A.E. Housman: On moonlit heath and lonesome bank


On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
         The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
         Fast by the four cross ways.
A careless shepherd once would keep
         The flocks by moonlight there, (1)
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
         The dead man stood on air.
They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
         The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
         To men that die at morn.
There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
         Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
         Than most that sleep outside.
And naked to the hangman’s noose
         The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
         Than strangling in a string.
And sharp the link of life will snap,
         And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
         As treads upon the land.
So here I’ll watch the night and wait
         To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
         And not the stroke of nine;
And wish my friend as sound a sleep
         As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
         A hundred years ago.
         (1) Hanging in chains was called keeping sheep by moonlight.

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