Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sixteen Lines

Over the past few days I have been preoccupied with sixteen lines of poetry. The lines are straightforward and simple.  Apart from two words (of three syllables each), the words in the lines consist of only one or two syllables. The syntax is not convoluted.  The emotions expressed are ones that we have all felt.

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)


E Berris said...

A.Methuen's "Anthology of Modern Verse " (of 1921 but my school poetry book in the 1950s) doesn't include Wordsworth or Housman, but the Introduction by Robert Lynd describes Housman as 'an ironic sentimentalist who somehow comforts us'. It does include Hardy and Yeats, (and Sassoon, Owen, etc), so I was surprised not to find the Housman poem included, and like other introductions to anthologies, points to nursery rhymes, e.g. "The North wind doth blow ' for their effective simplicity and sparing use of adjectives. And I love the Wallace Stevens Rabbit poem. Again thanks for everything in your blog.

John Ashton said...

Thank you Mr Pentz for this wonderful post. I too revisit poems,great poems can bear it. Perhaps it is one measure of how good a poem truly is, and this piece by Housman is certainly one of them in my humble opinion, and one of the few poems I know by heart.
As you say "explanation and explication are the death of poetry", no more need be said.

Busyantine said...

I really enjoyed this! Then I've just returned from the Shropshire hills.That's one advantage of a great deal of reading over a long period. Couple this with some real reflection and you see links and understand themes that can't be replaced by anything other than experience.
Today I posted in my own blog, (excuse the shameless link to: a very minor example of the correspondences we find in disparate areas; but such are the arcane pleasures of wide reading.

Stephen Pentz said...

E Berris: I'm very happy to hear from you again.

I like "ironic sentimentalist" -- it contains some truth. But I am one of those who doesn't feel that "sentimental" is necessarily a pejorative term. And irony is fine -- within limits (which have extended too far in our time).

After reading your comment, I found Methuen's Anthology in the Internet Archive. My only thought as to why he didn't include anything by Housman is that (1) A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, and (2) Housman's final volume of non-posthumous poetry (Last Poems) was not published until 1922, the year after the Anthology was first published. Hence, Methuen may not have considered Housman's poetry to be "Modern Verse." (Although I see that he did include two poems by Ernest Dowson, whose last volume was published in 1899.)

I'm pleased that you liked "A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts" -- it is one of my favorite Stevens poems.

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: thank you for stopping by. It's funny how poems stick in your memory, isn't it? Of course, at my age, the shorter the better! Which is why these two poems remain in my head, perhaps.

At some point, if one is lucky, one reaches a point where there is a whole store of poems available for revisiting. But at the same time, we need to keep exploring, don't we?

Thank you again for your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nigel PJ: thank you very much for visiting again, and for your thoughts.

That's a nice coincidence about your having just been in Shropshire. I envy you. "Blue remembered hills . . ."

Thank you for the link to your post on Powell, Trollope, and Hamilton's "Book of British Battle Axes": as you say, an interesting set of correspondences! Yes, if we are attentive, these sorts of links and correspondences may emerge over time -- and they can be very rewarding.

Thank you again. It's nice to hear from you.

Anonymous said...

It's bracing to find a continuity between great poems, and the link between Housman and Wordsworth is there, inextricably joined, a melding of the poetic imagination.

While you found yourself yoking Housman and Wordsworth I was reading Wallace Stevens.

If any poet believes in process, bright and beautiful things perishing from the world, it is Stevens. It's the theme of his most famous poem, "Sunday Morning," an adamant rejection of stasis, that place where ripe fruit never falls and rivers never wind to the sea.

When the woman says she feels "The need for some imperishable bliss," the poet baldly states: "Death is the mother of beauty, that death "alone" brings "fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires/"

I was surprised I when I read a late Stevens poem "This Solitude of Cataracts." He is disturbed that he "never felt twice the same about the flecked river." "He wanted to feel the same way over and over," for it to be an unchanging one. He "wanted his heart to stop beating and his mind to rest / / In a permanent realization."

He wants to be "released from destruction, "To be a bronze man breathing under archaic lapis / / Without the oscillation of planetary pass-pass / Breathing his bronzen breath at the azury centre of time."

I cannot think of any other poem of his in which he longs to become an artifice, an escape from the world of change, of process, a world devoid of death. He wants to be "a bronze man."

Yeats wants the same thing. In "Sailing to Byzantium," he longs to escape the perishable world,where "an aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick." He longs for a permanent world, one that will "Consume my heart away; sick with desire / And fastened to a dying animal."

Yeats wants to be "[gathered] . . . / Into the article of eternity."

If Stevens wants to be a bronze man, then Yeats desires to be hammered into a gold bird, an artifice "set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come."

Yeats and Stevens--an odd couple, but great poetry knows no borders.

Clarissa Aykroyd said...

The great historical/children's writer Rosemary Sutcliff chose the title Blue Remembered Hills for her memoir. It's extremely evocative. I need to read more Housman.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: thank you very much for the link between Stevens and Yeats. "This Solitude of Cataracts" is one of my favorite Stevens poems, and has appeared here before. Sort of a variation on Heraclitus' "you can never step into the same river twice," which has been explored my many poets.

Yeats' gold bird reminds me of the "gold-feathered bird" in one of Stevens' last poems (it may have been his last): "Of Mere Being." To wit: "A gold-feathered bird/Sings in the palm, without human meaning,/Without human feeling, a foreign song." It seems (perhaps) that, at the end, Stevens parted company from Yeats on the value of the artifice of the gold bird. But that's just a guess. I agree with you that they are an odd couple, but on the same track.

I greatly appreciate your thoughts. Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Aykroyd: thank you for the reference to Rosemary Sutcliff and her memoir -- I was not aware of her or her work. She seems to have lived a challenging life, and her accomplishments are remarkable, given the struggles she went through.

Your mentioning the title of the memoir reminded me that in a recent issue of The Housman Society Newsletter (September 2013), there is a brief piece titled "Works Titled after Housman" which lists various books whose titles are taken from Housman poems. The author of the piece missed Sutcliff's book. (The Newsletter is available on The Housman Society site.) I'm surprised that someone hasn't yet (to my knowledge) titled a novel: "The Land of Lost Content." It seems a natural.

Thank you very much for stopping by again.

Mathias Richter said...

Mr Pentz, I don't know if there is a novel named "The Land of Lost Content" either, but the composer John Ireland called one of his song cycles "The Land of Lost Content":
There is also a classical music blog by John France of that name:

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: I'm very happy to hear from you again. As usual, you are a wonderful source of information about musical settings of poems! Thank you very much for the links to Ireland's cycle, and to Mr. France's blog, which is incredibly informative.

On a related note: I am no doubt telling you something you already know, but the website "LiederNet: The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive" lists 23 settings of "Into my heart an air that kills . . ."! (Including one by Ivor Gurney, which is not surprising.)

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts.

Girders said...

Dear Stephen,

What a delight to reminded of Wharfedale. A bit away from Shropshire, but very dear to me when I lived in Yorkshire. Meanwhile, the reference to Common Metre set me thinking on the Scottish Metrical Psalm tradition which adopted and adapted the old ballad tunes and their metrical form. The Psalm versions vary in quality, but they were hidden in the hearts of generations of Scots and became a true people's poetry. At its best, it can hold its own with your Lutheran chorale tradition.

Which in turn, sent me off to the 'Cotter's Saturday Night':

'They chant their artless notes in simple guise,
They tune their hearts, by far the noblest aim;
Perhaps Dundee's wild-warbling measures rise,
Or plaintive Martyrs, worthy of the name;
Or noble Elgin beets the heavenward flame,
The sweetest far of Scotia's holy lays:
Compar'd with these, Italian trills are tame;
The tickl'd ears no heart-felt raptures raise;
Nae unison hae they, with our Creator's praise.'

I expect, given something you said the other week, that you don't care for Houseman's comic verse and parodies. I do.

Stephen Pentz said...

Girders: it is a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you very much for visiting.

And thank you as well for the connections to the Scottish Psalms and Burns' poem, which are very apt. This is all new to me, and I need to explore it further. I like your link between the Scottish Psalms and Lutheran songs: I don't remember a great deal from my long-lost days in Minnesota-Scandinavian Lutheran churches, but I do recall the music very well.

Thank you again.