Introduced by Dr Caroline Jackson-Houlston, Senior Lecturer in English, School of English and Modern Languages, Oxford Brookes University
’Tis mute, the word they went to hear on high Dodona mountain When winds were in the oakenshaws and all the cauldrons tolled, And mute’s the midland navel-stone beside the singing fountain, And echoes list to silence now where gods told lies of old.
I took my question to the shrine that has not ceased from speaking, The heart within, that tells the truth and tells it twice as plain; And from the cave of oracles I hear the priestess shrieking That she and I should surely die and never live again.
Oh priestess, what you cry is clear, and sound good sense I think it; But let the screaming echoes rest, and froth your mouth no more. ’Tis true there’s better boose than brine, but he that drowns must drink it; And oh, my lass, the news is news that men have heard before.
The king with half the East at heel is marched from lands of morning; Their fighters drink the rivers up, their shafts benight the air. And he that stands must die for nought, and home there’s no returning. The Spartans on the sea-wet rock sat down and combed their hair.
I’m a lecturer in nineteenth-century literature here at Oxford Brookes, and I have a research interest in allusion and intertexuality.
A. E. Housman’s ‘The Oracles’ is a poem of almost unrelieved gloom and some of the details are moderately impenetrable without the rudiments of a classical education and a good knowledge of the Old Testament, or the help of the wonderful notes from Archie Burnett’s edition. However, its theme of impending and inescapable disaster is clear, as is the poet’s insistence on the primacy of the human heart, and his presentation of the heroic insouciance with which the Spartans respond.
I confess to liking this because I share Housman’s existential pessimism. I admire the invocation of an outworn culture which has a set of expectations about divine guidance very alien both to our own and to the more accessible parameters of Christian consolation that are criticised by Housman’s use of the antique. The uneasily condescending familiarity with which Housman addresses the dead priestess is an index of his own emotional distress at the lack of any consolation to be found at the prospect of death and defeat. I admire the invocation of a tight-lipped heroism which transcends history and culture, and which defies inevitable extinction by celebrating the beauty of life. The last line, with the Spartans at Thermopylae smartening themselves up for death, has undertones of Housman’s then-inexpressible sexual admiration of the male body, and the ways in which he codes his own sexual preference in his poetry are of academic interest to me.
I have set this poem to music and occasionally sing it. The lines in italics were intended by Housman to represent the words of the oracle foretelling the defeat of the Spartans by the Persians. If presenting the poem aloud, I would chant these lines, as a homage to Housman’s indebtedness to the traditional British ballad in much of his work. Moreover, I have been to Dodona and sung in the open-air classical theatre there. Whether I sang this is lost in the mists of time, but I certainly will the next time I am there. It is a beautiful, isolated site, and the oakenshaws are still present.
This poem (1922) is in the public domain.