A Short Analysis of A. E. Housman’s ‘Easter Hymn’

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.

Easter Hymn

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,

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A Short Analysis of A. E. Housman’s ‘Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over’

A classic poem of parting

A. E. Housman (1859-1936) remains a popular poet with many readers not least because he so poignantly captures the feelings of heartbreak and hopeless love in his work. Technically, his poetry was not innovative: he once named the old ballads and the songs from Shakespeare’s plays as among his chief influences. But in English literature he is perhaps the Laureate of the Broken Heart: nobody has said it better. His short poem ‘Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over’ is about parting from somebody we love, because we know they don’t return our love.

Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over;
I only vex you the more I try.
All’s wrong that ever I’ve done or said,
And nought to help it in this dull head:
Shake hands, here’s luck, good-bye.

But if you come to a road where danger
Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share,

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A Short Analysis of A. E. Housman’s ‘Tarry, delight, so seldom met’

Housman’s poem about fleeting happiness

Happiness doesn’t tend to stick around for long. As Dianna Wynne Jones put it, ‘Happiness isn’t a thing. You can’t go out and get it like a cup of tea. It’s the way you feel about things.’ But as Robert Frost observed, happiness makes up for in height what it lacks in length. A. E. Housman (1859-1936) was a poet of unhappiness (perhaps the English laureate of unhappiness), but in this short poem, he turns his attention to delight, remarking on how short-lived and rare it is:

Tarry, delight, so seldom met,
So sure to perish, tarry still;
Forbear to cease or languish yet,
Though soon you must and will.

By Sestos town, in Hero’s tower,
On Hero’s heart Leander lies;
The signal torch has burned its hour
And sputters as it dies.

Beneath him, in the nighted firth,
Between two continents complain

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A Short Analysis of A. E. Housman’s ‘Give Me a Land of Boughs in Leaf’

A short analysis of a classic autumnal poem by A. E. Housman (1859-1936)

Much of A. E. Housman’s poetry requires no analysis or criticism; its meaning is plain enough to the reader. But the following poem, poem VIII from the posthumously published More Poems (1936) – sometimes known by its first line, ‘Give me a land of boughs in leaf’ – is a particularly fine example of Housman’s style and a brief analysis of it may help to elucidate some of its subtler effects.

Give me a land of boughs in leaf,
A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen, there is grief;
I love no leafless land.

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