A.E. Housman’s Attack Of The Crucificxion In “The Carpenter’s Son” Essay, Research Paper
Housman?s Attack of the Crucifixion
Much symbolism and imagery exists in Alfred Edward Housman?s famous collections of poems. This prominent poet?s reflections of historically important occurrences are filled with implicit meanings. A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896, was Housman?s first compilation of poetry. In his forty-seventh poem of this famous collection, The Carpenter?s Son, Housman uses imagery to reflect upon Jesus Christ?s last few hours as he dies upon a cross. Upon careful examination of this poem, one gets a feel of Housman?s satirical attitude toward this event. However, before delving into the symbolic nature of this poem, some background information is a great aid in deciphering its meaning and theme.
On March 26, 1859, Alfred Edward Housman was born in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England. He was born into an ancient family of farmers and preachers (Magill 1617). His family was very religious, and this was mostly because his paternal great-grandfather was an evangelical preacher. Housman continued to live a pious life until the death of his mother. Apparently, Housman prayed for weeks, asking God to spare his mother from a sickness. However, when she died on his twelfth birthday, he slowly began to reject his church and the religion affiliated with it.
B. J. Leggett suggests that Housman?s rejection of the church and the other troubles he had endured during his life played a major role in the creation of his poem, The Carpenter?s Son. It is due in part to these reasons, Leggett explains, that Housman?s writings relate to the ?unhappy and painful experiences [and] serve as a defensive function? (121). By creating a satire of a specific painful concept?that the death of Jesus Christ provides mercy and salvation for all?Housman is able ?to deal in imagination with [this] situation which might cause pain, and thus strengthen [his] ability to cope with it? (127).
After a few moments? perusal of the poem, one can see that Housman is writing about Christ?s crucifixion. The title refers to the son of a carpenter, and Biblical records show that Saint Joseph, Jesus Christ?s human father, was indeed a carpenter. In his poem, Housman describes Christ as a common man being hung, and to do this he assumes the persona of the Lord and speaks in first person.
In the past, men guilty of crimes were hung for their transgressions. Within the first stanza, Housman introduces the central theme of his poem. He tells his readers, ?Fare you well, for ill fare I: Live lads, and I will die.? This is repeated later in the final stanza. This is a direct allusion to Jesus Christ?s sacrifice of himself to provide everlasting life for all who followed him. The Bible teaches that He died on a cross to save all from sin. In this first stanza, a scene of the hangman shoving Jesus on a cross comes to mind. Jesus tells His followers, who are his best friends, that his end will bring eternal life to them all. However, Housman satirizes this scene by giving his readers the impression that Jesus is regretting what has brought him to this end. By regarding the Lord as a mere carpenter?s son, and not as the Son of Man, Housman suggests that all of Christ?s work was in vain. Again, this relates back to his frustration with the Church itself.
In the second stanza, Housman creates an image of Christ lamenting his misfortune. Christ considers what would have happened had He become an apprentice to his father. He wishes that He had ?stuck to plane and adze,? the wood and tool used in the trade of a carpenter. He says that He would not have been lost, had He simply followed his father?s example. However, He now knows that he will be crucified for His rejection of a passive stance in life. Here, one may draw a parallel between Housman and Christ. Both men regret their faith and contemplate other paths that they may have chosen, in Housman?s case, the path which led toward atheism.
In the third stanza, Christ laments that if he had become a woodworker Himself, then He ?might have built perhaps/Gallows-trees for other chaps, /Never dangled on my own, /Had I but left ill alone.? Again, satire shows through as Christ questions his actions. Housman has the Lord wishing that He had abandoned his cause to escape the pain through which He had to go.
In the fourth stanza, Christ continues speaking to his followers. He tells them about how his hanging brings many spectators. Again, Housman makes it obvious that Christ was not well liked among his neighbors in his time. He claims, ?And the people passing by /Stop to shake their fists and curse.? These lines bring to mind the treatment Jesus received on his way to Calvary and as he was nailed to his cross. According to the Bible, spectators would spit at Jesus, slap him, and throw refuse across his path on his way to his death. He was treated even more terribly in his dying than he had been treated during his lifetime. Here, Housman takes this into account: ?So ?tis come from ill to worse.? In saying this, the poem shows its satiric edge once again as Christ doubts his actions.
In the fifth stanza, Housman illustrates the scene after Jesus Christ has been nailed to his cross. The Bible explains, ?When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified Him and the criminals there, one on His right, the other on His left? (Luke 24.33). While all three will die in the same way, their crimes are very different. At this point, Housman compares their plight, as he says, ?Two poor fellows hang for theft?Though the midmost hangs for love.?
Later on, Housman continues with his satirical tone. In the voice of Jesus, he tells his friends to live a normal life, implying that they should not tamper with the norms of society. The Christian faith teaches that its followers should do just the opposite, that they should do what is good and just. Jesus tells his to walk away from him, without looking at him, to ?Walk henceforth in other ways;/ see my neck and save your own:/ Comrades all, leave ill alone.? This is yet another reflection of his denunciation of religion.
In the final stanza of The Carpenter?s Son, Housman continues his instruction toward Christ?s followers. He tells them to avoid his fate, and ?Make some day a decent end? instead of ending up as He does. In conclusion, He says goodbye once again, and asks them to live their lives as they have before as he dies.
Alfred Edward Housman has incorporated a good deal of imagery into his poem, The Carpenter?s Son. This poem effectively presents an image of Jesus Christ as compared to an executed criminal, and takes on a slightly satirical air. Philip Gardner describes the poem as a ?horrible burlesque of the Crucifixion? (Gardner 266). Indeed, the references to Christ are obvious. By having Christ question His path, Housman incorporates his own ideas that redemption is a myth, a folly in itself. This is due to in part to his traumatic childhood. As the phrase ?for ill fare I? is repeated throughout the poem, one gets the idea that Christ is questioning his own motives. When the Christ figure implies that it would have been better for himself to build gallows for others than to die on one for the sake of others, the more strident irony in Housman?s poetry shows through. Indeed, this poet had a strident disapproval of the Christian faith.
The New American Bible, St. Joseph Medium Size Edition. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1970.
Gardner, Philip. A. E. Housman: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1992.
Leggett, B. J. The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman: Theory and Practice. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.
Magill, Frank N. Critical Survey of Poetry, English Language Series. Vol. 4. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1992.