This is poem no. XXXII of A Shropshire Lad.

     From far, from eve and morning
        And yon twelve-winded sky,
     The stuff of life to knit me
        Blew hither: here am I.

     Now—for a breath I tarry
        Nor yet disperse apart—
     Take my hand quick and tell me,
        What have you in your heart.

     Speak now, and I will answer;
        How shall I help you, say;
     Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
        I take my endless way.

The first line opens sources in space and time, and not just any time, but evening first and morning second, as in the creation: “And the evening and the morning were the first day,” etc.; but eve rather than evening, so perhaps there is a suggestion of another source, our first mother Eve. (I’ll quote from the King James Bible, which Housman knew.) Then we have the twelve winds of the sky, which is one classical number of them, although the claimed multitude of the winds was as variable as they; indeed, Housman himself at first wrote “four,” then improved it. Twelve goes nicely with the idea of coming-to-be, suggesting on the one hand the moving signs of the zodiac, whose influence or windy flatus (van Helmont’s stillborn blas) affects the newborn, and on the other the apostles present at the new creation, their lungs swollen with spiritual doctrine; and there is another, better, application of the number, which I will come to presently.

The creating wind is hardly “the Spirit of God” that “moved upon the face of the waters,” rather a Lucretian breeze made of the atoms that are always traveling through the void, from time to time in this place or that coming together to form a living being, which persists for a little while before returning to its constituent parts. Though his wind is less obviously inspiring, Lucretius supports the lesson that “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Here father Adam enters, if adam is “the dust of the ground.”) From atomic dust, the stuff of life, our speaker is knit—a word used (though rarely) in the Hebrew Bible to describe human togetherness, memorably in 1 Samuel: “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David.” Elsewhere David says “mine heart shall be knit unto you.” In the New Testament we have: Paul’s sheet-like vessel bulging with novel edibles, as if “knit at the four corners”; hearts “knit together in love”; and the Head (Jesus) that knits the body together, at least for one not “vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind” like that Pauline sheet by flesh.[1]

“Here am I,” says the speaker. This phrase, with “Here I am,” almost always is used, in the Hebrew Bible, between a father and his son, or between a man and God, an angel, or a priest —connections naturally (or supernaturally) prescribed.[2] Its occurrence in the present poem together with “Speak now, and I will answer” especially recalls how the young Samuel, having repeatedly tried “Here am I” without comprehension, once instructed “answered [the Lord], Speak; for thy servant heareth”; as well as the promise in Isaiah that if you behave rightly, “Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.”[3] So much for religious understanding.

Who is it that is here in the present poem, and for whom? The former is a temporary being, and we may understand the same of the latter; brevity of existence limits their acquaintance. Two persons, we suppose; the former generously offers a human connection. But we must not forget their atomic intimacy, the physical dependence inescapable in the Lucretian universe:

                             quae decedunt corpora cuique,
     unde abeunt minuunt, quo venere augmine donant,
     illa senescere, at haec contra florescere cogunt,
     nec remorantur ibi. sic rerum summa novatur
     semper, et inter se mortales mutua vivunt:
     augescunt aliae gentes, aliae minuuntur,
     inque brevi spatio mutantur saecla animantum
     et quasi cursores vitai lampada tradunt.

                              whenever bodies pass away from a thing,
     they diminish that from which they pass and increase that to which they           have come,
     they compel the first to fade and the second on the contrary to bloom,
     yet do not linger there. Thus the sum of things is ever being renewed,
     and mortal creatures live dependent one upon another:
     some species increase, others diminish,
     and in a short space the generations of living creatures are changed
     and, like runners, pass on the torch of life.[4]

Then “How shall I help you?” —One way is by contributing your atoms to my upkeep. The source of life (which is Eve) is the sink of life (which awakens mourning).

Our first notion of a human connection admitted sentiment; the second, only material. Let us try a third, speech. What speaks is no person, but the poem. Indeed, in only one other poem of A Shropshire Lad (LXII) is the word stuff used, and there of poetry: “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” viz. “the verse you make”; replies Terence,

     Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
     For fellows whom it hurts to think …
     ’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
     Is not so brisk a brew as ale …
     But take it: if the smack is sour,
     The better for the embittered hour.

The twelve winds of inspiration, breaths for speech, blew in twelve lines of verse to be knitted together; these “twelve quarters” form a trinity of stanzas. “For a breath I tarry”—for a moment, of course; but “tarry for” can mean “wait (in expectation) for,”[5] so the meaning is also that the poem waits for breath to be drawn in order to achieve utterance. And inasmuch as “Breath’s a ware that will not keep” (poem IV), the time is short before the poem will disperse into stanzas, then lines, then words, the mobile atoms of speech.

“Take my hand quick”—my hand, quickly, while it is quick, not dead. But has the poem a hand? Formally speaking, yes, there the word is, in line 7. Less formally, let us expand Terence’s remarks:

     ’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
     Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
     Out of a stem that scored the hand
     I wrung it in a weary land.
     But take it: if the smack is sour,
     The better for the embittered hour;
     It should do good to heart and head
     When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
     And I will friend you, if I may,
     In the dark and cloudy day.

The hand held the pen that wrote the poem—in the author’s hand.[6] “Take it,” says Terence, for “It should do good to heart and head”—if you will only acknowledge the value of poetry, whose spirit is passed from hand to hand, like Lucretius’s torch:

     This they all with a joyful mind
     Bear through life like a torch in flame,
     And falling fling to the host behind—
     “Play up! play up! and play the game!”[7]

—the game of cycling atoms and words:

     Tout va sous terre et rentre dans le jeu!

     Everything goes under ground, back into the game![8]

The way it takes is endless, classically circular, unlike that other path with a promised end:

     They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow,
     Through Eden took thir solitary way.[9]

Housman’s poem is Lucretius in a nutshell. The salutary lesson comes with the “sour smack” Terence admits to. Not only will “I” blow away, but so will “you,” heart, need, and all. There is honey on the rim, the beauty of inspired poetic speech, “embellisht with blossomes fayre”[10] of religion—tempting fragments of that exploded fiction, no more. How shall I help you?

     The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.

[1] 1 Samuel 18.1, 1 Chronicles 12.17, Acts 10.11, Colossians 2.2, 2.18–19.

[2] Exceptions: Samuel to the people, 1 Samuel 12.3; the Amalekite to Saul, 2 Samuel 1.7.

[3] 1 Samuel 3.4–10, Isaiah 58.9

[4] Lucretius, De natura rerum 2.72–79, with W. H. D. Rouse’s translation, revised by M. F. Smith. 84 English words for 49 Latin!

[5] OED quotes Scott, “Time and tide tarry for no man,” and Edward Peacock, “They had not long to tarry for the coming of their host.”

[6] Cf. poem XXXVII, whose theme is hands of friendship.

[7] Henry Newbolt, Vitaï Lampada.

[8] Paul Valéry, Le Cimetière marin.

[9] Paradise Lost, concluding lines.

[10] Spenser, Shepheardes Calender: Februarie.