The Immortal Part
When I meet the morning beam,
Or lay me down at night to dream,
I hear my bones within me say,
‘Another night, another day.
‘When shall this slough of sense be cast,
This dust of thoughts be laid at last,
The man of flesh and soul be slain
And the man of bone remain?
‘This tongue that talks, these lungs that shout
These thews that hustle us about,
This brain that fills the skull with schemes,
And its humming hive of dreams,—
‘These to-day are proud in power
And lord it in their little hour:
The immortal bones obey control
Of dying flesh and dying soul.
”Tis long till eve and morn are gone:
Slow the endless night comes on,
And late to fulness grows the birth
That shall last as long as earth.
‘Wanderers eastward, wanderers west,
Know you why you cannot rest?
‘Tis that every mother’s son
Travails with a skeleton.
Lie down in the bed of dust;
Bear the fruit that bear you must;
Bring the eternal seed to light,
And morn is all the same as night.
‘Rest you so from trouble sore,
Fear the heat o’ the sun no more,
Nor the snowing winter wild,
Now you labour not with child.
‘Empty vessel, garment cast,
We that wore you long shall last.
—Another night, another day.’
So my bones within me say.
Therefore they shall do my will
To-day while I am master still,
And flesh and soul, now both are strong,
Shall hale the sullen slaves along,
Before this fire of sense decay,
This smoke of thought blow clean away,
And leave with ancient night alone
The stedfast and enduring bone.
A. E. Housman
Strong iambic rhythm and rhyme in each of the four line stanzas (aabb).
As I get older my bones are in tune with the bone-talking words expressed in the first stanza (but I can recommend glucosamine). And I liked the way he talked of death as a birth in stanza five – And late to fulness grows the birth / That shall last as long as earth.
Getting to the bones of this poem, looking at the last stanza and the first line – before this fire of sense decay … while we are master over flesh and before the decay to everlasting bone – the immortal part (if indeed bones last forever) let us make the most of our being! And don’t let’s concentrate our thoughts on that enduring bone or that ancient night! This smoke of thought blow clean away – line two of the last stanza.
Housman was an atheist and a somewhat depressive character. Even so it is interesting to have a look at one of his quotes …
The troubles of our proud and angry dust are from eternity, and shall not fail. Bear them we can, and if we can we must. Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
He believed that we can bear all our troubles and not only we can bear them but he states that we must bear them. Let’s face it, what creator (or God if you like) would design a universe where we were not capable of bearing our troubles – it’s not worth thinking of … it would be such a horrid scenario – in this sense he at least believed in a good creator.