BOOKS FEBRUARY 13, 2008
The Letters of A.E. Housman
Edited by Archie Burnett
(Oxford University Press, 2 volumes, 643 pp. and 585 pp., $330)
FOR MORE YEARS than I care to think about, I have been haunted in a variety of ways by the acerbic and enigmatic ghost of A.E. Housman. It began with A Shropshire Lad, which I discovered (when else?) early in adolescence. As cynics have often pointed out, this cycle of poems offered the young a ready-made packet of yearning, loss, and nostalgia, cleverly blended with military violence, death, binge-drinking on beer, and—most subtly seductive of all—the dreamy enticements of idealized landscapes. I duly looked on the west (from Hertfordshire rather than Worcestershire, but no matter) and was ready and eager to have my heart leave my breast. Magical places were safer than unpredictable people. No separation, then, between fantasy and fact: I took it for granted, reading poem LXI, that Hughley church had a steeple, and that the north side of its graveyard was reserved for suicides. Only years later did I learn that Housman (who had never been there) had invented the first, and, pursuing a Gothic whimsy, had replaced large numbers of perfectly respectable deceased persons (including vicars’ wives) with the second. Truth as the ultimate standard belonged to scholarship, but poetry, clearly, had different rules.
Meanwhile, at school, I was jumping through the high hoops of a classical education. My father’s declared object in encouraging this move was to have me acquire an unimpeachable badge of ascension in the British class structure, and knowledge that would guarantee me success in examinations for the Civil Service or the Foreign Office. When I fell in love with this instrument of social and professional elevation for its own sake, he was less than enthusiastic. “No money or future in it,” he said. So to counter this view I began looking into the history of classical scholarship, and one of the first names I encountered was the author of A Shropshire Lad. This gave me what I thought was an unanswerable argument. I pointed, triumphantly, to the career of A.E. Housman, who had not only ended up as Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge, but (as I was beginning to do) wrote poetry as well.
My father looked at me in a perfectly friendly way, shook his head, and smiled. “You?” he said. “A professor? Be serious.” Up to that moment I had been uncertain about my future career: medicine, too, I found very attractive. But from then on it was classics or nothing. And in the process I began to learn a great deal more about A.E. Housman: not the biographical details, which were still only sparsely available, but the record of his scholarship, and the accompanying myth. This last, when I went up to Cambridge in 1947 as an ex-service undergraduate, was very influential indeed, and in my case virtually inescapable, since I not only entered Housman’s own professorial college of Trinity, but had rooms, as he had done, across the street in Whewell’s Court, and indeed on the very next staircase.
Had I, someone wondered, with silky Cambridge malice, chosen so ugly and dingy a habitat (rather than the glories of Great Court) out of Housman-worship? Could there have been any other reason? In fact, choice had nothing to do with it; 1947 was a crowded postwar year, and I had simply taken what I was allotted; but it did set me wondering, then as now, why Housman (who could have had virtually any rooms he wanted, and enjoyed elegant architecture) chose to sit it out in that grim and chilly set for over twenty years. At the time psychological explanations were all the rage, and this—combined with the fact that Housman had spent thirty years of research time editing an obscure astrological poet called Manilius as his main claim to scholarly recognition—suggested to me then that he must have had a strong masochistic streak in his nature. Looking back, I think there may be a certain amount of truth in this; but it remains no more than a secondary factor in the makeup of an extraordinarily complex human being.
At the same time, almost all of us reading classics still took as a given the recognition of textual criticism—the editing of ancient texts to eliminate scribal error and restore the ipsissima verba of the original Greek and Roman authors—as classical scholarship in its highest and purest form, thesummum bonum of the profession. The modern persistence of this ancient tradition, first canonized by the Hellenistic academics of Alexandria and later given a fresh lease of life in the Italian Renaissance, was due in no small part to Housman’s personal example and relentless proselytization. We read and quoted key passages from the prefaces to his editions of Manilius and Juvenal. We hunted down his famous paper “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” in the Proceedings of the Classical Association of 1922. His commonsensical logic appealed to us; and so, I fear, did his viciously witty demolition of other scholars, in terms that by maximizing the gravity of their offenses also, by implication, enhanced the intrinsic value of the canons against which they had allegedly offended.
“I imagine,” he wrote in 1903, in the preface to Manilius I, “that Mr Buecheler, when he first perused Mr Sudhaus’s edition of the Aetna, must have felt something like Sin when she gave birth to death.” Of Elias Stoeber, whose commentary on Manilius “saw the light in 1767 at Strasburg, a city still famous for its geese,” Housman had this to say: “Stoeber’s mind, though that is no name to call it by, was one which turned as unswervingly to the false, the meaningless, the unmetrical, and the ungrammatical, as the needle to the pole.” A page or two on, Friedrich Jacob gets his: “Not only had Jacob no sense for grammar, no sense for coherency, no sense for sense, but being himself possessed by a passion for the clumsy and the hispid he imputed this disgusting taste to all the authors whom he edited.” Phew. Like F.R. Leavis’s disciples in the study of English literature (though their cause ran flat counter to ours), we enjoyed belonging to a sect that could damn its delinquents with so palpable a sense of intellectual and moral outrage.
Housman, of course, had by then been dead for more than a decade, and his posthumous presence constantly made itself felt, above all in Trinity, where we were regularly confronted by his living legacy in the person of A.S.F. Gow, his protege and most intimate friend. This dour and elderly Scotsman lectured us—in his final classes before retirement—on Theocritus and textual criticism, faithfully reflecting the great man’s style and beliefs, as well as copying most of his notorious lecture-room mannerisms.
Coincidentally, but with symbolic aptness, it was very soon after Gow’s departure that the Housman myth came under a series of fundamental attacks, mainly by way of biographical speculation, but also, and no less important, in searching challenges to the entire logical basis of Housman’s own firmly held and clearly expressed professional principles. The Cambridge classical students of my year had witnessed, without realizing it, the end of an era. The assault on Western civilization was beginning, and for several reasons—conservatism (literary no less than social), arrogant elitism, undisguised anti-feminism— Housman formed one of its most attractive targets.
IT IS CRUCIAL, if we want to appreciate Housman in context, to understand not only the myth itself, but also the nature of the attacks on it, and the reasons for the frequently intense reactions to those attacks. As Tom Stoppard recognized when he wrote The Invention of Love, his brilliant play about Housman, the A.E.H. myth was always essentially romantic, in the sense of embracing renunciation for the sake of a higher cause. Though Cambridge abolished the marriage ban for fellows of colleges more than a century ago, the traditional ideal of scholarly celibacy in pursuit of learning—originally monastic and religious, but adapting itself without fuss to secular standards from the late nineteenth century on, especially in cool, rational, scientific Cambridge—has always held a powerful attraction for intellectuals devoted to the life of the mind.
It has also provided a welcome haven for misogynists and (more-often-than-not repressed) homosexuals. These categories, of course, frequently overlap. The myth’s rejection of (primarily heterosexual) passion, symbolized by the icon of the bachelor don, explains Gow’s crushing remark about me, duly reported back by Cambridge’s indefatigable gossip-mongers: “One hears that that young man still has women visit him in his rooms.” Clearly I did not belong in the club. Looking back, I suspect I was already regarded (not altogether unjustly) as a proponent of the counter-tradition that saw such academics as bloodless, sexless male spinsters, exemplified by Yeats’s impotent Catullus scholars (”Bald heads forgetful of their sins”) and Browning’s Grammarian, who “Gave us the doctrine of the enclitic De/ Dead from the waist down.”
However we look at Housman’s career, it would be hard to find a better fit for such an ideal of lonely masculine selfdiscipline dedicated to abstruse learning. Yet at the same time this ambivalent character was enriched and highly colored by the mysterious and passionate visitations of a Muse who announced her presence by physical sensation (a shiver in the spine, the bristling of one’s beard, a sharp spasm in the pit of the stomach) and delivered short gifts of verse rather in the manner of the Delphic oracle (an institution for which Housman the rationalist—rather ungratefully, I have always felt—showed little tolerance). But then throughout his life he firmly discouraged questions from colleagues about his poetry. It should by now be clear why any investigation that threatened to undercut the ideal that Housman embodied was liable to elicit so strong a reaction from those who shared or sympathized with it.
Early memoirists—Gow in 1936, the year of Housman’s death; Housman’s brother Laurence in 1937; his medical friend Percy Withers in 1940; his garrulous publisher Grant Richards in 1942—had all been extremely circumspect in dealing with Housman’s character and personality (though Laurence was later to abandon reticence in no uncertain fashion). The portrait they presented built on the idealized legend with an accumulation of personal reminiscences and anecdotes. The landmarks in Housman’s life now became public knowledge: the scholarship boy’s Victorian upbringing, among numerous siblings, in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire; his early talent for Greek and Latin (and elegant nonsense verse); his Oxford career, which started so well but crashed spectacularly with his mysterious failure in Greats (the final Oxford examination for a classics degree); his ten years of drudgery as a clerk in the Patent Office, working nights on papers in textual criticism; his appointment in 1892, on the basis of those papers, as Professor of Latin at University College, London; the publication, four years later, of A Shropshire Lad, and its extraordinary subsequent success; his election in 1911 as Cambridge’s Kennedy Professor of Latin; his final near universal recognition as a superb scholar and a unique poet.
Then, in quick succession in the late 1950s, came two biographies, George L. Watson’s A.E. Housman: A Divided Life and Maude M. Hawkins’s A.E. Housman: Man Behind a Mask, which, as their titles suggest, attempted to penetrate the public facade of reticence and to explain Housman’s curious career in terms of his personal psychology. Watson was a biographer not altogether in sympathy with his subject, which perhaps was why Laurence Housman denied him access to his brother’s papers and diaries. Watson turned a spotlight on Housman’s early years, in particular his uneasy relationship with a weak, alcoholic, financially dishonest father, and his passionate devotion to his mother, who died of cancer when he was twelve. (God’s disregard of young Alfred’s prayers to save his mother turned him, on his own account, into a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one.) Hawkins, despite gushing prose and awful errors brought real insight to the uneasy relationship between the poems and their author. She also, unlike Watson, was favored with Laurence Housman’s indiscreet confidences, as well as access to A.E.H.’s papers.
THE ASPECT OF these biographies that really infuriated Housman’s defenders was the open consideration—guesswork on Watson’s part, verbal assurances by Laurence on that of Hawkins—that the great scholar was homosexual by nature, and that the unfulfilled passion of his life was for a fellow student at Oxford, the resolutely heterosexual Moses Jackson, and that the crisis in their relationship may well have been a cause of his academic failure in Greats. Hawkins incurred further wrath with her understandable speculation that Housman’s odd long-term summer relationship with a one-eyed Venetian gondolier might have had other purposes besides cruising the canals and finding the best local restaurants.
This whole furor was interesting in that the perception of Housman’s psyche as fundamentally homoerotic had long been a commonplace among the cognoscenti without causing a fuss. Shrewd readers of A Shropshire Lad and Last Poems had caught hints of it; and the posthumous publication ofMore Poems, soon after Housman’s death, left no doubt. Here (poem XXII) was the invitation to “Come to the stolen waters”; here were the two poems of agonized parting (XXX, “Shake hands, we shall never be friends; give over,” and XXXI, “Because I liked you better/Than suits a man to say”) that so evidently sprang from the rift with Moses Jackson. Desmond McCarthy, reviewing this volume in 1936, actually referred to “the love that dare not speak its name.”
The only reaction at the time had been a number of assertions, by the secretive or the innocent, ranging from Grant Richards to the master of Trinity’s daughter, that there could not be anything abnormal about A.E.H. because he had never behaved like that around them—a blithely unreal argument (why on earth should he have?) that no one at the time seemed to find as comic as I do today. It was the wider publicity afforded by the popular biographies of Watson and Hawkins that really caused the trouble. Odi profanum vulgus, said Horace, “I hate the impious mob”; and Housman’s idealistic supporters clearly agreed. Gentlemanly discretion was one thing, vulgar sensationalism another thing entirely. Anyway, noble suffering in a virtuous cause was an integral part of the myth, and they clung to it with obstinate passion.
This is why, despite a certain amount of lost ground, the rearguard action went on: and it still continues. When mounting evidence made it impossible to deny Housman’s unrequited passion for Jackson, his homosexual bent was tacitly conceded, but firmly restricted to his one undeniable obsession, the great advantage of which was the presumptive absence of physical consummation. This last became the linchpin of subsequent arguments against accepting any sexual element in the case of Andrea the gondolier and various other shadowy and socially dubious figures that flit in and out, as chauffeurs and traveling companions, during A.E.H.’s Continental holidays. The mantra, well exemplified in Norman Page’s otherwise sensible A.E. Housman: A Critical Biography (1983), was, in essence, “If it can’t be proved, it didn’t happen.”
Since by the nature of things a sexual encounter is one of the chanciest things in the world to verify beyond a doubt, this left the icon relatively intact. The year after Watson’s biography a study appeared by the British classicist Norman Marlow, called A.E. Housman: Scholar and Poet, that pointed the way by refurbishing the ideal of continence, “not achieved without terrible struggles.... If Housman felt homosexual tendencies, he repressed them.” Even a full-scale analysis of the poems on a homoerotic basis, such as Carol Efrati’s The Road of Danger, Guilt, and Shame: The Lonely Way of A.E. Housman, could be thus assimilated without real damage.
It is not surprising that no really adequate biography of Housman has yet been written. (Page comes closest.) The emotional problems discussed above suggest one possible reason for this; but the irreconcilable attitudes that they reveal hint at a more general difficulty. Housman was, in every sense, a man of many parts, most of which (to compound the enigma) he kept deliberately hidden, more aggressively so as time went on. This obsession with privacy, as has often been pointed out, drove investigators who came up short on facts to fill in the gaps with speculation. But it is also true that the various facets of Housman’s personality did not, and perhaps in some cases could not, attract the same person. Classicists in particular, textual critics above all, seldom venture outside their own field when evaluating Housman. (Marlow’s correlation of the scholarship and the poetry is a welcome exception.) Those trying to unravel the conundrum of his personality tend—generally through technical ignorance—to avoid his scholarship, and for the most part treat the poems as psychological pointers to his private life. Literary critics (like classicists, but for different reasons) carefully sever the Shropshire persona from the academic person, and shun biographical speculation altogether. None of these really go for the miscellanea of private life, which have to be gleaned from personal reminiscences.
The result is that anyone interested in retrieving the whole man has to gather the evidence from a variety of widely differing sources—memoirs, scholarly appreciations, biographical data, psychological analyses, academic records, diaries, letters, and other miscellaneous papers—never fully correlated to provide a unifying overview. To make matters worse, Housman’s ruthless suppression of his inner self from the world (seldom can anyone have set himself, with such consistency, to cultivate an impersonal public face) means that that inner self has to be reconstructed, almost entirely, from the speculative impressions of other people. This is not an encouraging scenario, and A.E.H. himself clearly worked hard all his life to maximize the difficulties. It may be that in the last resort a full biography of Housman is simply impossible for lack of acceptable evidence. Just as A.E.H. himself was driven to admit that further progress on Propertius was unlikely without the discovery of a good new manuscript, so would-be biographers may well conclude that without substantial new evidence, any attempt to tease out the whole truth of Housman’s life must remain, to borrow Eliot’s resigned phrase, “hints and guesses,/Hints followed by guesses.”
IF THE publication of just about all that survives from Housman’s correspondence, meticulously edited in two huge (and hugely expensive) volumes, raised any hopes of a new biographical treasure trove, such hopes, as was foreseeable, will be largely disappointed. His reserve—as the editor of these volumes, Archie Burnett, admits—was legendary. As early as 1912, we find him writing to Grant Richards (on hearing that some of his correspondence had got into the hands of a commercial bookseller): “I do not think any of my letters are very incriminating.” A careful perusal of the more than two thousand here collected strongly suggests that he went to great pains to ensure that they spilled nothing. The one striking exception, unique in its brief moment of emotional openness, is the letter he wrote in late October 1922 to Moses Jackson, hospitalized in Vancouver with terminal cancer. After pointing out that Last Poems is a best-seller, and that “you do not know, and there are no means of driving the knowledge into your thick head, what a bloody good poet I am,” he adds: “Please to realise therefore, with fear and respect, that I am an eminent bloke; though I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.”
This letter, auctioned at Sotheby’s in 2001, remains—despite Burnett’s editorial note suggesting, with parallels from Swinburne and Wilde, that such devoted boot-blacking was merely a literary topos—the only new document to show Housman, even for an instant, letting down his guard. It also, with its uncharacteristic undergraduate language (”bloke,” “bloody”) and joshing style, hints at an emotional clock frozen in time forty years and more earlier. Nothing but Jackson’s imminent death could break the barrier, and for the rest of 1922 (as Henry Maas noted percipiently in an earlier, and shorter, collection of Housman’s letters) A.E.H. suffered from a series of illnesses, in part, it seems safe to say, psychosomatic, and chiefly (like Job’s) consisting of incapacitating boils and carbuncles, a complaint never thereafter repeated.
Burnett prints nearly a thousand new items, and adds previously unpublished material to more than a hundred more. Some of these are real additions, particularly family letters to his sister Katharine Symons and his godmother Elizabeth Wise. There are also new letters to Thomas Hardy and John Masefield, among others. But overall the new material offers less than one might have hoped, especially (I note for the benefit of my colleagues) to classicists. Burnett’s justification for printing every letter in sight is “to allow as full a revelation as possible of a man whose reserve was legendary.” He cites Philip Larkin’s remark that “one cannot read six or seven hundred letters by even as reticent a man as [Thomas] Hardy without learning something about him.” This is true, though just what some of these notes add may be open to doubt. Gow pointed out that A.E.H.’s intimates found him vivacious and witty, a far cry from the remote and crabbed solitary of popular imagination. The letters to Richards corroborate this, and also hint at his liking for literary pornography (of which he reputedly had a large collection), but for a disconcerting insight into his afterdinner conversation in this area we must rely on diarists such as A.C. Benson, master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, who in 1923 noted that “Housman ... told me two of the most obscene French stories I have ever heard in my life—not funny, only abominable.” (Benson was also the man who said of Housman that he “seemed to be descended from a long line of maiden aunts.”) There were, clearly, parts of A.E.H. that he carefully kept separate from his correspondence, however many letters he wrote. What these two massive volumes relentlessly augment, overall, is the public face.
THIS IS NOT TO depreciate the exhaustive and monumental achievement that Burnett’s new edition of Housman’s correspondence represents. Archie Burnett is one of the two finest Housman scholars alive—the other being P.G. Naiditch—and his superb edition of the complete poems, each with a scrupulous apparatus criticus that rivals Housman’s own, has for a decade now been one of my most admired and consulted possessions. The same minute care is everywhere apparent in these two volumes, from the extremely useful List of Recipients to the explanatory annotations. What I have to ask myself, after going through this lengthy magnum opus from cover to cover is what, if anything, did I learn about the great man that I did not know before? How far does Burnett’s claim that understanding can be deepened by sheer accumulation gain credibility from his all-inclusiveness?
The answers are, not all that much, and not very far. In one sense this was to be expected. As critics have long known, for the first forty years of Housman’s life, up to the early years of his professorship at University College, there survive a mere fifty or so letters, with complete blanks in most of 1883-1884, 1886, and 1888; nothing in 1881 bearing on his academic failure; and astonishingly little on anything else of real interest. As he becomes better known, the flow of surviving letters increases steadily and exponentially, so that almost 80 percent of the entire collection dates from his time (1911-1936) as Kennedy Professor at Cambridge. While progressively more recipients may have treasured correspondence as coming from the author of A Shropshire Lad, the near-total lack of material dating back into the nineteenth century still amazes: this was an age when everyone kept letters. It also means that wherever the key to A.E.H.’s youth may lie, it is not in his surviving correspondence. Biographers must search elsewhere.
Burnett states his own reactions as a reader, and these must be taken seriously. “I have found him,” he says, “to be an even gentler, more amiable, more sociable, more generous, more painstaking, and altogether more complex person than the biographies and the previous edition of the letters led me to believe.” No one would argue with the complexity; but how much of the rest is due to old-fashioned epistolary formalities, public politeness, and the lifelong assumption of a protective mask to keep the world at a decent distance? A.E.H. had very few intimates, and even with them his correspondence gives no hint of emotional unbuttoning. What we do see, though, is the strength of his loyalties. When Richards was caught out embezzling his royalties to cover business debts, Housman stood by him.
Sometimes Burnett seems to feel that an explanation would be embarrassing. When Housman in 1908 went to see his brother Laurence’s dreadful play The Chinese Lantern, he complained of being left “faint and weak from the effort of straining to hear the human voice through the uproar of pussy’s bowels.” Readers taken aback by this pronouncement get no explanatory note. Recourse to the play itself reveals that there was a loud chorus of Chinese students who played at being cats while holding on to each other’s pigtails. Housman, who found their singing awful, was writing it off as what might be politely termed scatological rumpus. Benson’s afterdinner storyteller comes to mind.
None of the famous Housman enigmas are clarified by his correspondence. We still have no firm explanation of how he came to fail Greats, why throughout his life he refused all public honors (including the much-coveted Order of Merit), or even what led him to celebrate every New Year with one or two boon companions by eating up to four dozen oysters washed down with stout, a feast that still turns me queasy even to think about. What I found most enjoyable in the letters were his flashes of idiosyncratic humor, mostly black and often biblical. When A.J.A. Symons wanted to include him in a Nineties anthology, his refusal was made on the basis that to do so “would be just as technically correct, and just as essentially inappropriate, as to include Lot in a book on Sodomites; in saying which I am not saying a word against sodomy, nor implying that intoxication and incest are in any way preferable.” A Christmas list to a friend of Trinity illnesses and deaths (including one suicide) concluded: “In short Providence has given itself up to the festivities of the season.”
Like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll (fellow solitaries with whom he had more than a little in common, and whose nonsense verse undoubtedly influenced his own), Housman used the surrealistic aspects of this kind of poetry as both an escape valve and a comic social front, primarily to his siblings. Laughter has always been a good substitute for explanations. “It seems to me the tiger/Has not been lately fed,/Not for a day or two at least; And that is why the noble beast/Has bitten off your head.” The shyness and the social lack of ease that Benson detected when Housman was a new arrival in Cambridge (and which I occasionally sense in the letters) here found one effective mode of self- protection. His prickly urge to correct other people’s stories was another. Starved of affection and unlucky in his one great emotional commitment, he re-invented himself as a secular version of Bunyan’s Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, complete, especially in his scholarship, with that gentleman’s moral puritanism.
Careful reading turns up small treasures. Writing to his sister from hospital, the year before his death, he observed: “The other night they gave me an injection of heroin instead of my usual soporific, and I learnt what it is to be totally deprived of intellect.” He was an early, and most improbable, enthusiast for air travel, noting in 1920 that the delay in take-off was occasioned by repairs due to “a passenger who butted his head through the window to be sick.” There are also a number of comments which suggest that his repeated denials of having any aptitude for literary criticism were based on something more than mere modesty. He describes Hopkins as a minor Keats and as “a moth blundering round a candle.” He thinks the “Nuns’ Priest’s Tale” is Chaucer’s best work (coupled with the opinion that “civilisation without slavery is impossible”). He believes that Lord Alfred Douglas probably wrote a good deal of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He opines that “some things of Edna St. Vincent Millay which I have seen make me think her the best living American poet.” And in 1935 he wonders whether Charles Doughty, the author of Arabia Deserta, may not be hailed by posterity as the century’s “epoch maker.” As he himself might have said, satis superque: enough already.
NO: WHEN I ask myselfwhat has made A.E.H. a treasured and never-failing companion for me over the course of a long life, it is not to his correspondence that I am indebted, but to his critical prose and a generous handful of his poems. One of the greatest gifts one can enjoy in an age of fuzzy thinking and sloppy generalizations is acquaintance with a brain that relentlessly pursues logical ends with the formidable tools of style, conviction, and common sense, as here in the preface to his edition of Juvenal:
Open a modern recension of a classic, turn to the preface, and there you may almost count on finding, in Latin or German or English, some words like these: “I have made it my rule to follow a wherever possible, and only where its readings are patently erroneous have I had recourse to b or c or d.” No scholar of eminence, even in the present age, has ever enunciated such a principle. Either a is the source of b and c and d or it is not. If it is, then never in any case should recourse be had to b or c or d. If it is not, then the rule is irrational; for it involves the assumption that wherever a’s scribes made a mistake they produced an impossible reading. Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.
To borrow another of Eliot’s pregnant phrases, here we have “A condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything).” A mind like that can keep one sane.
If Housman’s prose stimulates and nurtures the intellect, much of his poetry goes straight to the heart. The Muse that produced physical symptoms in her chosen representative also bestowed upon him the gift of causing similar reactions in his readers. Consider poem XXXVI in More Poems, an unidentified epitaph, especially its last two lines:
Here dead lie we because we did not
To live and shame the land from
which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
and we were young.
I learned the hard way never to quote that poem aloud to an audience: even now I still cannot complete it without choking up. Housman has the gift of releasing powerful emotions. A superb reflection on the country seasons (XL in Last Poems) can suddenly and agonizingly turn personal: “And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn/Hearts that have lost their own.” Suffering and endurance; a keen sense of transient beauty that reminds me of Cavafy; the gift for blending sound and sense in an awesomely tight structure: these are the qualities that have made poem after poem imprint itself on my memory.
And behind the entire oeuvre one can always sense Housman’s personal tragedy: that of the young Victorian brought up in a conventionally Christian household and society, who not only discovers that he is homosexual by nature (with all that this implied of secrecy and religious guilt), but that the object of his lifelong affection was a hearty heterosexual philistine indifferent to all his passions. In 1895, perhaps stimulated by the Wilde trial, he wrote a poem—it was published posthumously—about a “young sinner” being dragged off to prison “for the colour of his hair.” The most striking fact about this poem (apart from the transparent symbolism) is that Housman evidently, and years before the idea gained wide acceptance, believed homosexuality to be as innate as red-headedness—and in its last line laid the blame squarely on God. I am reminded of Kingsley Amis, who, on being asked if he was an atheist, replied: “Well yes, but it’s more that I hate him.” A.E.H. would surely have agreed, and on his own terms with good reason. Today we tend to think of him as a hapless victim of the age in which he grew up. “No one,” as Auden put it, “not even Cambridge, was to blame.” God, of course, was another matter.
This article appeared in the February 13, 2008 issue of the magazine.