Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"When Summer's End Is Nighing"

XXXIX (from Last Poems)
By AE Housman

When summer's end is nighing
  And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
  And all the feats I vowed
  When I was young and proud.

The weathercock at sunset
  Would lose the slanted ray,
And I would climb the beacon
  That looked to Wales away
  And saw the last of day.

From hill and cloud and heaven
  The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
  And hushed the countryside,
  But I had youth and pride.

And I with earth and nightfall
  In converse high would stand,
Late, till the west was ashen
  And darkness hard at hand,
  And the eye lost the land.

The year might age, and cloudy
  The lessening day might close,
But air of other summers
  Breathed from beyond the snows,
  And I had hope of those.

They came and were and are not
  And come no more anew;
And all the years and seasons
  That ever can ensue
  Must now be worse and few.

So here's an end of roaming
  On eves when autumn nighs:
The ear too fondly listens
  For summer's parting sighs,
  And then the heart replies.

I chose this week's poem because this is the last week of my summer before school starts back. The poem beginning "When summer's end is nighing" is numbered but untitled, like all the others in the 1922 collection, Last Poems, Housman compiled and published this collection specifically so it could be read by Moses Jackson, one of Houseman's college roommates and the object of his life-long, probably unrequited love, who, by this time, lay terminally ill in Canada. Jackson was heterosexual and did not reciprocate Housman's feelings.  Housman obtained a first in classical Moderations in 1879, but his dedication to textual analysis, particularly with Propertius, led him to neglect ancient history and philosophy, which formed part of the Greats curriculum. Accordingly, he failed to obtain a degree. Some scholars attribute Housman's unexpected failure in his final exams directly to his rejection by Jackson. Most biographers suggest that there are more obvious reasons. Housman was indifferent to philosophy, overconfident in his preternatural gifts, felt contempt for inexact learning, and enjoyed idling away his time with Jackson. He may also have been distracted by news of his father's desperate illness. The failure left him with a deep sense of humiliation, and a determination to vindicate his genius.

Housman is a poet who often seems to be on the verge of saying the conventional poetic thing, and then, in a flash, turns it in a new direction. It may simply be the matter of an unexpected phrase or even a single word. A less original poet would have chosen "nearing" rather than "nighing" for the first-line end-verb. This is not a choice decided by the need for a rhyme, because the "a" line in the poem never rhymes. "Nighing" is a curious archaism: it's not even a particularly melodious word, but perhaps the fact that it rhymes with another present participle that the poem resists, "sighing", underlies its haunting effect. Finally, the verb reappears in a different tense. This time, "nighs" meets with its natural word-mate, "sighs". It's one small example of an enormous technical skill in the shaping and integration of individual units and whole poem. But this skill is un-showy. It serves something that, for Housman, was all-important to a poem: its emotion.

While concerned with the melancholy closure of ageing, the poem conveys in parenthesis the limitlessness of adolescent aspiration. The narrative slows luxuriantly in stanza five, and pauses on the easy confidence of "the air of other summers". But then, all at once, it accelerates. Those awaited summers have arrived, and evaporated, remaining somehow unlived: "They came, and went, and are not …" At this point it's absolutely clear that Housman is not writing in the comfortable afterglow of nostalgia. He is writing about a dark absence of fulfilment, now irredeemably faced in the light of "the only end of age" – to quote a poet who learned much from him, and seems to have been temperamentally similar, Philip Larkin.

Housman was a great classical scholar, and his intimacy with Latin, in particular, dictates the shape of his poetry. He makes our cumbersome language seem graceful, flexible and swift. His enduring popular reputation over the years is partly because of his ability to express emotions of a certain universally appealing kind (The Shropshire Lad has been in print continuously since 1896) but also testifies to a remarkable style, both epigrammatic and musical, which produces lyric poems that are simple to remember – and simply memorable.


silvereagle said...

Like the poem and your dissertation...is this part of your studies?

dl.miley said...

I enjoy your blog since it presents such a diversity of your interests in life as a teacher and person. Each day has a different theme that brings out a part of you. It is sad how we must keep parts of ourselves secret, especially when we live in certain parts of this nation. Thank you for being who you are and sharing with us these different parts of yourself. David

Travis Crockett said...

On the synchronicity or coincidence or providence front, today I happened to be looking up the word "nigh" on my dictionary app and discovered for the first time the use of the word as a verb. Cool that it should show up in your post.

Speaking of "nigh", someone once described it to me in pure East Texan as "purt' near but not plumb." Best definition I have ever heard!

Jay M. said...

Very nice poem, and very nice explanation. Thanks!

Peace <3

Dean said...

That final paragraph is the most succinct summary of an author or poet I have ever read. I love these kinds of posts.