A. E. Housman’s "1887" Laments The Deaths Of Those Who Actually Save The Queen

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Housman, “1887,” And The Queen Of England

“1887,” the first poem in A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, is an elegant expression of the fundamental irony of wars fought to preserve a country’s way of life that, in the process, also destroy many of those doing the fighting.

While its notions are applicable to any nation (other than the most nefariously despotic or calculatingly mercenary states) that deliberately places some of its citizens in harm’s way to protect itself and all its citizens, Housman’s poem does, after all, commemorate the jubilee of the Queen of England. And, to capture the significance of Housman’s use of language in “1887,” one must keep in mind that it is specific to Britain and British institutions.

Housman’s words unswervingly return to the central premise: the only means by which God can save the Queen requires the forfeit of the lives of some of the Queen’s subjects fighting for crown and country.

These two excerpts from “1887” are among those rare poetic lines recognizing the sacrifices of those lost in struggles between nations that are poignant without being sentimental, jingoistic, or cynical:

Lads, we’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

The saviours come not home tonight:
Themselves they could not save.

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Housman’s Precise Use Of Language In ‘”1887″

While “1887” has sometimes been misread as a sardonic anti-war polemic, Housman famously repudiated a contemporary’s attempt to thus interpret the work. Over what must have been an awkward lunch, Frank Harris applauded the poem’s “bitter sarcasm” and the manner in which it “poked fun at the whole thing [patriotism] and made splendid mockery of it.” Housman, according to Harris, shot back,

I never intended to poke fun, as you call it, at patriotism, and I can find nothing in the sentiment to make mockery of: I meant it sincerely; if Englishmen breed as good men as their fathers, then God will save the Queen. I can only reject and resent your-your truculent praise.1

This exchange has been used, perhaps most prominently by Beardsley, to exemplify the contrast between an author’s intent and the meaning of the author’s work:

We may put the question, then, in this form: Is Housman’s poem, and particularly its last stanza, ironic? The issue can be made fairly sharp. There are two choices: (1) We can say that the meaning of the poem, including its irony or lack of it, is precisely what the author intended it to be. Then any evidence of the intention will automatically be evidence of what the poem is: the poem is ironic if Housman says so: He is the last court of appeal, for it is his poem. (2) Or we can distinguish between the meaning of the poem and the author’s intention. Of course, we must admit that in many cases an author may be a good reader of his own poem, and he may help us to see things in it that we have overlooked. But at the same time, he is not necessarily the best reader of his poem, and indeed he misconstrues it when, as perhaps in Housman’s case, his unconscious guides his pen more than his consciousness can admit. And if his report of what the poem is intended to mean conflicts with the evidence of the poem itself, we cannot allow him to make the poem mean what he wants it to mean, just by fiat. So in this case we would have the poem read by competent critics, and if they found irony in it, we should conclude that it is ironical, no matter what Housman says.2

I do admire and endorse Beardsley’s zealously proclaimed intent to protect the reader from the dictatorship of the writer: “… we cannot allow him [Housman] to make the poem mean what he wants it to mean, just by fiat.” Goodness knows what calamity might befall the civilization should an author be allowed to mandate the meaning of his own statements.

Here’s my problem: I can’t find the quotation in which Housman declares “1887” ironic or not ironic.

Housman does deny “pok[ing] fun … at patriotism” and “mak[ing] mockery” of it. He reports being sincere in his belief that should patriotism continue, God will continue to save the Queen. Irony and ridicule, however, are hardly synonymous.

Even discounting the possible overreaction one might have expected from the shy and reticent Housman when confronted with the aggressive efforts of Harris to inform the author of the poem’s meaning, nothing in Housman’s conversation denies irony; he denies only that he was ridiculing patriotism.

I would contend that, ahem, Beardsley cannot coerce Housman’s response to Harris into meaning what he wants it to mean, just by fiat.

A more straightforward reading of “1887” (and one that requires no invocation of the author’s unconscious) does not insist on finding irony in the supposed contrast between the poem’s lauding of patriotism and its underlying indictment of it but discovers it instead in the distinction between the celebratory fanfare of the ceremonial “God save the Queen” and the mournful recognition of the deaths of those who actually carry out God’s work.

This is irony alloyed not with sarcasm but with tragedy.

Given Housman’s well-known skepticism about the possibility of God existing in any but the most deistic sense, if there is a fraud exposed in “1887,” it is not the value of patriotism but the misattribution of the labors accomplished in patriotism’s name to a God that is no more than a symbolic figure in a slogan rather than to the soldiers who did the fighting.

The poem, in fact, turns on Housman’s transformation of the ritualistic “God save the Queen” (in a few variations) from a cheer no more meaningful than “huzzah” into a complex lamentation for very real soldiers who have died – not into a cynical jibe directed at patriotism.

 

1887
By A.E. Housman

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.

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Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post by E. O. Hoppehttp://images.google.com/hosted/life/fd76be65c0baead9.html, PD-US, via Wikipedia.

Note: Originally posted Mar 31, 2009 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

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  1. Frank Harris, Latest Contemporary Portraits (New York, 1927), 280. []
  2. Beardsley, Monroe C., Aesthetics, Problems In The Philosophy Of Criticism. 2nd Edition. Hackett Publishing, 1981. P 26 []

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