What A E Housman tells us about Englishness

Housman Country is Shropshire, the landscape of wooded hills and buried villages that we know from A Shropshire Lad, the collection of melancholy, clipped, aching poems that A E Housman published in 1896. In fact, Housman, born and bred in Worcestershire, did not know Shropshire well and later conceded that some the topographical details in his book were wrong. Housman Country was really a landscape of the imagination, its cherished place names – Bredon Hill, Clee, Wenlock Edge – chosen for euphony rather than personal associations. It is this imaginary place that Peter Parker explores in his new book, written with some of the elegant restraint he admires in his chosen author.

As Parker’s subtitle indicates, he feels that there is something peculiarly English in the achievement and the appeal of Housman’s poetry. So much is this book a homage to that poetry that it prints the whole of A Shropshire Lad as a kind of appendix, encouraging the reader to keep turning to and reading (or, more probably, rereading) the particular lyrics under discussion. Parker’s method is unusual but rewarding. Though there are sections of biographical narrative, the book is not chronologically ordered. Instead it takes themes in Housman’s poetry and circles ruminatively around them. This makes an advantage out of a necessity: Housman was private, retentive, resistant to all inquiry. The fund of stories about him is very limited and was spent long ago.

Housman was a brilliant classicist. He was appointed to a chair in Latin at University College London even though he had been working in the Patent Office for a decade after failing his finals at Oxford. This sudden crisis seems characteristic: a sign of inner struggles that were otherwise wholly concealed. The main emotional commitment of his early adult life was to his friend Moses Jackson, whom he met as an undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford. It is generally accepted that Housman felt a deep homosexual passion for Jackson that was not reciprocated (though he possibly had a compensatory sexual relationship with Jackson’s younger brother Adalbert) and that the two young men fell out because Housman made some declaration of his feelings. Eventually, friendship was re-established, though Jackson then left England for India, where he married. Housman seems to have remained infatuated with this lost love for the rest of his life.

In 1911 he became a professor of Latin at Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity College, a daunting figure noted for his asperity and refusal to discuss his poetry. (He kept his devoted readers waiting 28 years for the second volume of poems published in his lifetime, its title – Last Poems – warning them off further anticipation.) Parker mentions that his scholarly energies were given over for years to editing Manilius’s Astronomica, but hardly does justice to the weirdness of Housman’s dedication. The text to which he gave so much time and energy was both obscure and tedious. He was under no illusions about its inherent merits. The undertaking was self-mortifying – a way of not allowing his mind to dwell on other things.

Parker respects his self-subjugation. “The repression that seemed to characterise Housman’s life and conduct were precisely what produced the poetry and directed the form it took,” he writes. He is not the first to notice the strict emotional containment of the poems, nor the first to value them for just this containment. Some readers did immediately sense in A Shropshire Lad the intimation of sexual longing that could never be expressed directly. E M Forster recalled that he “read it for seven years in an awed, muddled sort of way”. Alan Bennett observed in the introduction to his 2014 anthology Six Poets that “in the days of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ Housman was a telltale volume to have on the bookshelf”.

“Repression” is not quite the word for what the poems perform. Some are so evidently about the yearnings of a homosexual man that it seems strange they were ever seen as anything else. In one (“Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?”) Housman addresses a young man who has killed himself rather than face a life of “long disgrace and scorn”, the poem inspired – if that is the right word – by the suicide of a young soldier at a London hotel. Parker wrestles with its apparent endorsement of self-annihilation: “You would not live to wrong your brothers:/Oh lad, you died as fits a man”. Yet, as he rightly says, Housman was so wedded to irony that a reader can always hope that the poems’ declarations are self-undermining.

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