This week’s poem is for everyone who got out of the wrong side of bed this morning. Or, perhaps more accurately, for those who haven’t managed to get out of bed at all…I just hope you can prise your head from the pillow and open your eyes wide enough to read this on your phone or any other mobile device. But don’t berate yourself for hitting the snooze button once or twice (anything more may be a little questionable); we’re all prone to a spectacular slump every now and then, and I suspect that energy levels may be collectively flagging at this precise moment. Certainly they will be for those who have just partaken in the annual feat of endurance, the London Marathon, and those brave souls are definitely entitled to a long lie-down. But with the prospect of a daisy-chain of days off and bank holidays teasingly around the corner, it’s all the more likely that the upcoming few days will proceed at a painfully slow snail’s pace.
Instead of raiding the cupboards for caffeine or chocolate in an attempt to put a stop to a sleepwalking state, it’s more advisable to swap a self-defeating short-term sugar rush for something sustainable and rousing to all the senses. The perfect remedy for a bout of lethargy, a prescription to stop sluggishness comes in the form of this verse from A.E Housman. ‘Reveille’ is the name given to the bugle or drum call that signifies the dawning of the day to soldiers, which is a great deal more effective than a tinny, bleeping alarm. To be straight to the point, the English translation of the original French verb is ‘wake up’. Rather blunt, perhaps, but any term used by the military is not going to do things subtly. Housman does command – perceive the clear instruction ‘wake’ in the first two stanzas, as well as the resounding shout of ‘up, lad, up’ – but this poem is not a harsh blow akin to being doused in cold water; its ability to wake comes in its atmospheric description, its sounds, its sights, its internal vigour and liveliness. It’s not just about physically waking, clambering from the covers and pulling yourself upright but waking yourself mentally, awakening to the world around you with all its possibilities. And this is definitely a poem to be read aloud once you’re up and about, not just to drive the feeling home but because it is just designed to be; its words leap from the page and demand to be put into your mouth, filling you up with their vitality and verve. And lines such as ‘The vaulted shadow shatters, trampled to the floor it spanned/And the tent of night in tatters straws the sky-pavilioned land’ just don’t have the same effect unless they are spoken.
While it’s certainly useful for a general day to day wake-up call, there is an added urgency and indeed, a strong sense of pathos in the poem. Reveille is the fourth in Housman’s ‘cycle’ of poems A Shropshire Lad, which features war, death and loss of many kinds and of which the overriding theme is mortality. Whilst it’s not advisable to become gripped by fear and run ragged trying to pack a million and one things into each day, the reminder to ‘wake up’ and seize the day is a valuable one. So sound that siren, shake the laziness from your bones, embrace the day and days ahead and get up and go – before ‘it’ goes for good.
Wake: the silver dusk returning
Up the beach of darkness brims,
And the ship of sunrise burning
Strands upon the eastern rims.
Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,
Trampled to the floor it spanned,
And the tent of night in tatters
Straws the sky-pavilioned land.
Up, lad, up, ’tis late for lying:
Hear the drums of morning play;
Hark, the empty highways crying
“Who’ll beyond the hills away?”
Towns and countries woo together,
Forelands beacon, belfries call;
Never lad that trod on leather
Lived to feast his heart with all.
Up, lad: thews that lie and cumber
Sunlit pallets never thrive;
Morns abed and daylight slumber
Were not meant for man alive.
Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover;
Breath’s a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey’s over
There’ll be time enough to sleep.
A.E Housman (1859-1936)