Throughout the poem’s six lines, Housman uses literary devices and figurative language, such as metaphors, to depict death through allusions. Readers are left to wonder, due to the vague details, what exact illness the speaker is happy to be ridding himself of and if it’s an illness of the mind and soul rather than of the body.
Explore XII: An Epitaph
In the first lines of ‘XII: An Epitaph,’ the speaker talks to the listener, a visitor or passerby of some kind. This person, he says, is welcome to stay but probably shouldn’t because the night is on the way. Night, it soon becomes clear, is a metaphor for death, something that’s coming to claim the speaker. The speaker spends the remaining lines of the poem describing death as something he’s welcoming. He doesn’t mind that it’s coming for him as it’ll be a welcome relief to the ancient evil that has been tormenting him.
In ‘XII: An Epitaph,’ the poet clearly engages the theme of death. In the short lines, it is the prevailing image, along with darkness and illness. The speaker is facing his death but does not represent it as something that horrifies him. He accepts it, and even embraces it, as something that he’s glad is finally arriving. He wants to leave his life behind and allow the night to swallow him up.
Structure and Form
‘XII: An Epitaph’ by A.E. Housman is a short six-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines follow a very simple rhyme scheme. They are divided into couplets that rhyme AABBCC. Readers should also note the very even meter throughout all six lines of the poem. Every line in the poem contains ten syllables, but the stresses change. The lines do not use iambs or trochees throughout, although the former is much more common.
Housman makes use of several literary devices in ‘XII: An Epitaph.’ These include but are not limited to caesura, alliteration, and allusion. The latter is a reference to something in a poem that is not described in detail. Some readers might not have the context needed to understand the allusion, while others may get it right away. In this case, the poet makes a simple allusion to death through the personified image of “night” approaching.
Alliteration is a common type of repetition that occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “fevers found” and “sleep sound” in lines five and six. These examples often help to increase the overall feeling of rhyme or rhythm a poem has.
Caesurae are pauses in the middle of the lines. These are created either through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. The second line of the poem is a good example. It reads: “Yet night approaches; better not to stay.”Another example is the following line. It reads: “I never sigh, nor flush, nor knit the brow.”
Stay, if you list, O passer by the way;
Yet night approaches; better not to stay.
In the first lines of ‘XII: An Epitaph,’ the speaker begins by directing his words to a “passer-by the way.” This is a complex, poetic way of referring to someone passing by. This is meant to be the listener of the poem, and the reader takes on that role when they read the text.
He tells the listener to stay if they “list” or want to. It’s up to them, but the speaker says in the next lines, it’s probably better if they don’t. The reason being that “night approaches.” It soon becomes clear that “night” is being used here as a metaphor for death. This is backed up by the title of the poem. An epitaph is a short piece of writing that’s written in memory of someone who died. The “writer” of these lines is the person whose soon to be deceased, making them slightly more complicated.
I never sigh, nor flush, nor knit the brow,
Nor grieve to think how ill God made me, now.
Here, with one balm for many fevers found,
Whole of an ancient evil, I sleep sound.
In the second of three couplets, the speaker draws attention to the fact that he nor sighs or complains about the fact that “God” made him “ill…now.” He’s suffering, but he’s accepted it. There’s nothing that he can do to change the life he’s living, and he has to move on. Now, as he’s heading towards death, he’s made peace with that fact.
Adding onto that, he says that it’s more than just peace he’s feeling, but excitement. He’s looking forward to death as the “balm for many fevers found.” It’s going to be the cure to his illness and his pain. When he “sleep[s] sound,” he’s going to do so, “Whole of an ancient evil.” The words “ancient” and “evil” complicate things here, but it appears the speaker is suggesting again that death will cure him of all that’s plagued him, particularly things that he’s dealt with for a long time. These words also suggest that perhaps his illness is one of the mind or soul rather than a literal illness.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some of A.E. Housman’s other, better-known poems. For example:
- ‘Bredon Hill’ – describes a love story that ends with the death of the speaker’s beloved. It follows two lovers in Bredon, Worcestershire.
- ‘To an Athlete Dying Young’ –included among Housman’s other best poems in A Shropshire Lad. It is directed at a young man who died a tragically early death.
- ‘When I was One-And-Twenty’ – is a great representative of Housman’s broader oeuvre of poetry. It describes a young man’s troubles with love that resulted from him ignoring good advice.