‘If it chance your eye offend you’

One of the reasons Housman might seem harsh or impersonal to a modern audience is what seems like a strict, unforgiving morality. Sin leads to death, a brave death is better than a coward’s life, what’s done cannot be undone. There’s a Biblical tone to it – but perhaps it is not a morality at all, more a fatefulness – the sense that certain actions lead inexorably to certain outcomes.

Being a reactionary sort of fella, when I’m in the mood, I like this. And I like this poem, Housman’s gloss on Matthew 18:9:


If it chance your eye offend you,

Pluck it out, lad, and be sound:

‘Twill hurt, but here are salves to friend you,

And many a balsam grows on ground.

And if your hand or foot offend you,

Cut it off, lad, and be whole;

But play the man, stand up and end you,

When the sickness be your soul.

It’s hard to know just what a late Victorian gentleman meant by sickness of soul, but I don’t think he’s talking about melancholy, or what we moderns would call depression. This isn’t a call for the unhappy to commit suicide! I think he is talking about evil. There’s no idea of reform here – that which is evil must be severed to save that which is good; that which is irredeemably evil should be destroyed.

Fate is not a member of the Liberal Democrats or the Prison Reform League!



Filed under Poetry

6 responses to “‘If it chance your eye offend you’

  1. Ezra may pound Houseman, but he doesn’t nail him, really. To do that, Pound would have to stand on kindred ground with Houseman and become a poet himself—impossible, now that he, Ezra, is dead.
    I enjoyed your little tour of Housemania. Thank you.

  2. You’re very welcome. You’ve alerted me to a very appropriate pun that I can’t believe I missed: ‘Ezra Pounds Houseman’ (or ‘Ezra Pound’s Houseman’).

  3. Colin Bailey.

    I once heard my dear deceased friend Terence Steen, that wonderful and cultured Bristol anaesthetist, recite a sweet pastiche of Houseman’s verse. It might have served as an elegy to the poet. I wish I knew who penned it. Perhaps it was Terence himself.

    “Many the lads of pith and relish
    Who put their lives in pledge
    Found life a hell and living hellish
    ‘Twixt Clun and Wenlock Edge.

    Easeless are broken hearts, and breaking
    They ache; but here was one
    Who made a music of the aching
    ‘Twixt Wenlock Edge and Clun”.

    I so wish that Terence were still here to confirm or deny authorship!

    Colin Bailey

    • Thanks for sharing that. It certainly is an accomplished pastiche and, as you say a fitting elegy for the poet. The line about the pledge is interesting – does that refer to the pledge of abstinence, I wonder…

      • Colin Bailey.

        I have pondered that too, but concluded that it might have been – in part at least – a reference to the “lads” who fell in the Great War, who figure in many of AEH’s poems implicitly or explicitly. In that case “putting their lives in pledge” would equate to putting them “on the line”. But it could also describe the anguish of those who suffer lost or unrequited love…a condition well known to the poet and also reflected in much of his work. Such “lads” pledge their lives and hearts to another only to reap “endless rue” – vide “When I Was One and Twenty”.

  4. Yes, that makes sense in light of the second stanza and EAH’s poetry as a whole. “Endless rue” and sickness of soul – I don’t know why I love Housman’s poetry, but I do!

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