Monday, October 10, 2016

Easter Hymn by A. E. Housman

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.

I once had a student, upon reading this poem, inform me that it meant that Christianity was dead and there was nothing in which to hope or believe.  Ah, teenagers.  Housman fancied himself, as with many of Modernism's artists, an atheist.  However, as he was a true atheist, and not just a poseur insecure about his intelligence, he respected philosophy's great motto: "I might be wrong."

He gives a hint to that in the second stanza.  Although the narrative relies on the notion of a God incarnate who is, like a deus ex machina, to solve the issues of the world, rather than recognizing that the human race has within it the capacity to do the same without extraordinary supernatural aid, Housman has an innate understanding of the tension that drives faithful witness.

He also seems to be in the process of learning something that is elementary to the Christian experience.  Crucifixion, and all of the death and despair that it enables, is the necessary first step towards Resurrection, as they are two portions of the same experience.  It is a flat vision of the liminal that can only give power to death, but cannot see a greater power in life.