A.E. Housman and Biography

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

There is, as Richard Graves points out, no general biography of Housman. The books about him by Laurence Housman, Grant Richards and Percy Withers are valuable, because these men knew Housman and could describe him: but they are not biographies. George Watson’s A.E. Housman: A Divided Life is more like one, but it is not quite one; of Norman Marlow and Maude Hawkins I say nothing. The most satisfying book about Housman is A.S.F. Gow’s Housman: A Sketch but, as Mr Graves says, its aims are limited, since it is mainly concerned with Housman’s scholarship.

Mr Graves’s book takes us through Housman’s life, stage by stage. It gives full, rather too full, details about the Housman family; it gives much information about the Patent Office, University College and Cambridge periods, using printed sources and adding some material from unprinted papers and from personal communications. A few interesting facts and good stories appear here for the first time. Mr Graves treats Housman with sympathy, is enthusiastic about his poetry, and tries hard to do justice to his scholarship. The disappearance of the taboo on writing frankly about homosexuality makes things easier for him. He has worked hard and seems accurate, though there is an unfortunate mix-up on page 89, where I do not think he means to say that Housman was in love with Professor A.W. Pollard. His prose is clear, though not very distinguished, and he has excellent intentions: so that one is sorry to have to say that his book is only mildly interesting.

The truth is that, although it is good to have a general biography of Housman, it was not a particularly urgent need. The main facts have long been known: the early loss of his mother and his faith, the failure in Greats, the relationships with Moses and Adalbert Jackson. One could write a more interesting book by cutting biographical data to a minimum and concentrating on Housman’s work. One might then place his poetry in its historical context and assess it critically, taking account of the literary attitudes expressed in the London Introductory and Leslie Stephen Lectures. The author of such a study would find it helpful to have some understanding of the scholarly work which was the main business of Housman’s life, since the relation of this activity to his poetry is of great interest.

Mr Graves quotes copiously from the poems, and speaks of them with enthusiasm, though not always with approval. But since he wishes to introduce a new generation to the beauties of Housman’s poetry, enthusiasm is not quite enough: we need critical evaluation, and we do not find it here. Mr Graves is a biographer, not a critic, and may plead that, in the case of a romantic poet like Housman it is legitimate to make biographical inferences from his poems: but one becomes infuriated by his unvarying assumption that every poem may be related to some incident in the poet’s life. For example, ‘The rainy Pleiads wester’ is described as ‘a love poem about Moses Jackson’. A group of poems about war, says Mr Graves, ‘taken together, show the complexity of Housman’s attitude. On the one hand, he writes admiringly of bravery; on the other, he cannot but feel the tragedy when brave men die, and that they have missed their real purpose in life.’ That gives an idea of how much complexity Mr Graves is able to perceive. His nadir is reached on page 240, where an awful stanza that contains the line ‘Be good to the lad that loves you true’ is quoted with admiration, forming the peroration to a chapter.

Mr Graves’s treatment of the question of influences is correspondingly superficial. He quotes Housman as saying that he was conscious of three models, the Border Ballads, Heine and Shakespeare’s songs, and he names other influences: the Bible and Arnold are the two most important of those he names, and Hymns Ancient and Modern and Hardy the two most important of those he omits. But he is interested principally in echoes, and cannot show how each of these influences affected Housman. The strongest influence, not only because the echoes are so frequent – G.B.A. Fletcher’s long list in Richards’s book could be expanded – is surely Heine: compared to his, the influence of Shakespeare and the Ballads is remote. But instead of critical discussion of such questions, Mr Graves offers only lengthy and repetitive descriptions, without explanation, of Housman’s rhetorical attitude of cosmic despair. It does not occur to him to set it against the cosmic despair of a poet such as Leopardi – a process that might be revealing.

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