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A poem that puzzles me
Posted: Posted October 25th, 2018 by chiarizio
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A. E. Housman wrote this three-quatrain poem which I found very arresting when I first read it a few days ago, and have found fascinating ever since.

But what does it mean?

I understand the words and clauses and surface-meaning. But there’s at least one more layer, that I don’t yet understand.

——————————

Her strong enchantments failing,
Her towers of fear in wreck,
Her limbecks dry of poison,
And the knife at her neck;

The Queen of Air and Darkness
Begins to shrill and cry:
“O young man! O my slayer!
Tomorrow, you shall die!”

“O, Queen of Air and Darkness,
I think it truth you say
That I shall die tomorrow.

But you shall die today.”

____________________

Clearly it’s a battle between a sorceress and a young armed fighter.
When the magicianess runs out of magic she curses the victor to live only one more day.
He accepts this doom but assures her that he will still outlive her by one day.

Okay, but what on earth made A.E. think of this story?
It’s pretty visual IME. I can hear the sounds, too. And even smell what used to be in the limbecks.
But why the deadly fight? And how did it come to be lethal to both combatants?

It’s like hearing the punch line without the joke.

====

My ex used to complain whenever we saw a movie and I’d wonder what would happen next after the end, what had happened before the beginning, and what had been happening off-camera or off-screen during various scenes. And what it all looked like from the viewpoint of various secondary characters. And so on.

Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing” is, to me, an effective stimulus to such questions.

Anyone else have any ideas?

There are 6 Replies

Housman’s “Her Strong Enchantments Failing” is, to me, an effective stimulus to such questions.

Anyone else have any ideas?


I like this one! I read a commentary about it describing it as a three volume fantasy destilled (or compacted) into three verses.

One thing about such works is that unless we have detailed notes and plans of the author, we really are just speculating. Like Lord of the Rings, this poem was written in a time of war. The war before (WWI). Is it an allegory? Is it a reminiscence? Is it simply a wonderful & powerful tale?

Tolkien of course told us on many occasions that he finds allegory distasteful. But that never stopped critics and readers from taking LotR to be allegorical. I've read that SEF could be an allegory for Germany's use of chemical weapons during the war. Perhaps Germania's slayer is a British knight and though he will defeat Germany, he too -- Britain that is -- will also perish.

Perhaps more prescient and even prophetic of Britain vs Germany in the next go round? Britain's victory really was at great cost in WWII as they didn't really recover until the 1950s or 1960s.

That is, if you like allegory!

Posted October 28th, 2018 by elemtilas
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I’m gonna bump this one too!
I wonder what the gtx0 regulars who were never on the CWBB have to say about it?

Posted February 26th by chiarizio
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I am not versed well enough on what the poem might be a reference to, but it sounds rather interesting. It's definitely one of those things I'd like to learn more about with the events that lead up to and after the event that is described within the poem itself.
Also, CWBB?

Posted February 26th by Dark Knowings
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@Dark Knowings:
CWBB was the ConWorld Bulletin Board that Xhin ran.
Between the last few months of 2018 and the first few months of 2019 it was folded into gtx0 so the two communities could participate in each others’ activities.
......
I got responses from (some of) the WorldBuilding members to this thread, but I hadn’t (until you!) heard from original gtx0 members.
.....
Thanks!


Posted February 26th by chiarizio
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Interesting how things change over time.
To clarify, I didn't post all that much on GTX0 originally. I was one of the many that migrated from GT to GTX0 back in the day.

Posted March 4th by Dark Knowings
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Tolkien of course told us on many occasions that he finds allegory distasteful. But that never stopped critics and readers from taking LotR to be allegorical.


I think he meant cases where the entire story is obviously allegorical (looking at you, c.s. lewis). Tolkien was definitely doing some allegorical work with his nature/industry contrast though -- disappearing forests, the rise of industry, etc.

As for the poem, I want to say it's just a story in itself, but the very specific line "queen of air and darkness" is puzzling. I too feel like that's a reference to something.

Posted March 4th by Xhin
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