A. E. Houseman’s “Is My Team Ploughing?”

BLOG #26, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
POEMS I’VE LOVED IN LIFE #19
A. E. HOUSEMAN’S “IS MY TEAM PLOUGHING?”
July 1, 2015

A. E. Houseman (1859 – 1936), is considered to be one of the greatest classical scholars of his age, having taught at London’s University College and at Cambridge University. He had the ability to strip his verse down to the very bone. In his story collection, A Shropshire Lad, there is a pervading mood of pessimism. Of it, Louis Undermeyer observes that “Nature is not kind; lovers are untrue; men cheat and girls betray; lads, though lightfoot, drink and die; an occasional drum calls to a conflict without reason, a struggle without hope. Nevertheless, courage is dominant.”

I have found Houseman’s poetry to especially appeal to college-age males, for society has edged many of them into a pessimistic outlook on life. Yet, having said that, Houseman’s sometimes sarcastic sense of humor resonates well with a generation that finds it hard to be idealistic. But Houseman also reminds his readers that life has a way of going on, whether we’re there or not. Thomas Hardy considered “Is My Team Ploughing” to be one of the most dramatic short poems in the English language.

The look on the faces of college students, especially males, who are slowly digesting the poem as I read it, when I come to the concluding lines and they realize just who the friend is . . . is absolutely priceless.

It’s a poem that would have seemed even more relevant to opeople who grew up in a rural agricultural area where, in pre-industrial days, one plowed with a team of horses rather than a tractor. The speaker, now ostensibly dead, poses four questions to his friend, each one hitting closer to home than the previous one. At the end, many the young listener grins ruefully but admiringly as he realizes how brilliantly he’s been set up.

IS MY TEAM PLOUGHING

“Is my team ploughing,
That I used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”

Aye, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”?

Aye, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”

Aye, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.

“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine;
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”

Aye, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart.
Never ask me whose.