‘… and then you’d think aha! something interesting is going to happen and then someone would mention Derrida and it would all be over…’
Thus my friend Simon, speaking about his time reading English at Oxford and the death-by-theory thing which can so often happen during formal study. I know what he means. In my very first group supervision at Cambridge we were issued copies of a poem—I have repressed the knowledge of what it was, if I ever knew—and the Director of Studies’ opening gambit (more…)
You can read this poem here.
This is one of those poems I read and simply think, ‘Yes’. The simplicity of the rhyme-scheme and the regularity of the metre feel part of the irrefutability of what the poem has to say. It seems very Housman that he’s feeling such a drive to make the most of his time at the not-very-old-really age of twenty! I started mentally re-writing stanza two to say ‘Now of my threescore years and ten/Fifty will not come again’ and then realised it was all going to go wrong at the end of life three, so abandoned that… But however premature his worry may seem, about running out of time, his point stands: that spring is a time when we may connect with the joy of renewal, the beauty of the world, and the anguish of our own fleetingness. I think Housman has it right, though. The only thing to do, in the end, is make the most of what you get. About the woodlands let us go…
You can read this poem here. You can, in fact, find it all over the web, but the version on this page has the correct punctuation (which allows the second sentence in stanza one to make sense). My not-terribly-inner Inner Pedant needed to find a correct version to link to.
Like so many great poems, what this poem has to say, it says all by itself. It has no need of me. So I simply want to take a moment to rejoice in the image of ‘the armada of/ our thoughts’. Oh, how many missions-of-war does my mind send itself on, and with what (usually vain) aspirations to achieve, to save, to conquer…
Again, tonight, the yearning place
where sorrow grows the soul:
its mushroom cloud comes billowing,
all soundless-swift, from pole
to pole. The sudden silence dropped
shuts out all else but this
convulsion, as of death or birth,
of agony or bliss.
Pain cleaved to, thus, itself cleaves us—
so flood in day and night,
and crowd and solitude, and stars
and sea, and depth and height.
For with each sob the heart will shift—
ajar, then open wide;
and, should it meet with tenderness,
will drink it deep, as dried
crazed earth will swallow steady rain,
and flush with gratitude
as green and bright as grass-shoots, young
and sweet and dazzle-dewed.
Coterminous, then, joy and fear
for we cannot make rain—
must helpless watch the sky, and pray
that it will come again.
‘The brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long’ or ‘the shortness of life forbids us long hopes’ —Horace
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Although this poem is about a great deal more than lost youth, still, the opening of stanza two is what was running round and round in my head while I was in Oxford, and when I contemplated my time there afterwards. For me, the lines chimed with a melancholy note; but I can equally see that there can be some comfort—if perhaps a coolish comfort!—in its reminder that everything passes. I love how that “everything” is so economically and powerfully evoked in the poem’s images: ‘the weeping and the laughter/ Love and desire and hate’, ‘the days of wine and roses’. However this poem hits you—and I think that can vary from moment to moment as well as from person to person—there is a plangent beauty in this brief, apparently-simple poem which makes it one to return to, whatever your current mood.