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.
I think of Alfred Edward Houseman (1859-1936) as my “hometown” poet, because he was born in Bromsgrove, only a few miles from my family home in Worcestershire, England. Many of his best-known poems contain evocative thumbnail sketches of the natural beauty and landmarks of his birthplace and the surrounding area. He attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham, as, (I like to point out in my ceaseless search for reflected glory), did JRR Tolkien, my Uncle Arthur, and Mark Steyn, among dozens of other luminaries you’ve heard of and haven’t, and he went on to study classics at Oxford. While there, and over the course of his subsequent professorial career, he gained a reputation as a diligent scholar, a stickler for detail, a misogynist, and a bit of a curmudgeon, once saying, “Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head.” (Worthy. Wish I’d written that.)
His best-known poems form the cycle, A Shropshire Lad. (Shropshire is one of the counties adjacent to Worcestershire.) Shropshire’s county town is Shrewsbury, as fans of Ellis Peters and Brother Cadfael will know. And, not far down the road from Shrewsbury is Ludlow, of which Houseman wrote:
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer
which one can only suppose he consumed, leading him to the inebriated revelation that
. . . malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ludlow is one of England’s most spectacular Medieval towns. I have been to Ludlow Fair myself. And I’ve read Paradise Lost. So I can testify that Houseman was definitely on to something. (No need to probe the manner in which I came to this particular conclusion—nothing to see there; let’s move along.)
Houseman’s poetry is deceptively simple, and almost always short, as can be seen in A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of 63 musings on the ephemeral nature of life, the foolishness of youth, and the insight to be gained as one grows older and approaches death. It’s not as dreary as it sounds, and in any case, there’s much wisdom to be found. One of the poems goes like this:
WHEN I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.
And another pretty thing, this one with a bit of a carpe diem theme:
LOVELIEST of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
The First World War changed Houseman, as it changed England, and his later poems are darker and many deal directly with the theme of death. The very short poem at the start of this post is one of them. I think it speaks, in fewer words, to the unconscionable cost of war than any other.
The poem is widely misquoted and the phrase “we were soldiers once, and young” is often attributed to Houseman, but that’s not how it’s written. However, the first part of the phrase was used as the title of a well-regarded, although not entirely historically accurate, Mel Gibson movie based on LTG Harold G. Moore’s book about the Battle of Ia Drang (Vietnam) of that name.
I love this little poem. It goes straight to my heart every single time. As does this:
This post is written in memory of two young men, both of whom died while serving their respective countries; one thirty years ago, and the other one-hundred-two years ago, this month. I never met either of them (one died thirty-seven years before even I was born, and he was born in the century-before-last); nevertheless, as sometimes happens in the best of human interactions, I came to know them, they became a very small part of my life, and they live on in a corner of my heart, because I listened to the fond memories of those who were close to them. As far as I know, homo sapiens is the only species on earth capable of giving, borrowing, sharing, and carrying memories forward, sometimes for generations, in this fashion. It’s one of the best parts of us, one of the things that separates us from other life forms, one of the things that makes us human. For many reasons, including occasional privileges like this, I thank God for the fact that, with all its attendant ups and downs, its periodic messes, and its delirious joys and profound sorrows, I’ll never be other than human.
I made a set of promises, one to the friend, and the other to the lover, of each of these young men. I promised I’d keep, and share, their stories in my family, and I promised I’d never forget them.
So I did. And I haven’t. And I won’t.
Because I’m human.