One of Housman’s most poignant poems:
Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.
To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Good-bye,’ said you, ‘forget me.’
‘I will, no fear’, said I.
If here, where clover whitens
The dead man’s knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,
Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.
What is said and not said in the first stanza? It does not suit a man to say it, but did he show it nonetheless—or was it said, unsuitably? The “it” hangs oddly in the syntax: what is “it”? It is the liking, of course, but the “it” points elsewhere: because I liked you better, this something else irked you. A parallel: Because I ate the meal too fast, it disgusted you. This means my eating the meal too fast disgusted you, but the word “because” invites the thought of a consequence, which is held by “it.” It should read, that is, “because I ate the meal too fast, you were disgusted.” So really the “it” refers to an intermediary term, a blank link in the chain of events, which is not spoken or specified in the poem, and so we are invited to speculate on the narrative, to wonder what happened: “Because I liked you better than suits a man to say, “this thing I did or said or that happened” irked you.” And we might think that the “it” is a normal gesture of friendship or affection that, in light of the too-much-liking, was seen as something freighted by significance that “irked.” “Irked” is poised to register nagging irritation, not grief or anger, and it need not be directed even towards the speaker of the poem: whatever “it” is could have “irked” in the sense of “disturbed” because of how it would be seen by others. The “it” does work here too, since it is not the speaker who irks him, it is the unspecified “it” that irks. “Irked” is also, as a response, as understated as “I liked you better | than suits a man to say.” Not love, liked; not aggrieved, irked. “Suits” is similarly ambivalent in its orientation: suits a man to say invokes fashion, dressing, appearance—one oughtn’t to present this sort of thing to the world—but also invokes the preferences of the individual, so that it might be said not to suit the speaker either, and we might ask whether what irked, that “it,” was not indeed the clumsiness of a speaker finding words for what he is not himself sure he wants to say. Is the “promise” at least spoken aloud? This would seem a more direct confession or reckoning than has been admitted to in the poem till now, and whereas promising would seem to suggest giving one’s word to another, the speaker promising to his friend, the subsequent line allows that it might be a promise made by the speaker to himself: only he would know if he had thrown the thought away. It didn’t suit him to say anything, and it was—on this reading—the unspoken presence that irked the friend, and that made the speaker promise to himself, on account of his own discomfort saying what he could not find words to say, to throw the thought away. “Throw away” as nonchalantly as he would dispose of a cigarette; to treat as dispensable and ephemeral and aleatory a thought that is at the center of his sense of self.
And that might have been the end of the story, but promising wasn’t enough, and being irked precipitated an end to their friendship: “to put the world between us,” where world is time and space and social life. “To put the world between us” leads the stanza with resolution, with determination forced upon the speaker, and the “we” shirks a sense of who wanted this or who resolved that it had to be this way. There is a riddle of sorts here too: how strange it is to say, “We parted in order to put the world between us,” as if parting could itself effect such a thing. But then we might shift the weight onto the tearless, unsentimental, emotionless formality of the parting in “stiff and dry,” and doing so we might ask whether the comma after “parted” is not in itself an evasion: what would put the world between them at a parting is not the parting itself, but the way they parted. To part without more feeling is to put the world between them. The comma suggests “stiff and dry” is incidental, but it might be that it was the very means by which that putting the world between was effected: it matters how, not just that, they parted. Parted of course means more than just saying goodbye: it could mean, on a larger scale, going different ways in life. But “stiff and dry” insists on the specific occasion of saying farewell; the shake of hands; the brisk turning away. The line is poised then between a much longer, larger process of moving apart for good and the scene of departure.
“Said you” is not “you said” because “said I” is inverted in the next line to give the rhyme. But I don’t think it’s helpful to think a poet does something only for a rhyme, and something else happens with the word-order “said you, ‘forget me,’” where the ghost of the phrase “you forget me” appears on the page. And in the inversion of both “said you” and “said I” there is both a mannered recall of a ballad, as if the speaker is converting painful experience into jaunty song, very much, on a small scale, at one with the tension of Housman’s cadences and stanza form with the pessimism of his view; and there is also, in that inversion, another dodging of agency, as “said you” is close to “said by you,” where the thing is said, but the force of one person doing the saying is mitigated syntactically; these things were said by one and by the other, but it is made to feel a less wholeheartedly active, intentional saying.
“I will” is not “I shall”; it is determined, intentional, a declaration and promise in itself. But there is no promising to forget, if only because a promise to forget cannot remember its own occasion and nullifies itself. If I remember that I promised to forget, I remember what it was that I promised to forget. The comma after “will” is a s small triumph of punctuation, in part because it cuts off the phrase from “I will not fear” and in part because it swallows the voice in a hesitation, “do not fear” is too much, and “no fear” is all that can be managed, reassurance and self-reassurance alike. The phrase resembles the adverbial “no end,” confused often with “to no end,” the latter meaning “having no purpose” and the former “endlessly” or infinitely. “No fear” means, analogously, “fearlessly,” and the comma before it is a hesitation that intimates a fear in what is being said.
“Fear” rhymes with “here” and that rhyme of sound serves as a sort of transport of scene, so that the scene of departure is somehow, by arbitrary sound but also by fate, connected to this other place, the grave, the “here” where the speaker lies, or the “here” where—if we want for the graveyard scene to be a sort of allegorical landscape for what might be the continued, death-in-life existence of the speaker—the speaker currently is, seeing, perhaps the other man walk by, ignoring him.
It is not immediately apparent what is added by the two possible syntactical readings of the first two lines, if we hear, against the guidance of punctuation:, “If here, where clover whitens, you pass by the dead man’s knoll,” and also adhering to the punctuation: “If here you pass by the dead man’s knoll that is whitened by the clover.” We need, I think, to register the possibility of the former to acknowledge what is strange in the phrasing that Housman settles on: “whitens” as a transitive rather than intransitive verb. It is a suggestion that, however much Housman might elsewhere suggest the indifference of Nature for life, it is not indifferent to the dead; the dead are tended by the clover, purified and decorated. But it is also a pattern of interesting and active verbs in the stanza: “pass” would not, historically, I think, have referred to passing-as straight or living a life of disguise, but that possibility must have been latent in the word itself, and the thought of the other man passing for what he is not is a tempting to find in the poem. Alongside it, there is perhaps the death wish of passing away. But the primary sense is walk by. Here, too, though there are two meanings: the primary means to simply pass along, without notice, but pass by could also carry the sense of overlook, as if this were not an accidental missing-out but where a more determinate skipping over, a willful forgetting on the other man’s part. Of course, he will be implored to stop, but this possibility of intentionally passing by is alive in this stanza. The possibilities of “pass” seem to relate to the verb “whitens” being transitive rather than intransitive: the whitening doesn’t just happen, but is done to the knoll, and the passing by doesn’t just happen, but is done to the place, to the man who lies there dead (or dead-in-life). (Knoll of course echoes with knell, and the poem is a knell of the dead man.)
I quite like the thought that the speaker imagines himself as dead not only because he lives a life that is void of all hope and purpose without this love, but because the dead lie, and the speaker too, by saying he will forget is lying too. In the situation of the cemetery, Housman can glance at the lie/lie pun.
The stanza builds to the seemingly inconsequential consequence, or rather the seemingly inconsequential intermediary consequence of no tall flower “starting.” If you pass this way, and no tall flower starts and…It is a bit of superstition almost, like saying, “you needn’t worry unless the flower doesn’t start,” or “you needn’t do anything unless…” It builds the tension into the following stanza, but in itself, there’s no clear significance to the objects. The significance must reside in the verbs, and perhaps in the word “tall.” “Meet you” and “start” belong to another narrative, to a sudden jolt of recognition, a sudden standing to meet; “meets you” could suggest a date, planned in advance, the sort that ended with their parting; but “starts” suggests the energy of spontaneity, of something reaching out and moving towards. “Meet,” then, carries with it a sense of the human, the social, and the intentional, and “start” suggests something nervous, sensitive, responding by instinct. These two words span the range of friendship and their former intimacy, but also displace it onto a scene that can have neither. In that context, “tall” is possessed of its connotation of masculine strength, beauty, grace and elegance; this is how the speaker would have met him, perhaps.
And what if such a flower did start to meet him as he passed? What then? Would it be unnecessary for him to halt? And why? Once again, there is a world of speculation. In the most mundane sense, the speaker is saying that his is the grave with only humble clover, without tall flowers; he did not flourish or bloom in life and so lacks that emblem in death. But in another sense, of a sort of natural religion or pagan sensibility, if the tall flower would start and meet him, it might be that he need not halt because a sign has been given. Or it might be perhaps that he need not halt to recognize that the speaker kept his word because such a posthumous gesture, a flower blooming from the corpse through the earth to meet the man, would itself be an acknowledgement of the sort that he promised to forgo.
“Halt” is the voice of an imperative command, a voice of authority, painfully empty from a speaker who has none over this other man, absurd because it is a fantasy of being dead, and yet in the fantasy very real, since the speaker can imagine him halting, and does have some power over what he fantasizes. I will pass to the second line and then return to the first: “The heart no longer stirred” is also a heart no longer stirring, but “stirred” acknowledges that his heart was acted upon as much as it acted, and it also draws attention to this being a fantasy of death: that the speaker is dead emotionally, and his heart does still stir, but is not stirred. We can imagine the entire last two stanzas happening on a busy London street.
The last stanza returns to the question of what is said or not said, to the tension of the unspeakable and unspoken that animated the first stanza of the poem: what is named by the headstone is not the speaker, but the heart: the name of the feeling that it does not suit a man to say. And then the crucial imperative: “say.” In a poem about not saying, not wanting to say, and not wanting to hear, he asks that something be said, if not aloud, then in the man’s own heart, to the heart that no longer is stirred. And what he wants for the man to say is what he himself did not so forthrightly say in the first stanza: that the speaker, the lad, “loved.” The feeling is only spoken in the acknowledgement that the speaker of the poem did not speak it, or speak to the man, or do anything that would have been as good as speaking it. “One that kept is word” is devastating because “kept his word” means kept the promise but also withheld the word that he would speak: in keeping his promise, he kept back his words. We are not told that this was the cause of his death, but we are asked to think it, either in the sense that, unable to speak, he decided it worth nothing to live, or else because unable to speak his feelings he was as good as dead, or because, in promising to forget his love, he killed himself.
I do not know why but I find moving the movement from “lad” to “one.” Perhaps it is because of something like: “the lad that loved you” offers one way of identifying the lad, the speaker, in relation to the man, and this is the most important of ways. There was only one lad that loved him, it says. Then by saying “was one that kept his word,” something else is brought about: he wants to be identified and remembered not for the love, but for what he did for the sake of that love. We are asked to see “one that kept his word” as something distinctly admirable, heroic even; but at the same time, the uniqueness of “the lad that loved you” is dissolved into this type, “one” of those that kept his word; he is asking that he be remembered as something else, not something he is not, but as a type of person that can claim pride as he felt he could not for the love he gave the man; most painfully, he is asking that the man say not just that he loved him—not to make that recognition the burden of what he utters aloud and acknowledges—but to say that he was honorable and worthy of pride on account of keeping his word; he is trying to make the other man proud.