On Moonlit Heath
A. E. Housman’s set of poems entitled “A Shropshire Lad” first appeared almost 120 years ago and contains some of the most beautiful lines in the English language. The cycle evokes an imagined, pastoral landscape and the poems are frequently shot through with regret at the transience of life and of beauty. The verse patterns are simple and echo the regular rhythms of common folksongs.
This setting of “On moonlit heath” had its first performance at a concert in London in April 2015, with Felicity Hayward (soprano) and Catherine Herriott on the piano. With the formal abolition of capital punishment in Britain half a century earlier, the lyrics carry a special poignancy. We no longer hear of the tortuous appeals, the dreaded decisions and the prisoner’s last hours before execution. The horrifying prospect of an unjust but irreversible verdict no longer haunts us as it once did. Against this, Housman’s poetry recalls times we have perhaps forgotten when the judicial killing of fellow humans was commonplace. The attached recording is taken from that concert, with grateful thanks to Felicity and Catherine.
On moonlit heath and lonesome bank The sheep beside me graze; And yon the gallows used to clank Fast by the four cross ways.
A careless shepherd once would keep The flocks by moonlight there, * And high amongst the glimmering sheep The dead man stood on air.
They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail: The whistles blow forlorn, And trains all night groan on the rail To men that die at morn.
There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night, Or wakes, as may betide, A better lad, if things went right, Than most that sleep outside.
And naked to the hangman's noose The morning clocks will ring A neck God made for other use Than strangling in a string.
And sharp the link of life will snap, And dead on air will stand Heels that held up as straight a chap As treads upon the land.
So here I'll watch the night and wait To see the morning shine, When he will hear the stroke of eight And not the stroke of nine;
And wish my friend as sound a sleep As lads' I did not know, That shepherded the moonlit sheep A hundred years ago.
- Hanging in chains was called ‘keeping sheep by moonlight’
A. E. Housman (1859–1936) from “A Shropshire Lad” published 1896
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