the African Lion

July 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

To meet a bad lad on the African waste
  Is a thing that a lion enjoys;
But he rightly and strongly objects to the taste
  Of good and uneatable boys.

When he bites off a piece of a boy of that sort
  He spits it right out of his mouth,
And retires with a loud and dissatisfied snort
  To the east, or the west, or the south.

So lads of good habits, on coming across
  A lion, need feel no alarm
For they know they are sure to escape with the loss
  Of a leg, or a head, or an arm.

– A. E. Housman

The moral of the poem is that the virtuous end up only slightly better off than their vile counterparts. Compare to Belloc’s “Jim“.

“Here dead we lie…”

May 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here dead we lie because we did not choose
  To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
  But young men think it is, and we were young.

– A. E. Housman

There are certain people (to be sure) who, oblivious to Housman’s irony, believe that this is a patriotic poem. It isn’t. The first two lines are actually a translation of a Greek epitaph on the fallen soldiers at Thermopylae. The final two lines undercut the first ones by exposing the absurd notion that one should give up one’s only life for an arbitrary border on immemorial land.

Inhuman Henry or Cruelty to Fabulous Animals

February 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Oh would you know why Henry sleeps,
And why his mourning mother weeps,
And why his weeping mother mourns?
He was unkind to unicorns.

No unicorn, with Henry’s leave,
Could dance upon the lawn at eve,
Or gore the gardener’s boy in spring,
Or do the very slightest thing.

No unicorn could safely roar
And dash its nose against the door,
Nor sit in peace upon the mat
To eat the dog or drink the cat.

Henry would never in the least
Encourage the heraldic beast:
If there were unicorns about
He went and let the lion out.

The lion, leaping from its chain,
And glaring through its tangled mane,
Would stand on end and bark and bound
And bite what unicorns it found.

And when the lion bit a lot
Was Henry sorry? He was not.
What did his jumps betoken? Joy.
He was a bloody-minded boy.

The Unicorn is not a Goose,
And when they saw the lion loose
They grew increasingly aware
That they had better not be there.

And oh, the unicorn is fleet
And spurns the earth with all its feet:
The lion had to snap and snatch
At tips of tails it could not catch.

Returning home, in temper bad,
It met the sanguinary lad,
And clasping Henry with its claws
It took his legs between its jaws.

“Down, lion, down!” said Henry, “Cease!
My legs immediately release.”
His formidable feline pet
Made no reply, but only ate.

The last words that were ever said
By Henry’s disappearing head,
In accents of indignant scorn,
Were “I am not a unicorn.”

And now you know why Henry sleeps,
And why his mother mourns and weeps,
And why she also weeps and mourns;
So now be kind to unicorns.

– A. E. Housman

While I normally eschew from acknowledging literary symbolism, I have always been taken with “Inhuman Henry” because of its veiled references to homophobia, its personification of hate as a lion, the cheeky “fabulous” in the title, and the wink to fleeting Moses Jackson, whom Housman wished to gore. Henry is probably a unicorn himself; the people who are most unkind to unicorns are usually closeted unicorns. Note how Henry claims he is not one up until the very end.

But wait! The lion and the unicorn are also symbols for England and Scotland, respectively, and the two animals feature on the United Kingdom’s coat-of-arms, hence the “heraldic beast”. Perpetually fighting, they are subjects in a well-known nursery rhyme.

Everyone’s favorite miserablist is not generally known for playful verse, and only a few of his forays into the genre resulted in anything notable, but the best of it, and “Inhuman Henry” is one of his best poems — light or otherwise — are sparkling mixes of Belloc’s morality and Carroll’s mathematical preciseness.

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