One line, that is, of A.E. Housman's
Into my heart an air that kills
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
Roger McGough's last Poetry Please programme was devoted to A.E. Housman and Walt Whitman. I wasn't properly listening. The radio was just on and I was in the bathroom when I heard this poem being read. It is the fortieth in a set of sixty-three poems from A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896, though we usually read and hear the poems as though they were an elegy for the dead of the Great War. There are the various settings by Butterworth and Gurney and Ireland, and others. Nostalgia for the lost rural Eden before the trenches, before modernity - what Housman himself refers to above as "the land of lost content" - lies at the core of it.
But it was not pastoral or nostalgia or the lost Edens that grabbed me as I stood transfixed in the bathroom: those things are easy to parody and we are - perhaps rightly - somewhat suspicious of their ready call to mourn what we never had. That easiness, that readiness, that apparent predisposition to shed a few sentimental tears, is what is weighed in the scales against Housman today when he is discussed: those lads, those regrets, those broad imperial sighs and repressed elegiac tears - might they be a little glib? Yes, a superb phrasemaker, we admit, but maybe a touch cheap: those happy highways to which we cannot come again were not necessarily happy or even that high. And do we really want empire back, anyway?
No, not that then, but there is a touch of heart-piercing genius in the poems, and in this one particularly, that is harder to explain. For myself, I locate it in the very first line, the line that ran right through me and shocked me, though I knew it well enough. This is the line:
Into my heart an air that kills...
Is it the sound, that balance or narrative of vowels, the way the mouth opens wider and wider until at air it reaches maximum width and gasps out, the air pushed from somewhere just beneath the throat and above the lungs, grunting at the faint edge of pain? Because, of course, we began with a slighter, smaller, grunt on heart. And, chiefly, one might say murderously, there is the way the breath narrows, after air, into the clinical, clipped sound, the small dying grunt of kills so that, in effect, no sooner have we taken breath then we gasp out and die, thereby enacting the whole narrative of the poem in one line, through the body as much as through the mind, the words becoming a physical experience?
Yes, I am sure that is an important part of it. There is an unconscious understanding in poems, particularly of the very short lyrical sort, whereby the body enacts, as if by implication, but an implication we actually experience physically, an experience in language. It seems in the hearing and reading a kind of miracle: the mind and emotions feel something, then, in the course of moving into language, those feelings are transformed by language and end up permeating the whole body in a new, unexpected, even more powerful form of feeling, one that breaks down the barrier between body and mind. It is poetry's version of transubstantiation: the imagined presence becoming the real presence. (There are so many examples of this I could quote, a great mass of them in Emily Dickinson, as well as in Housman, and in Auden too). None of the other lines in the poem does the same thing with quite this intensity of effect.
But there is more, and that is to do with ambiguity, the ambiguity of heart and air and kills. Heart is both physical and symbolic. Normally, in poetry, we understand it on the symbolic rather than the physical level. But then that is the same with air. Air can mean music, as well as the physical stuff we breathe in and out. Here the word works on both levels so we cannot tell quite which is foregrounded. Heart has predisposed us to a metaphorical reading, but air jars us a little because, after all, we are told it is an air that blows. Blows metaphorically? Not entirely. It is air moving. Our mouths are wide open as we say the word: we are aware of air as substance. So the reading of the poem hovers at the edge of two or more meanings. And kills has various meanings too. Killing is associated with sex, the little death to which erotic poetry often refers, though that is probably an undercurrent here not the main stream, as I read it, though I cannot quite forget it. But kills is so much more. One can kill time, one can kill the spirit or the body, one can kill joy, or one can have an absolutely killing time, and even if it is only a bit of hyperbole, meaning something like: "breathing that very air causes me great pain in remembering what I have lost (those "blue remembered hills", another great sound pattern) it sill narrows and closes the mouth with a thin final grunt or thrust.
I don't for a moment think Housman intended all this consciously, nor do I want to say a lot of clever-sounding things. I want to explain to myself the grip the line had on me before I relaxed into the rest of the poem. It is like experiencing an electric shock then falling away from the live wire. And you're more alive than ever at the end of it.