A critical reading of a nostalgic poem
A. E. Housman (1859-1936) was one of the greatest classicists of his age, and was also, following the success of his (self-published) first volume of poems, A Shropshire Lad (1896), a hugely popular poet. Like Thomas Hardy, the majority of his poems are written in such a plain and direct style that further analysis or critical interpretation may seem unnecessary; but, as ever, it is worth examining how Housman creates the emotional punch that his poem carries. The fortieth poem from A Shropshire Lad, which begins ‘Into my heart an air that kills’, is one of his most famous poems, a short lyric about nostalgia and growing old.
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.
The poem may be summarised in a couple of brief sentences. The speaker views a distant land and recalls, with a certain melancholy nostalgia, the hills and spires of his homeland. He recognises that, whilst he was happy when he lived there, he cannot return there now he is older and has left that land behind.
The traditional quatrain form of the poem, with the abab rhyme scheme, is used in many of Housman’s poems, and here the form serves him well, allowing him to reflect on the passing of time (and the futility of longing for a land and age that is dead and gone) in taut, regularly rhythmic stanzas. Yet there is some subtlety to the word choices: note that ‘blue remembered hills’ is not hyphenated, so does Housman mean that the hills are literally blue (unusual, but perhaps not impossible) or should we analyse ‘blue’ as denoting melancholy nostalgia? The lack of a hyphen introduces some doubt: ‘blue-remembered hills’ would suggest that the speaker is recalling his youth and childhood with a tinge of ‘blue’ sadness, but without the benefit of the hyphen to guide us, we cannot be entirely sure.
The use of alliteration in the second stanza – ‘land of lost content’, ‘happy highways’, ‘cannot come’ – artfully echoes this wistfulness, as the aspirated ‘h’ sounds of ‘happy highways’, reflecting the speaker’s own futile aspirations to regain the past, give way to the harsh sound of ‘cannot come’.
Indeed, the alliteration of ‘cannot come’ chimes with ‘happy highways’, but involves a surprise swerve away from what is expected: Housman writes ‘cannot come’ rather than ‘cannot go’, yet he had written ‘That is the land of lost content’, not ‘This’. Although he is looking into the distance at the rose-tinted past, there is released in that simple and surprising word ‘come’ not only a reminder of the fact that the past cannot come again, but also a wistful longing that he might be back there amongst those happy highways. He cannot quite face up to the fact that he is always destined to be viewing the land of lost content from a distance, and this inability to admit the full blunt truth of the matter is softly and subtly encoded in the choice of ‘come’ over ‘go’.
A haunting poem, this, right from its opening line. ‘Into my heart an air that kills’: it is the surprise, too, of that harsh word ‘kills’, along with the near-paradox of it (air is usually viewed as life-giving rather than dealing out death to us, though admittedly it depends on the sort of air one chooses to breathe in). You can analyse aspects of this poem forever and still come away wondering at the simple beauty of the lines, the way Housman presents nostalgia to us in two near-perfect quatrains.
Continue to explore Housman’s poetry with our pick of his best poems and discover more English nostalgia with Edward Thomas’s wonderful poetry. The best affordable edition of Housman’s poetry is Collected Poems And Selected Prose (Twentieth Century Classics).