“I did not begin to write poetry in earnest until the really emotional part of my life was over.” — poet A.E. Housman

OUCH, A.E. OUCH.

He was born in 1859 and he died in 1936.

That generation saw so much change it boggles the mind, and I say that as a member of a generation which grew up sans internet – who didn’t get “online” until my late 20s. The change my generation went through is so gigantic I can’t get my head around it. Like … going from no internet to … internet? How did we manage it? But Housman’s generation saw an entire world end.

He’s not as well-known today as he once was, and he is not as much studied as he once was. To people growing up in the first decades of the 20th century, he was THE poet. People knew him by heart. He was beloved. (Essential reading on Housman, and a truly great work of cultural criticism, is George Orwell’s essay “Inside the Whale,” which I excerpt below, but it really needs to be read in full.)

I think my first encounter with Housman was in a college poetry class. I didn’t get how sad his stuff was. This seems insane to me now, but I can only report the truth (at least as I remember it). I am not sure how I missed his sadness. I suppose because the verse itself is so perfect, the rhyme scheme immaculate … and there are funny lines, the whole thing can come off as rather arch if you don’t pay close attention. Or, more likely, I didn’t get how sad he was because I was still an adolescent, and although I was an intense adolescent, I didn’t understand yet just how sad things could get, when you get to a certain age and realize your life isn’t going to work out as you planned, I didn’t get that love could be lost forever, and you could be haunted by the memory of What Might Have Been. And Housman is all about longing for What Might Have Been. At any rate, Housman just didn’t exist in my head until – while I was living in Philadelphia – I was cast as Agnes in a production of Lanford Wilson’s wonderful one-act “Ludlow Fair” (excerpt here).

Wilson gets the title of his play from one of Housman’s poems. The play itself takes place in Queens, New York – so to call it “Ludlow Fair” is mysterious, and never fully explained: once you pose the question and start digging for the answer, you get the sense of falling into an abyss. It just gets deeper and more interesting the more you look into it. When I was in that play, I needed to really understand what the hell I was talking about, so I looked into “Shropshire Lad” again, but this time I was doing so not to appreciate the poetry but to understand why the hell Lanford Wilson had called his play “Ludlow Fair”, and why on earth my character would remember that poem almost line for line. There is no right answer. Wilson does not provide the answer. That was my re-introduction to Housman after reading him in a college poetry class. My research for that play was part of me learning how to read poetry, I guess. The rhyme scheme can lull you into thinking that what Housman is talking about is easy for him. That was my mistake.

Now that I am grown, and emotionally battle-scarred, it’s as plain as day: Housman is one of the bleakest of poets, obsessed with death and suicide. He was one of those tragic Victorian homosexual poets, a man who could never be happy because the world around him would not allow it.

I will love him forever because when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for doing OPENLY what everybody else was doing in PRIVATE, most of his friends abandoned him. Word got out that Wilde had no books in prison, and this was considered an emergency. Housman sent him a copy of his A Shropshire Lad. Housman had sympathy and empathy.

Housman had an unrequited love affair in his youth. Eventually his object of affection left for India, where he eventually got married. Housman was devastated. He didn’t start writing poetry for realz until he was 30 years old (which is very rare). See the quote at the top of this post.

OUCH.

Here is a posthumously published poem to his friend Moses Jackson:

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

He did not like many of the contemporary poets of his day, and struggled to stay apart from them. His idols were William Blake and William Shakespeare. Housman was attracted to madness, to mad flights of fancy, to a non-literal approach. Yeats loved Housman and it is not hard to see why.

In the 1890s, he was deeply affected by a small item in the newspaper about a man who committed suicide, leaving a note behind expressing his love for another man. Housman kept the clipping always. It just makes your heart ache, thinking about what former generations had to bear.

Reading his stuff now I am truly baffled at my college-girl response to it as light, arch and rather funny verse. I hadn’t had enough heartache of my own yet to perceive Housman’s eternal sadness.

Here is what is probably his most famous poem. Breathtaking.

LXII. Terence, this is stupid stuff

“TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ™’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
–I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

QUOTES:

A.E. Housman:

In barrenness, I hold a high place among English poets, excelling even Gray.

On his deathbed, 1936, after the doctor told him a dirty joke:

Yes, that’s a good one, and tomorrow I shall be telling it on the Golden Floor.

George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”:

At the beginning of the period I am speaking of, the years during and immediately after the war, the writer who had the deepest hold upon the thinking young was almost certainly Housman. Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and is now not at all easy to understand.

Michael Schmidt on Philip Larkin, Lives of the Poets:

His work is controversial not in itself but in what he represents to poets and critics of different camps. He certainly did as much as Housman to turn back the clock of English poetry; like Housman, he is the modern poet most often quoted – in church, in Parliament, in the classroom–by folk who latch on to a phrase or stanza, without bothering to understand what the poem as a whole might mean. His was the characteristic voice of the 1950s and 1960s, regarded by some as the most significant English poet of the postwar.

Harold Bloom, The Best Poems in the English Language, on “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”:

Housman was a classical scholar, and his ultimate model here might be Simonides, the ancient Greek poet of epitaphs. Elsewhere in Housman, we are advised: “Shoulder the sky my lad, and drink your ale.” …But Housman, no Christian and a good Epicurean, makes these allusions ironic, since his mercenaries defended “What God abandoned,” unlike the loyal angels, who followed Christ as he, at God’s command, thrust the fallen angels out of Heaven. So we have a double lesson in allusiveness: is it accurate, and again is it itself figurative, as here?

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Determined to be minor, Housman’s best work transcends its own intentions.

George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”:

In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of The Shropshire Lad by heart.

A.E. Housman:

I became a deist at 13 and an atheist at 21.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

The interest in a small, predominantly rural area, the use of ballad meters, the sense of the world’s unsatisfactoriness, and the reiterated theme of unrequited love are aspects that Housman shared with the early Yeats in particular. The two poets also shared an intense admiration for William Blake, whom Housman put second only to Shakespeare. But Housman admired Blake’s subordination of idea to lyrical intensity, whereas Yeats was more occupied with Blake’s mythical system. Housman minimizes and disparages the intellect in poetry, whereas Yeats, like other poets of larger scope, recognizes the necessity of incorporating it. Housman, when he can, excludes; Yeats includes. It was characteristic of Housman to devote much of his life to editing a minor work, the Astronomicon of Manilius, rather than classical poems of greater enterprise.

George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”:

[The poems in Shropshire Lad] are the poems that I and my contemporaries used to recite to ourselves, over and over, in a kind of ecstasy, just as earlier generations had recited Meredith’s Love in a Valley,” Swinburne’s “Garden of Proserpine,” etc. etc.

William Faulkner:

“The books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to old friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes, Don Quixote – I read that every year, as some do the Bible. Flaubert, Balzac – he created an intact world of his own, a bloodstream running through twenty books – Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Shakespeare. I read Melville occasionally and, of the poets, Marlowe, Campion, Jonson, Herrick, Donne, Keats, and Shelley. I still read Housman. I’ve read these books so often that I don’t always begin at page one and read on to the end. I just read one scene, or about one character, just as you’d meet and talk to a friend for a few minutes.”

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

His poems, written mostly after he was thirty-five, deal chiefly with young men between twenty-one–or as he would say, one-and-twenty–and twenty-five. Youth and life and love end at a stroke. He extracts all possible ironies from this situation in stark, lucid, elegant verse that recasts pastoral tradition. Nature adds to the gloom either by baleful destructiveness or by its phantasmal parade of meaningless fertility and beauty.

A.E. Housman, lecture, “The Name and Nature of Poetry” (1933):

[Poetry’s function is” to transfuse emotion–not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer.

Read George Orwell’s essay “Inside the Whale” to understand how Housman succeeded in this.

George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”:

Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, “cynical” strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War: this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date… For several years the old-young antagonism took on a quality of real hatred. What was left of the war generation had crept out of the massacre to find their elders still bellowing the slogans of 1914, and a slightly younger generation of boys were writhing under dirty-minded celibate schoolmasters. It was to these that Housman appealed, with his implied sexual revolt and his personal grievance against God. He was patriotic, it was true, but in a harmless old-fashioned way, to the tune of red coats and “God save the Queen” rather than steel helmets and “Hang the Kaiser.” And he was satisfyingly anti-Christian–he stood for a kind of bitter, defiant paganism, a conviction that life is short and the gods are against you, which exactly fitted the prevailing mood of the young; and all in charming fragile verse that was composed almost entirely of words of one syllable.

Harold Bloom, Best Poems in the English Language:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows.

This is the epitome of Housman: an air that kills. A genius for memorability sustains that negative intensity.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896), Edwin Arlington Robinson’s The Children of the Night (1897), and Yeats’s The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) appeared in the waning years of the nineteenth century. These books continue Romantic and Victorian traditions — a language of personal feeling, regular meters and rhymes, the imputation of human feelings to nature by the pathetic fallacy. But the poetry of Housman, Robinson, and Hardy diverges by intensified doubt and pessimism, and that of the early Yeats by its thorough internalization of the outer world and by its apocalyptic anticipation.

George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”:

What was there in [Housman’s poems] that appealed so deeply to a single generation, the generation born round about 1900? In the first place, Housman is a “country” poet. His poems are full of the charm of buried villages, the nostalgia of place-names… War poems apart, English verse of the 1910-25 period is mostly “country.” The reason no doubt was that the rentier-professional class was ceasing once and for all to have any real relationship with the soil; but at any rate there prevailed then, far more than now, a kind of snobbism of belonging to the country and despising the town…Just before, and, for that matter, during the war was the great age of the “Nature poet,” the heyday of Richard Jeffries and W.H. Hudson. Rupert Brooke’s “Grantchester,” the star poem of 1913, is nothing but an enormous gush of “country” sentiment, a sort of accumulated vomit from a stomach stuffed with place-names. Considered as a poem “Grantchester” is something worth than worthless, but as an illustration of what the thinking middle-class young of the period felt it is a valuable document.

Housman, however, did not enthuse over the rambler roses in the week-ending spirit of Brooke and the others. The “country” motif is there all the time, but mainly as a background. Most of the poems have a quasi-human subject, a kind of idealised rustic, in reality Strephon or Corydon brought up to date. This in itself had a deep appeal. Experience shows that overcivilised people enjoy reading about rustics (key-phrase, “close to the soil”) because they imagine them to be more primitive and passionate than themselves.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

[Housman’s poems] are easily parodied, as is his aesthetic, and perhaps inseparable from an element of “camp.” Yet they have a refined agony, a stylized pain, a kind of courtly lovelornness that insures their memorability.

Hugh MacDiarmid’s response to A.E. Housman’s poem “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries“:

Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
By Hugh MacDiarmid

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

Introduction to Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

In spare, pastoral lyrics set near the hills of Shropshire, Housman had sadly and stoically meditated on human transience, thwarted love, and failed lives.

George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”:

All [Housman’s] themes are adolescent–murder, suicide, unhappy love, early death. They deal with the simple intelligible disasters that give you the feeling of being up against the “bedrock facts” of life:

The sun burns on the half-mown hill,
By now the blood has dried;
And Maurice among the hay lies still
And my knife is in his side.

…And notice also the exquisite self-pity–the “nobody loves me” feeling:

The diamond drops adorning
The low mound of the lea,
These are the tears of morning,
That weeps, but not for thee.

Hard cheese, old chap! Such poems might have been written expressly for adolescents. And the unvarying sexual pessimism (the girl always dies or marries somebody else) seemed like wisdom to boys who were herded together in public schools and were half-inclined to think of women as something unattainable. Whether Housman ever had the same appeal for girls I doubt. In his poems, the woman’s point of view is not considered, she is merely the nymph, the siren, the treacherous half-human creature who leads you a little distance and then gives you the slip.

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry:

He was brought up in the High Church Party of the Church of England, but at eight–also the age at which he first tried writing poetry–he was converted to paganism by John Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary.

Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets:

When we say [Kipling] was popular, we can quantify what we mean. By 1918, Departmental Ditties, his least achieved book, had sold 81,000 copies; by 1931 it had sold 117,000 copies. Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses remained his most popular book, selling 182,000 copies by 1918 and 255,000 by 1931. The Definitive Edition of the poems, published in 1940, had gone through sixty impressions by 1982. Like Housman, even when his shares were no longer quoted on the intellectual bourse, and critics turned their backs on him, he remained popular with readers.

George Orwell, “Inside the Whale”:

There is no need to underrate him now because he was over-rated a few years ago.

A.E. Housman:

Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.

 
 
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