The poet, A. E. Housman, famous for his poetry collection, “A Shropshire Lad” wrote ‘He would not stay for me, and who can wonder’ to bring forth the pain of separation between two friends or lovers. This piece is short and it only has four lines. But, within this short frame, Housman explores the complexity of emotions. At first, it may seem simple to the readers that it speaks on the theme of unrequited love or separation. After diving deep into the lines, they can explore the superficial meaning is nothing but a mere facade to hide the deeper meaning inside it.
The speaker of this piece asks a simple question at the very beginning. He asks if his loved one does not stay for him, then there is none to do that. Nobody cares for him as he departs, even his close friend. It is not sure whether the speaker talks about one of his friends or his beloved. But it can be deduced that the person is one of his loved ones, who cared for him before. Right now, something has happened between them. So, he chooses not to wait for the speaker. At this critical point, the speaker shakes hands and heads for a lonely journey leading him to nowhere.
This short and simple poem consists of a total of four lines. The rhyme scheme is conventional. Housman uses the alternative rhyming pattern, ABAB. So, the first and third lines rhyme together. So do the second and fourth lines. In the first line, “wonder” rhymes with “sunder” present in the third line. While “gaze” in the second line rhymes with “ways” in the fourth line.
The metrical pattern of ‘He would not stay for me, and who can wonder’ is also regular. In the first and third lines, there are a total of eleven lines. The rest of the lines contain ten syllables. While reading, a reader has to stress on the second syllable of each foot (a set of two syllables), leaving the first syllable unstressed. Therefore, each line contains five iambs or iambic feet, and the overall poem is written in iambic pentameter.
There is only a variation here. It is present in the lines having a syllable extra. There, readers can find an imperfect hypermetrical foot at the very end.
‘He would not stay for me, and who can wonder’ begins with a rhetorical question or interrogation. The speaker asks himself if his loved one does not stay with him, who can wonder for his return. The answer is no one. Using this device, Housman creates a monotonous mood in the beginning.
The poet uses sensory imagery throughout the text. For example, the phrase, “stand and graze” paints a picture of a person waiting for someone. Likewise, “I shook his hand” presents an image of two persons taking leave from each other.
The phrase, “tore my heart in sunder” contains hyperbole and a metaphor as well. In the last line, “went with” and “his hand” in the previous line, contain alliteration. There is a metaphor in the last line too.
He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
The beginning of ‘He would not stay for me, and who can wonder’ is direct. An impassioned address is directed to readers. Housman’s speaker or the poetic persona tells readers that his loved one would not stay for him. There is none to wonder concerning his return. The first line, in this way, makes it clear what the pain point is.
Everyone has someone to care for and wait for their return. But, the speaker has no one. He is extremely without the person mentioned in the poem. This person can be his friend or lover. Whatever the case may be, if a human is not loved or cared for by a single person, he is like a boat without any destination, strangled in the lonely sea of life.
The second line gives enough insight to understand the mental state of the speaker. He also makes it clear what he needs or is going to be deprived of. That person whom he loves the most is not staying with him anymore. He would not stay for him to stand and gaze until his return.
I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,
And went with half my life about my ways.
At this critical juncture, he is aware of the reality. Something has happened in their relationship. That’s why they are standing at this edge.
However, the speaker, being aware of the fact, is now ready to leave. He shakes his hand. It makes his heart torn asunder. Using a metaphor for an object, Housman compares the speaker’s heart to it. It seems after losing his loved one his heart has lost its liveliness and turned into a lifeless object.
After taking leave, he went with half his life about his ways. The phrase, “half my life” is quite important to look into. According to the poet, lovers make each other’s life complete. So, the absence of a loved one, makes the other’s life incomplete or half. It creates a permanent gap that cannot be fulfilled by anyone. And the bearer has to bear this void within him for the rest of his life.
Alfred Edward Housman was an English classical scholar and poet. His “A Shropshire Lad” poems’ cycle presents the dooms and disappointments of youth in the English countryside. Housman’s poems are filled with pessimistic thoughts and preoccupied with death, without religious consolation. ‘He would not stay for me, and who can wonder,’ a poem of his later collections, also contains these themes. The speaker also shares the tone and mood that are present in his “Shropshire Lad” poems-cycle. This poem was published in Housman’s “Additional Poems” and it is the fourth poem of the series.
Here is a list of poems that similarly speak on the themes present in A. E. Housman’s ‘He would not stay for me, who can wonder’.
- Nowhere to Nowhere by BJ Omanson – This poem explores how someone can lose the meaning of life and begin spiraling out of control. Explore more BJ Omanson poems.
- The Last Ride Together by Robert Browning – This poem describes the last encounter of two lovers and how the last ride becomes an important event in the speaker’s life. Read more Robert Browning poetry.
- The Opposite of Nostalgia by Eric Gamalinda – The poet explores escapism and a desire for something new and exciting in this poem. Explore more poetry by Eric Gamalinda.
- I Shall Not Pass This Way Again by Eva Rose York – This poem is made up of a speaker’s goodbye to a place she loves and a declaration of her future intentions. Read more of Eva Rose York’s poems.