A short analysis of a classic autumnal poem by A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
Much of A. E. Housman’s poetry requires no analysis or criticism; its meaning is plain enough to the reader. But the following poem, poem VIII from the posthumously published More Poems (1936) – sometimes known by its first line, ‘Give me a land of boughs in leaf’ – is a particularly fine example of Housman’s style and a brief analysis of it may help to elucidate some of its subtler effects.
Give me a land of boughs in leaf,
A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen, there is grief;
I love no leafless land.
Alas, the country whence I fare,
It is where I would stay;
And where I would not, it is there
That I shall be for aye.
And one remembers and forgets,
But ’tis not found again,
Not though they hale in crimsoned nets
The sunset from the main.
The poem’s message is a simple one: when the world of bereft of life and leaves, it is a barren, empty land full of sorrow. The poem’s speaker turns, in the second stanza, to a consideration of death: ‘the country whence [i.e. from which] I fare [i.e. go]’, otherwise known as the land of the living, is where he would like to remain, but unfortunately he is filled with the knowledge that he is going to die soon, and will be in the land of the dead ‘for aye’ (a poetic way of saying ‘for always’, or forever).
The final stanza reminds us that we tend to forget about our own mortality from time to time, and act as though we’re going to live forever, but the truth is that this is the one world we will know. (Housman became an atheist as a teenager and so dismissed the notion of the afterlife, though he did write a fine poem, ‘Hell Gate‘, about the afterlife.) And although we may be filled with a sense of hope and an ‘intimation of immortality’ whenever the sun rises again the next morning (beautifully captured in Housman’s image of the sun being ‘haled’ or pulled from the ‘main’ or sea into which it has sunk), one day the sun will rise and we won’t be around to see it.
The language of the poem – the odd archaism aside – is plain and easy to understand, but Housman’s choice of words is sometimes surprising. ‘And’ is a particularly nice touch at the beginning of that final stanza: ‘But one remembers and forgets’ would have worked equally well (and arguably makes more syntactical sense: ‘but though we often forget the fact of our mortality, the fact remains’), but instead Housman opts for ‘And’, suggesting a certain sense of inevitability – it’s hardly surprising that we tend to fluctuate between forgetting our own mortality and, on occasion, remembering it.
If you enjoyed this Housman poem, check our our analysis of ‘Adlestrop’ by Edward Thomas.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Statue in the High Street, Bromsgrove, of A.E. Housman; by Mike Dodman; Creative Commons licence.