Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Blue Remembered Hills

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.

A. E. Housman

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.

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Throughout most of history ordinary people have not joined armies and navies willingly, much less joined up to fight their rulers’ wars, wars that had no rhyme nor reason for them. In feudal times ordinary folk were obliged by their lords to follow them to war. More recently, for example in the First World War, when whipping up patriotic fervour didn’t suffice to produce enough cannon-fodder (and it didn’t) people were conscripted – which just means being forced to go and fight.

Press Gangs – A common way to get people to fight wars that they didn’t want to

Another handy tactic employed for centuries in England was ‘impressment’. The Royal Navy paid groups of armed thugs – called Press Gangs – to roam the streets and seize ordinary citizens (often but not always sailors) against their will, and usually fiercely resisted, and carry them off like convicts to serve as ‘Tars’ in vile and dangerous conditions in His Majesty’s Navy. If they ever made it home alive they could easily find themselves impressed yet again.

By 1793 seventy-five percent of the crews of British vessels consisted of prisoners of war, convicts and those forced into service. Of course the English people resisted such tyranny, as they always have, but to little effect. But that’s another story.

I came across a poem published in 1794 at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars that I found very moving:

The Tender’s Hold or The Sailor’s Complaint

While Landmen wander uncontrol’d,
And boast the rights of Freemen,
Oh! view the tender’s loathsome hold,
Where droop your injur’d Seamen:
Dragg’d by Oppression’s savage grasp,
From ev’ry dear connection;
‘Midst putrid air, Oh! see them gasp,
Oh! mark their deep dejection.

Blush then, Oh! blush ye pension’d host,
Who wallow in profusion,
For our foul cell proves all your boast
To be but mere delusion.

If Liberty be ours, Oh! say
Why are not all protected;
Why is the hand of ruffian sway
‘Gainst Seamen thus directed?
Is this your proof of British rights?
Is this rewarding bravery?
Oh! shame to boast your Tars’ exploits,
Yet doom those Tars to slavery.

Blush, then, etc.

But just return’d from noxious skies,
And winter’s raging ocean,
To land the sun-burnt Seaman flies,
Impell’d by strong emotion.
His much-lov’d KATE, his children dear,
Around him cling delighted,
When, lo! th’ Impressing Fiends appear,
And every joy is blighted,

Blush, then, etc.

Thus from each soft endearment torn,
Behold the Seaman languish,
His wife, his children, left forlorn,
The prey of bitter anguish.
‘Reft of those arms, whose vigorous strength
Their shed from want defended,
They droop, and all their woes at length
Are in a workhouse ended!

Blush, then, etc.

Mark then, ye minions of a court,
Who prate of Freedom’s blessing,
Yet every hell-born war support,
And vindicate Impressing,
A time will come, when Things like you,
Mere baubles of creation,
No more will make mankind pursue
The work of devestation.

Blush then, Oh! blush, ye pension’d host,
Who wallow in profusion,
For our foul cell proves all your boast
To be but mere delusion.

The Cambridge Intelligencer (September 6, 1794)

Even the conservative ‘Romantic’ poets Wordsworth and Shelley were repulsed by the Press Gangs. Wordsworth in Guilt and Sorrow (1793-1794) tells the oppression of:

A Sailor he, who many a wretched hour
Hath told; for, landing after labour hard,
Full long endured in hope of just reward,
He to an arméd fleet was forced away
By seamen, who perhaps themselves had
shared
Like fate; was hurried off, a helpless
prey,
‘Gainst all that in his heart, or theirs
perhaps, say nay.

While Shelley in The Voyage (1812) tells of an impressed sailor’s return home, only to be impressed again and told:

                                   . . . oh! your wife
“Died this time year in the House of Industry
“Your young ones all are dead, except one
brat
“Stubborn as you—Parish apprentice now

We need to hear more about how Englishmen (and for that matter every other nationality) have been forced to fight against their will since ‘civilization’ arose. As Walter Benjamin once wrote:

There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

Blue Remembered Hills

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.

A. E. Housman

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.