by MARK HOLSTEIN
IF, by chance, browsing along New York’s “Charing Cross Road” which, as you have correctly guessed, lies between Astor Place and 14th Street, you should be fortunate enough to pick up, on any of the 5 and 10 cent stalls lining both sides of that avenue, a small thin book (a 16mo, it would be called) in boards, with vellum back and paper label, bearing the title of this essay, don’t pass it up. It is the rarest book of modern English poetry.
It was published in 1896 by Kegan Paul. Five hundred copies were printed at the author’s expense. It had previously been offered to Macmillan — in London — and declined on the advice, it has been asserted, of John Morley, who was then their reader. At the end of the first year, 381 copies had been sold. It took another year to dispose of the remaining 119 copies. Housman’s brother Laurence, buying up the last six copies which remained unsold, gave away one or two and, thirty years later, sold one of the four remaining copies for £12, another for £20, and a third for £30. The fourth and last, which Alfred had obligingly signed for him to make it unique, he sold for £70. This copy, he says, later sold in America for £80, the top price up to that date.
Proud of his successful encounter with the members of the rare-book fraternity, Laurence wrote his brother offering him the proceeds as more rightfully belonging to him. The poet, wholly ignoring the proffer, answered: “At our last Feast I had the new Dean of Westminster next me, and he said he had long been wanting to thank me for the amusement he had derived from my writings, especially about Queen Victoria and her Ministers. So if I bring you money, you bring me fame.”
This was not the only time the brothers were mistaken for each other. Laurence was once introduced by the Headmaster of Westminster as “a classical scholar of European fame.” To avoid exposing the Headmaster’s ignorance, Laurence “took the bow.” On another occasion, at the end of a lecture a man came up and asked Laurence if he was the author of A Shropshire Lad. “‘No,’ I said. ‘Any relation?’ ‘Yes, I am his brother.’ ‘Ah, well,’ was the kind reply, ‘that’s something to be proud of. I, too, have a brother who is the better man.’”
It appears that not long after A Shropshire Lad was published Mr. Grant Richards, then but recently embarked on his interesting career as a publisher, read the book, became enthusiastic, and wrote the author offering to bring out a second edition. Housman replied that it would be time enough to discuss a second edition when the first was disposed of. When later Housman and Richards again came to discuss a new edition, Richards naturally mentioned royalties. Thereupon Housman declared that he wanted no royalties and would accept none. “I am not a poet by trade; I am a professor of Latin. I do not wish to make profit out of my poetry. It is not my business.” And then he added: “There’s a magazine in America — McClure’s — which every now and then fills up one of its pages with a poem from A Shropshire Lad. I suppose I couldn’t prevent it even if I wanted to. A man on the staff seems to like the book. It’s he who is responsible for such appearances as I make there. Every time they print anything they send me a cheque.” “And you refuse to take it?” “I do. I send it back, and I shall no doubt continue to do so; by and by they’ll learn to save themselves the trouble.”
The man on McClure’s who seemed to like Housman’s poems was a young American poet named Witter Bynner.
The second edition of A Shropshire Lad appeared in 1898, followed by a third in 1900. The interval of two years between editions is sufficient proof that it was not an instantaneous best-seller. Then, little by little, the demand for the book began to grow, and various editions, authorized and unauthorized, limited and unlimited, began to appear. Curiously enough, the book attained a far wider and more immediate success in the United States, where the first edition appeared in 1897, than in England — a success that was stimulated no doubt by the occasional publication of some of the poems in McClure’s Magazine, which then had an enormous circulation.
Beverley Nichols (with a touch of British smugness) tells a story which illustrates how widely A Shropshire Lad appears to have circulated here. In Providence he had met a heavy-jowled, extremely plain man, who was engaged in manufacturing “a depressingly large number of braces — those articles which in America are whimsically termed ‘suspenders.’ We sat in the same hotel, while I informed him, in general terms, of the braces situation in Europe. He was not very interested until he learned, from a chance remark, that I wrote books. And then a light came into his eyes. He ran into the hall, got his bag, and produced from a nest of braces a first edition of A Shropshire Lad, which he knew by heart. I have seldom heard poetry recited so beautifully.”
Notwithstanding the steadily growing popularity of A Shropshire Lad (Housman declared that, so far as his poetry was concerned, “the boom" began with the war in 1914), little, if anything, was known concerning the author, except that he was a professor of Latin. He was seemingly the most reserved and reticent of modern poets. “No one,” says Sir William Rothenstein, in his Aten and Memories, “seemed to know anything about him, save that he was Laurence Housman’s brother.” And so ignorance begot curiosity, curiosity begot mystery, mystery begot rumor, and rumor begot legend — much of it engendered no doubt by the aloofness and austerity of the author.
Alfred Edward Housman (to give him his full name, which he declared he never signed except in documents when he was directed to do so) was the eldest of seven children, five brothers and two sisters, of whom at least one other brother, Laurence, was to attain fame as poet, novelist, and more especially playwright, and a sister, Clemence, was to distinguish herself as a wood-engraver and author. Their father was Edward Housman, a solicitor of Catshill, near Bromsgrove. Their mother, Sarah Jane Williams, was a daughter of Dr. John Williams, Rector of Woodchester, an accomplished classical scholar and a poet of some repute.
Housman’s mother died on his twelfth birthday. A bond of affectionate understanding had existed between mother and son, and it would seem that her loss in his early youth lodged in his highly sensitive mind a resentment against nature’s cruel ways. “It is more than likely,” his brother declares, “that his early estrangement from the religion of his childhood was caused by her death.” After his death, it was found that he had preserved every scrap of writing that he had received from or about his mother. It is only too evident, as his work so clearly shows, that henceforth death became an obsession with him. It pervades and colors all his poetry.
Housman’s life quite naturally divides itself into four distinct periods: the first, from his birth on March 26, 1859, to his leaving St. John s, Oxford, in 1881, disheartened, if not disgraced, in consequence of his failure in Greats; the second, his darkest period, the ten years spent as a civil servant in the Patent Office, which he entered in 1882; the third, the nineteen years during which he was Professor of Latin at University College, London; and finally the remaining twenty-five of his seventyseven years, during which he filled the post of Kennedy Professor of Latin as a resident Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
In 1870, when he was eleven, Housman entered Bromsgrove School, where he remained seven years. While at school, he won the poetry prize with several poems which he contributed to the school magazine, the Bromsgrovian. In 1877, having gained an open scholarship, he entered St. John’s College, Oxford. While at Oxford he contributed poems to the College Magazine. In 1879 he took a First in Classical Moderations, but failed to take final honors. There can be no doubt that his failure to pass his final examination was a grievous blow. According to his brother Laurence, it caused him, during the eighteen months which elapsed before he left home, to take up his civil service appointment in the Patent Office, “to withdraw completely into himself, and become a silent and impenetrable recluse in the midst of his own family.”
During the ten years that he remained in the Patent Office he continued to lead the life of a recluse, spending his nights at the British Museum studying Greek and Latin. As the result of these studies, he began to publish from time to time in various scholarly journals papers on Horace, Aeschylus, and Propertius, and gradually came to be recognized as so accomplished a classical scholar that, in 1892, he was elected to the chair of Latin at University College, London.
It was in 1895, while living alone in lodgings, that Housman wrote most of A Shropshire Lad and some of Last Poems, under what he later described as “continuous excitement.” His Leslie Stephen Lecture contains interesting glimpses revealing the circumstances under which, during long solitary walks that throughout his life it was his habit to take with clocklike regularity, he conceived and later perfected many of these poems.
When, in 1911, Housman was appointed to the Kennedy chair of Latin at Cambridge, his old students presented him with a silver loving cup, on which was inscribed: MALT DOES MORE THAN MILTON CAN TO JUSTIFY GOD’S WAYS TO MAN. On that occasion he referred to his predecessor at Cambridge, Professor J. E. B. Mayor, noted for his abstemiousness, as a man “who drank like a fish — if drinking nothing but water might be so described. When they see me coming to Cambridge with this cup, they will understand that things are going to be changed.”
There is a well-authenticated story, repeated by Chesterton in his Autobiography (Chesterton, by the way, considered Housman as “one of the one or two great classical poets of our time”), that on the occasion of an after-dinner speech which Housman made at Trinity, Cambridge, his opening remarks were: “This great College of this ancient University has seen some strange sights. It has seen Wordsworth drunk and Porson sober. And here am I, a better poet than Porson and a better scholar than Wordsworth, betwixt and between.”
Holisman’s election to the chair of Latin in University College, London, marked his re-entry into the scholastic world and the resumption of the career so disastrously interrupted by his failure in Greats. In his Introductory Lecture, delivered October 3, 1892, Housman propounds and answers the question: “What is the good which we set before us when we exercise our faculties in acquiring knowledge”?
In consenting to the publication of this lecture, Housman declared that he would like to have it stated that the Council of University College, not he, had the lecture printed. “I consented, because it seemed churlish to refuse. This is the implication of nescit vox missa reverti” — a quotation he had placed on the title-page of his lecture.
He later dismissed this lecture as “rhetorical and not wholly sincere,” declaring that he himself “cared very little about it, but the concluding paragraph would grace any anthology of English prose: —
It is the glory of God, says Solomon, to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter. Kings have long abdicated that province; and we students are come into their inheritance: it is our honour to search out the things which God has concealed. In Germany at Easter time they hide coloured eggs about the house and garden that the children may amuse themselves in hunting after them and finding them. It is to some such game of hide-and-seek that we are invited by that power which planted in us the desire to find out what is concealed, and stored the universe with hidden things that we might delight ourselves in discovering them. And the pleasure of discovery differs from other pleasures in this, that it is shadowed by no fear of satiety on the one hand or of frustration on the other. Other desires perish in their gratification, but the desire of knowledge never: the eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing. Other desires become the occasion of pain through dearth of the material to gratify them, but not the desire of knowledge: the sum of things to be known is inexhaustible, and however long we read we shall never come to the end of our story-book. So long as the mind of man is what it is, it will continue to exult in advancing on the unknown throughout the infinite field of the universe; and the tree of knowledge will remain for ever, as it was in the beginning, a tree to be desired to make one wise.
“The Name and Nature of Poetry” is the title he gave the Leslie Stephen Lecture delivered by him at Cambridge, May 9, 1933. It would be difficult in any summary to convey an adequate idea of the rich Housmanian tang which this brilliant discourse possesses. It has erudition but it is not erudite. The critical faculty, he declares, is the rarest of heaven’s gifts — rarer even than the creative faculty. “Orators and poets, sages and saints and heroes, if rare in comparison with blackberries, are commoner than returns of Halley’s comet: literary critics are less common,” and he, he asserts, is not one.
The name poetry, as he points out, is indifferently applied to include both “poetry” and “verse,” but it is the nature of poetry “to transfuse emotion — not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer.” That is what differentiates it from verse.
Illustrating by examples drawn from the wide range of English poesy, from Chaucer to Blake, he shows that verse which is “not lofty or magnificent or intense,” which “does not stab the heart nor shake the soul nor take the breath away,” is not poetry in the highest definable sense of that term.
There is such a thing, he says, as “sham poetry,” the great historical example being certain verse produced in the eighteenth century in England. Much of the poetry written in that century, he declares, was excellent literature; “but excellent literature which is also poetry is not therefore excellent poetry, and the poetry of the eighteenth century was most satisfactory when it did not try to be poetical.”
He has no mean opinion of Dryden’s talent, but when Dryden came to improve on Chaucer, he asks: “Had there not fallen upon England the curse out of Isaiah, ‘Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes’?”
No English poem of greater than lyric length “is quite so perfect as the Rape of the Lock,” but the question whether or not Pope was a poet he answers in this wise: “When I hear anyone say, with defiant emphasis, that Pope was a poet, I suspect him of calling in ambiguity of language to promote confusion of thought. That Pope was a poet is true; but it is one of those truths which are beloved of liars, because they serve so well the cause of falsehood. That Pope was not a poet is false; but a righteous man, standing in awe of the last judgment and the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, might well prefer to say it.”
It is his view that there are no such things as “poetical ideas,” since no truth “is too precious, no observation too profound, and no sentiment too exalted to be expressed in prose. The utmost that I could admit is that some ideas do, while others do not, lend themselves kindly to poetical expression; and that these receive from poetry an enhancement which glorifies and almost transfigures them, and which is not perceived to be a separate thing except by analysis.”
“Poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it.”
“Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not.”
Answering the question, “Who are the English poets of that age [the eighteenth century] in whom pre-eminently one can hear and recognize the true poetic accent emerging clearly from the contemporary dialect?” he answers: “These four: Collins, Christopher Smart, Cowper, and Blake. And what other characteristic had these four in common?” he asks. “They were mad.” Proving, as Plato declared, that the poetry indited by the poet in his sober senses “is beaten hollow by the poetry of the madman.”
Blake he regards as the most poetical of all poets — “more poetical than Shakespeare, even though Shakespeare has so much more poetry, because poetry in him preponderates more than in Shakespeare over everything else, and instead of being confounded in a great river can be drunk pure from a slender channel of its own. . . . Blake’s meaning is often unimportant or virtually non-existent, so that we can listen with all our hearing to his celestial tune.”
As an example of poetry where the depth and penetrating truth of the thought kindles emotion, he cites: —
There came a voice without reply, —
“ ’Tis man’s perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die.”
Housman evidently knew his Emerson.
Poetry, it seems to him, is more physical than intellectual. He can no more define poetry, he says, than a terrier can define a rat, but both recognize the object by the symptoms which it provokes. Experience has taught him, when he is shaving of a morning, to keep watch over his thoughts, “ because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.’ The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach.”
If this is not a concrete definition of poetry (which still remains to be defined), it is at least a synthesis of the sensations which great poetry should produce.
It was while he was Professor of Latin in University College, London, that Housman began to issue his editions of Manilius (1903-1931), Juvenal (1905), and Lucan (1926). These works, which have been called “monuments of Latin learning,” really constitute his life’s work. He consequently takes his place in the Hall of Fame in the double role of the greatest Latin scholar of his time and a poet who, with an astonishingly slender body of verse, has achieved an extraordinary, if not imperishable, fame.
It is a question which will be long debated whether Housman’s fame as a poet will outlast his fame as a classical scholar or vice versa. That he was the greatest Latinist of his time, there can be no question. In the words of Professor Richmond: “His poetic gift, so nearly perfect in its kind, so sure of a measure of immortality, is yet a less gift than his matchless contribution to scholarship.” Even Professor Garrod, who objects to much in A Shropshire Lad, has said: “He stands today the first scholar in Europe; if this country has had a greater scholar, it will be only Bentley.”
The terrifying prefaces Housman supplied to the various works he edited, wherein he so savagely attacked other Latin scholars, living and dead, provoked bitter controversy. He pilloried scholars right and left, says Professor Gow, and did not hesitate to fit the dunce’s cap upon the head of fellow professors. When he in turn was criticized, he impishly retorted that such nagging was “just the way to foster in me that arrogant temper to which I owe my deplorable reputation.”
Of one of the editors of Manilius, the great sixteenth-century French scholar, Scaliger, he says that “no commentary is brisker reading or better entertainment than these abrupt and pithy notes, with their spurts of mockery at unnamed detractors, and their frequent and significant stress upon the difference between Scaliger and a jackass.”
Of Wolf, a German scholar, he writes: “Wolf, like all pretenders to encyclopedic knowledge, had a dash of the imposter about him, and we have no assurance that he had read the book which he thus presumes to judge. Even if he had really read it, he was little qualified to estimate its value. What he says of it is not false: the falsehood lies in what he does not say.”Which is somewhat like Dr. Johnson’s observation concerning that arrogant Shakespearean commentator Warburton. “He explains what no reader has found difficult and, I think, explains it wrong.”
Again, in the same preface, Housman writes: “If a man will comprehend the richness and variety of the universe, and inspire his mind with a due measure of wonder and of awe, he must contemplate the human intellect not only on its heights of genius but in its abysses of ineptitude; and it might be fruitlessly debated to the end of time whether Richard Bentley or Elias Stoeber was the more marvellous work of the Creator: Elias Stoeber, whose reprint of Bentley’s text, with a commentary to confute it, saw the light in 1767 at Strasburg, a city still famous for its geese . . . Stoeber’s mind, though that is no name to call it by, was one which turned as unswervingly to the false, the meaningless, the unmetrical and the ungrammatical as the needle to the pole.”
But he could praise and praise generously where he felt praise was deserved. “Bentley’s faculty for discovering truth,” he declared, “has no equal in the history of learning.”
What manner of man was this giant among scholars — this poet “who could be so pitilessly cruel in his words and so kind in his deeds"? Curiously enough, Housman has written himself down in the words of another remarkable character. In his SevenPillars of Wisdom, Lawrence, analyzing his own temperament, writes: —
There was my craving to be liked — so strong and nervous that never could I open myself friendly to another. The terror of failure in an effort so important made me shrink from trying; besides, there was the standard; for intimacy seemed shameful unless the other could make the perfect reply, in the same language, after the same method, for the same reasons.
In the margin Housman has written: “This is me.”
To a French scholar, M. Maurice Pollet, who was engaged in writing an essay on Housman and A Shropshire Lad, Housman supplied, among other autobiographical details, the following: —
I was brought up in the Church of England and in the High Church party, which is much the best religion I have ever come across. But Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, which fell into my hands when I was eight, attached my affections to paganism. I became a deist at 13 and an atheist at 21.
Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, by the way, was also a favorite book of Keats.
Housman further says: —
I have never had any such thing as a “crisis of pessimism.”In the first place, I am not a pessimist but a pejorist (as George Eliot said she was not an optimist but a meliorist); and that is owing to my observation of the world, not to personal circumstance. Secondly, I did not begin to write poetry in earnest until the really emotional part of my life was over; and my poetry, so far as I could make out, sprang chiefly from the physical conditions, such as a relaxed sore throat during my most prolific period, the first five months of 1895.
Save for holidays spent mainly in France, where he sought out the best restaurants that had the choicest wine cellars, — he was a gourmet and had a nice taste in wines, — Housman led a life of cloistered seclusion. He acknowledged himself to be “morose” and “unamiable.”He shared many holidays in France with his friend and publisher, Mr. Grant Richards, who has recently published Housman: 1897-1936. It is a record of forty years’ friendship and business relationship, and contains a great number of letters written by Housman, and much valuable additional matter supplied by others.1 On the personal side it is much the most informative book that has yet appeared or is likely soon to appear.
Writing to Richards, whose great weakness for the pleasures of the table had brought on a recurrence of a severe attack of shingles, Housman says: “One of my chief objections to the management of the universe is that we suffer so much more from our gentler and more amiable vices than from our darkest crimes.”
A dish named after him as a specialty of a famous French restaurant, “Barbue Housman,” Housman prized more than academic distinction.
And when Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote that Housman “does not smoke, drinks little, and would, I think, be quite silent if he were allowed to be,” Housman said the description was perfectly accurate except that, so far as he could remember, the time he visited Blunt there was little to drink.
He had many personal antipathies on whom his comments were not infrequently touched with venom. Among these Meredith was one. Meredith, it seems, had no very high opinion of A Shropshire Lad — “an orgy of naturalism” he called it. Housman’s opinion of Meredith was expressed in a letter to his brother, written in 1903, in answer to a request for a contribution to the Venture, a magazine of which Laurence was the editor. “I hope you won’t succeed in getting anything from Meredith,” says A. E. Housman, “as I am a respectable character, and do not care to be seen in the company of galvanized corpses. By this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead twenty years.” That would bring the living Meredith back to the days before Diana of the Crossways.
Besides Meredith, Housman cordially disliked two other contemporary authors, Maurice Hewlett and John Galsworthy. In 1910 he refused to join in signing a declaration by various authors in favor of woman suffrage, “chiefly because I don’t think that writers as a class are particularly qualified to give advice on the question; and moreover it is certain to be signed by Galsworthy and Hewlett and everyone I cannot abide.”
“He enjoyed,” says his brother, “telling the truth provocatively. And he did this not only when dealing with persons but with things in general and with morals in particular, illustrative of which was his remark (I believe that Anatole France made a similar pronouncement) that the rarest of sexual aberrations is chastity. It is quite true, but it could hardly be said in a more provocative way. Equally aggressive was his statement that morality, like religion, is chiefly prized by men as an excuse for making others unhappy.”
When, in 1915, one of her sons was killed in Flanders, he sent his sister “Illic Jacet,” a poem he had written some years earlier (it had been printed in the Academy, February 24, 1900), because, as he said, “it is the function of poetry to harmonise the sadness of the world.”
This story, concerning Housman as teacher, is told by an old student at Trinity College, Cambridge. It was the poet’s custom to walk to his desk at five minutes past eleven, open his manuscript, and begin to read. At the conclusion of his lecture he folded his papers and silently left the room, looking neither at the students nor at the row of dons in front. “One morning, in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace’s Fourth Book, ‘Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis .’ This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us and in quite a different voice said: ‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with great emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own. ‘ That,’he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, ‘I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,’ and walked quickly out of the room.”
A curiously revealing phase of Housman’s character — his grudging kindness, his bitter irony, his mordant humor—will be found in the correspondence which was painfully extracted from him during the closing years of his life by Mr. Houston Martin. Martin was at the time an undergraduate majoring in English at the University of Pennsylvania. The great discovery of his youth (a discovery which does him great credit, for he was then but seventeen) was the poetry of A. E. Housman. His interest in the poetry impelled him to seek a more intimate acquaintance with the poet. Since he could find little or nothing about him in print, he took his courage in his hands and wrote Housman requesting, not merely an autograph, but an autograph copy of a poem, no less, and “Loveliest of Trees" was his choice. “I am obliged and flattered by your letter,” wrote Housman, “but it is now a great many years since I began to refuse requests for poems written out in my own hand, and therefore you must not mind if you receive the same answer as many others.”
Martin was not to be so easily thwarted and so wrote again, insinuatingly this time, to congratulate Housman on his birthday. Housman, acknowledging the kindness, added archly: —
You are right in supposing that I do not look with favour on the collecting of first editions and autographs, but it is a vice which is sometimes found in otherwise virtuous persons, of whom you doubtless are one.
He graclously complied with Martin’s request for a photograph, sending him one “taken about the time when I was writing A Shropshire Lad,” and, presumably answering one of Martin’s questions, says: —
I could not say that I have a favourite among my poems. Thomas Hardy’s was no. xxvii in A Shropshire Lad, and I think it may be the best, though it is not the most perfect.
Still longing for his autograph poem, Martin wrote again, and he will be readily believed when he declares that no greater thrill ever came to him than when he opened Housman’s reply and found an autograph copy of “Loveliest of Trees”! Still, his joy could not have been unalloyed, for the acrid tone of the letter which brought him this flawless poem must assuredly have given him something of a twinge: —
Apparently you have been searching the Scriptures and have lighted on the 18th chapter of St. Luke. I am ashamed of myself for showing no more firmness of mind than the unjust judge, but such infatuation as yours is quite intimidating. I observe that your photograph wears a grin of assured success.
Again Martin wrote Housman to ask some questions about his Introductory Lecture, and received the following answer: —
You are an engaging madman, and write more agreeably than many sane persons; but if I write anything of an autobiographical nature, as I have sometimes idly thought of doing, I shall send it to the British Museum to be kept under lock and key for 50 years. There is no biography of Matthew Arnold (whom I am glad to see that you read) in accordance with his own advice; so there certainly need be none of me.
Your last enquiry, though frivolous, is harmless, and I may reply that I never do sign my name in full except in documents in which I am directed to do so. . . .
Having written to Santayana, Jeffers, and other noted literary men asking them their opinion of Housman, Martin sent Housman copies of these letters. Housman, accepting this as but a further evidence of Martin’s irrepressible enthusiasm, writes; —
You are always kind and friendly, and your anthology of opinions ought to foster my selfesteem and smooth my descent to the grave.
With reckless courage, Martin then sent Housman an unauthorized American edition of A Shropshire Lad, requesting him to autograph it. This brought forth the following blast: —
You ought to have known better than to send me the copy of A Shropshire Lad. American publishers have a perfect right to issue unauthorised copies, but for me to sign them would be an indignity or an excess of magnanimity.
I am also deaf to fantastic requests that I should write my name in full or add special stuff for you. One thing I am prepared to do, which might gratify your depraved mind: if you like to send me New Year’s Eve I can make and initial a correction which I was too late to make before it was printed. . . .
I congratulate you on your 20th birthday and your approach, I hope, to years of discretion.
I did not realize how frightfully young you were: it explains and perhaps excuses much. . . .
Of course Martin sent Housman a copy of “New Year’s Eve,” and with it some additional eulogies which he had lately secured from other famous authors. Thereupon Martin received a letter in which Housman chastises not only him but his innocent countrymen, in the following terms:
I suppose it would be impossible to explain to you, perhaps to any American, the impropriety of your conduct in writing, as you seem to have done, to ask famous writers their opinions of me.
I hope that some of them, at any rate, have ignored your letters.
Still unchastened, Martin wrote again, asking more questions, and received the following answer: —
Certainly I have never regretted the publication of my poems. The reputation which they brought me, though it gives me no lively pleasure, is something like a mattress interposed between me and the hard ground. The lectures I care very little about.
With all good wishes for your health and sanity, I am . . . .
But the most remarkable of all the letters that Martin succeeded in extracting from Housman is one penciled from his hospital bed, dated March 22, 1936: —
I was very ill at the beginning of the year, and I am now again in a nursing home. I hope that if you can restrain your indecent ardour for a little I shall be properly dead and your proposed work will not be by its nature unbecoming. But the hope is not more than a hope, for my family are tough and long lived, unless they take to drink.
Do not send me your manuscript. Worse than the practice of writing books about living men is the conduct of living men in supervising such books. I do not forbid you to quote extracts from my letters. . . .
The best review I ever saw of my poems was by Hubert Bland the Socialist in a weekly paper The New Age (1896). The American who called them (I do not know where) the best poetry since Keats is endeared to me by his amiable error. . . .
In philosophy I am a Cyrenaic or egoistic hedonist, and regard the pleasure of the moment as the only possible motive of action. As for pessimism, I think it almost as silly, though not as wicked, as optimism. . . .
When, after Housman’s death, Martin applied to the poet’s brother and literary executor for permission to publish these letters, Mr. Laurence Housman wrote: —
It would be unfraternal on my part not to reward the importunacy to which my brother yielded with ironical submission, and allow you full permission to publish as much and as many of the letters as you wish. The most characteristic parts of them are those depreciating references to yourself which gave him, I am sure, the most pleasure to write: for he often wrote to me of myself in a somewhat similar strain, knowing,
I think, that I should share his enjoyment. I hope you will have the candour not to leave those out.
And so these remarkable letters found their way into the Yale Review.
Housman’s letters, if they are ever collected and published, will make rare entertainment — not by any means because of their sweet amiability. To Countess Cave, in reply to her request to be allowed to reprint some verses which had appeared anonymously in the Bromsgrovian, he writes:
I have no reason to think that the anonymous author of the verses you mention, if still living, would have any objection to your using them, and I myself, to whom they should not be attributed, have none; . . .
Having written his brother Laurence to wish him ” a Happy Christmas, he adds, with malicious glee, referring to a volume of poems, Green Arras, which Laurence had just published: —*
P.P.S. I was just licking the envelope, when I thought of the following venomed dart: I had far, far rather that people should attribute my verses to you than yours to me.
In appraising Housman’s fame as poet, it deserves to be borne in mind that his total output, during his lifetime, consisted of but two slender volumes containing altogether only 104 poems of 2032 lines. Since his death this output has been augmented by the 48 More Poems (701 lines), and the 18 additional poems included in his brother’s memoir (198 lines), making in all 170 poems of 3103 lines. There is no other instance of an English poet (with the possible exception of Thomas Gray) whose output is so slender and whose fame is so great.
An interval of twenty-six years separates A Shropshire Lad from Last Poems, and curiosity has naturally been aroused as to what could have been the genesis of this meager but remarkable body of verse. A selfrevealing note prefixed to Last Poems only adds to the mystery. He wrote the greater part of A Shropshire Lad, he says, in the early months of 1895. “I can no longer expect to be revisited by the continuous excitement" under which those poems were written, he declares, “nor indeed, could I well sustain it if it came.”What the “continuous excitement” was, under which the poems were produced, still remains a mystery.
It has been suggested that much of A Shropshire Lad had as its background some great and unusual tragedy arising from a deep friendship between two young men. Amateur Freudians have been busy interpreting some of the poems accordingly and have indulged in various conjectures. Grant Richards, whose intercourse with Housman, as friend and publisher, extended over a longer period than that of any other person (excepting members of Housman’s own family), declares that he has not the slightest toleration for the suggestion implicit in much that has been written on the subject. He calls it “A mare’s nest, if ever there was one.”
Housman has declared that there is little that is biographical in A Shropshire Lad, but it is not difficult to discover in XLI and LII a glimpse of the heartsickness which Housman suffered during his early residence in London. In Last Poems, also, we discern in XXXIX and XL his heartsickness for his homeland and his boyhood.
There can be little doubt that XXXII of Last Poems refers to himself. Concerning the final quatrain of this poem, there is an amusing story in A Londoner’s Diary. It appears that Sudbury, Ontario, was offered an original quatrain by Rudyard Kipling for inscription on the city’s war memorial. The selection committee turned it down in favor of a quatrain by a local poet: —
In ships they crossed the sea;
They fought and found six feet of ground,
And died for YOU and me.
The selectors were criticized for preferring the work of a nonentity to that of Kipling, but the criticism was hardly just, for the four lines accepted as the work of this “inglorious Milton” are scarcely an improvement on the last stanza of Housman’s poem:
They crossed in ships the sea,
They sought and found six feet of ground,
And there they died for me.
Notwithstanding the vast and general acclaim with which Housman’s poems came to be accepted, it must not be assumed that he has escaped criticism, either during his lifetime or since his death. The praise was not wholly unadulterated. Sir Walter Raleigh, a critic certainly of no mean caliber, was only one of many to whom Housman was “the greatest living English poet,” but Professor Garrod, even while Housman was still alive, although praising “the pure and cold art: of his good work,” felt constrained to say: —
[The] false-pastoral twist [of much of A Shropshire Lad] is altogether too tiresome; I hate vulgarisms but I hate “fakes” still more, and I do not know what to call this false pastoralism if I am not allowed to call it a not too clever fake.
His gaol-bird stuff, the cruder of his macabre pieces, the curiously elaborated perversity of such poems as The Immortal Part (XLIII) — these ninetenths of his readers have preferred to his best work; and he knew that they were going to do so. That some of these poems are absolutely false, he knows, without caring. Even so, into all of them he has put — from an instinct for truth which he is never quite able to suppress in himself—enough of truth to make them poems not to be dismissed without consideration. If I call Mr. Housman’s poetry an astonishing medley of false and true, in the long run I am praising it; for it is a marvel that it should be so true as it is, under the conditions which he has deliberately imposed upon it.
Professor Garrod suggests that Housman bears a considerable resemblance to Swift, save that Housman is a better poet and is more mysterious. It is not untrue that, like Swift, Housman wails for a world ubi saeva indignatio cor ulterius lacerare nequit — in which, perhaps, he is not alone.
After Housman’s death came the intelligentsia or the “high-brows,” so-called, represented by such intellectuals as Mr. Cyril Connolly, one of whose complaints was that the word “lad” occurs sixty-seven times in sixty-three poems. Then came Mr. Martin Cooper, who declared that he “shared Mr. Connolly’s objection to the Housman Cult.” Stephen Spender criticizes Housman’s “shrinking from publicity with an almost violently censured tendency toward exhibitionism” — a quality he must share with T. E. Lawrence. Then comes Mr. Ezra Pound, whose criticism is that during the twenty-live years of his (Pound’s) acquaintance with letters he has not “barged into a single indication that Mr. Housman was aware of the world of my contemporaries” — a criticism that no one acquainted with Housman’s familiarity with contemporary literature could possibly have made. Criticizing “The Name and Nature of Poetry,” Mr. Pound observes that “Mr. Housman descends to bathos, slop, ambiguity, word-twisting,” and he concludes his observations with the following characteristically urbane remarks: “Mr. Housman can pack that sentimental drool in his squiffer and turn his skill to throwing the dart in the pub next door adjacent” — which, unlike most of Mr. Pound’s esoteric jargon, if not elegant, is at least comprehensible.
But detraction notwithstanding, A Shropshire Lad still holds and is long destined to hold a unique place in English poetry.
It imitation is the sincerest flattery, parody is a sure criterion of a poet’s popularity, and Housman came to be abundantly parodied. Here is one by Hugh Kingsmill, which Housman considered the best he had seen: —
A clean, upstanding chap like you?
Sure, if your throat ‘tis hard to slit,
Slit your girl’s, and swing for it.
When they come to hang you, lad:
But bacon’s not the only thing
That’s cured by hanging from a string.
Sucks the latest drop of light,
Lads whose job is still to do
Shall whet their knives and think of you.
Many of Housman’s poems, and magic lines and phrases, have become a part of our common speech: “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now” — “With rue my heart is laden" — “By brooks too broad for leaping” — “Is my team ploughing” — “I, a stranger and afraid, In a world I never made.”
If your preference in poetry is for the “God’s in his heaven — All’s right with the world!” optimism of Robert Browning, I will not refuse to share your vain enthusiasm: but do not deny a poet, moved to savage indignation by the cruelties and injustices of this mad world, to give utterance to his despair: —
With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rouse at morning
And lief lie down of nights.
And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts.
Housman has answered in unforgettable accents the charge that his poetry is a counsel of despair: —
Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity, and sorrow,
Not mine, but man’s.
Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read when they’re in trouble
And I am not.
(The quotations from the lectures, letters, and poems in this essay are included by the kind permission of the Incorporated Society of Authors, Playwrights and Composers and the Trustees of the Estate of the late A. E. Housman.)
- I must acknowledge my great indebtedness to Mr. Richards’s book, which is at once both a rich mine of material for all future students of Housman and a generous record of a memorable friendship.↩