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.

Mr Graves’s section about Housman’s reading is interesting, though heavily indebted to Grant Richards. Housman read Proust and James; he enjoyed Colette; he much admired the work of Edith Wharton. Mr Graves finds it surprising that he neglected the opportunity to cultivate the society of E.M. Forster: my guess would be that he did not think much more highly of Forster’s work than he did of Galsworthy’s. The only Lawrence he is recorded to have read is Lady Chatterley, from which, like the unlearned readers who had heard that his Manilius contained a scurrilous preface, he doubtless hoped to extract a low enjoyment. Mr Graves is artlessly surprised at his having read Heine in the original, not realising that any serious Classical scholar has to read a great deal of German: but Housman seems to have read very little German literature for pleasure. One wonders if he ever tried Nietzsche, who might have interested him greatly. He had an affinity with Kipling. One of the most interesting things Mr Graves tells is that, in the text of ‘Heriot’s Ford’ in his copy of Kipling’s poems, Housman crossed out the last six verses and changed ‘your might’ to ‘the night’ in v.1, 1.4 and ‘judgment follows’ to ‘darkness gathers’ in v.2, 1.4.

Mr Graves records with satisfaction the triumphant reception given to the lecture on The Name and Nature of Poetry in 1933, in which Housman declared that ‘the peculiar function of poetry was not to transmit thought but to transfuse emotion’, and asserted ‘that poetry had nothing to do with intellect’. Only Leavis, we are told, disapproved, and that because he construed the lecture as a personal attack upon himself.

Mr Graves makes a valiant effort to do justice to Housman’s scholarship, but altogether lacks equipment for the task. He is aware that Housman concentrated on textual criticism, but he has little notion of the distinctive qualities of his work in that domain. ‘Sensitivity,’ he writes, ‘combined with his knowledge of what it was to be a poet and to write poetry, particularly fitted Housman for the task of emending the Latin poets.’ That is in a sense true, but Mr Graves’s way of expressing himself shows that he is not aware that the Latin poets whom Housman emended wrote a very different kind of poetry from his own, or that sensitivity would have been of little use without extensive knowledge. When he wants to tell us what a good scholar Housman was, he quotes the late John Carter’s comment on the testimonials supplied by various scholars when Housman was candidate for the Chair of Latin at University College, London. ‘Perhaps only those conversant with the trades-union of Academe,’ wrote Carter, ‘can appreciate to the full the exceptional character of such a volley of endorsements.’ Mr Graves might have made better use of Gow; and although he quotes the excellent talk on Housman broadcast by D.R. Shackleton Bailey on the 100th anniversary of his birth and published in the Listener for 7 May 1959, he quotes it at second hand and cannot, I think, have read it.

Mr Graves applies a mild variety of the psychological technique favoured by so many biographers. ‘Alfred,’ he writes, ‘had been brought up by a weak father and a powerful mother, and it is reasonable to suppose that his unusually strong relationship with his mother had led to an early development of the more feminine aspects of his psychological make-up – a development which may indeed be largely responsible for the sensitivity of his poetry and the imaginative insight of his textual scholarship.’ Wondering why Housman chose to call his Mr Hearsay, Terence, Mr Graves ventures, unusually, upon a daring speculation. ‘The Greek poet Terence’, he writes (Terence was an African who wrote Latin, but no matter), ‘was brought to Rome as a slave, and lived there in exile; no doubt Housman, thinking of his own exile in London from the world of his childhood, saw some similarity in their situations.’

Mr Graves is surely right to point out that the failure in Greats, due, it would seem, to youthful arrogance and over-confidence, must have sharpened the extreme ambition which drove Housman to apply himself to scholarship with such an exceptional degree of thoroughness. Later, he thinks, Housman realised that he was homosexual, and this, together with the consequent realisation that Moses Jackson was not, combined with the failure in Greats to drive him in upon himself. It is to Mr Graves’s credit that he does not exaggerate the bitter element in Housman’s character. He shows that, in the company of people whom he knew and trusted, Housman could be a delightful and entertaining companion. Although his pupils of both sexes were often repelled by his reserve, his colleagues both at University College and at Cambridge found him a congenial member of their society, and with some of them, like Arthur Platt and Andrew Gow, he was on easy terms.

It is interesting to learn that, on the trips abroad which he began to make after his appointment to the London Chair, Housman was able to find satisfaction for his sexual needs in a manner he would not have ventured to attempt in England. At home, he was a model of propriety, sternly rebuking Grant Richards for returning through the English post a Tauchnitz volume he had lent him. ‘Even in the Cambridge of Forster, Brooke and Keynes,’ writes Mr Graves, Housman ‘felt imprisoned’: but he accumulated a large collection of curiosa, as has been known since part of his library was sold in Oxford. Mr Graves reveals that a document in Housman’s writing found among his papers contains ‘what seem to be references to a number of male prostitutes, including sailors and ballet-dancers, together with a note of the price paid on various occasions for their services, and a marginal note in which Alfred refers with some satisfaction to the large number of these homosexual encounters which he had enjoyed in the space of little over a fortnight’. We must note the ‘seem to be’, and be cautious. I remember hearing, though I cannot vouch for the story’s authenticity, of a notebook containing numbers found among Housman’s papers. An American scholar worked on it for many years, decoding a number of poems thought to resemble Housman’s, only to be made aware that the numbers were actually those of the dogs which, during his afternoon walks, the Professor had contrived to kick. In early years, Housman often went to Venice, but the gondolier, Andrea, seems in the end to have proved wearisome; the fine poem about the fall of the Campanile seems to have indicated a recognition, if I may employ Mr Graves’s method, that Andrea could not console the poet for the loss of Moses Jackson. After that, Housman went usually to Paris. Sometimes he was accompanied by mysterious companions; once when he was in France and Richards proposed one of their gastronomic expeditions, Housman replied that he was travelling with a companion whom Richards would not get on with. Housman sent a copy of The Shropshire Lad to Wilde, who was delighted with the present; Mr Graves is not the first to detect Housman’s influence in The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Housman came at the end of the Romantic movement, when it was already moribund. His verse was simple and easy to understand, and was therefore extravagantly praised by many whose taste in poetry was conventional and who were incapable of appreciating more distinguished work by writers who had turned their backs on Romanticism. In his London Introductory Lecture of 1892, and again in his Leslie Stephen Lecture of 1933, Housman expressed in its most extreme form the romantic dogma that real art is concerned simply to excite emotion, and has nothing whatsoever to do with intellect. Even in 1933, the more critical section of the public was aware that this theory had come under heavy fire and had had its credit seriously undermined. It is not surprising that his critical pronouncements, and his poetry also, were attacked by several formidable antagonists.

Nothing could better illustrate the weakness of Housman’s critical position than the strange difference between his poetry and his scholarship. Housman’s skill in the editing of texts was principally exercised on writers powerfully influenced by rhetoric: like the English poets of the school of Pope, whom Housman regarded as being no true poets, they had as their stock-in-trade wit, polish, elegance. Some set much store by the content as well as the manner of their work: one whom Housman particularly admired happened to be, of all things, a didactic poet. The cliché that Housman took refuge in his poetry from the austere world of scholarship is false as well as stale, for the exact opposite is the truth. When Housman was exercising his profession, he could indulge the love of wit, rhetoric and persuasive exposition which his learned work displays: all these things were proscribed by the stern laws of extreme romanticism, as rigid as the decrees of his own fate-bound stoic universe, which he bowed down to. Housman often denied that Manilius, to whom he devoted the main effort of his working life, was more than a mediocre poet. In fact, by the canons of his own kind of art, he is a poet of considerable merit: I wish someone would reprint an article in the Spectator in which the late Darsie Gillie demonstrated this effectively. Housman also did brilliant work on Ovid and Lucan, of whose high quality he must, even if subconsciously, have been keenly aware.

Housman claimed that the rarest of gifts was that of literary criticism: once in a while there arose a Lessing or an Arnold, but ordinary men had better not attempt anything so difficult. Mr Graves repeats the well-known story of how Housman, lecturing in Cambridge, carefully dealt with the textual problems of the seventh ode of Horace’s fourth Book, and then said: ‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ His way of doing that was to read the Latin, and then his own beautiful romantic translation, and after that to blurt out in embarrassed fashion, ‘I regard that as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature’, and to leave the room. He did not think it necessary to explain why he felt this about the poem, and seemed distressed at having touched publicly on an emotional matter.

It is true that in Housman’s time much of what passed for literary criticism was sentimental adulation. Classical scholars were among the worst offenders in this respect. People with romantic taste took it for granted that the ancients also had it: Gilbert Murray, seven years Housman’s junior and gifted with an unusual flair for Greek, won immense applause for rendering Greek tragedy into Swinburnian verse. Dominated though he was by the tyranny of Romanticism, Housman was too intelligent to share this delusion. In the Cambridge Inaugural Lecture which was delivered in 1911 but not published until 1969, he ridiculed the prevalent opinion that ‘the secret of the classical spirit is open to anyone who has a fervent admiration for the second-best parts of Tennyson.’ His reaction to that kind of literary criticism was to avoid literary criticism altogether: it seems not to have occurred to him that it might be possible to write literary criticism in a different way.

Mr Graves alludes to an essay written many years ago in which John Wain says of Housman: ‘His stock of ideas was tiny; his human responsiveness, after early life, almost nil; his general intelligence poor.’ Anyone who reads Mr Graves’s book will be inclined to doubt all these propositions, particularly the last; anyone acquainted with Housman’s learned work and able to understand it will dismiss them with derision, as I have no doubt Mr Wain himself would now do. Housman was a man of the greatest intellectual ability, so that there is something tragic about his failure to attempt the great deed of breaking through the ring of fire with which Romanticism had encircled the sleeping Brünnhilde of the critical intelligence applied to literature. Had his emotional life not been stunted by early misfortune, he might have been capable of the attempt. Perhaps a latent consciousness of this conspired with other frustrations to make him seek relief in writing what Auden called ‘savage footnotes on unjust editions’. Even the greatest admirer of his scholarship must admit that there is something unbalanced about much of his polemic: as a distinguished Cambridge scholar told Mr Graves, his influence on Latin studies has not been entirely beneficial.

Housman’s poetry was greatly overrated by the latest survivors of the Romantic tradition, though never by himself. The late Cyril Connolly, during an exchange in the New Statesman soon after Housman’s death, now conveniently reprinted in Christopher Ricks’s Housman volume in the series ‘20th-century Views’, drew attention to many weaknesses: but if one can accept them on their own terms, a fair number of his poems surely stand up. Eliot, whose surprisingly sympathetic review of The Name and Nature of Poetry gave Housman pleasure, certainly held this view. On the only occasion on which I met Eliot, I told him that Grant Richards had recorded Housman’s admiration for his own work. Eliot seemed surprised and greatly pleased; he told me that Housman had attended all his Clark Lectures, but with a face so impassive that he had no idea whether or not Housman had approved. Then he mentioned some of his favourite poems of Housman. He spoke of ‘Her strong enchantments failing’, and remarked that the penultimate line of the stanza of ‘Fancy’s Knell’ made against the notion that Housman had not a subtle ear. If Housman had been able to effect a junction between his poetic and his critical self, if like the mutinous Ned in one of his finest poems – how characteristic that when he submitted Last Poems to J.W. Mackail for criticism, ‘Hell Gate’ should have been the one he had most doubts about! – he had found the courage to shoot the devil, might he have become a major poet, instead of a minor poet who was also a great scholar?