‘Passion and scholarship may enhance each other’s effects,’ E.M. Forster noted in his Commonplace Book with A.E. Housman in mind. Forster was always keen to reduce the incompatibles in life: Housman was less persuaded by such redemptive harmonies. He preferred the losing paradoxes to the winning ones: ‘ “Whoever shall save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life shall find it.” That is the most important truth that has ever been uttered,’ he said in his Leslie Stephen Lecture of 1933, published as The Name and Nature of Poetry. His poetry is always fascinated by what is irresolvable – ‘Keep we must, if keep we can/These foreign laws of God and man’ – and his scholarly prose concerned, above all, with such textual resolutions as are possible in a world of inevitably corrupt classical texts. Having lost his faith at 13 – though never his interest in the Bible, as Archie Burnett’s commentary on the poems in this wonderful edition makes very clear – he discovered a vocation for accuracy.
Housman didn’t think of scholarship as merely a refuge from passion: on the rare occasions when he wrote or lectured about such things there is nothing to indicate that this was the argument he was having with himself. Indeed the fact that he devoted most of his life to classical scholarship while also being the author of two popular books of terse, passionate lyric poetry – A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896, and Last poems (1922) – was not the problem for Housman that it was for others. Burnett could not have done a better job of convincing us that Housman was ‘one of the true scholar-poets’; but one of the ways he has done this is by suggesting that the scholarship that went into the scholarship was similar to the scholarship that went into the poems, whereas Housman himself viewed the writing of poetry and the emending of texts as circumstantially different, as involving different skills and talents: ‘the intellect is not the fount of poetry ... it may actually hinder its production, and it cannot be trusted even to recognise poetry when produced.’ At the same time, ‘literary’ concerns, he insisted, could be a menace to scholarship. So when Burnett says in his Introduction that Housman had ‘a mind trained to precision, amazingly retentive, and exquisitely sensitive to literary values ... as in his scholarship, such accuracy was a lifelong preoccupation,’ it seems both true and worth quibbling with – if only because the accuracy of textual conjecture is always a different matter from the accuracy of poetic allusion.
It is also worth asking what a life devoted to accuracy is a life devoted to. This, inevitably, is more the province of Tom Stoppard’s often riveting play about Housman, The Invention of Love, than of Burnett’s scholarly edition of the poems. While Wilde, whom Stoppard uses as a foil for Housman, warned against falling into careless habits of accuracy – as though accuracy (or rigour) were simply conformism, weak morality masquerading as strong epistemology – Housman with his own mordant wit worried that if the scholarship were not precise we simply wouldn’t be reading the right texts (‘works of this sort,’ he wrote of one poorly edited classical text, ‘are little better than interruptions to our studies’). But why isn’t it better to be interesting than right? What’s the big deal about precision as an end in itself? As Stoppard archly knows – and as Arnold and Ruskin and Pater and Wilde and Housman knew in rather different ways – so much hangs on the question of accuracy. Or what fantasies of accuracy are used to do.
‘ “To see the object as in itself it really is”, has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever,’ Matthew Arnold said in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1857). The remark was more question-begging than he liked to think, and Housman, who knew all Arnold’s poetry by heart, was pointedly to echo it in his first lecture as Professor of Latin at University College London in 1892. ‘It must in the long run be better,’ he said, ‘for a man to see things as they are.’ (‘I have spent most of my time,’ he remarked on another occasion, ‘in finding faults because finding faults, if they are real and not imaginary, is the most useful sort of criticism.’) Nothing has suffered more, in the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, than the idea of the real. And the idea of how long the long run might be. Housman never lost his faith that there were real things – like suffering and love and knowledge and death – and that we are obliged to take them seriously. If, as he wrote, ‘accuracy is a duty and not a virtue,’ it is not up for grabs; and it is part of Housman’s finer rigour to make, as well as take on, such distinctions. ‘Life,’ Stoppard’s Housman remarks, ‘is in the minding.’ Caring about something is caring that it be as good as it can be. Housman took the kind of care of his chosen (dead) authors – often savaging those who could not do them justice – that he wasn’t ultimately able to take of the man who was the love of his life, Moses Jackson. But the scholarship was not a substitute, or some kind of embittered retreat: it was another way of doing a similar thing. Accuracy was a form of love for Housman; and love always exposes one’s incompetence.
The notion of producing an authoritative scholarly edition of Housman’s published and unpublished poems, as Burnett’s certainly is, could itself have been the subject, if not the pretext, for a Stoppard play. Burnett is neither coy nor unduly self-reflexive about the task of editing the most exacting of editors. He takes the pressure, and he takes the pressure off, by being at once thorough and painstaking with the required information, and by occasionally aping Housman’s gleeful knockdown wit.
‘Completing’ the poems, whether by adding lines or by moving around other lines or phrases of AEH’s, has no place in this edition. Those interested in creative writing may consult ‘Two Housman Torsos’ by Robert Conquest, TLS, 19 Oct. 1973. Those with a taste for highly creative writing should seek out A.E. Housman: New Poems [sic] ed. [sic] by John Edmunds, with a preface and notes by Hilary Bacon (San Francisco, 1985).
Every word, bracket and comma here is so entirely to the point that it is virtually a prose-poem in the genre that Housman made his own: the almost deadpan burlesque of poor scholarship.
Burnett ignores the more fashionable habits of accuracy in this edition, omitting ‘mere slips of the pen’; and he is not above telling us that Bredon Hill is ‘961 ft high and commands extensive views’, whether or not it improves our view of the poem, because Housman himself had a head for heights. ‘AEH,’ he notes, ‘paid particular attention to the height of the spire of St Mary’s (220 ft): Murray’s Handbook for Shropshire and Cheshire (1879) reported that it was “said to be the third highest in the kingdom”. In his copy he underlined “said” and wrote in the margin “by liars”.’ Since for Housman, as he wrote to Gilbert Murray – in that British tradition of biting melancholy that runs at least from Johnson to Larkin – ‘the state of mankind always had been and always would be a state of just tolerable discomfort,’ there was some comfort, and some justness, in that kind of truthfulness. Even if perfectionism was covert religion, trying to get things right was more reassuring than not being bothered. We should not be ‘scamping our work’, as Housman accused Shakespeare of doing too often. Short-cuts are no good in the long run if one cares about ‘the truth of things’.
Housman’s poetry, by the same token, is always more impressed by what actually happened than by what might have been (‘An excellent topic for a poem,’ Stoppard’s Housman declares, ‘false nostalgia’). And two of the things that actually happened, in Housman’s experience, and that he didn’t try and get round, were death (his mother, whom he nursed through a terrible illness, died when he was 12) and the death that occurs when people lose someone they love (Moses Jackson, the love of his life from university days, was not gay and could not meet Housman’s feeling for him):
He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand and tore my heart asunder
And went with half my life about my ways.
There is necessarily something dazed about that ‘who can wonder?’ but there is also an unsentimental, straightforward loneliness in ‘went about my ways’. This is what one does despite the endless wondering. So when Frank Harris says, in one of the many brilliant interludes in The Invention of Love, ‘I think he stayed with the wrong people in Shropshire. I never read such a book for telling you you’re better off dead,’ he is right, but he’s missing, as Stoppard never does, Housman’s steeliness and the amused way he can also relish the grim. Housman can’t cheer up, but he’s not simply unhappy.
If he wanted to be able to die for someone he loved, as the speaker does in several Housman poems, it does rather imply that it was death he was really in love with:
It was not foes to conquer
Nor sweethearts to be kind,
But it was friends to die for
That I would seek and find.
Friends, it would almost seem, were the necessary pretext for something far better. If you want someone to die for, someone for whom you can sacrifice your life, then being alive with them must be something of a problem. And yet Housman’s poems are preternaturally alert to what the idea of death can do for us in life. How we use it as a stop-gap: how it is always ironised, when longed for, because it is a self-defeating refuge. (Housman’s wonderful, funny line, ‘Oh who would not sleep with the brave,’ acknowledges the fact that sleeping with the brave is likely to mean sleeping with the dead, and that’s not sleeping with anyone.) He can convey with uncanny power the strange imaginative fact of death – not what it might be like exactly, but that it may not be like anything – yet he’s never altogether seduced by death because he never finds solutions sufficiently convincing, let alone easy to come by:
I see the country far away
Where I shall never stand:
The heart goes where no footstep may
Into the Promised Land
Whether the Promised Land is death or redemption hardly matters: it is so far away that to all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist. Moses without monotheism, without any gods at all, is Housman’s figure for the poet and the lover. His poems are accurate, above all, about longing, which we never get right, the longing for death especially:
Some can gaze and not be sick
But I could never learn the trick.
There’s this to say for blood and breath
They give a man a taste for death
– the one thing you can’t just have a taste of. The first line is Beckett-funny – and Beckett does seem the ‘modern’ writer with whom Housman has the greatest affinity and who would also know the outskirts of meaning of a word like ‘trick’: that the noun speaks of ‘magic’ as well as ‘deception’ and ‘artifice’, but the verb means also ‘to trifle with’, ‘to dress up’, ‘to prepare food’. Without a few tricks life makes you ill; and you can’t try a bit of death, even if you think you’ve got a taste for it. And that’s true too.
So Housman is never fussily precise, in his poems or his prose, because he doesn’t seem to believe in warding things off. That is to say, he doesn’t believe in magic, or the more obvious forms of submission. Like hedonism, for example: the tyrannical demand that one enjoy oneself – the most punitive demand of all. This was something Housman was often more astute about than Wilde. ‘Think no more, lad; laugh be jolly:/Why should men make haste to die?’ It isn’t clear here which is the most deathly: thinking or having what is pertly called a good time. Because the answers to the question are too obvious, the solution looks rather unpromising. The poem ends, appropriately, echoing its beginning: ‘Think no more; tis only thinking/Lays lads underground.’ One’s own death never makes haste; and if thinking produces a kind of death in life – one may not be lost in thought, but buried in it – even thinking about not thinking won’t stop you dying. Time also ‘lays lads underground’; and as ever with Housman it is the oddly disturbing sexual connotation of the most ordinary words that has its way with the reader. There is no esoteric diction in his poetry, just the putting of ordinary, or the more traditional poetic, words in unusual places. As in a joke, whatever is slightly incongruous is doing all the work. So when he writes in a poem published after his own death, ‘For I was luckless aye/And shall not die for you,’ the poetic ‘aye’ is pointedly rueful in its acknowledgment that only the worst things seem to last for ever; that ‘aye’ is, as it were, a duplicitous pun.
‘Even when poetry has a meaning,’ Housman wrote, ‘as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out.’ Not because it may be disturbing but because it may be beside the point. For Housman the meaning of a poem too easily substitutes for what he calls the feeling in it. If poems had meanings they would not need to be poems. It is as though in his few prose writings about poetry he wants to dissuade people from having the wrong kinds of conversation about his poetry. So when critics write about his poems – and Randall Jarrell, John Bayley and Christopher Ricks have all written wonderfully about Housman – they have to struggle not to unpick them; not to treat them as metaphysical poems masquerading as ballads and traditional lyrics. Making the case for ‘feeling’, as Housman was so keen to do, has always been difficult – indeed, has often been best done in poems – and has perhaps never before been so difficult as it is now. At the dead-end of Romanticism, Housman’s position on poetry can seem something of a bluff, given that his own poems are often powerfully moving and extremely shrewd. Nothing dates people like their manifestos, but in his own defences of poetry Housman is a caricature of the version of Romanticism represented most notably by Arnold’s defence of Wordsworth as the poet of feeling – as though he struggled to be behind the times. And as though he didn’t want his poems scrutinised in the way he might scrutinise a text: that is, for plausibility, the coherence of its logic. But when one is being true to one’s feelings it is not – or perhaps no longer – clear what one is being true to; whereas in editing a text there might be principles to abide by. Housman’s poems are all about what happens when one has nothing, or no one, to be true to.
So the decisions Burnett makes in editing Housman are an implicit commentary on the kinds of dilemma Housman himself faced. Housman described his four-volume edition of Manilius (published between 1903 and 1920) as ‘the combination of a tedious author with an odious editor’. He clearly relished being so unenviable and so gruesomely clear-sighted about his project. Burnett is a generous and attentive editor, as principled in his intentions, and as undazzled by ambiguity, as Housman was. ‘This edition has several aims,’ he writes, introducing his Introduction, ‘to print all of A.H. Housman’s verse; to elucidate and correct the text of the verse published posthumously; to record textual variants from manuscript and printed sources; and to provide a commentary on each poem.’ ‘Commentary’, possibly the only word in this sentence that invites interpretation, means mostly an incisive noting of the ‘convincing’ literary and Biblical allusions in Housman’s now obviously rather allusive poetry. True to Housman’s favoured distinction, Burnett writes: ‘Passages are adduced for consideration with no indication of their status or significance: that is a matter for literary criticism and I have endeavoured only to provide a foundation for such criticism.’ Editors of volumes like this may be the only people left who have such a clear sense of what literary criticism is. Or of what foundations are; referring briefly to three critical commentaries on one of the poems, Burnett concludes his note as Housman might have: ‘All these interpretations lack is a foundation.’
There are 282 pages of verse in this edition, and 253 pages of commentary. Faced with a new theory, William James always wanted to ask: how would my life be better if I believed it? It should not now be irrelevant to ask how reading Housman is improved after reading the poems in this edition. Especially since, in the light of Housman’s own strictures about poetry, a scholarly edition of his own poems might seem precisely to miss the point. He would certainly have wanted an accurate text, but a commentary? ‘Poetry is either easy or impossible,’ he wrote in a letter. He meant the composing of it, but much of what he wrote about poetry – his always unwilling excursions into literary criticism – suggest that he felt the same about the reading of it. ‘Meaning is of the intellect,’ he wrote in The Name and Nature of Poetry, ‘poetry is not.’ Whatever that means it meant something very important to Housman. Scholarship was about information and knowledge, poetry was about something else. This is not a fashionable view; nor one that could sustain a literary critical industry. And it would be usefully difficult now to take Housman on his own terms – or at least at his word. When poetry worked for Housman it had a kind of involuntary appeal; and when he tried to find analogies for its mysterious effect – like the hair that would stand up when he was shaving – they were not to do with high culture. Lines of real poetry ‘find their way to something in man which is obscure and latent, something older than the present organisation of his nature, like the patches of fen which still linger here and there in the drained lands of Cambridgeshire’.
What Housman is promoting here is neither the sublime nor the primitive, but what grows despite all kinds of cultivation elsewhere. He is not merely alluding to the rougher stuff outside; nor is this the don’s contempt for learning. It is praise for a certain kind of resilience. ‘Life is not there to be understood, only endured and ameliorated,’ the old Housman says to the young Housman in Stoppard’s play – and it is both a good conceit and a brilliant dramatic device because the poetry gives the impression that the young Housman had always been in some kind of dialogue with an imagined older self, and often with a dead one; that he was always old before his time. So in the poems it is as though an older, more experienced voice is warning the young and innocent about life, in the full knowledge that they won’t be able to hear – they wouldn’t be young if they could. (Housman’s description of Blake as ‘the most poetical of poets’ is slyly of a piece with the ‘meaning’ of his own poems.) And because Housman’s disillusionment sometimes seems to be a subtle form of boasting, the poems often relish their sadnesses. It is not the virtues of youth that find an innocent echo in his poems.
In a sense, Housman was always the same age, even though he got older. So his poems don’t seem to develop, but just to get more and more like his poems. Reading them in Burnett’s edition shows how fiercely focused Housman’s preoccupations always were. And not just thematically, but in their references and allusions. The great boon of this edition – apart from the previously unpublished notebook fragments that it contains, many as good as the best of Housman’s previously published work – is that it shows the idiosyncratic range of literature that found an echo in his own words. It also makes evident the ways in which Housman knew what he was doing. ‘No doubt,’ he wrote in a letter in 1933, three years before he died, ‘I have unconsciously been influenced by the Greeks and Latins, but I was surprised when critics spoke of my poetry as “classical”. Its chief sources of which I am conscious are Shakespeare’s songs, the Scottish border ballads, and Heine.’ Burnett’s edition confirms this, while also revealing how important Milton was for Housman, as well as the poets of the century he was born in: Arnold, as one would expect, given Housman’s lifelong admiration for him, but Tennyson, Christina Rossetti and Swinburne all find their way into his always unostentatiously allusive lyrics. It is also interesting to discover, in a life devoted, as it were, to pagans, Housman’s unbelieving devotion to the Bible. When John Sparrow sent him a copy of his paper, ‘Echoes in the Poetry of A.E. Housman’, he wrote back with some irritation: ‘I see that you are not such a student of the Bible as I am.’ It is worth wondering what a student of the Bible in the early part of the century who was also an unbeliever might be a student of. Whether there could be wisdom-literature – or wisdom in literature – was certainly an issue for Housman, but not one he was keen to be polemical about. He tended to sharpen his opinions about the value of literature by being relatively costive about them, at least in print. The brevity of his best poems is a testament to his implicit conviction that saying a lot was not necessarily saying very much. ‘Swinburne,’ Housman once remarked, ‘has now said not only all he has to say about everything, but all he has to say about nothing.’ For Housman, saying it all was not saying enough.
Housman’s poetic output was comparatively small – two books published in his lifetime, and two published after his death – but his reading and his scholarship were prodigious. Burnett intimates that he was working on his poems for long periods of time even when he wasn’t actually writing them. Entire poems and excerpts from poems were copied out into two notebooks from c. 1875-80, and again in the Nineties, and a great many passages in the books he read were marked out and annotated. ‘The habit of mind cultivated in such ways,’ Burnett writes, ‘meant that when he echoed or alluded to the words of others, he was often conscious of doing so.’ This sounds plausible but it is, of course, impossible to verify. It’s not obvious what makes one a good editor of oneself; and if one is conscious of echoing or alluding to something one is virtually quoting it, and Housman – unlike Eliot, whom Burnett mentions by way of comparison – doesn’t sound like that kind of poet. (And if the allusions in his poetry are intentional does that mean Housman wants the reader to recognise them, and if so, why?) More like those of Hardy or Larkin, or the ballads he so much admired, his poems require a minimal literary and no serious classical education to be read and enjoyed. Unlike the scholarship, they are not intimidating. They are exacting in a very different sense: a sense not easily suited to the languages of contemporary criticism.
In a remarkable spat between Wilde and Housman towards the end of Stoppard’s play, Wilde is made to sound flashy and dull, as though already dated by his own notoriety. ‘You are right to be a scholar,’ he says blithely to Housman. ‘A scholar is all scruple, an artist is none. The artist must lie, cheat, deceive, be untrue to nature and contemptuous of history. I made my life into my art and it was an unqualified success.’ But Housman, for whom there could be no such thing as an unqualified success, is made by Stoppard to seem by far the more impressive figure. This is not the usual way round, yet here Wilde’s flaunting of his transgressions seems rather sad bravado next to Housman’s more rueful histories: ‘My life is marked by long silences ... Classics apart, my life was not short enough for me to not do the things I wanted to not do ... Your life,’ he says to Wilde, ‘is a terrible thing. A chronological error. The choice was not always between renunciation and folly.’ The play is fascinating not least because Wilde seems to represent, among other things, Stoppard’s own fluency and facility pitted against something, or someone, more reticent and cautious. And it is Housman’s vulnerability rather than Wilde’s that is made to seem the more inspired, the more resilient.
As The Invention of Love notices so well, Housman was never glum or solemn. And Burnett’s Housman, like Stoppard’s, is more interestingly deliberate than the more famous Housman of Auden’s poem, with his defeated masochistic life. ‘Deliberately he chose the dryasdust.’ Housman wasn’t fooled by his own diligence, in the way Wilde was fooled by his own determined lack of it. ‘How the world is managed, and why it was created I cannot tell,’ he wrote in the Preface to the edition of Manilius to which he devoted thirty years of his life, ‘but it is no feather-bed for the repose of sluggards.’ This was about as much amused vindication as there was for Housman, but it is a good thing to know. And as theology goes, it is mercifully brief.