Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was not a prolific poet – he published just two collections in his lifetime – but he was, and is, a popular one. ‘Spring Morning’, which was published in Housman’s less well-known second volume, Last Poems (1922), the long-awaited follow-up to his 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad, is a spring poem with a bittersweet twist.
Star and coronal and bell
April underfoot renews,
And the hope of man as well
Flowers among the morning dews.
Now the old come out to look,
Winter past and winter’s pains,
How the sky in pool and brook
Glitters on the grassy plains.
Easily the gentle air
Wafts the turning season on;
Things to comfort them are there,
Though ’tis true the best are gone.
Now the scorned unlucky lad
Rousing from his pillow gnawn
Mans his heart and deep and glad
Drinks the valiant air of dawn.
Half the night he longed to die,
Now are sown on hill and plain
Pleasures worth his while to try
Ere he longs to die again.
Blue the sky from east to west
Arches, and the world is wide,
Though the girl he loves the best
Rouses from another’s side.
It’s a perfectly crafted poem, with the sting in the final two lines neatly judged, held off amidst the hope of a more upbeat ending, until the arrival of that deadly ‘Though’ puts paid to such hopes. ‘Spring Morning’ keeps in balance the sense of promise and new hope which both springtime and the dawning of a new day bring: although as we grow older our sense of boundless optimism becomes a little less unbounded, there are pleasures enough remaining to make it worth our while to go on making the best we can of living.
‘Spring Morning’ is, like the majority of A. E. Housman’s poems, relatively straightforward in its meaning, and perhaps requires little analysis to unpick. But, also like the majority of Housman’s poems, its straightforwardness is partly an illusion: Housman writes plainly but also with those quiet touches of genius we find in his near-contemporary Gerard Manley Hopkins or, for that matter, in Shakespeare. The two lines, ‘Now the old come out to look, / Winter past and winter’s pains’, neatly combines, through the double-associations of ‘winter’, the time of year that provides the setting for the poem (the arrival of spring) with the idea of the elderly being in the ‘winter’ of their lives. But only Housman thought to put them together, with such glorious double-alliteration, in the same line: ‘Winter past and winter’s pains’. Such condensing conveys the wistfulness of the poem far more efficiently and effectively than if it had been ‘spelt out’ more plainly.
Although it isn’t his most famous poem, ‘Spring Morning’ contains many of the hallmarks of A. E. Housman’s poetry: the unlucky lover, the focus on the changing seasons and the sometimes uneasy way in which these map onto the feelings of the speaker, and the longing for death (‘Half the night he longed to die’ might be a dim grandson of Keats’s line about being ‘half in love with easeful death’).