John Bayley’s Housman’s Poems attempts to reestablish the once high critical reputation of A. E. Housman. Bayley analyzes the poems to discover new ways of reading and appreciating the poems. He uses not a New Critical or formalist approach but instead a combination of thematic, comparative, and genre criticism. Bayley is very good at discovering Housman’s elusive poetic strategies and revealing some of the ways the poems work and have an impact on the reader. He shows that Housman is not a failed formalist poet but one with a different way of creating significant poetic structures. Housman’s Poems is a work marked by Bayley’s affectionate and reasoned regard for the continuing values and delight to be found in a supposedly outdated poet.
The first chapter of Housman’s Poetry deals with “Death and Endings.” Housman killed his poetic speakers or subjects at such early ages and with such regularity that it became an immediate sign of his poetry. Death was, however, for Housman, a necessary act that relieved man of the burden of existence in a world of suffering. In “To an Athlete Dying Young,” for example, the young man who dies early does not live on to decay and see his records “cut.” He expires at a moment of completion. Bayley compares this type of Housman poem to Paul Celan’s poems on the Holocaust, one of which tells the victims of the concentration camp: “Read no more—look!/ Look no more—go.” Housman, in the last two lines of “An Epitaph,” describes the providential place of the dead man. “Here, with one balm for many fevers found,/ Whole of an ancient evil, I sleep sound.” The “ancient evil” is the pain inherent in life. Man, in Housman’s view, is better off in the peaceful sleep of the grave; to struggle against human misery only increases the pain.
The next chapter in Bayley’s defense of Housman is on “Love.” To Housman, love was based on failure; he had one great love in his life, with a college contemporary, Moses Jackson. Jackson soon rejected Housman’s declaration of love. Housman’s poems are filled with descriptions of the state of failed love. For example, in More Poems xii, his “unlucky love” has “its sure foundation of despair.” In Horace’s Odes 4.7, a poem that Housman thought to be the finest in ancient literature, the hero Theseus cannot rescue his friend Pirithous from Hades, since he is “in the chain/ The love of comrades cannot take away.” Love is seen in terms of loss that does not diminish the intense feelings of love but points to the imposed distance between the loved one and the lover.More Poems xxxi, which was published after the poet’s death, describes the failure of the relationship between the poet and Moses Jackson. “Because I liked you better/ Than suits a man to say,/ It irked you, and I promised/ To throw the thought away.” The moment of failure is reduced to a bare exchange in which promises are made that last a lifetime. The doomed relationship is reduced to the simple word “irked,” and the stoic speaker ends by both declaring his love and keeping his promise: “And say the lad who loved you/ Was one that kept his word.”
The chapter “Sex and the Soldier” points to an area that many ignore in Housman’s work. Bayley cites a number of poems dealing with soldiers; some deal with patriotism and the dangers of the soldier’s trade while others hint at or make clear a personal relationship between the soldier and the poet. Poem xxii in A Shropshire Lad deals with a silent exchange between the “single redcoat” and the speaker. The last stanza sorts out the delicate relationship that is based on a meeting of eyes: “What thoughts at heart have you and I/ We cannot stop to tell;/ But dead or living, drunk or dry,/ Soldier, I wish you well.” An extension of this relationship can be found in poem xxxii of A Shropshire Lad, in which the soldier conveys his meaning to the poet speaker. “Speak now, and I will answer;/ How shall I help you, say;/ Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters/ I take my endless way.” The exchanges are minimal, but they bear great emotional weight and even suggest the possibility of a true connection being made in spite of the differences in class and situation.
“Personae” is one of the most interesting chapters in the book. Bayley contrasts the continual self-change and development in William Butler Yeats’s poetry to that of Housman and Philip Larkin. Bayley makes the distinction very clear. Yeats “makes himself, style and poems, and they become true for us and for him in the act of creation. For the youthful Housman the discovery of self was so disturbing and disconcerting that poetry came as a way of disclosing it.” Housman creates the self in the poem, and it remains a self-discovery. The reader is not...
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