‘Easter Hymn’ takes a critical evaluation of Christianity to the next level when its speaker weighs two possibilities: the mortality of Christ versus their immortal indifference. Through Houseman’s rapt imagery, the poem emphasizes the violently dark dissonance between the humanity Christ is said to have died to save and their use of his word for selfish and cruel means.
Easter Hymn A.E. HousemanIf in that Syrian garden, ages slain,You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,Nor even in dreams behold how dark and brightAscends in smoke and fire by day and nightThe hate you died to quench and could but fan,Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,At the right hand of majesty on highYou sit, and sitting so remember yetYour tears, your agony and bloody sweat,Your cross and passion and the life you gave,Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
Explore Easter Hymn
'Easter Hymn' by A.E. Houseman is a poem that wrestles with a belief in Jesus Christ as the speaker struggles to understand the truth of their death and the yet unfulfilled promise of their return.
‘Easter Hymn’ poses two hypotheticals: the first is that Jesus Christ lived and died, and the second is that he was resurrected. In the first stanza, the speaker addresses the former possibility and finds a bit of a bleak silver lining. If Jesus is dead, then at the very least, the man who preached, “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39) will never know how his teachings have been used to inspire the exact opposite of their intention.
In the second stanza, the speaker entertains the immortality of Christ, though the train of thought is just as dejected. If he truly ascended after his crucifixion — why hasn’t he returned? As the prior stanza made a point of illustrating, humanity has strayed far from his teachings (especially those who actively profess and practice the very religion Christ began).
If the speaker can see that, surely an omnipotent Jesus sitting at the right hand of God would be able to as well? The poem ends deflatingly on a plea that is little more than a prayer, with the speaker asking Jesus to come down from heaven to “see and save” all those still suffering as he did when he gave his own life for the supposed salvation of humankind.
Structure and Form
‘Easter Hymn’ consists of two stanzas with no definite meter though most of the lines, with the exception of two, are written in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme for the poem is ‘AABBCC’ for both stanzas.
‘Easter Hymn’ makes use of symbolism when the speaker refers to the “Syrian garden,” which is used to refer to heaven and is also one of the many examples of biblical allusions in the poem. Others include allusions to the resurrection of Christ — “grave rent and the stone rolled by / At the right hand of majesty on high” (7-8) — and his crucifixion: “Your cross and passion” (11).
There are also examples of metaphor when the speaker uses “sleep” (6) to illustrate death and laments the inability of Christ’s teachings to curb human nature: “hate you died to quench and cold but fan” (5). Lastly, Houseman employs quite a bit of descriptive imagery to emphasize the terrible state of affairs on earth since Christ’s sacrifice — “how dark and bright / Ascends in smoke and fire” (3-4) — and visceral pain: “your agony and bloody sweat” (10).
If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.
The first stanza of ‘Easter Hymn’ opens with a curious address by the speaker toward Jesus Christ — who is alluded to in Line 6 as the “son of man.” The speaker’s main concern appears to be whether or not Jesus is truly dead (“in that Syrian garden, ages slain”), and if he is, that’s probably for the best. It’s not what you might expect from a poem whose title suggests a celebration of the divine. But the speaker of Houseman’s poem isn’t being intentionally blasphemous.
As the poem’s very first word suggests — “If” — doubt is an important theme and motif in ‘Easter Hymn.’ But so is its scathing perspective that the religion Christ started has severely strayed. As the speaker confesses in Line 2, if Jesus really was just a man and was never resurrected, then at the very least, he does not know his sacrifice of dying for the sins of man was “in vain.” He will never see how “dark and bright” the “smoke and fire” symbolizes both the corporeal and spiritual failings of all those that came after. The speaker highlights the sad irony that whatever “hate” that Jesus died “to quench,” he really only fanned into a blaze.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
Stanza two of ‘Easter Hymn’ entertains the alternative: that Jesus Christ died, was resurrected, and ascended to heaven. But, the speaker takes issue with this, imploring Christ to remember their own crucifixion in Lines 10-11 (“Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat, / Your cross and passion and the life you gave”). The speaker invokes these images in the hopes of swaying Christ to return — an allusion to the Book of Revelation — to “see and save” those who are suffering as he did.
It’s important to note that the second stanza also begins with an “if” statement. Once more, the reader is reminded that the speaker is very much unsure of which scenario is reality. There’s further irony in the fact that the speaker embodies the dualities of agnosticism (Houseman himself became an atheist in his teens).
Two options present themselves: either Jesus is dead and knows nothing about how his word has been twisted to violence, or he is in heaven and doesn’t recognize the imperative of returning. It’s doubly ironic that the poem resembles in tone and subject a kind of prayer, which according to the speaker, is either just meaningless words addressed to a long-dead man or falling on the deaf ears of a deified being that has yet to return the world to its promised salvation.
The poem’s theme centers on the speaker’s musings over the death and supposed resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ultimately the theme struggles with the disparities between the promise of salvation and the ugly realities of humankind on Earth.
Houseman’s poem hones in on the Easter tradition, which celebrates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion at Calvary. The speaker of the poem references a number of salient moments described in the Gospels, such as the circumstances of his death, burial/resurrection, and believed ascension to heaven. In referencing these moments, it’s made apparent the speaker’s doubt about Jesus’ immortality is still informed by a deep understanding of the meaning behind the Easter story.
Houseman no doubt wrote the poem as a criticism of the history of both the Catholic and Christian churches. As the speaker points out scathingly that if Jesus Christ truly was mortal, at the very least, he’d never know what horrible things had been done in his name.
Here are a few more A.E. Houseman poems:
- ‘Oh Who is that Young Sinner’ – a poem that illustrates the arbitrary hate levied towards homosexuality in the 19th century.
- ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose’ – a poem about those killed in World War One.
- ‘They Say My Verse is Sad’ – a poem that addresses the typically poignant subject matter of the poet’s works.