Alfred Edward Housman was a turn of the century English poet and scholar. A man at the end of the Empire.
He penned beautiful, short, jewel like poetry that could be incredibly depressing. His poetry went beyond cynical to about being doomed. His poetry books like A Shropshire Lad were extremely popular among British soldiers sent to die in the trenches of World War I.
Orwell knew Housman’s poetry well and thought it shaped an entire generation of British men during the Edwardian era. “A kind of bitter, defiant paganism, a conviction that life is short and the gods are against you, which exactly fitted the prevailing mood of the young.”
Be mentally healthy if you read A Shropshire Lad. It’s like listening to The Doors. It’s fine poetry, certainly, it needs to be read, but you should feel good about yourself when you do.
Illustrated copies abound for little money. My book had illustrations as melancholy as the writing.
In this poem, however, Housman is more defiant than resigned. He gives in at the end but he protests along the way. For a subject of the realm, for any of us, that’s something.
The Laws of God, The Laws of Man
by A. E. Housman (1859-1936)
The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbor to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
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