A Poet for the Age of Brexit - A. E. Housman

Great poets fall into two categories: those whose public personas are of a piece with their work, and those whose personalities seem to contradict their work. If you met, say, Lord Byron, you would have no doubt that this was the man who wrote “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Byron was as dramatic, world-weary, and scandalous in a drawing room as he was on the page. By contrast, if you were introduced to T. S. Eliot, you might have trouble making the connection between this buttoned-up bank clerk and the nightmare enchantment of “The Waste Land.” The patron saint of this latter type—the poet whose poetry is conspicuously at odds with his or her person—would have to be Alfred Edward Housman, the author of A Shropshire Lad and a writer who became, over the course of the 20th century, a kind of tutelary genius of Englishness.

The 63 lyrics in that book, first published in 1896, have a purity of speech and intensity of feeling that lent the collection the aura of a classic from the moment of its appearance. “You may read it in half-an-hour,” said one early reviewer of the book, “but there are things in it you will scarce forget in a lifetime.” What Housman writes about, almost without exception, is sorrow: lost love, nostalgia, mutability, grief, and death. He seems to understand everything about the pain of life, and the beauty of that pain—the way suffering itself can become a source of bittersweet pleasure. He is a poet who can’t listen to a blackbird sing without hearing a summons to the grave:

Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise.

The emotional directness of his delivery reads like an invitation to intimacy, giving unhappy readers, especially young ones, the sense that they have finally found a sympathetic heart in an unfeeling world. The last poem in A Shropshire Lad is an appeal to the “luckless lads” who will enjoy the poet’s “flowers” after he is gone:

So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.

Yet as the English biographer and journalist Peter Parker shows in Housman Country, his new study of the poet’s work and legacy, “luckless lads” who came to Housman prepared to open their hearts were shocked by the wary, acerbic, pedantic man they encountered. His obituary in The Times of London described him as “so unapproachable as to diffuse a frost … [He] appeared of all men least tolerant of sentiment.” When the novelist E. M. Forster wrote to Housman expressing enthusiasm for his poetry, Housman responded with a letter that Forster described as “absolutely hateful … I was so disappointed and hurt that I destroyed it after one rapid perusal.” Another writer was stunned, too. “Far from believing that man wrote [A] Shropshire Lad,” he said after meeting Housman, “I shouldn’t even have thought him capable of reading it!”

To perceptive observers, however, the vast gulf between the poetry and the poet only added to Housman’s pathos. Clearly this was a man so sensitive to pain that he had to wear heavy emotional armor. Indeed, the poems themselves are often about the deflection of feeling by an ironic stoicism, which ends up highlighting the very emotion it is meant to conceal. What, readers from the beginning must have wondered, was the wound behind Housman’s bow? What made him so well acquainted with grief?

This was a matter for speculation and rumor during Housman’s lifetime (the man wasn’t about to give anything away), but the answer has long since been established as a central part of his legend. In 1879, when he was 20 years old and a star student at Oxford, Housman fell in love with a classmate, Moses Jackson—a hearty, athletic, and entirely straight man. In his distress that his romantic feelings were not reciprocated, Housman ended up failing his final exams, to the shock of his teachers and family. Although he eventually did become a classical scholar, his career was sidetracked for a decade by the fiasco.

Housman was left convinced that his sexuality doomed him to loneliness—or worse. During his lifetime, public attitudes toward homosexuality in England were growing more hostile and vindictive. Most of the poems in A Shropshire Lad were written in 1895, the same year that Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor for the crime of being gay. (“Oh they’re taking him to prison for the color of his hair,” Housman wrote bitterly, in a poem that remained unpublished for years.) No wonder he kept his deepest feelings to himself; and no wonder gay men, as Parker shows, constituted one of the best audiences for his poetry. They picked up on subterranean emotions and themes that might be read entirely differently by the straight reader:

Others, I am not the first,
Have willed more mischief than they durst;
If in the breathless night I too
Shiver now, ’tis nothing new.

More than I, if truth were told,
Have stood and sweated hot and cold,
And through their reins in ice and fire
Fear contended with desire.

Any reader who has ever experienced a moral crisis can identify with this poem, but readers for whom sexual desire was linked to a very specific kind of fear might well gather that it was written especially for them. At the same time, Housman’s combination of intense feeling and intense inhibition struck his first readers as quintessentially English. “It is not that the Englishman can’t feel—it is that he is afraid to feel,” Forster observed. “He has been taught at his public school that feeling is bad form … He must bottle up his emotions, or let them out only on a very special occasion.” Is it English reserve or sexual caution, or both, that we hear in Housman’s lines?

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