Where the tress whisper but the wind doesn’t blow: Let AE Housman be your guide.
Poem lii from A Shropshire Lad.
Far in a western brookland
That bred me long ago
The poplars stand and tremble
By pools I used to know.
There in the windless night-time,
The wanderer, marvelling why,
Halts on the bridge to harken
How soft the poplars sigh.
He hears: no more remembered
In fields where I was known,
Here I lie down in london
And turn to rest alone.
There, by the starlit fences,
The wanderer halts and hears
My soul that lingers sighing
About the glimmering weirs.
A change of season brings a change of mood, and though it’s still not coat weather during the day round where I live, I did see a tree starting to drop its leaves this morning. If anything’s going to set me off thinking about Autumn, it’s that.
Time for that most melancholy of poets, then, Alfred Edward Housman, the ‘Shropshire lad’ himself (albeit one from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire).
I chose the above poem completely at random, and to be fair it could be set at any time of the year. Added to this is that whenever Housman does mention a particular season, he more often than not plumps for Spring. For me, though, there’s always a melancholy about his work that fits the season of Autumn. I’ve always thought of Housman as a great poet of the emotions, and he does crystalise in verse the rueful melancholy that a lot of people feel, however fleetingly, when the nights start drawing in. He is a poet of dark nights.
This poem may not be to everyone’s tastes. Personally I like it, although I’ll readily admit that there is a contrived element to it. The key words at play in the verse, however, are in stanza two, where despite the “windless” conditions the poplars are animated by some power, leaving the passer-by “marvelling”. And with that Housman takes what might be another routine lyric of loss and disquiet, and gives it an unsettling element, bordering on the supernatural.
As I say, some might find that Housman overdoes this. However, I don’t mind writers taking liberties like this in order to stir the emotions. After all, this is also the time of year when I like to go back to my books of ghost stories.
This is also the perfect kind of poem to give to schoolchildren: With skillful guidance from the teacher they’d be able to make personal sense of it in minutes, followed by an exercise where they could produce a personal response (a poem, a picture, a story) based on the verse. There could also be a lot of interesting discussion as to the identity of the poem’s speaker.