Secret Library

Heeding ‘The Oracles’: AE Housman’s Poem about the Battle of Thermopylae

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers Housman’s poem about the defeat of the Spartans

’Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain
When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled,
And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain,
And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.

I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking,
The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain;
And from the cave of oracles I hear the priestess shrieking
That she and I should surely die and never live again.

Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it;
But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more.
’Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that drowns must drink it;
And oh, my lass, the news is news that men have heard before.

The king with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning;
  Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air.
And he that stands must die for nought, and home there’s no returning.
The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.

There are few truly illuminating critical studies of the poetry of A. E. Housman (1859-1936). One exception is Richard Perceval Graves’s book, but that was helped by being a critical biography, which shed light on Housman’s obsessively private life (keeping tears like dirty postcards in a drawer, as the fellow gay poet W. H. Auden later wrote of Housman). But when it comes to out-and-out criticism or literary analysis, there’s a feeling that everything Housman needed to say is in the poems, near the surface. In contrast to his life, in his poetry Housman wore his heart on his sleeve.

A notable exception in terms of critical essays on A. E. Housman’s poetry is the one by Christopher Ricks from the 1960s. Ricks brilliantly showed how what a Housman poem says is often at odds with how the poem says it; so, for instance, in a poem like ‘I to my perils’, the bleak message (prepare for the worst, because it’s bound to come, and at least you’ll be ready when it arrives) is offset by the jaunty metre Housman employs.

Ricks’s point might be extended to ‘The Oracles’, the poem which begins ‘’Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain’, published in Last Poems in 1922 but written some two decades earlier and published in 1903 in The Venture, a publication edited by Housman’s brother Laurence and W. Somerset Maugham.

Housman wrote in a letter of 27 September 1935 that ‘I do not admire the oracle poem quite so much as some people do.’ Yet the poem is, in a sense, a distillation of much of Housman’s poetry: life is a long parade of despair, with death as the ultimate defeat at the end, but let’s just get on with it and put up with it. After all, if we’ll be dead soon enough, what’s the point in being glum?

When put this way, the message of ‘The Oracles’, as in much of Housman’s other poetry, gives the lie to the common perception that his poetry is a mopefest, with young lads wringing their hands in self-pity and cursing their stars. True, there’s plenty of unrequited love and untimely death in Housman’s poetry, but the first is often tempered by the knowledge that true love survives being rebuffed by the one we love (as a poem like ‘Because I liked you better’ demonstrates) and the latter by a sneaking suspicion that dying young is the best way: that it’s better to burn out than fade away (as a poem like ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ states).

In other words, Housman’s outlook is far more stoic than many people believe. It’s true, Housman became a deist at the age of twelve (when his mother died) and an atheist at the age of eighteen, and never again would entertain the idea of a god, transcendent or otherwise. As he puts it in ‘The Oracles’, the cave at Delphi (thought by the ancient Greeks to be the ‘navel’ or centre of the world, hence ‘midland navel-stone’) was where ‘gods told lies of old’: he knew the whole thing was a scam. Better to turn to one’s own private oracle, ‘the heart within’. But here, of course, the message is bleak anyway: Housman, and his heart, will die and will not be resurrected or reincarnated. Extinction is final and forever.

But look at the way, in the third stanza of the poem, Housman responds to this message from his own private ‘priestess’ by counselling her to be quiet: yes, I agree, he tells her, but we’re not the first ones to have this not-so-earth-shattering revelation, so let’s just get on with it. We then come to that final stanza, with the first three lines italicised to suggest (as Housman pointed out in the same letter quoted above) that this is the Oracle at Dodona speaking. What’s noteworthy here is that Housman thinks war is ultimately futile: ‘he that stands will die for nought’. The poem is, then, a poem with nothing to believe in: even the human heart can only offer unpalatable truths.

And yet, we come to that final line, which has been read as homoerotic in light of Housman’s own (largely repressed) homosexuality, but which Housman took from Herodotus. In 480 BC, at the Battle of Thermopylae (literally, ‘hot gates’), a narrow coastal pass, the vast Persian army, led by Xerxes, attacked the allied Greek forces, with the ambition of conquering the whole of Greece. (Xerxes’ attack at Thermopylae came ten years after an earlier Persian invasion had been thwarted at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.) Famously, the battle ended in a humiliating defeat of the Greek forces, with the 300 Spartans (immortalised in film, though actually aided by some 700 Thespians – before the term came to be applied to actors) standing their ground and fighting to the death. In Herodotus, the Spartans calmly comb their hair because they may as well stay calm before the battle.

Even if we read this final image as homoerotic in Housman’s poem, it is also a fine example of his commitment to what might broadly be called stoicism, albeit with a small ‘s’. To borrow Ricks’s point about Housman’s poetry, the jaunty rhythm (iambic heptameter, no less) is at odds with the grim, despairing topic of the poem, but it is also oddly appropriate, given the Spartans’ casual attitude to their own inevitable doom. ‘The Oracles’ shows once again that, whilst Housman may not have been a technical innovator in his poetry, he expressed his sentiments in traditional forms far better than just about all of his contemporaries.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

One Comment

  1. isabellacatolica

    Within Housman’s commitment to stoicism there is a tone of sorrow and regret before the cruelties of life. And resignation: they calmly “sat down and combed their hair”. The poet maintains his own self-respect in the midst of this shameful human condition simply by knowing the facts and being able to look them in the eye
    An alternative way of maintaining that self-respect (particularly in romanticised Hollywood epics) is to adopt a pose of bravado, manliness and defiance – grandiose, hopeless heroism in an unequal struggle. This, too, is the usual spirit in which we remember the 300 of Thermopylae.
    Which shall we prefer, Housman or Hollywood?