Moonlit Heath and Lonesome Bank
moonlit heath and lonesome bank
A careless shepherd
once would keep
They hang us now in Shrewsbury
There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
And naked to the hangman's noose
And sharp the link of life will snap,
here I'll watch the night and wait
wish my friend as sound a sleep
On moonlit heath and lonesome bank protests capital punishment and looks askance at human nature and lifes meaningless randomness as Housman sees it. The old custom of hanging criminals at a crossroad and leaving the dead bodies there as a horrible example was called keeping sheep by moonlight, literal gallows humor. By the time of the poem, things have advanced: They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail. The key word is us. The speaker insists upon our identifying with the condemned. The authorities, the ones who do the hanging, are They. The speaker is set to watch outside through the night, awaiting the morning when his friend will hang, A better lad, if things went right / Than most that sleep outside. But, of course, things have not gone right. In Housmans pessimistic world view they almost never do. A two-stanza description of hanging compels our sympathy through understatement and precise word choice: a naked (unprotected, vulnerable) neck God made will be strangled in a string. The mans essential goodness, not his innocence of the unnamed crime, is again stated: as straight a chap / As treads upon the land. Societys hiding execution by moving hanging indoors has not changed its violent brutality. Legally sanctioned murder protects society, the reasoning goes, by instilling fear of consequences in all and by removing the evildoer from society. That it hasnt worked doesnt stop us from doing it; the reasoning apparently is that eventually punishment will stop crime.
A Course in Miracles says such reasoning is insane. Law is a pathetic substitute for love. The Course says, See only the light in your brother. In the real world of oneness and love, the world God gives to replace the one we made out of the idea of separation, crime is simply impossible. In truth, the Course reminds us, our oneness with all others renders us incapable of either attacking or being attacked.
The Separated Ego is quick to respond. Yeah. Well, you cant live like that. Just try it and see what happens. Somebody will crucify you. Criminals will overcome us all. Itll be chaos. Few of us have ever tried to live love, and we dont know what will happen if we do. ACIM says Jesus resurrection demonstrates the unreality of the body and the impossibility of our ability to harm anything that is real. Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of God. Jesus did not die for us because death does not exist. He paid no price for our sins because we cannot sin. Minds, souls cannot attack. God is Love, Love is all in all, and only Love can be real. Perceiving Loves real world is a choice we can make, and once we make it, all Love rushes into our awareness. We are not asked to continue on the basis of an unsupported faith. Faith is replaced by knowledge through experience.
When we try it and see what happens, we can know through experience Gods loving care. We can choose whether we operate from the Holy Spirits view of the wholeness of the real world and of ourselves within it, or the Separated Egos premise of disassociation. If we choose the premise of our identity with the true minds of our brothers and God, there is no need for law or punishment or any of the other conflicting dramas we have chosen over Love.. Under the laws of the separation, our world view is based on our perception that Love is untrustworthy. And so we go on and on in fear, making our repetitious stories, and calling them grand.
Housmans poem is not on a grand scale, but there are works on a grand scale which also consider the theme of imposing punishment, sacrificing for the greater good, a staple of our most cherished beliefs. For example, in Herman Melvilles Billy Budd, Billy kills the diabolical villain Claggart, and Captain Vere, the authority who will sanction Billys hanging, exclaims, Struck dead by an angel of God Yet the angel must hang. What Vere does not see, what Housman does not contemplate, is the truth that love does no violence. Killing Claggartthe need for removing Claggart from the societycomes back to the belief in sin. If Claggarts evil exists, Billy, the hero, must remove the evil one, slay the dragon. Then, to restore/maintain order, Billy and all lawbreakers such as Housmans better lad, regardless of circumstance in the story were making up, must be sacrificed to protect the greater society. Shakespeares Hamlet, who wants to think the situation through, must learn to stop thinking about it and just go ahead and act, kill Claudius, and die himself. When, in the last act, he does, proper order is restored, and the unthinking warrior-hero Fortinbras will rule Denmark, and everybody can go on killing everybody else in righteous wars forever. Shakespeares Henry V says, I need a war to solidify his rule. What he doesnt need is Falstaff, who is as close to Love as Hal can ever get. So Falstaff dies, and Henry gets his war. Housmans lad, like Billy, Hamlet and even Falstaff, is sacrificed to fear of disorder, and bowing to fears demands creates more futile attempts to control fear.
Executing bodies, a response fueled by fear in an attempt to establish order, is but one of the mistakes that has kept us in a nightmare world for the more than 2,000 years since Jesus resurrection demonstrated that we are not bodies, and that what we are cannot die. Destroying bodies feeds the Separated Egos illusions of power but does not make the separation real. Death has no power because it does not exist . Sacrifice is meaningless when, in reality, all there is is Love. .
On moonlit heath and lonesome bank can take us on a longer trip than ever Housman envisioned. Loving consideration can help us perceive a world, the real world, where the questions of sacrifice and punishment never come up.