The Grave Nettle

I do not know much about A.E. Housman’s poetry, but in terms of style it appears poems like the one in this blog is typical. I read this little poem in a book by Randall Jarrell. I only remember bits and pieces of what Jarrell had to say about this little ditty, but the poem has a big punch for its size.
It consists of two simple verses. I will break them down individually.

It nods and curtseys and recovers
When the wind blows above
The nettle on the graves of lovers
That hanged themselves for love.

Okay, so this is a nature poem. The first line provides the action, but the subject is not known. But it seems we must be talking about an object (“it”), so the imagery is fabulous. What else other than people nods and curtseys?

Of course, the second line gives us an idea. A plant of some kind, most likely. But it isn’t just any plant. It isn’t just any flower. It is a nettle. And the nettle is on graves. Another striking image, but it doesn’t even stop there. The graves are of lovers. A dancing flower on lover’s graves. It sounds at once cliche and original at the same time, due to the way it was all written down and presented.

The nettle nods, the wind blows over
The man he does not move
The lover of the grave, the lover
That hanged himself for love.

Wait…what?

Okay, so the poet now presents his mastery. The poem is not a nature poem after all. The poem is not about the flower, it is about the people lying under the graves, calling special attention to one of them.
It is a love poem. But the man is not just a lover, he is a lover of the graves. He is a romantic, yes, but of the atypical kind. As Jarrell pointed out, he didn’t hang himself because he loved someone in the grave and wanted to be with them, he hanged himself because he loved the grave itself. It gives a kind of Harold and Maude romanticism to it. This poem isn’t cliche at all, and it is incredibly rewarding to discover this.

I also want to bring attention to the rhyme for a second.

In the first stanza, when everything seems so neat and tidy, we have a neat and tidy rhyme: above, love, lovers, love. It is all in the “of” variety. But then in the second verse, when the poem comes into being and we are taken by surprise, the rhyme to the ear is off, though to the page is the same: over, move, lover, love.

Finally, the poem is thick with consonance. The Ns, Ms, Cs, and Ls all came together for a party. Nettle nods, man not move, Curtseys recovers, lover love. And don’t forget about internal rhymes such as graves/hanged.

The poem makes you want to read more A.E. Housman, doesn’t it?

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