Not so long ago I had the pleasure to attend a gathering where storytelling became important. Over the course of several days each of us listened to stories and told our own. The point, I guess, was to find our own ‘voice’. When it was my turn, I was at a loss as to what story I should tell. Then as if from nowhere a favourite poem came into my head. One of the few poems I have ever memorized by heart. This poem was by the English poet A. E. Housman and is usually called The Land of Lost Content, but I prefer to call it Blue Remembered Hills. So I started to recite the poem:
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.
At first I recited the poem quietly, gently and with a sort of wistful nostalgia. Surely the poem speaks to those of us who are a little older – as we look back on our seemingly innocent, but certainly lost, youth? Next I tried a voice that was more pessimistic, that recognized the fleetingness of life and our own mortality. Maybe the poem is about how we will all die and, perhaps, that we should treasure each moment of our lives? I then tried a tone that sought to evoke the physicality of the place; the sense of the peaceful and never changing landscape of the Shropshire Hills. Several more renditions followed. Eventually I hit upon a voice that really expressed what this poem meant to me: I told it with anger.
The poem was part of a cycle of sixty-three that Housman published in 1896, under the title A Shropshire Lad. At least in part, I think that Housman meant the whole cycle to be a cry against the wanton and needless loss of young men’s lives – as Queen Victoria expanded ‘her’ Empire. This, I believe, can be seen clearly in another poem from The Shropshire Lad, entitled 1887:
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 to-night:
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.
The Nile ‘spills his overflow besides the Severn’s dead’. We are implored to ‘get you the sons your fathers got’ and, with a large hint of irony, “God will save the Queen.” Now Housman wasn’t an overtly anti-war poet in the manner of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, yet I think his social and political stance is clear.
But it doesn’t really matter if my interpretation of the poem corresponds with Housman’s intention or not. It’s not often I have a kind word to say about the post-modernist school of literary criticism, particularly when it is imported into the writing and reading of history. But regarding my reading of Blue Remembered Hills, and what it means to me, it is surely right. My own‘angry reading of the poem is my ‘discourse’; one amongst many.
For generation after generation, young men in England, and in every country in the world, have been cajoled and pressured to go and fight in distant wars. Wars about which they have not the slightest conception. They go to fight an enemy whom they don’t know. And, if they did, they would probably find them to be very much like themselves. Whether English, German or French they will die, often screaming for their mothers, in the trenches of Flanders. These young men have been betrayed by their rulers, who saw them as just so much‘cannon fodder – to be used in their quests for greater power and glory. This is why an angry reading of Blue Remembered Hills resonates so much with me.
It’s not surprising to learn that after an initially lukewarm reception Housman’s poems received much more attention during the Boer War and the Great War.
As a last thought, I feel the ‘sense of place’ in these poems is important. Housman wasn’t from Shropshire, yet he evokes this small region of England perfectly:
Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.
In this day and age, when many of us seem to have lost a sense of belonging to the land, and to any specific locality, I love Housman’s sense of rootedness. Perhaps it’s because my own family lived in Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills for centuries; but I do hope his wonderful poetry will continue to find a wider audience, wherever they may be.