The most frivolous compositions may have deep roots. In a letter (circa 1897) to his stepmother Lucy Housman, A. E. Housman muses,

Perhaps I myself may write a Hymn-book for use in the Salvation Army:

There is Hallelujah Hannah
    Walking backwards down the lane,
And I hear the loud Hosanna
    Of regenerated Jane;
And Lieutenant Isabella
    In the centre of them comes,
Dealing blows with her umbrella
    On the trumpets and the drums.

Or again:

“Hallelujah!” was the only observation
That escaped Lieutenant-Colonel Mary Jane,
When she tumbled off the platform in the station,
And was cut in little pieces by the train.
    Mary Jane, the train is through yer:
    Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
We will gather up the fragments that remain.

It seems to come quite easy.

The last line of the second hymn will be recognized as quoting John 6.12, where the (first) miracle of the loaves and fishes is treated. After the feast, Jesus “said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” Similar language is found in the other gospels. But there is a far more ancient source for the two hymns together, namely the Bacchae of Euripides. In what follows I will give references (not exhaustive) by line numbers of that play.

The women of the hymns (there are no men) form a Salvation Army of maenads (52). In the first hymn they march, or dance, in a loud procession, obedient to the god Dionysus who is called Bromios (66; the name apparently means “noisy”). ἴτε βάγκαι, “Onward bacchants!” (like Christian soldiers) they doubtless urge (83), as Lieutenant Isabella beats time (129) with her umbrella—which is a thyrsus, the bacchants’ weapon (25, 733, 762ff, 798f, 1099f)—on the trumpets and the drums—which are the bacchants’ pipes and drums (59, 123ff, 155ff)—as if to bring forth music from them (cf. 704ff). In the second hymn Mary Jane cries “Hallelujah,” as Hannah of the first does habitually, while regenerated Jane shouts “Hosanna”—both exclamations being modern versions of the bacchic εὐοῖ, “Euoi” (141), and its variants.

Like Pentheus, who although king is less distinguished than his famous grandfather Cadmus, Lieutenant-Colonel Mary Jane is a high-ranking figure, though not the highest; like him (1111ff) she falls to her death, emitting a cry—in his case it was “countless groans” (1112). She is cut to pieces by the train, he torn apart by the Theban bacchants on the mountain (1125ff)—who are themselves a train, the train of Dionysus. To be sure, it is rather the chorus of Asian maenads who are his proper train, the ones he has led to Thebes (55ff); thus Pentheus calls the Theban women fake maenads (224); but the latter have been conscripted into the party of the god, and as the play goes on they come to be referred to regularly as maenads themselves (829, 915, 956, 981, 984, 1023, 1052, 1062, 1075, 1107, 1143, 1191, 1226). Of course Mary Jane is pious, Pentheus the reverse; but having undergone transformation by Dionysus, he looks like a bacchant (821ff, 915, 925ff). After he has met his fate, Cadmus gathers up the fragments that remain of him (all but the head his mother carries, 1139ff, 1218ff). In view of the gospel reference, these may be understood to provide nourishment, a specialty of the god (135ff, 278ff, 704ff).

Further, isn’t Housman’s use of “is through” in the sense of is passing through or has passed through, indeed through and through, quite unusual? Possibly it was suggested by a line in which the chorus sing of the god shattering the king’s palace from within:

ὁ Διόνυσος ἀνὰ μέλαθρα·

Dionysus [is] ana the halls. (589)

Here ana means “all up and down, throughout.” It suggests motion all through a space, which is just what Housman’s train performed in the space of Mary Jane. In both chorus and hymn the whole sense is carried by the preposition.

Finally, Housman says, “It seems to come quite easy.” In case there was any doubt (as there is in the play) who is the divinity behind the composition, it is removed with this remark, since ease is characteristic of the god (461, 614, 640, 1061ff), that calm and cheerful holy terror (380, 439, 622, 636, 1021).

 

 

Note. On the Bacchae I have had enlightening discussions with Brendan Boyle and Jon Tuck, who bear no responsibility for the present foolery.