If one were to make a list of the greatest works of literature in the history of the world, what would we find on that list? Certainly The Iliad and The Odyssey would be there. So would The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment would have to be included. Others might be Job and Isaiah and Lamentations from the Bible. I would include Moby Dick and Great Expectations although some others would not. The collected works of Basho, the wandering Haiku master had better make the list. Shakespeare would be there multiple times, with Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and MacBeth. Paradise Lost, certainly! There are many others, our list could go on and on. These are works that everyone should read, not out of duty, but for the joy and beauty they make available to us.
But how many of these have the average person read? These (and others that would be on such a list) are among the greatest literary works ever written, yet they are read so much more rarely than lesser works such as Stephen King novels, or John Grisham. One reason is that they seem forbidding. The size alone of many of them can be overwhelming. Until one gets some way into them one can be afraid that it will be work to finish. And then there is the fear of archaic words and of feeling dumb if we don't understand absolutely everything. We sometimes fear that a "great work" or a "classic" will be over our heads. Of course, nobody who has read them retains this fear. We all discover that the very reason they have become classics is that they are able to speak to us, normal people, in ways more powerful than lesser works can.
But there is another book that would make my list that fits none of these objections: A Shropshire Lad, by A. E. Housman. It is a very small book, less than 100 pages, with plenty of white space even then. Very few of its words will be difficult to anyone. "Mind" is used for "remember." A "jonquil" is a daffodil. But none of them require looking up because the context supplies what we need.
Housman is a poet. I say this because he is not a philosopher or a theologian. He is disoriented by death, and by love. He can't quite make them meet. He can't quite make them make sense in the same universe. He is puzzled by young men in their graves just at the time when they should be flirting with young women. But he is not a philosopher; if he were he would not be able to resist attempting to "explain" the meaning of death. He would try to make sense of love and death. A theologian would start with a doctrine of sin . . .
But the wisdom of Housman is that he instead spends his time being perplexed by death. It somehow doesn't fit. Seeing a young man from his country town going off to war, he puts the phrase, "Come you home a hero, or don't come home at all," into the mouths of the townspeople. He honors brave soldiers, but seems to somewhat envy the heroic slain. Yet in the same breath he seems to be asking what the rural English folk have to do with Egypt or Turkey that their young men are sent there to die. How incongruous it all is.
When the young men from outlying areas come into town for the county fair, his mind is again perplexed: "The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there, and there with the rest are the lads that will never be old." "I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell . . ."
While in the abstract a theologian can help us to better understand death, in particular instances of death (such as a parent, a child, a friend) understanding can prove a poor comfort. Even theology has its limits. With or without understanding, with or without faith, sadness remains, and fear and perplexity. And while I contemplate my own death, though there is little fear, there is still a strong sense that it doesn't quite make sense.
That is what Housman captures.
Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man's soul.
Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.
Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder 'tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I've had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
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.
Tomorrow I will post a couple more from this book that deal with his parallel theme of the briefness of love. Then the next day I will post a wonderful counter-argument from Elizabeth Barrett Browning.