Housman’s poem about fleeting happiness
Happiness doesn’t tend to stick around for long. As Dianna Wynne Jones put it, ‘Happiness isn’t a thing. You can’t go out and get it like a cup of tea. It’s the way you feel about things.’ But as Robert Frost observed, happiness makes up for in height what it lacks in length. A. E. Housman (1859-1936) was a poet of unhappiness (perhaps the English laureate of unhappiness), but in this short poem, he turns his attention to delight, remarking on how short-lived and rare it is:
Tarry, delight, so seldom met,
So sure to perish, tarry still;
Forbear to cease or languish yet,
Though soon you must and will.
By Sestos town, in Hero’s tower,
On Hero’s heart Leander lies;
The signal torch has burned its hour
And sputters as it dies.
Beneath him, in the nighted firth,
Between two continents complain
The seas he swam from earth to earth
And he must swim again.
The command for delight to ‘tarry’ is fruitless, as Housman knows (‘Forbear to cease … though soon you must and will’), yet it’s human nature to long for what we know we cannot have – in this case, that happiness will hang around us a little longer. The example of the love story of Hero and Leander suggests that, for Housman, happiness is linked to love: the youth Leander fell in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, and would swim across the Hellespont every night to spend time with her. (Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to act as a sort of lighthouse or beacon to guide the way for him, hence the ‘signal torch’ which Housman cleverly incorporates to hint at the passing of time: the very thing which has brought the two lovers together is a constant reminder that their time together is finite and Leander must soon swim for the shore again.)
Housman never allowed ‘Tarry, delight, so seldom met’ to be published during his lifetime; it appeared in the posthumous More Poems, edited by his brother Laurence, shortly after his death in 1936. Housman generally refrained from publishing poems for two reasons: because he felt they didn’t match the high standard of his best work, or because they were deemed too revealing of his own life (he was homosexual and harboured a lifelong unrequited love for Moses Jackson, an athlete whom Housman met as a student while at Oxford). One wonders whether it was the former reason or the latter that led Housman to keep this poem, like those tears and dirty postcards W. H. Auden refers to in his sonnet written upon Housman’s death, locked in a drawer. It’s a fine poem, although its meaning and message are not exactly complex. Did Housman identify the forbidden love he harboured for Jackson with the secret trysts between Leander and the chaste priestess Hero? We may never know. But we have the poem.