‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ is one of the most famous poems from A. E. Housman’s second volume, Last Poems (1922). In this poem, which comes near the end of the collection, Housman reflects on his relationship with nature, before concluding that, although nature does not care or even know about him, he feels a close bond with it.
Tell me not here, it needs not saying,
What tune the enchantress plays
In aftermaths of soft September
Or under blanching mays,
For she and I were long acquainted
And I knew all her ways.
On russet floors, by waters idle,
The pine lets fall its cone;
The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing
In leafy dells alone;
And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn
Hearts that have lost their own.
On acres of the seeded grasses
The changing burnish heaves;
Or marshalled under moons of harvest
Stand still all night the sheaves;
Or beeches strip in storms for winter
And stain the wind with leaves.
Possess, as I possessed a season,
The countries I resign,
Where over elmy plains the highway
Would mount the hills and shine,
And full of shade the pillared forest
Would murmur and be mine.
For nature, heartless, witless nature,
Will neither care nor know
What stranger’s feet may find the meadow
And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
If they are mine or no.
The poetry of A. E. Housman is often characterised as self-pitying and even adolescent in its outlook on the world. ‘One day I’ll be dead, and then you’ll be sorry’ is how at least one detractor has cruelly summed up the gist of Housman’s work. But what ‘Tell me not here’ shows is just how finely Housman trod the line between expressing a sentiment and being sentimental. His poetry contains pity, but it stops short of being self-pitying: something recalls it from the brink. It possesses, if not a steely stoicism, then at least a self-awareness which prevents an A. E. Housman poem from sounding too much like a bad Morrissey impersonator.
Undoubtedly, what also helps to temper the self-pity is the knowledge that, as Housman put it elsewhere, ‘life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose’. He was, like Keats, always half in love with easeful death, and saw death as a promised escape and release from the world’s troubles and heartache. We see how finely he wove this sentiment in the final stanza of ‘Tell me not here’: nature is ‘heartless’ and ‘witless’, but that is what we would expect of something that has neither a heart not wits; the poem rejects the Romantic temptation to personify nature (as bounteous mother, for instance), and instead simply reminds us that nature will neither care nor know who walks among it, and this is a good thing in many ways, since it means that new generations can enjoy it.
However, in the first stanza Housman does use the pronoun ‘her’ to refer to the ‘enchantress’ of nature, a sort of female Pan figure perhaps (Pan was the Greek god of nature, famous for playing reed-pipes), announcing that he ‘knew all her ways’. In the second and third stanzas, Housman lists some of the features of the natural world in which the observer can take pleasure: the pine trees let their pine cones fall; the leaves fall from the trees; the cuckoo calls to ‘nothing’. These features of the forest would do all of this even if the poem’s speaker – or no one else for that matter – was not around to see and hear them. Nature goes on, and does not care whether we’re there or not. (‘Traveller’s joy’, by the way, is a climbing plant, a species of clematis. It is better-known as ‘old man’s beard’, but the former name allows Housman to imply the joyous pleasure the passer-by or ‘traveller’ through the forest experiences as (s)he walks by.)
‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ is probably A. E. Housman’s finest poem about nature, and a good example of how, whilst he has a reputation for indulging or even wallowing in the emotions, his work is shot through with a more pragmatic and unsentimental, even stoic, view of ‘man’s place in nature’.