A. E. Housman Poetry: British Analysis

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 2410 words.)