The lines are found in two of the best-known poems in the English language. I suspect that many of us know the poems by heart, perhaps inadvertently: a single reading of them is sufficient to embed them in your memory.
I revisit the poems often (and they have appeared here before), but it was not until recently (I am slow on the uptake when it comes to these matters) that I began to think about how the two of them play off of one another. Another instance of failing to pay attention. Another reason to be thankful for the gift of tiny revelations.
Bertram Priestman, "Wareham Channel, Dorset" (1910)
Here is the first eight-line poem, which is untitled.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A. E. Housman, Poem XL, A Shropshire Lad (1896).
"The past is a foreign country." (Until I looked it up today, I didn't know that this phrase comes from the first sentence of L. P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between (1953): "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.")
"Blue remembered hills" and "the land of lost content": don't you get the feeling that those once well-known phrases are disappearing from cultural consciousness? But I suppose that, even in Housman's own day, there were those who found the words too "sentimental" for the Modern Age. Imagine their chances of survival in our ironic world.
Should anyone ever ask you for a definition of poetry (an unlikely possibility, I concede), I recommend directing them to these three words: "blue remembered hills." What if Housman had given us "green remembered hills" or "dark remembered hills"? There you have it: poetry.
Bertram Priestman, "The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)
I was sitting in my chair, musing over Housman's poem, when the following eight lines (again, untitled) made an appearance.
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (1800).
I realized that I had never thought about the two poems together. What first caught my attention were the surface similarities: two four-line quatrains rhyming A-B-A-B (common metre or common measure, to be technical about it) -- the standard form for traditional ballads. The ancient heart of English poetry. Then I thought about the words themselves: all of them consisting of one or two syllables, save for two: "remembered" and "diurnal." Think of the weight each of those words bears in its respective poem.
And, of course, there is the human link between the two. What shall we call it? The pain of irrevocable loss? The sudden awareness of mortality? The keen yearning for time gone for ever? But enough of that. As I have observed on more than one occasion: explanation and explication are the death of poetry. The sixteen lines speak for themselves.
Bertram Priestman, "Kilnsey Crag, Wharfedale" (1929)