A A. E. Housman

Here dead lie we because we did not choose by A. E. Housman

‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose’ by A.E. Housman is a powerful, short poem about World War I. It utilizes a speaker, or group of speakers, who have passed away. 

Here dead lie we because we did not choose Visual Representation

One speaker is talking for a group, acknowledging their loss and suggesting that they died in order to avoid the shame of not dying on the battlefield of World War I. They know now that life isn’t so precious. But, when they were young, they thought differently. ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose’ requires some interpretation and leans heavily on allusions to specific attitudes of the period. 

Here dead we lie because we did not choose
A. E. Housman

Here dead we lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
Here dead lie we because we did not choose by A. E. Housman


Summary

‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose’ by A.E. Housman is a short poem that addresses the sacrifices soldiers made during World War I.

The poem notes from the start that the speaker/s is dead. They lost their lives in order to avoid a worse fate—shame. They chose to die because they didn’t want to shame the country they came from. The poem alludes to war, specifically World War I, through its lines. The poet uses irony in order to suggest that the opposite of what he’s saying is actually true. Life is quite a precious thing to lose, but the speaker/s suggests the opposite. When they were young, they believe it, but now they know that life is meaningless in the face of shaming one’s country. 

Structure and Form 

‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose’ by A.E. Housman is a four-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB. Housman also chose to write these lines in iambic pentameter. This means that most of them follow a pattern of unstressed and stressed syllables. The lines should contain five sets of beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed.  The start of the third line is the exception to the rule. 

Literary Devices 

Throughout ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to: 

  • Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two. 
  • Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “live” and “land” in line two and “Life” and “lose” in line three. 
  • Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose.” This can be done either though the use of punctuation such as in this example or through a natural pause in the middle of a metrical line. 
  • Irony: occurs at the end of the poem when the poet suggests that life is “nothing much to lose” when in fact he believes the opposite. 


Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-2

Here dead lie we because we did not choose

     To live and shame the land from which we sprung.

In the first two lines of ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose,’ the speaker begins by using the line that later came to be used as the title. The full phrase, or sometimes the first half of the line, is utilized when speaking about this piece. Immediately, the reader’s interest should be sparked because the poet is using the perspective of a group of dead people. The narrator uses third-person pronouns, like “we,” to refer to a group of people. Although it’s not clearly stated, it’s very likely that Housman was thinking about all the young men who died in World War I. 

These men chose to go to war and die because they didn’t want to live and have to feel the shame of not having fought for their country or for the “land from which we sprung.” The speaker suggests that it was worth losing their lives, not for the sake of their country’s future and that of their friends and family, but in order to not be shamed by not doing so. This creates an interesting dynamic and also alludes to the struggle that some men faced who came back from the war unhurt or never went at all. 

Lines 3-4 

Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;

     But young men think it is, and we were young.

The third line and fourth line bring in a clear ironic expression in regard to life and death. The speaker notes that “Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose.” Obviously, life is everything to lose. Here, the speaker is suggesting that this attitude is what drove many men to seek out a similar death. Life was ranked below honor and fighting for one’s country. In comparison, it was nothing much to lose. 

The final line expresses how the speaker/speakers were alive, that they were young, and believed that life was important. Here, their sacrifice comes through loud and clear. They knew when they were alive that the loss of their life was a lot to “lose,” but they went to their deaths anyway. Life was less important than shame. 

FAQs 

Who is the speaker in ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose?’ 

Housman uses a group as a single speaker. The speaker uses third-person pronouns, like “we,” in order to define their experience in the war and with life/death. This group is likely a selection of young men, soldiers who lost their lives in order to avoid the shame of not doing so during World War I. 

What is the tone of ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose?’

The tone in this poem is disturbingly colloquial. The speaker is acknowledging their deaths while at the same time stating that life is meaningless unless you’re young. They were willing to toss their lives away simply to avoid shame.

Why did Housman write, ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose?’

Housman likely wrote this poem in order to acknowledge the loss of lives during World War I as well as pass judgment on a prevailing attitude during the period. Young men enlisted as soldiers were meant to sacrifice everything for the sake of their country or face the shame of not doing so. 

What are the themes of ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose?’

he themes clearly from the start, noting that the speaker/s are dead and that they lost their lives for the sake of their honor. 

What is the mood of ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose?’

The mood of this poem is concerned and contemplative. Readers are likely to walk away feeling bothered by what they just read and willing to consider their own attitudes towards war, heroism, and what’s worth losing one’s life over. 


Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed ‘Here dead lie we because we did not choose’ should also consider reading other A. E. Housman poems. For example: 

  • Loveliest of Trees– a joyful nature poem in which the speaker describes how powerful the image of cherry blossom trees is in his life. He takes a great deal of pleasure from looking at them.
  • Because I Liked You Better’ – a love poem that taps on the theme of unrequited love. Like his “A Shropshire Lad” poems, it also touches on the theme of death.
  • He would not stay for me, and who can wonder’ –  appears in A. E. Housman’s “Additional Poems.” It taps on the themes of separation and leave-taking.

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About
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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