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The Carpenter's Son -- A E Housman

Guest poem sent in by Suresh Ramasubramanian
(Poem #1262) The Carpenter's Son
 "Here the hangman stops his cart:
 Now the best of friends must part.
 Fare you well, for ill fare I:
 Live, lads, and I will die.

 "Oh, at home had I but stayed
 'Prenticed to my father's trade,
 Had I stuck to plane and adze,
 I had not been lost, my lads.

 "Then I might have built perhaps
 Gallows-trees for other chaps,
 Never dangled on my own,
 Had I left but ill alone.

 "Now, you see, they hang me high,
 And the people passing by
 Stop to shake their fists and curse;
 So 'tis come from ill to worse.

 "Here hang I, and right and left
 Two poor fellows hang for theft:
 All the same's the luck we prove,
 Though the midmost hangs for love.

 "Comrades all, that stand and gaze,
 Walk henceforth in other ways;
 See my neck and save your own:
 Comrades all, leave ill alone.

 "Make some day a decent end,
 Shrewder fellows than your friend.
 Fare you well, for ill fare I:
 Live lads, and I will die."
-- A E Housman
This is from Houseman's collection "A Shropshire Lad" - there are a lot of
war poems which are, in their own quiet way, a great deal more satisfying to
me than Rupert Brooke's poems, especially because of their biting sarcasm,
such as "From Clee to Heaven the Beacon Burns" -

>"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."

This poem above is ironic, mocking - a carpenter's son reflecting, as he is
going to be hanged, how much better it would have been if he had stuck to
making gallows trees instead of committing crimes that led to his being
forced to sample his own product.

He is making a confession of his crimes and a request to his fellow human
beings not to be led into a life of crime lest they suffer the same fate as
he.  Or is he?  Is he dying for love of mankind like Jesus did on the
cross, between two thieves suffering the same penalty for just and valid
reasons?

         srs

[Martin adds]

An added irony - nowhere in the poem does it say that the love he is dying for
is love of *mankind*. Indeed, if the narrator had not compared his situation to
Jesus's, the phrase "hangs for love" would have a readily obvious interpretation.

53 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Lynd Mike said...

I think you are missing the point - surely the Carpenter's son *is* Jesus - the whole poem is *about* Jesus and is narrated *by* Jesus.
best wishes,
Mike Lynd

Martin DeMello said...

--- "Lynd, Mike" wrote:
> I think you are missing the point - surely the Carpenter's son *is* Jesus -
> the whole poem is *about* Jesus and is narrated *by* Jesus.

I wavered over that, but the word 'hangman' leaned me away from it.

martin

John K. Taber said...

Perhaps, Martin. But "hangman" in a general sense is
just executioner.

The details fit Jesus, a carpenter's son, and executed
amidst two thieves.

The condemned man does not leave "well enough alone"
as the idiom requires, he refuses to leave "ill"
alone, which has brought him to his pass.

His distinction compared to his condemned mates is that
he alone hangs for "love." The speaker is the "midmost."

It seems to me the poem is about Jesus, translated into
19th cent. Shropshire terms.

The poem may indeed refer to a real hanging, but we are
reminded by the poem that the condemned shares a fate
with Jesus, which is in my opinion the point of the
poem.

John K. Taber

Mallika Chellappa said...

I too think this poem refers to none but Jesus, thinly
disguised.
True, this carpenter's son could be being punished for having
the
temerity to love the squire's daughter, but overall the picture
of a punishment for no crime shines through, and, of course,
"live, lads, and I will die" is nothing more than Jesus' promise
on which all of Christianity is based.

Mallika

Hicks.SL said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't Housman homosexual? He obviously wasn't
hanging for "loving the squires daughter". Also, why would he write a poem
about Jesus, when he was an atheist? I'm just wondering.

Bruce Alan Wilson said...

Carpenter's Son

Remember, Houseman was an atheist. The poem is, indeed, about Jesus' death, but
Houseman denies any cosmic or salvific significance to the event; he's saying
that this is another poor dumb bastard who got himself condemned to
execution--nothing more and nothing less.

As a Christian, of course, I reject the message, as much as I may (as a student
of literature) admire the artistry of the poem.

Anonymous said...

This thoroughly controversial poem is a literary marvel. The language used is simple, yet profound. The use of the first person shows that Housman is very confident about his assertion.

See this regarding his atheism...which prompted him to be so satirirical of a belief so universally acknowledged!

http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:Da4PZDlxCRkJ:www.trin.cam.ac.uk/show.php%3Fdowid%3D752+a+e+housman+atheist&hl=en&gl=lk&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESgipDanrDyaSOc_b7Pj0DCWU9PXXFu0ABN59Uhly_pWQ5RPkeeSrk-LM5wX-uC8YSPRJ79_XbYxaQs7E4jg-ZbX9d_uKS94QHvPFpctaO8JISL0puFPoN1dIOadsM_JJ6tUM_JX&sig=AHIEtbQclYZJXTP1FF47YPkRQ7VdS1d5_Q

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Anonymous said...

I suspect he his likening Oscar Wilde's imprisonment to Jesus' execution. That is why he is there for "love." Wilde's life would have been safer if he had not lived so openly. But the poem also gives Housman a chance to assert that Jesus is emphatically dead--there is no hint of the resurrection.

Anonymous said...

Cf. poem #1412

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Anonymous said...

And tell me about the carpenter's complaint

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