Crossing alone the nighted ferry
With the one coin for fee,
Whom on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
Count you to find? Not me.
The brisk fond lackey to fetch and carry
The true, sick-hearted slave,
Expect him not in the just city
And free land of the grave.
Since I missed Halloween and (though only by a day) All Saints Day, I thought it fitting to post on a spooky poem this week; although it is not spooky in the way that we first think it might be, though those of you familiar with A.E. Housman will expect a sting in the tail of some sort. The short poem begins in the afterlife. The protagonist – addressed directly by the voice of the poem – has just died and is crossing the waters of Lethe, one of the five rivers of hell. The coin for fee refers to the tradition that the ferryman Charon demands a payment of one coin to allow crossing. He is more commonly associated with the Acheron and Styx; since Housman was a classical scholar as well as a poet, we assume he knew this and the choice of Lethe, whose waters the dead drink to forget their earthly lives, is significant. Perhaps the protagonist has more reason than most to want to forget his past life.
The first three and a half lines of the poem are a question: who, it asks, do you expect to find waiting for you on the shores of the afterlife? Most people would think of old friends and relatives, lost loves and soul mates. This speaker is none of the above, and his answer is unexpectedly curt -‘not me’.
It turns out then that the speaker has been a slave or servant of the man who is now crossing the water. Bitterly, and with some pleasure perhaps, he explains that in the afterlife he can expect no one to wait upon him. The shiver down our spine on reading this poem comes not from the eerie setting (though it helps) but from the sudden and irrevocable judgement on the dead man, and the sudden stripping away of his comforts and pretensions.
That first adjective ‘alone’ sums up the man’s fate, he is alone in death because, although he did not know it, he was alone in life. I like that ‘nighted’ in the first line, too, an adjective you don’t see used often. One definition of this word is ‘overtaken by night’, which is to say caught outdoors or travelling when night falls, but the word has a wider resonance here – the ferry’s passenger has been overtaken not just by night, but by death, and it is too late to right his wrongs. The words to describe slaves and servants are queasily ambivalent – first ‘brisk’, ‘fond’ and ‘true’ (that is ‘loyal’), but ultimately ‘sick-hearted’ – outwardly pleasing, but inwardly tired and bitter. Two final adjectives describe the afterlife as ‘just’ and ‘free’. This is, of course, because there is no slavery or servitude in the afterlife, but it’s hard not to see a bit of fateful irony in Housman’s language: ‘the free land of the grave’ could signify heaven, a land where the dead are free of their earthly bonds, but it could be taken more literally to mean the earth that makes up one’s burial plot – man is only finally free of injustice and slavery when he is six feet under.