A. E. Housman

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A. E. Housman Poetry: British Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2410

A. E. Housman once remarked, with that scathing condescension of which he was a master, that Swinburne “has now said not only all he has to say about everything, but all he has to say about nothing.” Actually, when Housman was at Oxford he fell under Swinburne’s powerful spell. His “New Year’s Eve” (Additional Poems, 21), written about 1879, celebrates the death of the gods in a labored imitation of the “Hymn to Proserpine”: “Divinities disanointed/ And kings whose kingdom is done.” The poem is interesting but uninspired, and it is good that Housman early rejected Swinburne as a model. Still, one wishes that Housman had possessed more of the older poet’s exuberance of imagination and richness of rhetoric, for it is in these qualities that his poetry is most deficient.

Practically all his poems are variations on the related themes of mortality and the miseries of the human condition; while a close reading reveals considerably more variety than at first appears, it is nevertheless true that the body of Housman’s poetry is slighter than that of any other English poet of comparable reputation. The authorized canon consists of only three small volumes, which were published separately: A Shropshire Lad, Last Poems, and the posthumous More Poems. The twenty-three Additional Poems and three verse translations have been added to the Collected Poems for a total of 175 original poems. All are short, some no more than a stanza in length. The predominant form is the lyric. The tone is characteristically mournful and the mood elegiac. It is useless to look for any kind of development, either of substance or technique, in these poems, for most of them were written in the 1890’s when Housman was under great psychological stress. They are intensely autobiographical inasmuch as they spring from the deep well of Housman’s psyche, but few refer to specific events in his life. Housman’s passion for privacy was as great as Robert Browning’s, and he was attracted to the lyric as a verse form largely because of its essential impersonality. The emotion of his poems is usually general, an undifferentiated Weltschmerz, and such dramatic elements as may occur as persona and setting are characteristically undefined. The extremely personal and revealing “The world goes none the lamer” (More Poems, 21) and “Because I liked you better” (More Poems, 31) are exceptional.

Doomed love

In the world of Housman’s poetry, which is more obviously consistent than that of more complex poets, youth fades into dust, lovers are unfaithful, nature is lovely but indifferent, and death is the serene end of everything. These great archetypal themes have given rise to some of the world’s finest poetry, from Sir Walter Ralegh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” to William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” What makes them interesting in Housman’s poetry are the particular forms in which they are cast. "With rue my heart is laden" (A Shropshire Lad, 54), a poem sometimes set to music, may be taken as exemplary of his lyricism:

With rue my heart is laden For golden friends I had,For many a rose-lipt maiden And many a lightfoot lad.By brooks too broad for leaping The lightfoot boys are laid;The rose-lipt girls are sleeping In fields where roses fade.

In this lyric of studied simplicity there is a classical blending of form and substance. The simple and inventive diction; the Latinate syntax, parallelism, and balance; the alternating seven- and six-syllable lines restrain still further the already generalized emotion; and while the poem is cold and artificial, it has a kind of classical grace. A comparison with William Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” will reveal the power of a great sensibility working through the constraints of classical form to convey a sense of profound personal feeling.

In too many of Housman’s lyrical poems, including the well-known “When I was one-and-twenty” (A Shropshire Lad, 13) and “When first my way to fair I took” (Last Poems, 35), the feeling is severely attenuated by a mannered flatness, and the passion that the poet undoubtedly experienced is swallowed up by the generalization of the emotion. At worst, the feeling degenerates into the bathos of “Could man be drunk for ever” (Last Poems, 10) or the histrionic posturing of “Twice a week the winter thorough” (A Shropshire Lad, 17), but at their best there is a genuine communication of feeling, as in “Yonder see the morning blink” (Last Poems, 11) and “From far, from eve and morning” (A Shropshire Lad, 32). There is a thin line between the expression of the poignancy of existence and sentimentality, and it is a tribute to Housman’s tact that he so seldom crosses it.

Housman’s poems work best when the emotion is crystallized by a dramatic context, as in some of the love pieces and the poems about soldiers in which the oracular pronouncements about the miseries of living that so easily lapse into an unacceptable didacticism are subordinated to more concrete situations. “Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers” (A Shropshire Lad, 5) is a clever and humorous dialogue between a young blade and a girl who spurns his advances, but beneath the surface gaiety there is the slightest suggestion of the mortality and faithlessness of lovers. In “Delight it is” (More Poems, 18) the youthful speaker addresses the maiden in words of reckless honesty—“Oh maiden, let your distaff be/ And pace the flowery meads with me/ And I will tell you lies”—and one is to assume that he is a prototype of all young lovers.

In “Spring Morning” (Last Poems, 16), the idyllic beauty of an April morning and the universal renewal of life in the spring place in ironic relief the “scorned unlucky lad” who “Mans his heart and deep and glad/ Drinks the valiant air of dawn” even though “the girl he loves the best/ Rouses from another’s side.” The speaker of “This time of year” (A Shropshire Lad, 25) is more fortunate, but only because the former lover of his sweetheart has died. “Is my team ploughing” (A Shropshire Lad, 27) dramatizes a similar situation in which the surviving youth has taken his dead friend’s girl. In a dialogue that extends beyond the grave, the living lover tells his dead friend: “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart/ Never ask me whose.” One of the most effective of Housman’s love poems is “Bredon Hill” (A Shropshire Lad, 21), in which the sound of the church bells reminds the speaker of the untimely death of his sweetheart. The poem ends ambiguously with the distraught lover saying to the humming steeples: “Oh, noisy bells, be dumb/ I hear you, I will come.” Also with death in mind is the speaker of “Along the field” (A Shropshire Lad, 26), who a year before had heard the aspen predict the death of his sweetheart. The prediction fulfilled, he now walks beside another girl, and under the aspen leaves he wonders if they “talk about a time at hand/ When I shall sleep with clover clad/ And she beside another lad.”

In all these poems love is doomed to transience by infidelity or death. This, they say, is the human condition. In virtually all of them, death has supplanted sex as the major ingredient, making them unique in English love poetry.

Death

Death is also, less surprisingly, the main element in most of Housman’s military poems. The poems about soldiers, with the exception of the frequently anthologized “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” (Last Poems, 37), are not as well known as some of Housman’s other poetry. At first sight they may seem somewhat out of place, but it is not surprising that an introverted classical scholar of conservative convictions should glamorize the guardians of the empire. The attitude toward the soldier is consistently one of compassion and respect and the poems convey a depth of sincerity not always felt elsewhere. The prospect of young men going to die in foreign lands in the service of the queen takes on an added poignancy from the death of Housman’s younger brother, Herbert, who was killed in the Boer War. On another level, a soldier’s death is an honorable form of suicide and a way to attain lasting fame. “The Deserter” (Last Poems, 13) and “The Recruit” (A Shropshire Lad, 3) may be taken as typical. In the first, the lass, rejected by her lover so that he may rejoin his comrades, upbraids him and others like him for scouring “about the world a-wooing/ The bullet to their breast”; in the second, the lad is promised eternal fame either as a returning hero or as a slain comrade. In “Lancer” (Last Poems, 6), the speaker affirms his coming death with the ringing refrain of “Oh who would not sleep with the brave?” In these poems Housman succeeds in investing Thanatos, characteristically an enervated and sterile attitude, with a singular vitality. The placid stoicism of the soldiers makes these ultimately the least melancholy of all of Housman’s poems.

The melancholy that permeates virtually every line of Housman’s poetry is a matter of temperament more than of a well-wrought metaphysics. He affirms the existence of the soul in such poems as “The Immortal Part” (A Shropshire Lad, 43) and “Be still, my soul” (A Shropshire Lad, 48) even as he denies its immortality, the agnostic “Easter Hymn” (More Poems, 1) notwithstanding. Such monologues to the dead as “To an Athlete Dying Young” (A Shropshire Lad, 19) and “Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?” (A Shropshire Lad, 44) are intended as no more than poetic license. Death is seen as the final, desirable release from the Sisyphean exhaustion of living. Thanatos ultimately leads to suicide, which in several of the poems is prescribed as the best antidote for the illness of life. Other strategies for coping with the suffocating consciousness of “our long fool’s-errand to the grave” are hedonism and, more logically, stoicism.

Hedonism and stoicism

In Housman’s hedonistic poems, the traditional sexuality of the carpe diem theme has been eliminated. In his most rousing invitation to pleasure, “Think no more lad” (A Shropshire Lad, 49), the lad is told to “be jolly/ Why should men make haste to die?” Such pleasures as “jesting, dancing, drinking” stave off the darkness, since “’tis only thinking/ Lays lads underground.” The other exercises in hedonism are more subdued. The speaker of “Loveliest of trees” (A Shropshire Lad, 2), aware of his limited time, will go about the woodlands “To see the cherry hung with snow,” and “The Lent Lily” (A Shropshire Lad, 79) invites anyone who will listen to enjoy the spring and gather all the flowers that die on Easter Day. In “Reveille” (A Shropshire Lad, 4), the lad is enjoined to rise and enjoy the morning, for “Breath’s a ware that will not keep/ Up, lad: when the journey’s over/ There’ll be time enough to sleep.” “Ho, everyone that thirsteth” (More Poems, 22) makes an effective use of the living waters of Scripture as a metaphor of fulfillment. The poem concludes that “he that drinks in season/ Shall live before he dies,” but the “lad that hopes for heaven/ Shall fill his mouth with mold.”

Stoicism is a more satisfying way of coming to grips with the human condition, and it provides the basis for several of Housman’s most rewarding poems, including “The Oracles” (Last Poems, 25), “The Sage to the Young Man” (More Poems, 4), and “The chestnut casts his flambeaux” (Last Poems, 9). In this last poem, an embittered young man drinking in a tavern deplores the passing of another spring and curses “Whatever brute and blackguard made the world” for cheating his “sentenced” soul of all that it has ever craved. Then with dramatic suddenness, he sees that “the troubles of our proud and angry dust/ Are from eternity,” and this leads to his stoic affirmation that “Bear them we can, and if we can we must.” The idea here that human misery is both certain and universal is the central focus of such powerful poems as “The First of May” (Last Poems, 34), “Westward on the high-hilled plains” (A Shropshire Lad, 55), and “Young is the blood” (More Poems, 34). In “Young is the blood,” the speaker identifies his own pain in a youth he espies whistling along the hillside highway and proclaims in the succession of the generations “that the sons of Adam/ Are not so evil-starred/ As they are hard.” This is the heart of Housman’s stoicism, and this is one of his more honest and successful poems.

In a number of Housman’s poems, the universalization of the existential predicament embodies a vision of the remote past that suggests the ultimate insignificance of everything. The speaker of “When I watch the living meet” (A Shropshire Lad, 12) is reminded by the moving pageant filing through the street of the dead nations of the past where “revenges are forgot/ And the hater hates no more,” just as the speaker of “On Wenlock Edge” (A Shropshire Lad, 31) is put in mind by a storm of “the old wind in the old anger” threshing the ancient Roman city of Uricon. He knows the storm will pass even as “the Roman and his trouble,” both now “ashes under Uricon.” The perspective shifts to the future in “I wake from dreams” (More Poems, 43) and “Smooth between sea and land” (More Poems, 45), which present visions of apocalyptic dissolution.

The poetry of Housman is the poetry of negation. Most of it is shot through with a nameless melancholy and much of it is pessimistic. His lyrics invite comparison with Hardy’s, with which they are often included in anthologies, but they reflect none of Hardy’s moral depth. They are closer in spirit to those of Heinrich Heine, whom Housman mentioned as one of the three major influences on his work, along with the English ballads and the songs of William Shakespeare. Housman’s Weltschmerz struck a deep chord in two generations of English readers, making A Shropshire Lad and Last Poems two of the most popular volumes of poetry of their period. Today, Housman’s reputation is tempered by the knowledge that his poetry, though capable of creating haunting moods, neither expands nor deepens one’s self-awareness nor one’s awareness of life, despite his claim in “Terence, this is stupid stuff” (A Shropshire Lad, 62) that it prepares one for life’s rigors. For this reason, Housman must be considered a minor poet.

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