A Short Analysis of A. E. Housman’s ‘Smooth between sea and land’

‘Smooth between sea and land’ is the first line of a poem by A. E. Housman (1859-1936), who is best-known as the author of A Shropshire Lad (1896). This poem, however, didn’t appear in that volume and indeed remained unpublished until after Housman’s death.

Smooth between sea and land
Is laid the yellow sand,
And here through summer days
The seed of Adam plays.

Here the child comes to found
His unremaining mound,
And the grown lad to score
Two names upon the shore.

Here, on the level sand,
Between the sea and land,
What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?

Tell me of runes to grave
That hold the bursting wave,
Or bastions to design
For longer date than mine.

Shall it be Troy or Rome
I fence against the foam,
Or my own name, to stay
When I depart for aye?

Nothing: too near at hand,
Planing the figure sand,
Effacing clean and fast
Cities not built to last
And charms devised in vain,
Pours the confounding main.

The theme of writing something in the sand at the coast, in the vain hope that it will endure long after the writer has died, is an old one: see Edmund Spenser’s ‘One Day I Wrote Her Name upon the Strand’ for another example, from the Elizabethan era. But in Spenser’s poem, the poet ended with the reassuring thought of immortality and the existence of God. Housman, who became an atheist while he was still a teenager, can off no such consolation here. Unlike W. B. Yeats in ‘Lapis Lazuli’, where the poet sees the robustness of civilisation embodied by the rebuilding of culture and societies over different historical periods, Housman emphasises the ultimate futility of building empires or making anything.

A. E. Housman often wrote about futility and the brevity of human life, but this poem is less celebrated than it perhaps should be. In terms of its structure – beginning in hope and ending in hopelessness – it echoes another of Housman’s posthumously published poems, ‘How clear, how lovely bright’.