Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"For A Breath I Tarry Nor Yet Disperse Apart"

Christina Rossetti's line "Love hath a name of Death" serves as an appropriate epigraph to the following poem by A. E. Housman.  The poem appears in Housman's A Shropshire Lad, which was published in 1896. Although Housman was certainly not a "Decadent" 1890s poet, the poem also shares common ground with Ernest Dowson's "Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam" and Arthur Symons's "The Soul's Progress."

From far, from eve and morning
    And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
    Blew hither:  here am I.

Now -- for a breath I tarry
    Nor yet disperse apart --
Take my hand quick and tell me,
    What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
    How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
    I take my endless way.

A. E. Housman, Poem XXXII, A Shropshire Lad (1896).

                          Carel Weight (1908-1997), "House by the Road"

The poem, like many of Housman's poems, may not be as simple as it first seems.  On the one hand, it fits within the "narrative" of A Shropshire Lad (if, in fact, there is a "narrative," which is a matter of debate):  it appears to present another episode of unrequited (or requited, but lost) love. In addition, it evokes the second of Housman's two great themes:  the fleeting nature of life (i.e., "they are not long, the days of wine and roses," to use Dowson's line).

But stating the "themes" of the poem in such a fashion does not do justice to its power.  There is much more afoot.  In the first stanza, Housman creates an atmosphere of universality and of timelessness:  "From far, from eve and morning/And yon twelve-winded sky,/The stuff of life to knit me/Blew hither:  here am I."  One realizes what a miracle it is (regardless of whether or not one holds any religious beliefs) that we exist here, at this moment, on Earth.

This leads directly to the sense of urgency that drives the poem:  "Now -- for a breath I tarry/Nor yet disperse apart --/Take my hand quick and tell me,/What have you in your heart."  ("Disperse apart" is a curious phrase, yet it is entirely apt.)  The desire to establish some connection with another human being before proceeding again on one's "endless way" (into oblivion) seems to go well beyond romantic love, whether requited or unrequited.

But that is one view, and one view only.  Better yet:  please disregard everything I just said.  The poem speaks for itself.

                               Carel Weight, "I Live Here" (c. 1953-1954)


Jeff said...

Thanks to this post, I now know the source of the title of one of Ursula Le Guin's short story collections: The Wind's Twelve Quarters.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: that is a nice association! I suspect that phrases of his tend to turn up like this. Whatever one thinks of his poetry on the whole, he does have a knack for turning a memorable line. "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now . . ." "That is the land of lost content . . ." "Crossing alone the nighted ferry . . ."

As always, thank you very much for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the analysis, I found it meaningful.

I read Zelazny's sci-fi short story "For a breath I tarry" while in high school. I did not know the title was lifted from a poem. Not too long after I was wandering around the school library and grabbed this little, modest, brown-bound book. I flipped it open and began to read "From far, from eve and morning..." It was a cool moment. -Gildmirth.

Stephen Pentz said...

Gildmirth: thank you very much for visiting, and for pointing out the connection between Zelazny's story and Housman's line, which I wasn't aware of. As I noted in my response to Jeff's comment about Le Guin's use of a Housman line for the title of her short story collection, bits of Housman seem to turn up when you least expect it.

Your discovery of "From far, from eve and morning" after reading the Zelazny story is wonderful -- I love it when things like that happen.

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

A very nice reading of this poem. The miraculous nature of life expressed in the poem has been linked to discussions of evolution by others.

The first stanza of the poem is quoted by Mr. Emerson in E.M. Forster's A Room With a View. There, too, it seems to be used as an expression of a positive, non-religious view that one's life is an extraordinarily wonderful happenstance.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for your thoughts on the poem, and for your kind words. I wasn't aware of the first stanza's appearance in A Room with a View. I appreciate your pointing that out.

Thanks again.