Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Little Bit of Housman

Here's a fine but lesser-known short poem by A.E. Housman:

XVII

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.

Oh grant me the ease that is granted so free,
The birthright of multitudes, give it to me,
That relish their victuals and rest on their bed
With flint in the bosom and guts in the head.



There's much to like in just eight lines. A bouncy anapestic meter dominates and is appropriately inappropriate to the glum point of view, and Housman sets us up nicely to expect "my troubles are few" in line two, but he gives us "my troubles are two," and at that moment, the rest of the poem becomes irresistible. We have to find out what those two ("Only two?" we think) troubles are, and they are, merely (!), the head and the heart, which "reave" him. "Reave" means, according to the OED online:

"To commit spoliation or robbery; to plunder, pillage."

Thus is the speaker of the poem "bereaved."(Later spellings of the word included "reive" and "rieve," and I believe Faulkner has a short story called "The Rievers," which Hollywood filmed.)

The poem ends with the speaker's expressed wish to be more like what he imagines "ordinary" people to be: content with victuals and able to sleep easy. "Flint in the bosom" I take to mean a toughness in the face of passion or sentiment; the heart is hardened. "Guts in the head" can be taken to mean mental courage, or it could be taken to mean not-so-smart but the better for it. I think I'd go with the former interpretation, but "guts in the head" is a great surprising phrase with which to end the poem, even if, or especially because, it gives us quite an image with which to grapple: a head full of guts.

A gem, this poem.

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