A powerful Easter poem by one of the most famous atheist poets
The poet A. E. Housman (1859-1936) published just two volumes of poems in his lifetime: A Shropshire Lad (1896) and Last Poems (1922). Yet he remains one of the most widely-read poets of his era, on the strength of these two books and a selection of posthumously published poems. ‘Easter Hymn’ opens More Poems, which was published shortly after Housman’s death in 1936.
If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
In summary, Housman, addressing Jesus, says: ‘If you’re there and can’t hear this and have no idea that your martyrdom inspired the foundation of a major world religion, then sleep on. But if you were really were resurrected and so live on, dwelling up on high in heaven with God the Father, then come down again to earth and save us, for your work is not done yet.’
Whether Housman chose not to publish ‘Easter Hymn’ during his lifetime because he didn’t think it came up to the high standards of his other work, or whether he did not wish to publish such an openly doubting poem, is difficult to say. Housman became an atheist while he was a teenager, and this hymn, like Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’, shows the unbeliever longing to believe, if given good reason to. Since Hardy’s ‘The Oxen’ was published during the First World War, it seems unlikely that Housman would have found his similarly themed poem – only taking Easter as its season rather than the Christmas time that is the backdrop to Hardy’s poem – too ‘risky’ to publish on religious (or anti-religious) grounds.
The alliteration in Housman’s final line is especially nicely done, though there may also be a double meaning implied in the word ‘passion’ in the penultimate line: both the Crucifixion, or Passion of Christ (from the Latin pati meaning to suffer), and enthusiasm or intense love for something. Housman’s use of the lower case allows both meanings to coexist: whether out of love for your flock, or to honour the sacrifice you made all those years ago, come down and save humankind again.