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First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes

First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes

 

So We’ll Go No More a Roving

By Lord Byron (George Gordon)

 

So, we’ll go no more a roving

So late into the night,

Though the heart be still as loving,

And the moon be still as bright.

 

For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself have rest.

 

Though the night was made for loving,

And the day returns too soon,

Yet we’ll go no more a roving

By the light of the moon.

 

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With Rue My Heart is Laden

By A.E. Housman

 

WITH rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I 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.

 

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A few days after the Boston bombing, the line With rue my heart is laden climbed out of my mental attic and presented itself in the living room.  The phrase needed no introduction—I had memorized it years earlier—but I did question its judgment in showing up at that moment.  With rue my heart is laden is much too sentimental and wistful to address the maiming and killing of innocent people.  Then it occurred to me that the reason I associated this poem with the bombing was not the opening line but the image of lightfoot lads leaping across a brook.  Or rather, not leaping over the brook.

 

It was the loss of limbs, you see, that brought the poem to mind.

 

As soon as I made that connection, another line presented itself:  So no more we’ll go a roving. I should explain that for a long time (maybe even right up to the minute I copied the poem to use for this post) I thought Byron’s poem was “So No More We’ll Go a Rowing.”  I pictured the long-armed rowers sitting morose by the banks of a brook that the lightfoot lads couldn’t leap across. In my age-addled brain, I wondered if the two lines were, if not in the same poem, at least written by the same poet.

 

Easy to see why I conflated the two poems.  Even though they were written eighty years apart, the poems share a diction, structure and tone.  Both are brief, musical, have the same rhyme scheme and a similar meter, or close enough, anyway.

 

But more to the point, both poems express a longing for a golden past full of  beautiful young people and lighthearted spirits.  Boys rove and leap in a place no longer accessible.  Byron’s randy paradise is lost to age or exhaustion, and even though the words “rest” and “pause” allow for an eventual revival of roving, yet no more we’ll go sounds like Byron’s permanently traded in the Axe for Bengay.  Death has taken Housman’s pastoral dream, and so for both poets, carefree youthful days are irrevocable.

 

For that reason I couldn’t leave the poems in places frequented by teenagers, not during this season of proms and graduations.  It’s enough that kids have to see the smashed cars displayed on high school lawns, that they have to listen to the valedictorian get all carpe diem because my fellow classmates, it’s all gone in a flash, enough that they have to comfort parents snorfling about what happened to my baby girl.  They don’t need more reminders of lost youth and death that these two elegies would bring. Neither poem, I realized as I was thinking about where to poem-elf them, is a young person’s poem.

 

So I abandoned my first associations with the poems and decided to lighten the tone. I left the poems on a shelf at T.J. Maxx among the anti-aging products.  Because when it comes to the face, Faulkner’s wrong:  the past is definitely past, despite an 80 billion dollar skincare industry, despite the exclamations of old friends who insist you look as young as ever.  You don’t.  Your youthful skin is across brooks too broad for leaping and it’s decaying by the second in a field where roses fade. And while yoga, Kegel exercises or a salsa dancing class may give you back some of your youthful ju-ju, it’s just not the same ju-ju that sent you out on a Thursday night a-roving till the sun returned too soon.  I sound unsympathetic but I struggle with aging as much as anyone, and I’ll probably head back to T.J. Maxx to buy one of those wrinkle creams.

 

It all reminds me of a comment an acquaintance made years ago in a do-it-yourself yoga class in a friend’s basement.  We were inverted in downward-facing dog, and after a few minutes, this woman sighed and said, “I used to have the cutest heart-shaped ass.”  With a twist of my head I could see that she employed the past tense appropriately.

 

Lord Byron (1788-1824) and his longer poems made my life miserable in a college Romantic poetry class.  His life is bigger than I can cover in a paragraph, and anyway nearly everyone knows about his club foot, his sexual exploits, his death from fever in the war for Greek independence.  He wrote “So No More We’ll Go A Roving” when he was 29 in a letter written from Italy where he had gone to escape his scandals in England. Described by one of his former lovers as “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” I don’t think he ever stopped roving in his brief time on earth.

 

By contrast A.E. Housman (1859-1936) lived a quiet life.  He was born the oldest of seven children in rural England.  He went to Oxford but failed his final exams because he was distracted by his unrequited love for his classmate.  Still he earned  renown as a classics scholar, and after ten years spent in the patent office in London, he became a Latin professor at Cambridge.  He only published two volumes of poetry in his life.  The first, A Shropshire Lad, from which this poem is taken, was a series of 63 poems written after the death of his friend.  The book became popular during WWI.

 

Both poems found popularity with musicians.  Here’s Joan Baez’s version of Byron’s poem, and here’s one of the many versions of With Rue My Heart is Laden.

 

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That's the Jefferson Memorial in the background

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

by A.E. Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

I visited my mother three days after Easter with a plan to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin and in Kenwood, a neighborhood in Maryland that for two weeks every year is one of the most magical places on earth. As a child I thought it was a fairyland.  We would get out of the car and walk under a tent of pink trees that covered the width of the street. We kicked up thick layers of pale velvety blossoms and threw the petals at each other like confetti.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything so lovely.  This April I was sure I would see the cherry blossoms again—I would arrive only two days past the peak.  Alas, the trees in Kenwood were green with a only a hint of pink, and those at the Tidal Basin, where I posted this poem, had all but lost their delicate coloring.  I wasn’t completely disappointed in the outing, though, because the sight of my 84-year old mother enjoying herself in a Tidal Basin paddle boat was a treat in itself.

I love this little poem but it’s always confused me.  All that math!  Turns out my confusion sprang from a misapprehension of Housman’s age.  I thought that he was three score year and ten, or less poetically, 70.  And 70 minus 20 is 50, the additional years he says he has to enjoy the blossoms.  Was he assuming that he’d live to be 120?  No, but I was.  Thanks to a little internet research, I now understand that threescore year and ten is a biblical reference to the average lifetime.  So Housman has just passed 20 and is thinking of the 50 years he has left before he dies at 70 and never sees cherry blossoms again.  I guess this shows that you don’t have to fully understand a poem to enjoy it—understanding can come over time.  And also that math can make me a complete idiot.

Housman actually lived to be 76, so he got in six more springs with the cherry blossoms than he had anticipated.

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