in his poetry myths and allusions drawn from the classical literatures and the Bible to elaborate his moods, emotions, visions and religious beliefs. He often modifies, reinterprets and recreates the biblical narratives in order to suit his thoughts and attitudes. His childhood learnings of the Bible and other religious texts enable his to use them the way he likes. The distinctive use of this feature in his poetry separates him from the rest of the 1890s poets and poetry and thereby brings him closer to the modernist poets. However, his poetry does not show the experimentations and innovations which characterise modern poetry. The way he employs various literary figures in his poetry, nevertheless, strongly indicates that he is a precursor of the modernism in twentieth century poetry.
Key words: crucifixion, resurrection, blasphemy, biblical narratives
The poets from Chaucer onwards have profusely drawn for the metaphors, symbols, images, myths and allusions on the biblical and classical literary sources to express their feelings and ideas in their creative works. Further, they have drawn on this poetic spiritus mundi largely in traditional ways. Housman has drawn on these sources, if not in modern ways, but in his own unique ways. His dexterous handling of these sources contradicts his critics’ remark about his poetry being an expression of “simplicity and directness.” Many recent critics, such as Ricks, Keith Jebb, B.J. Leggett and Harold Bloom have indicated the structural and textual complexity in his poetry only to be analysed aptly by the modern critical tools.
The distinctive use of myths and allusions in Housman’s poetry suggests that he has consciously employed them to convey his thoughts and visions, and moods and motifs. It is not that he was unaware of the contemporary literary experiments and innovations being carried out by such eminent writers, as Joyce, Eliot and Pound, etc. He does not use myths and allusions only for decorative purposes, but he modifies, recreates and reinterprets them or even inextricably weaves them in the texture of his poems, like the modernists or the symbolists, complicating their formal and syntactic structures.
The close study of his poetry shows that Housman draws on two types of sources for myths and allusions – the biblical texts and the Classical texts; the Biblical myths are related to Adam and Eve, Christ, Moses and Lot, etc whose narratives constitute an integral element in the Old Testament; he also uses Classical myths from ancient Greek, Roman and Latin literatures to illustrate his moods, emotions, thoughts and religious beliefs. This paper, however, looks at various ways and purposes for which Housman has employed the biblical myths and allusions in his poetry.
Housman’s characteristic technique of allusion finds a beautiful application in 1887(ASL-I), the opening poem of his first volume of poetry A Shropshire Lad (1896).The introductory poem opens with an allusion to Milton’s Paradise Lost (Bk. II). The parallels between the two works, the celebration of the fallen angels in the “Paradise Lost” and the celebration of the soldiers in 1887 are revealing and provide a new perspective to view A Shropshire Lad. The first line of “1887” describing the sky illuminated by the bonfires on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s fiftieth year of reign echoes Milton’s line “From either end of Heaven the welkin burns” (Line 538) which becomes “From Clee to heaven the beacon burns” / The shires have seen it plain (line 1-2). The crux of this poem is located in the contrast between the attitudes of those who sing “God save the queen” and the one, in the midst of celebration, remembers “… friends of ours/Who shared the work with God,” the soldiers who now lie dead in foreign lands as victims of Fate in their pious efforts in saving and expanding the kingdom of the Queen, like the celebration of war games of the fallen angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost:
God save the Queen” we living sing,
From height to height 'tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third. (Lines 25-28,Collected Poems by Ricks)
Housman, however, does not justify the ways of God, like Milton. Yet on a less lofty scale, he attempts a task similar to Milton’s for both poets are concerned with the loss of the paradise of innocence, be it Eden or Shropshire (Leggett Land of Lost Content 82.).The soldiers are ‘saviours’ of the Queen’s empire, but ironically enough, they could not save themselves: “The saviours come not home to-night:/ Themselves they could not save” (lines 15-16). The parallel between Christ and the soldier is recurrent in Housman’s poetry, and he tinges it with ironic undertone.Through the deadpan irony of the final stanza, the poet clearly suggests that God will not save the Queen directly, nor through the intercession of His son (bitter irony), but through the sons, the soldiers, because they are all “modern Christs” who sacrifice their lives for the sake of the Queen or her kingdom. It is, in one way, as Ricks and Bayley point out, deliberately blasphemous because the supreme sacrifice of Christ is likened to that of the common British soldiers.
In “Farewell to barn and stack and tree” (ASL-VIII) Housman presents the story of the murdered brother named Maurice and his unnamed brother, the murderer who tells it to his friend, Terence. The basic element of the narrative may be traced back to the biblical Cain-Abel narrative. The ingredients of the Scottish border ballads – the murder, the indication of the hanging of the murderer, the jealousy behind the murder, departure of the murderer form the land, reference to Lammastide, racing on the green, etc perfectly blended with the Cain-Abel myth simply indicate Housman’s marvelous expertise in handling numerous threads to weave its poetic structure. The pastoral mode of expression in the poem emphasises Terence’s discovery of death as the only reality in this world.
The evocation of the Cain-Abel narrative with its consequent Fall intensifies the moment of guilt leading to the departure of the unnamed brother for ever from this world of innocence, and he, therefore, bids farewell to “…barn and stack and tree,” “Severn shore” as well as Terence (his Shropshire friend);
“Farewell to barn and stack and tree,
Farewell to Severn shore.
Terence, look your last at me,
For I come home no more.
“Long for me the rick will wait,
And long will wait the fold,
And long will stand the empty plate,
And dinner will be cold.”
Through this narrative Housman seems to suggest that that this world is full of guilt, crime, shame and sin and hence no longer a place to stay on. This necessitates the departure of the murderer friend from Shropshire.
Drawing symbols, imagery and parallels from the Bible Housman reverses the biblical myth of Christ’s crucifixion in The Carpenter’s Son (ASL-XLVII). Apoetic allusion usually functions to familiarise the unfamiliar, but the parallel motif about the Carpenter’s son being executed for love, serves rather to defamiliarise the familiar(S.G. Andrews).Using the pastoral version of the Christ to be hanged between two thieves and employing the ambiguous title and some phrases in the text such as “gallows-tree” (for Cross), “dangled” (for hung), “love” (of what nature – for male or female or for the humanity to save) Housman connects the crime of loving to execution. Adnan Raza indicates that the poem treats the selfless and the universal love, strangely enough, as a crime, the punishment for which is hanging (75):
Here the hangman stops his cart:
Here hang I, and right and left
Two poor fellows hang for theft:
All the same's the luck we prove,
Though the midmost hangs for love.
Make some day a decent end,
Shrewder fellows than your friend.
Fare you well, for ill fare I:
Live lads, and I will die.
The biblical issue of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is extended and complicated further in Easter Hymn (MP-I). Here, Christ is directly referred rather than being alluded to throughdirect images. What is noteworthy here is thatHousmanis almost baffled by Christ’s personality, not as a prophet or redeemer of humanity, but as a person whose efforts in alleviating pains of the people went in vain.So he seems to be full of pity for Christ. It is clear from the pathos deliberately employed in the first stanza with the depiction of Jesus as a man who died to quench hatred from the world. However, his sacrifice, suffering and death,unfortunately, could only instigate hatred (“fan”) among fighting Roman Christian communities:
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. (Lines 1-6)
The second stanza depictsJesus rising from the grave and sitting on the right hand side of God. He remembers the tears, agony and bloody sweat and his crucifixion for the humanity:
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. (Lines 7-12)
The bitter irony and pathos is cleverly concealed in the title as well as in the last few phrases (“…see and save”) through which Housman tries to debate the issue of Christ’s resurrection. As the title suggests, the poem is supposed to be making a prayer to Christ; but it is nota prayer at all. As it is mentioned in the text, that Christ should ‘Bow hither out of heaven and see and save,’ as his crucifixion, sacrifice and love for humanity were all in vain. But how? In the only real way, by generating oblivion, the gift of eternal death, such as Christ himself must now yearn for. The hymn does not say this. If Christ were really there, eternal and immortal, he could redeem us through his resurrection, as he himself promised. But having lost his Christian faith, the poet can only reduce such a great personality and a prophet to a common man whose efforts in lessening communal riots went in vain. So expecting ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’ from such person is rather a little too high demand from humanity. When disbelief has gone, as it probably had with Housman, there is no point in our objecting to the idea of the other possibility – salvation.
Housman, having already robbed Jesus Christ of his divine ability for salvation and redemption through his crucifixion and suffering, deprives the prophet Lot of his Prophet-hood in the lyric “Half-way, for one commandment broken” (MP-XXXV). Here also hereverses the biblical myth:
Half-way, for one commandment broken,
The woman made her endless halt,
And she today, a glistening token,
Stands in the wilderness of salt.
Behind, the vats of judgment brewing
Thundered, and thick the brimstone snowed:
He to the hill of his undoing
Pursued his road.
A simple but concocted story of the prophet Lot and his wife recorded in the tampered form of the Old Testamentcontains several features of Housman’s nature of belief and his sense of divine justice. After God’s command to leave the city of Sodom before its destruction, Lot’s wife breaks a single commandment, looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt on the shore of the Dead Sea; For Housman, it is rather an extreme punishment for wanting a last, farewell glimpse of her home town in the process of being destroyed. Following her transformation, Lot continues towards his own destiny, which involves becoming drunk, committing incest with his daughters and through them fathering the race of Moab from which later was to arise Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David and through her king David.
The ironic mood and tone of contempt for Divine injustice are apparent throughout the poem. The close reading of the poem throws ample light on Housman’s nature of belief and his sense of Divine injustice. First, Lot’s wife was punished for breaking just ‘one’ (only one) commandment. Secondly, Lot was also punished for his basic nature of human being’s susceptibility to drink and sexual temptation. The importance lies not in who broke what law, but rather in the fact that a law was broken, and in the inevitability of the punishment for such a transgression of a prohibition which may seem minor, even unreasonable or illogical. Here the prohibition concerns not man’s relationship with society or fellow men but with God. The punishment for refusing this obedience is not “jail, and gallows or hell fire” but metamorphosis into a mineral form. It is not society that wrests individuals to its will; it is God himself.
Carol Efrati suggests that the woman halts eternally because she has looked back. The man proceeds to his disaster because he moves on without contemplating the past (A Reassessment192). Flieger, however, remarks that “to look back with regret, like Lot’s wife, is to risk losing the capacity and will to go forward” (155) and “to go into future without first assimilating the past is to risk losing the wisdom and experience to choose one’s path wisely” (Efrati193).In this reading, the under-text implies that ‘the woman’ was so tied to the past that she could not go forward, whereas the man, turning his back upon the past, could only go blindly towards his doom. To be tied to history and to ignore it is both equally responsible for destruction.What Housman seems to be suggesting through this poem is that Lot’s own actions were at least as sinful as those of the destroyed Sodomites. The nature of metaphoric implication in the use of the word ‘undoing’ is specified and refers to ‘intoxication and incest’ as committed by Lot with his daughters. His susceptibility to drink and sexual temptation, revealed ‘on the hill of his undoing’ is due to his basic nature; and one’s basic nature can only be ascribed to God that made him. The under-text thus implies that God’s justice is fundamentally flawed and unjust. This is not only an anti-Christian stand but a blasphemous remark implicit in several other poems too.
Housman’s explicit handling of the biblical narratives suggests that he identifies himself with those who are in some way the victims of Divine as well as human injustice. He sees little difference between the “laws of God” and “laws of man.” Both are equally unjust. His sympathies, therefore, has always been with the victim (culprit/sinner/criminal, etc). Further, Housman’s atheism and his deliberate rejection of the Christian faith are not illogical, but reasonable in his own way.
The use of the biblical narratives enables Housman to correlate them to his own situations. The lyric “When Israel out of Egypt came” (MP-II) is yet another poem in which the biblical narrativehas been reversed. The persona, in this poem of exile and abandonment, yearns for what is attainable only in the imagination not in reality, and identifies himself alternatelywith the prophet Moses, the people of Israel as well as the poet, thereby complicating the formal and syntactic structure of the poem.The punishment for the prophet Moses in breaking the express command of God while coercing the rock to yield water during Exodus is that he is deprived of the entry into ‘the promised land.’ First, the persona of the first two stanzas standing on Mount Sinai (Horeb) is the isolated, individual ‘I’ who compares his state with that of collective, communally tribal ‘Israel’. With stanza 5 the locale shifts from Mount Sinai to Mount Nevo, as the focus shifts from the collective, ‘Israel’ to the individual Moses, who then modulates into ‘I’, the poet-persona. It was Moses who looked upon a land of promise for which his heart yearned but which, forbidden to him because of his disobedience to God’s command, was promised to his successor, Joshua. It was from mount Nevo that, dying, he looked upon ‘the realm’ to the west and there he died. There are now two mounts involved in the poem: Nevo for Moses and ‘Pisgah,’ the field above Housman’s home in Fockbury, from which as a child he was accustomed to look at his own promised land, Shropshire, his land of lost content. These two vantage points are merged in the stanza 5, as the biblical Promised Land is implicitly merged with Shropshire, and the prophet-persona modulates into the poet-persona:
I see the country far away
Where I shall never stand;
The heart goes where no footstep may
Into the promised land.
But I will go where they are hid
That never were begot,
To my inheritance amid
The nation that is not. (Lines 17-28)
Housman identifies himself with the prophet because he, in fact, sees an echo of himself in Moses. Like the prophet, he had glimpsed the ‘promised land’ which was forbidden to him by God’s decree. Moses Jackson, the man he loved passionately, was forbidden to him as Canaan to Moses, and he, like Moses, had to content himself with the sight only. Like Moses, he too was permitted only to gaze longingly at what he was forbidden by God to possess, not in his case by the death like Moses but by ‘the laws of God’ and ‘the laws of man.’The denial of the Promised Land to the poet-persona could be a reference to his friend’s (Moses Jackson) marriage (giving ‘ownership’ of the land to another man) and departure from England to India, exiling him psychologically. Housman does not only identify with the prophet Moses but also with the people of Israel as a whole, condemned to a long exile, after Moses’ death, for another forty years in the wake of starting the worship of the golden calf after Moses’ temporary departure to mount Sinai. As indicated in stanza 7, Housman does not consider himself to be an orthodox Christian who sees the “… inheritance amid / The nation that is not”; that is the external exile, like the people of Israel, scorned, dispersed, apparently abandoned by God. Housman too felt that he had been abandoned by God and by Moses Jackson who are in a sense conflated – Moses, the ‘man of God’, is united on one side with Moses Jackson, Housman’s personal God, and on the other side with the forsaken poet himself.
Human life is characterized by alternating bliss and sorrow: neither of these two is of lasting nature; human life itself is not lasting and permanent. It is always beset by several changes - death being superior one which can cut the thread of life anytime. The lyric “When Adam walked in Eden young” (AP-III) explores the inevitability of death using the biblical myth of Adam and Eve.
Adam was living in paradise with Eve along with the eternal primordial bliss and happiness; he did not need anything else, yet he dared taste “the fruit of knowledge/ hung unbitten on the tree” (line 3-4). Consequently, they were banished from paradise and thrown into this world. Once again, Housman inverts or even falsifies the biblical myth of Adam. He stands the biblical narrative of Adam on its head, reversing the mood, the intentions and the entire moral of the story. Adam’s heart, and the heart of all human beings for that matter, was never contented even with primordial bliss in heaven; it was this discontent which aroused the urge for tasting the fruit. Thus human beings, by nature, do not like the permanence of anything – sorrow or bliss: “The heart of man, for all they say,/Was never happy long” (Lines 5-8).Housman questions the biblical account of life in pre-lapsarian Eden, for Adam, being the prototypical man, must have found, as all men do, that happiness is at best temporary. “It was not the eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree which caused him lose his primordial bliss; rather it was a lack of potential for continuing contentment in the primordial bliss which caused him to eat the fruit”(Efrati Critical Essays189).In the third stanza, Housman puts himself in the place of Adam and sees Adam’s restlessness and discontentment reflected in himself, for ‘he’ of the first two stanzas becomes ‘my’ in the last stanza; post-lapsarian man’s discontentment with his conditions and modern discontent is only a reflection or continuation of Adam’s, the natural state of all mankind.After living long enough in this world, there is a need to pass on to something else. The ‘I’ persona, identified as Housman, is ready ‘now’ to die, to quit his body and the world and ‘to be away’ into the other world:
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. (Lines 9-12)
Housman draws imagery from the Bible to explain, not only his religious belief, but also the nature of his poetry he has created. He describes poetry in“I hoed and trenched and weeded” (ASL-LXIII) as a product of the soil itself. The shift of imagery from brew or malt (in the previous poem of apologia) to plant and seed or flower carries new suggestions. The poems are now plants which spring from the soil through the care and attention of the poet. Through this imagery Housman’s poetry achieves the permanence of physical nature which in the succession of the seasons experiences a rebirth: “I hoed and trenched and weeded, / …The hue was not the wear.”The seed metaphor carriesseveral implications; the flowers bear seeds, which will be sown about the land. The allusion to Christ’s parable of the sower of seeds in the lines “Some seed the birds devour, /And some the season mars,/But here and there will flower…” is suggestive of the poet’s parable of the value of his poetry. Christ explained that his parable of the sower should be interpreted as an account of the reception of his words among the people who followed him. Housman’s parable may similarly be interpreted. In the last stanza the poet says concerning the “flowers” or poems of the volume:
And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone. (Lines 13-16)
It is the statement of final triumph of art over the forces of change. There is sense of resolution, of finality, in the poem. The poet’s quest for permanence has been achieved, in one sense, although his resolution is, in itself, paradoxical. He has overcome time through a metaphorical conception of the immortality of art, but the subject of that art is the ultimate victory of time over man. Thus, Housman has not explained his anti-religious stand using the Biblical allusions and narratives but also the permanence and immortality of art or poetry.
Andrews, S.G. “Housman’s ‘The Carpenter’ Son.’” Explicator. XIX (1960-61), Item 3.
Bayley, John. “Lewis Carroll in Shropshire.” A.E. Housman: A Reassessment. Ed. A.W. Holden and J.R. Birch. Great Britain: Macmillan Press Limited, 2000. Print.
Efrati, Carol. “A.E. Housman’s Use of Biblical Narrative.” A.E. Housman: A Reassessment.Ed. A.W. Holden and J.R. Birch. Macmillan Press Ltd Great Britain, 2000.Print.
---. “A.E. Housman’s Use of Biblical Narrative.” A.E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Christopher Ricks. Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1968.Print.
Flieger, Verlyn. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien World.Grant Rapids, Mich.: Wm. [sic] Eerdmans, 1983.Print.
Leggett, B.J. The Poetic Art of A.E. Housman: Theory and Practice.Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978. Print.
---. Housman’s Land of Lost Content: A Critical Study of ‘A Shropshire Lad.’Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1970. Print.
Raza, M. M. Adnan, “The Poetry of A.E. Housman.” The Aligarh Journal of English Studies. Vol. 21/1, 1999.Print.
Ricks, Christopher. Ed. A.E. Housman: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Penguin, London, 1988. Print. All quotations of Housman’s poems are from this edition. Print.
Ricks, Christopher. A.E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice – Hall, Eaglewood Cliffs, N.J. 1968. Print.
About the Contributor:
Md Jawed Akhtar (1973- ) is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Shibli National Postgraduate College, Azamgarh, UP (India). He obtained the Master’s Degree in English Literature in 1995 from AMU, Aligarh and the Degree of the Doctor of Philosophy in English in 2013 from the V.B.S. Purvanchal University, Jaunpur (India). He has also obtained PGCTE and PGDTE Certificates from English and Foreign Language University (EFLU), Hyderabad (India). He has a rich and varied experience of teaching for over a period of fifteen years. He began his teaching from Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh (India) where he worked as lecturer (Temporary) from 1997 to 2003. He has been teaching at Shibli National Postgraduate College since April 2004. His areas of interest are Modern British Poetry, Indian English Fiction, Linguistics and English Language Teaching. Dr Akhtar has contributed more than twenty five research papers in various journals and anthologies of national and international repute. He has also presented papers in more than fifteen national seminars and conferences. He can be contacted through email firstname.lastname@example.org.