The Heart’s Desire

The Heart’s Desire

This week’s poem is the tenth part of A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, in which the month of March is celebrated.

In farm and field through all the shire
The eye beholds the heart’s desire;
Ah, let not only mine be vain,
For lovers should be loved again.

A.E. Housman (1859—1936)

Poem 257. A Shropshire Lad X: March

The Sun at noon to higher air,
Unharnessing the silver Pair
That late before his chariot swam,
Rides on the gold wool of the Ram.

So braver notes the storm-cock sings
To start the rusted wheel of things,
And brutes in field and brutes in pen
Leap that the world goes round again.

The boys are up the woods with day
To fetch the daffodils away,
And home at noonday from the hills
They bring no dearth of daffodils.

Afield for palms the girls repair,
And sure enough the palms are there,
And each will find by hedge or pond
Her waving silver-tufted want.

In farm and field through all the shire
The eye beholds the heart’s desire;
Ah, let not only mine be vain,
For lovers should be loved again.

This poem extolling the glories of March and the early spring might seem a little out of place with the rain and snow of the last week, but I rather like it, so here we are.

It starts by personifying the Sun as a heavenly charioteer—this would be a classical reference to the Greek Sun god Helios, who drives his horse-drawn chariot across the sky: the poem pictures him unharnessing his horses at noon and relaxing on the golden fleece (the object of the quest of Jason and the Argonauts). The ram that bore the golden fleece was connected to Helios in Greek myth.

In the second stanza we see the mistle thrush (named “storm-cock” in the poem) which sings in wet and windy weather as much as in calmer and better conditions, its song marking the beginning of the spring season—“start the rusted wheel of things” suggesting the slow protesting movement of a corroded wheel as it begins to turn, just as the year begins to turn from the stasis of winter to a new beginning. “And brutes in field and brutes in pen”—our animals begin to feel the spring and rejoice that the days of dearth are passing.

The third stanza shows us the lads who are up and out early collecting daffodils from the woods, returning at noon with their arms full of the golden flowers, and the fourth stanza shows the lasses who search abroad for palms—presumably a reference to Palm Sunday—by hedges and ponds, each finding her own “waving silver-tufted want” (wand, perhaps?) If you think that it doesn’t sound much like a palm, you’re right—in colder countries where palm trees don’t flourish, other substitutes were often used instead: box, olive, willow and yew.

The last stanza is something of a plea: here is all nature and humanity beginning to stir with the oncoming spring, with every creature paired with a mate—the “lad” (the subject of the poem) does not want to be left out of the celebrations—“Ah, let not only mine be vain/For lovers should be loved again”—for he has loved in the past and would wish to love again.

I like this passage of poetry because it conjures the stirrings of early spring, and it voices my own feelings of wishing to love and be loved again.