A. E. Housman's "The Merry Guide"

Updated on April 20, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

A. E. Housman

Source

Introduction and Text of "The Merry Guide"

Many of the poems in A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad involve imaginary scenes and situations; for example, in "Is my team ploughing?," the speaker is a farmer who has died, and he inquires about all the things he left behind.

Many other poems look back on the speaker's youth when he roamed the countryside around Shropshire. In "The Merry Guide," the speaker combines the imaginary and the nostalgia of looking back on his youth as he dramatizes a fanciful walk he experienced with an imaginary friend.

The Merry Guide

Once in the wind of morning
I ranged the thymy wold;
The world-wide air was azure
And all the brooks ran gold.

There through the dews beside me
Behold a youth that trod,
With feathered cap on forehead,
And poised a golden rod.

With mien to match the morning
And gay delightful guise
And friendly brows and laughter
He looked me in the eyes.

Oh whence, I asked, and whither?
He smiled and would not say,
And looked at me and beckoned
And laughed and led the way.

And with kind looks and laughter
And nought to say beside
We two went on together,
I and my happy guide.

Across the glittering pastures
And empty upland still
And solitude of shepherds
High in the folded hill,

By hanging woods and hamlets
That gaze through orchards down
On many a windmill turning
And far-discovered town,

With gay regards of promise
And sure unslackened stride
And smiles and nothing spoken
Led on my merry guide.

By blowing realms of woodland
With sunstruck vanes afield
And cloud-led shadows sailing
About the windy weald,

By valley-guarded granges
And silver waters wide,
Content at heart I followed
With my delightful guide.

And like the cloudy shadows
Across the country blown
We two fare on for ever,
But not we two alone.

With the great gale we journey
That breathes from gardens thinned,
Borne in the drift of blossoms
Whose petals throng the wind;

Buoyed on the heaven-heard whisper
Of dancing leaflets whirled
>From all the woods that autumn
Bereaves in all the world.

And midst the fluttering legion
Of all that ever died
I follow, and before us
Goes the delightful guide,

With lips that brim with laughter
But never once respond,
And feet that fly on feathers,
And serpent-circled wand.

Reading of "The Merry Guide"

Commentary

In "The Merry Guide," the speaker follows a memory-ghost of himself as a youth as he dramatizes his walks through the countryside.

First Movement: Feeling the Air

Once in the wind of morning
I ranged the thymy wold;
The world-wide air was azure
And all the brooks ran gold.

The speaker introduces the world of this poem, describing it as "the thymy wold" and the "world-wide air was azure / And all the brooks ran gold."

The reader smells the world and it smells spicy like "thyme." The air is fresh to breathe, and the reader can feel that air and visualize the golden water flowing through the streams.

Second Movement: Imaginary Walking Partner

There through the dews beside me
Behold a youth that trod,
With feathered cap on forehead,
And poised a golden rod.

With mien to match the morning
And gay delightful guise
And friendly brows and laughter
He looked me in the eyes.

Oh whence, I asked, and whither?
He smiled and would not say,
And looked at me and beckoned
And laughed and led the way.

And with kind looks and laughter
And nought to say beside
We two went on together,
I and my happy guide.

In the second quatrain, the speaker introduces an imaginary walking partner: a young boy wearing a "feather cap" with a "golden rod."

The young fellow is pleasant and suited to the morning: he is friendly and laughs and gazes into the speaker's eyes; he smiles, but he never speaks, even after the speaker asks him where he came from and where he is going.

The speaker playfully allows the youth to lead him on his walk. It is at the point that the reader realizes the youth is the speaker himself when he was younger. The speaker remembers another day that seemed so perfect for a hike back when he was a youth.

Thus, he dramatizes his memory of himself as a youth taking this walk, calling his vibrant memory-ghost, "my happy guide."

Third Movement: On a Hike

Across the glittering pastures
And empty upland still
And solitude of shepherds
High in the folded hill,

By hanging woods and hamlets
That gaze through orchards down
On many a windmill turning
And far-discovered town,

With gay regards of promise
And sure unslackened stride
And smiles and nothing spoken
Led on my merry guide.

By blowing realms of woodland
With sunstruck vanes afield
And cloud-led shadows sailing
About the windy weald,

By valley-guarded granges
And silver waters wide,
Content at heart I followed
With my delightful guide.

The third movement—sixth through the tenth quatrains—takes the reader on the hike with the speaker and his "merry guide." They ramble "across the glittering pastures / And empty upland" where shepherds still tend their flocks.

They continue past "hanging woods and hamlets / That gaze through orchards down." They see windmills, and his merry guide "smiles," still never speaking but continues to lead the way.

They encounter "blowing realms of woodland / With sunstruck vanes a field." The walk seems endless and they cover a lot of territory. The speaker is happy as he follows his nostalgic memory-ghost through the beautiful countryside: "Content at heart I followed / With my delightful guide."

Fourth Movement: Experiencing Many Lives

And like the cloudy shadows
Across the country blown
We two fare on for ever,
But not we two alone.

With the great gale we journey
That breathes from gardens thinned,
Borne in the drift of blossoms
Whose petals throng the wind;

Buoyed on the heaven-heard whisper
Of dancing leaflets whirled
>From all the woods that autumn
Bereaves in all the world.

And midst the fluttering legion
Of all that ever died
I follow, and before us
Goes the delightful guide,

With lips that brim with laughter
But never once respond,
And feet that fly on feathers,
And serpent-circled wand.

In the final movement, the eleven quatrain finds the speaker's hiking buddy beginning to branch into the many lives which the speaker has experienced. The speaker has not only hiked through these fields before when he was young, but he has also encountered these many pleasant experiences as he was maturing into adulthood. Thus, the speaker dramatically asserts, "like the cloudy shadows / Across the country blown / We two fare on for ever, / But not we two alone."

Through all of the natural and beautiful bounty that he encounters, such as "the drift of blossoms / Whose petals throng the wind," and "dancing leaflets whirled / From all the woods that autumn," the speaker recaptures the spirit(s) of his entire life as it is recorded in his walks through the Shropshire landscape.

The group grows even larger, including friends who have also accompanied the speaker on these walks, and he pays homage to "all that ever died," as he continues to follow the youth that he was, the youth who now leads all of the memory-ghosts on this special walk.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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