by A. E. Housman. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 1922. 12mo. 79 pp. $1.50.
THE finality of the title of Mr. A. E. Housman’s Last Poems makes it possible to consider his two slender volumes as a whole. A Shropshire Lad has now for many years been a classic, by its grave detachment set off from transitory moods and fleeting events.
Both volumes are marked by a chiseled perfection of phrase and stanza, a beauty of line rather than of mass or color. Emotion and even passion are here in abundance, but under the restraint of an imagination that burns with a ‘hard gem-like flame,’ with little glow or heat.
The themes in A Shropshire Lad are few. The cool grace of a spray of flowers, the poignant realization of the transitory quality of life, the grim trickery of death, the quiet endurance of life’s burden, the unforgettable flash of a face seen in a crowd — all these fleeting experiences are captured and set in quiet lyrics.
It is, perhaps, natural that Last Poems should have neither intensity nor variety equal in measure to A Shropshire Lad. Mr. Housman says, ‘ I can no longer expect to be revisited by the continuous excitement under which, in the early months of 1895. I wrote the greater part of my other book, nor indeed could I well sustain it if it came.’ There are, for instance, few such flashes of beauty as in ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’; few such expressions of regret as ‘When I was one-and-twenty’; few such sharp etchings as ‘On moonlit heath and lonesome bank.’ In Last Poems death and ‘mutability’ mainly furnish themes. The note of quiet pain endured without bitterness and without struggle is mellowed in this volume into a well-tempered resignation. Life must be faced, death is inevitable, there is no reason for despair.
The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
To this grave mood there is little of the contrast so often present in A Shropshire Lad. Yet in ‘Star and Coronal and Bell’ there is the old delight in Spring’s fresh beauty; in ‘ Epithalamium ’ the old song of marriage joy issung to new accents.
Two of the most effective of Last Poems reiterate the theme of the swift punishment which overtakes the man who cannot understand laws which conflict with his own will — ‘The Culprit ’ and ‘Eight o’Clock.’ In condensation, in compactness of phrase, in stabbing intensity of situation, ‘ Eight o’Clock’ stands beside the most effective short poems of our fertile time.
He stood, and heard the steeple
Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
One, two, three, four, to market-place and people
It tossed them down.
Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour,
He stood and counted them and cursed his luck;
And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength and struck.
The house of poetry has many mansions, and Last Poems is only a little book. Yet those who like perfection of phrase and sincerity of impression will find it a permanent abiding place.