A.E. Housman was one of the finest Latin scholars of the 20th century and one of the most distinguished classicists of the Anglo-American world. He is better known, however, as a poet. He had suffered disappointments in life, and his response was the melancholy stoicism that permeates so much of his work. His poems are superficially simple but elegantly wrought. In honor of a later Queen’s Jubilee, let us begin with Housman’s tribute–rather uncharacteristically patriotic–to Victoria.
From Clee to heaven the beacon burns, The shires have seen it plain, From north and south the sign returns And beacons burn again. Look left, look right, the hills are bright, The dales are light between, Because 'tis fifty years to-night That God has saved the Queen. Now, when the flame they watch not towers About the soil they trod, Lads, we'll remember friends of ours Who shared the work with God. To skies that knit their heartstrings right, To fields that bred them brave, The saviours come not home tonight: Themselves they could not save. It dawns in Asia, tombstones show And Shropshire names are read; And the Nile spills his overflow Beside the Severn's dead. We pledge in peace by farm and town The Queen they served in war, And fire the beacons up and down The land they perished for. 'God save the Queen' we living sing, From height to height 'tis heard; And with the rest your voices ring, Lads of the Fifty-third. Oh, God will save her, fear you not; Be you the men you've been, Get you the sons your fathers got, And God will save the Queen.
Perhaps his most famous poem is the one, almost Japanese in its elegance and
tact. Some critics have noted the way it turns back on itself at the end.
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 threescore 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.