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Here's the fifth stanza from the poem "Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree" by A. E. Housman, which revolves around a country lad with guilt-stricken state of mind after murdering his brother Maurice. I have a few doubts.

“I wish you strength to bring you pride,
And a love to keep you clean,
And I wish you luck, come Lammastide,
At racing on the green.”

Who is the poet persona of this particular stanza? Most people say it is "The murderer"and he wishes Terence, his associate good luck. if so, After all, Terrence doesn't seem to have committed anything wrong to be wished a "love to keep you clean".

And a very few deep-end analyses say that the murderer wishes the "dead man" of Maurice, believing in his next life after death... but, as for me, this view is not supported with textual evidence from the poem...

Wouldn't perhaps the narrator's persona be Terence wishing his close associate- the murderer "all these benedictions" during his abscond?

It seems that the conflict originated from a tense love affair among this trio. But, is it clear from the poem that it involved a woman?

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  • What do you mean by "a very few deep-end analysis"? Commented May 27 at 7:56
  • It seems plain enough to me that the whole poem is addressed to 'Terence'. Commented May 27 at 8:18

1 Answer 1

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If you look at any printing of this poem, for example, in A Shropshire Lad (1896), p. 13, you’ll see that each stanza starts with an open quotation mark, but only the last stanza ends with a close quotation mark. This use of punctuation means that all six stanzas belong to a single speech by one speaker. We can deduce that the speaker is the murderer, because in the second stanza he says, “Maurice amongst the hay lies still / And my knife is in his side”, and that the speaker is talking to Terence, because he addresses him by name in the first stanza.

There is no indication that Terence has done anything wrong, in fact quite the opposite, for the speaker wishes him “a love to keep you clean” (not “make you clean”), the implication being that Terence is currently “clean” of guilt or crime.

There is no indication of religious feeling in the poem. The speaker expresses sadness at having to bid farewall to his home (the “barn and stack and tree” of the farm where he has worked), his mother and his friend, but says nothing about his soul or the afterlife.

Finally, there is no indication of the cause of the murder. We might guess that the quarrel was over a woman, because of the speaker’s wish that Terence should have a “love to keep you clean”. But this is a weak supposition, because if a woman were involved then we would expect the speaker to express some sorrow at having to abandon her (also, it would seem inapposite to wish that Terence had “a love you keep you clean” if a love had been the cause of the murder). We might just as well imagine that the cause of the quarrel was a gambling debt, based on the speaker’s wish that Terence should have “luck at racing”.

We can conclude that Housman has deliberately remained silent about the cause of the murder, to leave it up to the reader’s imagination, making the story less specific and more mythic. Any story of a murder of one brother by the other reminds us of the story of Cain and Abel from Genesis chapter 4, in which Cain was jealous of the preference shown by God for his brother’s sacrifical offerings. Cain was an arable farmer (“a tiller of the ground”) and Abel a shepherd; both of these professions are mentioned in the poem (the “scythe and rake” of the farmer and the “fold” of the shepherd). Cain was cursed to be “fugitive and a vagabond in the earth”, like the speaker in Housman’s poem, who will “come home no more”.

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