On Housman’s great ‘remorseful day’ poem
The poet and classical scholar A. E. Housman (1859-1936) is best-known for his 1896 volume A Shropshire Lad, one of only two volumes of poetry he published during his lifetime. But Housman wrote a number of other wonderful poems which he decided not to publish.
‘How Clear, How Lovely Bright’, written in the 1880s while Housman was living in London and working at the Patent Office after failing his degree in Classics at Oxford, was one of a number of poems which Housman preserved but didn’t publish. When he died in 1936, his brother Laurence selected the best of these poems and published them as More Poems.
How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.
To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
The last line of this poem gave the crime writer Colin Dexter the title of his final Inspector Morse novel, The Remorseful Day; in the books, Housman is Morse’s favourite poet. However, Housman himself borrowed the phrase from Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 (‘The gaudy, blabbing, and remorseful day / Is crept into the bosom of the sea’) – but what he does with the phrase is quite arresting and memorable here.
Indeed, although he is known for his clear and direct – even simple – way of writing about universal human emotions, A. E. Housman is nevertheless a poet who subtly subverts our expectations regarding language, and how words are meant to behave. Take that first line, ‘How clear, how lovely bright’.
Although it ends with ‘-ly’, ‘lovely’ is not an adverb, but an adjective, and so cannot modify an adjective like ‘bright’ in this way (as a point of comparison, substitute another adjective in place of ‘lovely’: we can write ‘wonderfully bright’, but not ‘warm bright’).
The surprise at finding an adjective used as an adverb in this way is close to Hopkins’s linguistic innovations in his poetry, which are often used to convey surprise in the face of something approaching the Sublime, an almost childlike awe.
Similarly, the unusual Latinate word ‘Ensanguining’ that heads the poem’s final stanza ostensibly refers to the bloody sight of the red sun spread out against the evening sky, but it also gives a twist of the knife in hinting at more ‘sanguine’ or hopeful times when the speaker had been younger (see the middle stanza).
The poem is, after all, using the day as a microcosm for the average human life, which begins in hope and possibility and ends with missed opportunities and regret (‘the remorseful day’).
You can continue to explore Housman’s poetry with his fine poem about the Hero and Leander myth and another of his great poems which features a sunset.