Lethal Pastoral - A.E. Housman

Any life of A.E. Housman is an assemblage of the already known and the well documented. Housman’s stage-management of his reputation was as controlled as his quatrains, and the mask of reserve – assumed directly after he inexplicably failed his finals in Greats at Oxford – became a perfected gesture, a way of being in the world structured as a renunciation. Most versions of the story prefer a Housman who was ‘suicided’ by society – as Artaud said of Van Gogh – or, worse, a Housman who was his own natural victim, repressed and mined from within. The familiar tale includes his Worcestershire childhood among numerous siblings in Bromsgrove and its rural environs, looking across the Severn plain towards the unattainable western horizon of Shropshire; the precocious gift for Greek and Latin; the unaccountable fall at the last Oxford fence; the decade-long penance of days working in the Patent Office and evenings in the British Museum writing papers savaging tenured classicists; then the serendipity of his appointment in 1892 – ‘picked out of the gutter’ – as professor of Latin at University College London; the abrupt appearance of A Shropshire Lad four years later (no mention in the surviving letters about writing or assembling poems), its slow take-off then rapid ascent; his election in 1911 as Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge; his separate apotheoses as scholar and poet. Apart from a sabbatical term in 1934, he lectured in Cambridge twice a week for 25 years, until only days before his death.

He was aware that the less he said the more was said about him (‘It is his fault if we stare,’ H.W. Garrod said testily in an Oxford lecture on Housman in 1929), and the life was measured out in anecdotes, captured in memoirs, diaries and letters, preserved in the aspic of college rumour, handed down by the primary witnesses: his siblings Laurence and Kate, his publisher Grant Richards, the small group of Cambridge initiates. Auden called Housman one of the classic case-histories, and most accounts of his life have a spurious smoothness about them, as if the teller were at the helm. A biographer can but do as Housman exhorts in one of his blasphemous squibs: ‘Mary-Jane the train is through yer:/Hallelujah, Hallelujah!/We will gather up the fragments that remain.’ In Housman Country, Peter Parker does it by writing the life and times not of the man but of his most famous book: the growing pains of A Shropshire Lad, the vicissitudes of its reception, its cultural ‘aftermaths’. The word comes from agriculture, as Parker points out (new growth appearing in fields after harvest), and Housman used it in the most patiently descriptive of his poems, itself an aftermath, written in 1922 and included in Last Poems: ‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying,/What tune the enchantress plays/In aftermaths of soft September/Or under blanching mays.’ A year later, reviewing a life of Louis-Napoleon, he drily noted some inexact uses among ‘the daisies and dandelions of contemporary metaphor’: ‘I did not know that a storm could have an aftermath, nor that an aftermath could reach a throne.’ The unforgiving scholar and the poet who forgives – if only as a form of cosmic defiance – have usually been seen as barely inhabiting the same life, but they shared an insomniac watch over words.

The uses to which Housman has been put are something else. Geoffrey Hill noted that ‘the century-long chronicle of the varied fortunes of A Shropshire Lad is not without its grotesqueries,’ and these are among Parker’s themes. His title is itself a challenge, with its air of Heritage ersatz. Housman was averse to many things, in a life of refusals, but he was up for impiety of all sorts. He would not have been dismayed by the uses to which his poetry has been put, and he provoked some of them. Parker details Housman’s publishing arrangements with Grant Richards after A Shropshire Lad was turned down by several others: his spirited role in its commodification (‘I rather like the notion of a pocket edition’), its progressive miniaturisation – octavo editions, editions for waistcoats, for the queen’s doll’s house – and his endless enjoinders to reduce the cover price, forgoing royalties so as to have an upper hand.

The book became ubiquitous but it also travelled incognito, slipping neatly into heterosexual breast pockets or, at a later date, tunic pockets. In a 1910 lecture on Swinburne, Housman recollected being told by Hardy that when he was a young man in London ‘there was a whole army of young men like himself, not mutually acquainted, who nevertheless, as they met in the streets, could recognise one another as spiritual brethren by a certain outward sign. This sign was an oblong projection at the breast-pocket of the coat.’ He is referring to the 1866 edition of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, worn just over the heart by what Housman, in his obscurely provoking way, calls ‘the sons of fire’. But the passage also describes a dress rehearsal for A Shropshire Lad, and its double lives in the world.

Parker is interested in the daisies and dandelions, the untidy and contingent evidences of Housman’s continuing presence in an England whose further reaches include Morse or Morrissey. In the West Country you can drink Shropshire Lad ale or you could (until recently) be drawn by a locomotive of that name. But Housman had foresuffered all, with his lads who down their troubles in ‘pints and quarts of Ludlow beer’; or in a letter to his brother Laurence in 1920: ‘I have just flown to Paris and back, and I am never going by any other route, until they build the Channel Tunnel.’ Housman was already in full possession of the Housman effect. If it is time to move on, moving on is what Housman makes difficult. ‘Housman has left no followers,’ MacNeice wrote in 1938, while also suggesting that he was the poet ‘with whom any history of modern English poetry might very well start’. Opinion about his relation to his age has always been self-divided. He said he had no relation to it. Edmund Wilson wrote in 1938 that the poems ‘went on vibrating for decades’, despite their lethal pastoral of condemned men and suicides, soldiers and doomed lovers, their stopped clock of velleities and arrested intimacies.

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