More Poems

by A. E. Housman
[Knopf, $2.00]
ANOTHER volume of A. E. Housman’s delicate lyrics comes as a surprise in event rather than in matter. We know the mood and the voice; a continuation of them enriches us almost reminiscently. Housman’s was a one-stringed lyre, but its clear melodic line has overtones wherein English folk poetry and the Classic pastoral are harmonized. The language is the simplest, almost the homeliest, English; the stanza form is based on the familiar ballad meter of our ancestors; but the refinement of phrasing shows the influence of the Classics, and the Shropshire lad’s epitaph has already been written in the Greek Anthology. In general these lyrics belong in the class to which Cray’s Elegy belongs, and which Fitzgerald’s Rubàiyàt just misses — high poetry that makes no concession to popular taste and yet is popular.
Housman’s metric is based on the simplest of traditional forms, a four-stress or three-stress line or an alternation between them. He rhymes scrupulously. When he leaves the first and third line unrhymed, he substitutes for the missing rhyme another recurrent effect — a ‘feminine’ or two-syllable ending; as, for example, in poem XXXI. Frequently he makes this form richer by rhyming the feminine endings as well. We find other measures in this book, as in its forerunners. The ‘Easter Hymn’ is in loose heroic couplets, and the version of Horace’s ‘Diffugere Nives’ is in heroic quatrains.
The fact that these two are among Housman’s best poems leads us to a consideration of his diction. The measured panoply of the five-stress line in English leads to a more rigorous selection of words. It is a paradox of our verse that the longer the line, so much less opportunity is there for looseness in thought or in phrasing or even in meter. Since the bulk of Housman’s work is in the short line, he creates great lyrics only when his verbal attention is as alert as it should be for the longer lines His diction is a strange mixture of the casual and the forced. He does not hesitate, at times, to employ shameless inversions of syntax to fit a metrical pattern, and many of his lyrics are spoiled by the mutual elbowing of colloquialisms and archaisms. A studied simplicity at times degenerates into mere prosiness. In his search for the simple phrase he is treading the tightrope that Wordsworth trod, but when he falls the jar is lighter because the weight is less.
There are three reasons why I find Housman’s Last Poems and this posthumous More Poems progressively inferior to the Shropshire Lad. In the first place, they are. Secondly, the poet is a man of one mood, and though any one of the aspects of that mood may be persuasive, in bulk they merely satiate. I find the same satiety in the endless discoveries of undiscovered poems by Emily Dickinson. She had her say, beautifully, and the rest should be silence but is, in fact, repetition. Thirdly, I do not find valid Housman’s own contention (exquisitely put, by the way, in the introductory poem to this volume, as it was wittily put in ‘Terence, this is stupid stuff’) that his bitter melancholy is an antidote for the horrors of actual existence. For his pessimism is not the dainty melancholy of the Elizabethan lyric, nor yet the methodical doom of Greek tragedy. It is Hellenistic rather than Hellenic, and verges dangerously on romantic indulgence. It is the substitution of an artistic technique for a human technique — in other words, an escape. It comes from within. One feels that he worked much harder on his art than on his character. This suspiratory mood, so attractive to me ‘when I was one and twenty,’ seems to me now, when actual despair booms on the horizons of the world, as rather a romantic luxury. As part of a larger whole, like the magnificent dirge in Cymbeline, it has its place; as the whole, it is artistically and philosophically inadequate. Therefore I prefer to think of Housman as the author of a handful of perfect lyrics, chosen from this book and its predecessors, rather than of three volumes, the major proportion of which falls beneath perfection.
In conclusion, I should like to point out the affinity between Housman and a greater poet, Thomas Gray. Their idioms, of course, are entirely different; but the circumstances of their lives and the temper of their natures were extraordinarily like. Surely the ‘youth to fortune and to fame unknown’ was the Shropshire lad; surely the Shropshire lad was the hero of the ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.’ It might almost be said of Housman, as Matthew Arnold said of Gray, that ‘ he never spoke out.’
A postscript must be added to compliment Mr. Dwiggins, who designed a beautiful format for the book.