Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Heat, cold, and A.E. Housman


Speaking of difficult love and boat-notching , I've found myself re-reading the English poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936), heart-injured boat-notcher par excellence. It's interesting how his imagery at times can parallel that of Zen writings -- for example, combining spring blossoms with intimations of impermanence:


Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my three score years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

I suppose any Haiku master whose work has survived would have crafted the connection between blossoms and mortality in a more subtle manner, but the interesting thing about this poem is the 20 year old dwelling on how he has only 50 years left. What's eating you, young man? We soon find out -- sort of:


Others, I am not the first,
Have willed more mischief than they durst:
If in the breathless night I too
Shiver now, 'tis nothing new.

More than I, if truth were told,
Have stood and sweated hot and cold,
And through their reins in ice and fire
Fear contended with desire.

Agued once like me were they,
But I like them shall win my way
Lastly to the bed of mould
Where there's neither heat nor cold.

But from my grave across my brow
Plays no wind of healing now,
And fire and ice within me fight
Beneath the suffocating night.

Sounds like hell: no relief in sight while existence continues. Of course, by the time Housman wrote this poem, how to go "where there's neither heat nor cold" had already been a classic Zen question for some 10 centuries:


A monk asked Tung-shan, "When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?"

Tung-shan said, "Why don't you go to the place where there is no cold and no heat?"

The monk said, "What is the place where there is no cold and no heat?"

Tung-shan replied, "When cold comes, cold completes the monk; when heat comes, heat totals the monk."

Tung-shan's response can be seen as a recommendation to open to what is actually present, whether or not it's what one thought one wanted. Housman, on the other had, seems to be quite sure of what he wanted, and that it was not what he got, or will ever get. So how could his poem avoid a conclusion that is cramped, self-centered, and unsatisfying to the poet himself? Although this appears honest the first time or two, the despair comes through so consistently in Housman's work that it starts to look more like habit than authentic self-expression:


Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.


The boat is notched where the sword went over, but this is no use in finding the sword again; the water and the boat keep moving. If this impermanence is seen as regrettable, it can only get worse:

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.

Oh grant me the ease that is granted so free,
The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,
That relish their victuals and rest on their bed
With flint in the bosom and guts in the head.

Now the problem is everybody else -- surely Housman realized the limitations of that approach (Has it ever worked for anyone? Maybe for a while it does...) But after all, why express yourself in the same, unhappy way, year after year, unless you're hoping that the world's response to your voice will finally, somehow come back different?

W.H. Auden wrote of Housman "Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust/Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer," but couldn't we just as accurately imagine the poet genuinely struggling with his experience of love and the shape it has given his life, the space it leaves him in the world, bringing up that experience again and again to look at it, even to make it public, in the hope that somehow life will provide a different answer to the same question? The question being: The most powerful feeling I have known has been love for a certain young man, even though he did not love me back, and even though my world has no obvious place for this kind of experience. What can I do with that?


Well, "not much" is of course a safe answer:

Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.

Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what's to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I've done my best
And all's to do again.

Here I must indulge a sudden urge to quote my junior high school principal. (Are you out there, Ms. Barge?) I complained to her that I was not coping with adolescence. She said,

Oh no, you are coping. You are definitely coping. I've seen kids who are not coping. If you weren't coping, you'd be a puddle on the floor.
It wasn't what I wanted to hear, but it was on the mark. Still, for a long time I would have agreed with the poet when he bemoans that there is simply nothing to be done; the clock ticks but the world will never compromise:

When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.

Now times are altered: if I care
To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here's the fair,
But where's the lost young man?

--- To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long 'tis like to be.

Of course, this leads pretty much nowhere:


When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did.

But nowhere is never really nowhere, because a living being is never really a puddle on the floor. Sooner or later, from time to time at least, we start to see how what we are peeps through the rent fabric of what we wanted:


Stars I have seen them fall
but when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky

The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault
It rains into the sea
But still the sea is salt.

This is certainly bitterness (or at least saltiness), but it's not just bitterness. It's bitterness in the context of the stars, and the ocean, and the labors of all beings. It's the bitterness of our lives, at those times when we happen to experience our lives as bitter. It's the bitterness of impermanence, out of which compassion can arise:


From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.

Now -- for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart --
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.

Personally, I think Housman did come to some peace with the repression, bitterness and regret that are often seen as the hallmarks of his poetry. Consider this poem, one of his last:


Home is the sailor, home from sea:
Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world.

Home is the hunter from the hill:
Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
And every fowl of air.

'Tis evening on the moorland free,
The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
The hunter from the hill.

Could this poem at last be looking past the intellect and emotions that wreak such havoc, and into the life that quietly unfolds behind them, within them? Or are freedom and stillness just metaphors for the poet's own death?

2 Comments:

Blogger Zhai YaLi said...

Poor guy. May our inner Housman please find out how to, as you say, "look(ing) past the intellect and emotions that wreak such havoc, and into the life that quietly unfolds behind them, within them."

Everybody dance now!

1:22 PM, March 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

4:25 PM, January 09, 2010  

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