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Here Dead We Lie -- A E Housman

Continuing with Vikram Doctor's guest theme:
(Poem #1227) Here Dead We Lie
 Here dead we lie
 Because we did not choose
 To live and shame the land
 From which we sprung.

 Life, to be sure,
 Is nothing much to lose,
 But young men think it is,
 And we were young.
-- A E Housman
The second is a well known one by A.E.Housman, but its
not yet featured on minstrels. I guess its Flecker's
line "I was a poet, I was young" which makes me think
about it, since it also deals with young mens' dreams.
It is in its low key way quite an extraordinary poem,
for the punch it packs, simulatenously compassionate,
commemorative, patriotic and yet with such sad and
bitter knowledge at the end.

Vikram

[Martin adds]

The second verse of this poem is one that has haunted me ever since I first
read it. Housman's ironic "Life to be sure is nothing much to lose" recalls
Wilfred Owen's quoting of "the old lie, 'Dulce et decorum est, pro patria
mori'", and to my mind, the quiet "but young men think it is, and we were
young" is an even more effective depiction of the pity of war than Owen's
graphically detailed horrors. Housman's narrator says, in effect "yes, we
fought and we died, but know that we did so in full awareness of the
price we were paying."

martin

43 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Acynta said...

Re: Here Dead We Lie

Hating to be the one who mentions rhyme scheme, nevertheless, it's quite cool
as this poem's is ABCD EBFD, which links the two stanzas quite beautifully
and adds to the compactness and poignancy of the poem.

carlynn

Martin DeMello said...

--- wrote:
> The second stanza confirms what Dylan Thomas describes
> wisemen whose "words had forked no lightning..." Yet unlike
> A.E., Thomas suggests for them not to go gentle into oblivion.
> Housman holds on to the opposite view that for the youth, life
> does not have anything much to lose and hence nothing of value
> to fight or die for.

I'd strongly disagree with this - I think Housman is being bitterly ironic in
the second verse, pointing out that though the 'Establishment' keeps harping on
about glorious death, the young know better; know that life *is* a lot to lose.
The first verse says that they felt the price worth paying; the second adds
that they paid it with their eyes wide open.

martin

sandi_ordinario said...

Thanks Martin, for the your interpretation. I will not argue about it but I
think in Houseman's time terms such as Angst, Weltzmer(?) and Nihilism was
the fad so that my drift maybe the result of what I know. You have made it
positive by claiming life has so much to lose from the point of view of the
young. I see it differently. I feel that Housman expressing the frustration
of the young for not making a dent in their world has resulted in the poem. A
great poem, no matter.

My best,
sandi

Gene Skuratovsky said...

Re: Rhyming Scheme

Although the poem is shown here in two stanzas, four lines each, with
the apparent rhyming scheme being ABCD EBFD, it is a fancy. One might
add to this illusion a note of a clever 2-3-3-2 iambic rhythm per stanza.

In truth, this poem is written as a single quatrain in a favorite English
iambic pentameter, perfectly rhyming ABAB. Just rewrite it properly, and
you will see it!

Hope this is helpful.

Gene

Sarouche Razi said...

I had read this years ago, and somewhere along the line, in my head i changed the poem...and now the changes version strikes me even more...

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But old men this it is,
and we were young

old men value life because they know theyre at the end of their own, its why old people fret...while the young are so carefree that they act as though theyre immortal...and the "and we were young" part takes on a different significance, because now he's saying firstly, "we threw our lives away", and secondly, "we never had the chance to think our lives WERE much to lose, we never had the chance to grow old, and experience the panics of old age"- it now strikes me as a better version

Martin Milco Jr said...

Like another Martin who commented on "Here dead we lie..", this poem haunted
me too the first time I read it, but I couldn't fully express why. I used it
as a prologue to one of my own poems. I was a combat infantryman in Vietnam
(1968-69) and like all young men in wars before and since, I wanted to live.
I wanted to experience a full life. I wanted to go home sitting in an
airplane seat and not encased in a body bag. Now, I am an old man as is the
narrator of this poem, and I wonder why life was so important to me then.
In the tamer years that followed my war experience I have not been as
intensely alive as in those years. I came to fully appreciate this poem
only after I read Ambrose Bierce's essay: "What I Saw at Shiloh", Essay
XII, the last line of which reads: "Ah, Youth, there is no such wizard as
thou! Give me but one touch of thine artist hand upon the dull canvas of
the Present; gild but for one moment the drear and somber scenes of today,
and I will willingly surrender an other life than the one that I should have
thrown away at Shiloh." This may sound foolish to a young person. I would
have to me, but then, life was important to young men, and I was young.

Martin Milco

Martin Milco Jr said...

As with another person's comment regarding this poem, I too was haunted by
it, but could not fully explain to myself why. I used it as a prologue to
one of my own war poems. I was a combat infantryman in Vietnam [1968-69].
Like young soldiers then, before, and since, I wanted to live, to return
home, to take a crack at having a full life. I was 25 then, I am nearly 63
now, therefore I qualify as an old man, just as the narrator of the poem.
During the ensuing tamer years, I've often wondered why life seemed too
important to lose back then. I am in no way suicidal or nihilistic. It is
just in retrospect that I realize the intensity of living, of experiencing
the enormity of life, coexisting with the very real prospect of sudden death
in those harrowing days made me somehow, paradoxically, fully alive. The
poem came full circle for me a few years ago after having read Ambrose
Bierce's essay, : What I Saw at Shiloh", Essay XII. The last line reads:
"Ah, Youth, there is no such wizard as thou! Give me but one touch of thine
artist hand upon the dull canvas of the Present; gild but for one moment the
drear and somber scenes of today, and I will willingly surrender an other
life than the one that I should have thrown away at Shiloh." For me, there
is an unstated implication in Housman's poem: that the wisdom of age says
such an intensity for life which once existed under those horrifying
circumstances cannot be recaptured and therefore "life is nothing much to
lose, but, young men think it is and we were young."

Rodger Hyde said...

Surely the word should be 'sprang'? If so, this blemishes a poem of otherwise sombre beauty.
Rodger hyde

john m said...

"Surely the word should be 'sprang'?"?
see Donne: A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning (#330)

Such wilt thou be to me, who must
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
-- John Donne

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