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The Colour of His Hair -- A E Houseman

Guest poem sent in by Frank O'Shea

The troubles in the Anglican (Episcopalian) church in America about the
consecration of a gay bishop brings the following poem to mind.
(Poem #1412) The Colour of His Hair
 Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
 And what has he been after, that they groan and shake their fists?
 And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
 Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

 'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
 In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
 Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
 For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

 Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
 To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
 But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
 And they’re taking him to justice for the colour of his hair.

 Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet,
 And the quarry-gang on portland in the cold and in the heat,
 And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
 He can curse the god that made him for the colour of his hair.
-- A E Houseman
Written by Houseman in 1894-5 at the time of trial of Oscar Wilde, but
(wisely) not published until after his death. Himself a homosexual, but much
more discreet than the flamboyant Irishman and not burdened by a petulant
young lover, he was affected by the troubles visited on Wilde and sent him a
copy of A Shropshire Lad after he was released from prison. He was said to
be touched by the fact that Robbie Ross used to memorise some of his verses
and recite them to Wilde in prison.

I love the metre - is there another poem without exactly the correct number
of feet in each line? What is the metre called, by the way? [Don't think
it's anything more specific than 'iambic heptameter' (with considerable
tension towards a trochaic reading in places, and several three-syllable
feet; as Frank says, it's a delightfully irregular metre) -martin]

Frank O'Shea

[Martin adds]

Another brilliant poem about Wilde's persecution by the authorities is
Betjeman's "The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at The Cadogan Hotel", with its
savagely ironic
    Mr Woilde, we'ave come for tew take yew
    Where felons and criminals dwell.
    We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
    For this is The Cadogan Hotel.

Full poem here:

18 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Tim Reynolds said...

is there another poem without exactly the correct number
> of feet in each line?

Anapestic hexameter, isn't it? A ballad form, like "Danny Deaver". And the
idiom is pure Irish, "for the colour that it is".


PS. Frost's "Others reproach me for having knelt at wellcurbs" (I forget
the title} is an sonnet with one anapest substitution in each line. "The
Path Not Taken" is a trochaic poem with one anapest substition in each line.
Not germane.

Nikki Strandskov said...

Excellent poem and comments. However, I believe the poet's name is
Housman, with no "e".
Nikki Strandskov

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Outstanding poetry and feedback I really like the metre - is there another poetry without exactly the appropriate number of legs in each line? love this line Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade

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