Jon pointed me years ago to this nearly perfect poem by A.E. Houseman:
by A.E. Houseman
Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
I have been reflecting on this very deep poem and, last night, composed an essay of sorts:
Life is nothing much to lose. Who says this? Who could say such a thing? The voice of the poem couldn’t be the young man who was the living first person referred to in the first line. The one who lies and the one who did not choose to live. That man believes that life is something much to lose. The voice speaking the lines must be very old. Either old in the old familiar way of years—old enough to be ready to let life go without going to pieces—or old as the universe, so that the extinguishing of life really seems like nothing.
Can one learn to not hate death? Can one come to say that life is nothing much to lose since “life” is what is left of life, not what has been lived? A young man sees the worth of living in the potential of living. Who will I marry? What will my kids be like? What shape will my career take? How will I gain notoriety? What will I learn? What experiences will I live through? What hills will I climb? The life left for a man entering his prime is surely something indeed to lose—from his own perspective at least. Can one live enough to change this perspective?
I have had some wonderful things occur in my life. I went to St. John’s. I made great friendships. I met my wife, Heidi, and have lived two wonderful years, growing into marriage with her. Is life getting to be less and less “something much to lose” as these attainments of satisfaction pass behind me? We do speak of an old man or woman as having “had their life,” and it is common sense ethics to side with the preservation of the young for whom “so much lies ahead.” An old man might say “life is nothing much to lose”—but only if he means his life.
What of this “to be sure?” To whom is the voice of the poem speaking? Who is in on this conspiracy with the speaker? Who shares with him such a clear and distinct presupposition that life in nothing much to lose? It sounds like is a person trying to persuade through intimidation. “Surely,” he says, “you know!” “Surely you are not one to think that life is something indeed to lose!” This is not, it seems, simply the perspective of an old person who has lived enough to be philosophical about death. Rather it is the voice of one who has grown into cynicism of the most severe kind. He has come to know that life (not just his life) is nothing much to lose.
When did the man who has died young get so old as to enter into this cynical circle of embittered age? Is he simply aged or is he, perhaps, much older than the ones who have lived long enough to accept death? He has crossed death’s threshold and is speaking from the other side. Perhaps we should take his voice, then, to be one that can not be modeled by the perspective of any earthly creatures. His “to be sure” is not a nudge-nudge for fellow cynics or a bullying of the hopeful. Rather it is a voice of authority from a place where agelessness comes with the territory. Life—make no mistake about it—s nothing much to lose.
Let’s back up though. “Here dead lie we…” Why is this “we” and not “I”? It is the “we” of a soldier. The voice is not an individual’s but that of a collective, content to speak from the grave in unison. The whole battalion speaks as one, as they might in declaiming their oath of obedience or their pledge. Is this poem approachable by one like me who has never put himself in the position of risk that these speakers have?
“Here dead lie we because we did not choose”—the sentence could end here and, indeed, in my ear, it always does for a moment. The sense is “we did not choose and so we are dead.” The implication is “we did not choose to die.” But this is exactly the opposite of what is being said. “To choose” can be intransitive (I did not make a choice—I did not choose) or transitive (I did not choose cherry over rhubarb; I did not choose to come see you this night). The moment at the end of the first line is an indirection, added to by the twisted syntax of the first words—as if for a moment the voice of the poem wants you to hear—“we did not choose—so here we lie.”
But the verb phrase is only half complete at the enjambment. “We did not choose/ to live.” We did not choose the path that meant certain continuation of our life. I stop short of saying “we did not choose to live.” Of course we chose to live. But choosing can be the reaching out for a good or the willful evasion of an evil. This seems to be the latter. “we did not choose to live and (by living—by having chosen to guarantee our living) shame the land from which we sprung.” Can we find a positive choice in this formulation of what we did not choose? Did “we” (the voice) choose to fight for the exhilaration of being young and in action? For the experience of something as new as skating on the edge of death? Did we choose to fight for the pride we felt or the pride we anticipated from praise we would receive? Likely all these, but the voice of them poem only tells us “we did not choose to live and shame the land from which we sprung.” We fought for fear of the shame (wrong) of not fighting.
Have we widened the scope of “we” enough? Could the “we” voicing this poem be more than the soldiers whose corpse(s) lie(s) beneath the stone with these words on it? We all, we as parents, friends, human beings, have made a choice to fight one another. Or we have had this choice thrust on us (because we did not choose). It is hard to say which is right. But we have died with the young who have died. We have lost our next generation, our replenishment of everyday, aging men with jobs and opinions. Here dead lies a part of us, of our body politic, our community. Because we are who we are we must die—and out of our natural season, but perennially nonetheless.
“But young men think it is,” Young men do indeed. All men do. But here at this moment of the poem, we are still entranced by the “to be sure.” We are reassured by it—young men lie in the ground, how could we not be glad to think that life is nothing much to lose. It is the seduction of nihilism, perhaps, but it is a warm bed to lie in. So, at the comma in the last line we disdain the foolishness together with this voice of timeless (and soulless) wisdom. But we pay for it at the conclusion—“and we were young.” Because, of course, nothing matters but how it seems to the man who crossed the threshold. Life could not be nothing much to lose if he thought it was something, indeed. Youth, with its stake in possibility, can not hand over its gifts without remorse. Youth can not think of “life” in the face of death. Only my life. Our life.
2 responses to “Life, to be sure”
Few people write their own epitaphs; fewer still from beyond the grave. The voice here, the author of the epitaph, may well have been old, but I do not think he was dead when he wrote it, and there is no particular reason to believe he was in any sense a cynic:
Epicurus was no cynic; his lack of concern with death was born neither of bitterness nor of hopelessness . A placid acceptance of death may not be common, but it is hardly beyond comprehension. Indeed, we may even have very good reason to look forward to death, to seek it out, in order to honor life. Consider why Austin suggests parting with his love, and ask whether the same might be felt more generally about a life well lived:
Socrates was also not a cynic, even as he claimed his death was a cure to the illness of life. Philosophy for Socrates was training for death—an examined life is the best preparation for a death without fear:
The seeking of what comes after, the denunciation of this life, the mortification of flesh, the afterworldliness of much Christianity also supposedly provides grounds for looking on death with something less than hatred, and cannot fairly be called cynicism or bitterness.
Still, it might seem odd for a young man not to hate death. However seductive Epicureanism is, it is uncommon among the young (it is uncommon at any age, I suppose), and the Socratic way of life must be developed over time. Christianity is often thrust upon children, but they do not often adopt it whole cloth before having rejected enthusiasm for life on other grounds, which generally only happens much later in life. Situational depression is far more common among the young than is any philosophy that negates a fear of death, and while depression is a serious problem among certain teenage populations, teens are far more likely to die by accident than by their own hands . Moreover, most people are naturally susceptible to a physiological fear and trembling at the prospect of death. It may well be fair to say that the young are in general averse to death, insofar as they ever give it any consideration.
But this caveat is essential—insofar as they ever give it any consideration. Is it really fair to say that young men think life is much to lose, when they so rarely think of life or death at all? In youth, we think death is a fiction, or if reality, it is at least remote. And this error is most fortunate, for if the young had to justify life, if they had to weigh life in the scales, many would surely find it wanting. You say: “A young man sees the worth of living in the potential of living.” How many young men, even in this country, may fairly look forward to anything resembling their hopes and aspirations, should they even bother to have any? This error of ignoring death is a beneficial self-deception.
And what changes when we age? A very few take Socrates at his word, and train for death. Others study the natural sciences and find Epicurean placidity and contentment. Still others find the Cross. Many move from error to error:
And I am inclined to think it error here that moves the voice to suggest the youth thought that life was much to lose. I suspect that it is far more likely that they hadn’t given it much thought, and if they had been asked about it, they would have simply noted their physiological aversion to, or fear of, death. The young do not cling to life because they value it; they fear death or ignore it, and if they value life, it is because they cling to it.
For all that, it is a good poem, and I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on it. Thanks for posting it!
 Depending on how the word “hopelessness” is read, I suppose this is debatable. Hopelessness, to be sure, need not connote anything negative at all. Consider the words of Chamfort:
In any event, Epicurus’ attitude toward death was not born of despair.
 Thoughts of suicide can be a palliative in depression. As Nietzsche writes:
 Schopenhauer had quite a bit to say about death and our attitudes toward it; here is another minor snippet:
Brief, sonorous, and (my having experienced World War Two) touching a deep well of emotion. But, like many poems, starts to fall apart under close analysis. However, fairly rapidly reassembled