A. E. Housman's More Poems, V:
Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea,
And still the sea is salt.
Reviewer J. D. Reed in Time magazine introduces the poem with a mention of
the precise passion, rigorously perfect meter and understated rhyme of Housman's work. There is little, after all, in English lyric poetry that surpasses one of his finest poems.
So how precise is the passion in this poem?
The key lines of the poem are the 5th and 6th. “Primal fault” refers to original sin, the fallen or depraved state of human nature in some Christian worldviews. So these lines seem to be saying that no amount of effort—not even on the part of “all that be”—can change human nature for the better or alleviate human suffering or misery.
To this message of futility, the opening and ending sections are supporting images or metaphors: the stars representing the vastness of human misery against which falling stars can make no difference; the salty ocean of human suffering undiluted by rainfall.
But hang on a second, do those metaphors actually make sense when read like that? Do they really express futility in the face of suffering? For me there are two curious aspects to the metaphors. First, the processes described therein can never have the desired effect: falling stars are a different kind of object from real stars, so can never affect their number; the rain on the sea has just come out of the sea, so can have no effect on its salinity. Of course, this is a kind of futility, which we could file under the heading “misapplication of effort” rather than “task impossibly large”.
Digging a vast hole with a teaspoon is a pretty futile task. But if we learn that someone is going about it by dumping each teaspoonful of earth back into the hole, it prompts the question of why they are going about it in such a stupid way. Well, maybe it is ignorance or stupidity—which could be aspects of the “primal fault” of the poem. Or maybe it's malice on the part of an adversary—like Sisyphus rolling his boulder, forever prevented from completion of his task by the malice of Zeus. Either way, the situation is not as futile as it was in my first reading: we could learn from our mistakes and go about the alleviation of suffering in a less stupid way. Or we could direct our efforts to defeating the malicious adversary.
So maybe there's a note of optimism in there?
The second curious aspect of the metaphors is that the apparently-desired outcomes are really not at all desirable. The star-sown sky is beautiful and it would not be preferable to live our lives against a dark background.1 The salt sea was the cradle of life on Earth, and we carry a part of it with us in our salty bodily fluids. The life of the ocean depends on its salinity for survival, and a fresh-water ocean would be an ecological catastrophe on a vast scale.
So maybe the “primal fault” of the poem isn't referring to something bad after all: not “human misery” but rather “human life”. In which case it's a good thing that the toil of nature can't wipe us out.
Which of these readings did Housman have in mind? There's no way to tell, but the pessimistic tone of a lot of his poetry suggests that he had in mind the first one, of misery and futility. I doubt he stopped to consider the other possibilities; indeed I'm not aware of any critic who has.
I should make it clear that I don't believe that Housman was ignorant of astronomy or hydrology. He may have been writing the poem from a pre-scientific point of view, or may have selected the images for the emotional appeal rather than their sense in detail. When he writes (Additional Poems, V):
Here are the skies, the planets seven,
And all the starry train:
Content you with the mimic heaven,
And on the earth remain.
This doesn't mean he was ignorant of the existence of Neptune; he means the classical seven planets (the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). He was, after all, the compiler of an authoritative edition and translation of Marcus Manilius's 1st century Astronomica.2
Nonetheless I do have a suspicion that in Stars, I have seen them fall he didn't stop to consider the plain sense of what he was writing. Indeed in his 1933 lecture, “The Name and Nature of Poetry”, he is quite clear that the intellect has no place in the composition of poetry:
Poetry's peculiar function is to transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought ... Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not ... [T]he intellect is not the fount of poetry ... it may actually hinder its production, and ... it cannot even be trusted to recognize poetry when produced.
As a textual critic he took rather a different point of view (“The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism”):
I find therefore that a good way of exposing the falsehood of a statement or the absurdity of an argument in textual criticism is to transpose it into sensuous terms and see what it looks like then. If the nouns which we use are the names of things which can be handled or tasted, differing from one another in being hot or cold, sweet or sour, then we realise what we are saying and take care what we say.
^ Though maybe Housman would disagree with me (More Poems, XXXVIII):
Now who sees night for ever,
He sees no happier sight:
Night and no moon and never
A star upon the night.
^ Another of his poems makes metaphorical use of astronomy (Last Poems, XVII):
The Wain upon the northern steep
Descends and lifts away.
Oh I will sit me down and weep
For bones in Africa.
For pay and medals, name and rank,
Things that he has not found,
He hove the Cross to heaven and sank
The pole-star underground.
And now he does not even see
Signs of the nadir roll
At night over the ground where he
Is buried with the pole.
Here the metaphors are quite simple—hardly more than puns. The subject leaves his farming life (symbolized by the wain) to be a soldier and finds death in war in southern Africa, thus exchanging the constellation of the Wain (high in the northern sky, so below the horizon from his new station) for the Cross (symbolizing suffering), the pole star for the pole carrying the standard of his regiment, the zenith of his life for the nadir of the grave.
(In order for “away” to rhyme with “Africa” the dialect pronunciation “Africay” must be meant; cf. Middlemarch, chapter 34:
“There's more ways than one of being a fool,” said Solomon. “I shan't leave my money to be poured down the sink, and I shan't leave it to foundlings from Africay.”)