Spruce

John Bayley

  • A.E. Housman: Collected Poems and Selected Prose edited by Christopher Ricks
    Allen Lane, 528 pp, £18.95, April 1988, ISBN 0 7139 9009 0

On 9 May 1933, A.E. Housman, Professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, and a scholar worshipped and hated for his meticulous standards and his appalling sarcasms on the unscholarly, delivered the Leslie Stephen Lecture on ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’. In the course of it he quoted ‘O mistress mine, where are you roaming?’ and he quoted it as ‘where art thou roaming?’ He had omitted to verify his memory of something so well-known. He silently put this right on publication. Was one of his colleagues brave enough to draw his attention to the error, or did he correct it himself, perhaps with a faint inward smile?

Such a speculation is one of the numerous minor pleasures to be had when reading Ricks’s notes to this fine edition of the poems, and most of the prose. Ricks, too, is a rigorous scholar, who can be almost as acerbic as Housman himself, but he notes the mistake and the correction without comment. That seems right. No comment would be appropriate; and Ricks is in any case economical and crisply factual in his notations, as the Master was. But it is engaging to find that Housman could be careless like the rest of us, perhaps momentarily carried away by pleasure in his own point of view, which was that ‘ravishing poetry’ is often ‘nonsense’, although to his brother he protested that he did not say ‘poetry was the better for having no meaning, only that it can best be detected so.’ Seventy-four at the time, and three years from death, he probably said it to annoy the serious young dons in the serious new English departments, and he certainly succeeded. It pleased him not only to be a voice from the past, but a voice of almost youthful irresponsibility, dissent, blasphemy, iconoclasm.

And it pleased him no doubt to dis-identify himself, as a scholar, with what he had spoken as a mere critic, a connoisseur of verse. ‘You didn’t get one,’ he said to a friend, talking about the lecture, ‘because I haven’t given a copy to anyone. I take no pride in it. I would rather forget it, and have my friends forget. I don’t wish it to be associated with me.’ He did not wish to be one of the herd who got things wrong and blurted out their pleasures. But the original impish impulse was still there, and it lurks in everything he wrote. Housman was ‘a character’, the most important reason for the popularity of his poetry. Indeed, he was almost ‘a card’. ‘He’s a deep one,’ people used to say of such rare individuals, laying a finger to the side of the nose. Depth in poetry, where it relates specifically to the personality of the poet, always has a teasing quality. Philip Larkin, who admired Housman officially and also less openly, had many of the same characteristics.

Housman can be brutally exclamatory and immediate, though always poised.

When the bells justle in the tower
      The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
      Of all I ever did.

That poem of four lines has been much admired. Auden admired it particularly, and it is clear why, because the craftsmanship is brilliant and the thrust and pressure of the words as exact as those of the stones in the tower itself. Auden had a beady eye for the laxity of self-indulgence, even when, as occurs in Hardy’s poems, it is a part of their personal engagingness. ‘I never cared for life: life cared for me,’ writes Hardy, and Auden commented: ‘What – never? Come, come, Mr Hardy.’ The line of poetry and the reaction to it make an agreeable whole, even an appropriately cosy one. But Housman, as Auden must have seen, repels any such approach. For one thing his gloom is absolutely specific. ‘Then on my tongue ...’ On other occasions the flavour of oysters and chablis, Guinness or ‘Turbot Housman’, that delectable fish dish concocted for him in compliment by a Paris chef, tasted very different, very much better. And there were moments with a gondolier in Venice and a French sailor in Grenoble ... In some ghostly sense, the tongue in that taut verse seems to record and even to savour these other happenings. And that again is what personality means in Housman’s verse.

None the less, it may be that in this poem, which Housman himself never published and which appears in Additional Poems, after Last Poems and the posthumous More Poems, there does appear an almost inevitable element of self-cultivation. The poem opposite, also of four lines, is a different matter.

Now to her lap the incestuous earth
      The son she bore has ta’en.
And other sons she brings to birth
      But not my friend again.

Here the personality tremors set up seem to achieve a real involuntariness, almost inadvertence. The conceit in the first sentence is itself disturbing. The earth mother couples with her dead child. The conceit would remain in the metaphysical area of mildly daring ingenuity if the next sentence were to run ‘And other daughters brings to birth/But not my love again’. Such a quatrain would of course not be poetry, though its point – earth’s jealousy and defeat of her daughters where her sons are concerned – would give it a little wit. As things are, the repetition of ‘sons’ is tense against ‘my friend’, the moving simplicity of which stands in sharp contrast to the conceit of the first two lines. There are real tears in the verse, and they are not, in the words of Auden’s sonnet on Housman, ‘like dirty postcards in a drawer’.

Writing to the Vice-Master of Trinity, to excuse himself from taking on the duty of Public Orator, Housman remarked that prose cost him infinite pains to produce, but that ‘poetry is either easy or impossible’. It is in a sense the combination of the two that makes his own. Rightly or wrongly, the reader finds himself corroborating Housman’s account, in ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, of how some lines and whole verses just came into his head, while the rest took months of labour and were seldom entirely satisfactory. The feeling of two separate processes, though no doubt an experience common with poets, makes Housman’s verse peculiarly satisfying, although there is no need to enter the competition, dangled before us at the end of the lecture, to guess which stanzas came how in the last poem of The Shropshire Lad, ‘I hoed and trenched and weeded’:

Two of the stanzas, I do not say which, came into my head, just as they are printed, while I was crossing the corner of Hampstead Heath between the Spaniard’s Inn and the footpath to Temple Fortune. A third stanza came with a little coaxing after tea. One more was needed, but it did not come: I had to turn to and compose it myself, and that was a laborious business. I wrote it 13 times.

My guess would be that was the first verse, but there is no knowing. A sense of the distinction moves unquietly in every poem, however, and seems independent of all the stuff about a line of poetry in the head turning the blade while shaving. Like most ‘characters’, Housman was an exceedingly vain man, who could not bear his vanity to show in the normal human way. Having displayed it in the lecture, he disowned it as much as he could, in the same way that he both displayed and disowned his feelings. His singular love for Moses Jackson, who went to India, and whose brother Adalbert died of typhoid, is now well-known: but while it may have made him fail his Oxford exams, it remains the most obvious part of his mystery, even though the most touching one.

Less accountable is Housman’s humour, and how it can constitute a kind of undercover language, or bush telegraph. Humour is a product of the involuntary, and seems to go with the things that came into his head, even when these have his most memorable kinds of beauty.

From far, from eve and morning
      And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
      Blew hither: here am I.

The syntax itself has the opening of a Housman involuntary, as in ‘Stars, I have seen them fall’ or ‘It nods and curtseys and recovers/When the wind blows above’, as if something was jerked out of him, and then put in the most dextrous setting and meticulous order. The stolen congruity is also a secret comedy. He once dreamed the couplet

Above the soldier’s grave there twine
The Woodbine and the Concubine.

It would be difficult to find in his daytime verse a more concentrated instance of the things that haunted his fancy and his sexual fancy, the grotesque side of such things here given full play in sleep: soldiers, graves, and what should attend and commemorate them, which sound like flowers but are in fact cheap tobacco and cheap women. That reverence for the ‘lads of the Fifty-Third’, the Shropshire regiment, which appears in the first poem of A Shropshire Lad, commemorating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, is echoed in all his references to the military life, but never more characteristically than in this dream couplet.

The buried humour in that first poem, with the epigraph ‘1887’, induced one or two of Housman’s more progressive friends to praise him, at a later date, for this satiric comment on Throne, Empire, militarism. He was very angry indeed. How he froze them off is noted by Cleanth Brooks in his admirable discussion of the poem in a volume of critical essays on Housman edited by Christopher Ricks, now more than twenty years old. There is never any satire in Housman’s humour, but there is a great deal of sex, and a great deal of love. ‘Get you the sons your fathers got,/And God will save the Queen’ is how the poem ends; and Housman, haunted all his life by the vagaries of compositors, would notice with sardonic satisfaction that the final full stop has dropped out in this palatial new edition.

‘Lad’ was a word with a mystic significance for him, a significance which, in popular form, it still possesses in fervent remarks by trade-union leaders. One wonders whether he knew it could once have the sense of ‘girl’. Certainly sex is not exclusive in his verse: the urge is there in all forms for all readers, and there is fervour rather than irony in the last lines of that first poem, a passion inseparable from his telegraphic humour, and quite compatible with Housman’s own sexual tastes. These, if Auden is to be believed, were strictly pathic, a preference universally despised in the ancient world. That incongruity, in one steeped in the Classics, would go with Housman’s own public stance of epicurean stoic. It also goes with his curious tenderness for women, which might be called a tender contempt – the way he felt his soldiers felt about them. The beautiful word ‘concubine’ expresses what he wished for the troops, also for and as himself: expresses, too, his own self-contempt, which was possibly less dire than is usually supposed. The undercover code of his poems is suitably ambiguous on the point. It can be secretly but excitedly shameless (‘Ho, everyone that thirsteth’), or it can be the equivalent of George V’s sentiments on the subject (‘Shot? So quick, so clean an ending?). One wonders how its early readers could have mistaken the meaning of that poem, No 44 in A Shropshire Lad, or that of No 45 – ‘If it chance your eye offend you’ – but perhaps, as Housman was later to claim for himself, they did not expect poetry to mean anything.

But it is the meaning that puts the alcohol in the drink, the frisson in the feel, which doesn’t diminish however often we open the poems.

Their voices, dying as they fly,
      Loose on the wind are sown;
The names of men blow soundless by,
      My fellows’ and my own.

The soundless and speechless cadence that makes one shiver really does seem that of death, memory and desire – all the most private and potent moments of living. Deadpan humour is their perfect foil.

In gross marl, in blowing dust,
      In the drowned ooze of the sea,
Where you would not, lie you must,
      Lie you must, and not with me.

Sometimes that humour can be brutal, as in the marvellously haunting poem, never published by Housman himself, on the fall of the Venice campanile. Its metonym refers specifically to Housman’s sexual nature, and his goodbye to the gondolier who serviced it.

Andrea, fare you well;
Venice, farewell to thee.
The tower that stood and fell
Is not rebuilt in me.

The jokes in his poetry, if they can be called that, are usually Biblical or literary echoes, like the one from Collins (‘I will ’list for a lancer/Oh who would not sleep with the brave?’) or from ‘1887’ (‘The saviours come not home tonight:/Themselves they could not save’). In his occasional ‘light’ verse the same Biblical punning is more heavy-handed, as in the jingle about ‘Lieutenant-Colonel Mary Jane’ of the Salvation Army, who ‘tumbled off the platform in the station/And was cut in little pieces by the train’.

Mary Jane, the train is through yer:
        Hallelujah. Hallelujah!
We will gather up the fragments that remain.

Even at his most meticulous Housman can be heavy-handed, and also ‘masculine’ in an oppressive sense, perhaps because such a persona in him does not carry conviction. According to Maurice Bowra, he professed to enjoy and to circulate smoking-room jokes of the crudest kind, uncompensated for by the smallest wit and humour. His least successful poems, like the ones about hanging and throat-cutting, make too obvious a point, and the same goes for that ‘beautifully written’ and rather longer than usual poem, ‘Hell Gate’, which he selected for Last Poems. Its allegory of two ‘damned’ friends, who escape from hell, shooting its master, is embarrassing rather than moving, and for all its exquisite Miltonic precisions –

And the ebbing lustre died
From the soldier at my side,
As in all his spruce attire
Failed the everlasting fire –

its message fails to rise to its occasion, perhaps because it is obvious that the poet does not believe in hell, for sexual or any other offences. The poem is indeed ‘spruce’, as was Houseman’s own appearance. He was proud of that adjective in its context, and defended it to an academic friend.

The inspiration of ‘Hell Gate’ is clearly Horace’s Diffugere nives, the only poem from the Latin Housman translated. A pupil’s famous story records that he once read it with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in his English version, and left the room hurriedly, muttering that he regarded it as ‘the most beautiful poem in ancient literature’. ‘Hell Gate’ seems like a wish-fulfilment fantasy in its concluding lines.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
      Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
      The love of comrades cannot take away.

That is moving, and deeply so: partly because of Horace and partly because of Housman. It is moving where ‘Hell Gate’ strikes one as not only spruce but sentimental, even self-indulgent. Strong emotion, under severe poetic control, is obviously in a sense Housman’s speciality, but is not an infallible one. It must sound as involuntary as the lines that came into his head on walks. Horace would have understood and approved the Roman indignation with which Housman spurned an admiring Frank Harris, writing how much he appreciated the ‘sarcasm’ of ‘1887’. ‘I can only reject and resent your truculent praise,’ replied Housman. Yet Horace, or the Greek poets, would no more have recognised their poetry in Housman’s versions of it than they would in those of Gilbert Murray.

Thy portion esteem I highest
      Who wast not ever begot;
Thine next, being born who diest
      And straightway again art not.

That version of the famous lines in Oedipus at Colonus sounds almost like Housman’s parody of a Greek tragedy (‘O suitably attired in leather boots’) and perhaps even by design. Housman’s humour is not only deadpan but unpredictable, and when ‘tottering Age’ comes on in the next lines, ‘whom friends and kinsfolk fly’, there is surely something of the old glint, however incongruous its context. But the ‘sound’ of a Classical translation clearly meant for Housman the sound of Shelley and Swinburne, poets whom he greatly admired.

About both he could be highly sardonic, however. One of the gems in Ricks’s prose collection is the essay on Swinburne, originally given as a talk to University College London’s Literary Society in 1910, the year after Swinburne died. It has only appeared previously in the Cornhill Magazine, introduced by John Sparrow. Housman never authorised its publication, remarking to a friend that it was not bad but ‘not good enough for me’. It is marvellous about the poet’s use of anapaests, and sarcastic about his analogies, notably of a golden table that was as high ‘as faith and hope may be’. ‘Now therefore we know’, says Housman, ‘the maximum height of hope: five feet and a few odd inches.’ When poets like Swinburne write about Liberty, ‘they substitute images’: ‘When they feel that the reader is starving for something more tangible, they generally begin to talk of Athens, which, as it happens, was a slave-state; and in the last resort they fall back on denunciation of tyranny, an abominable institution, no doubt, but at any rate less featureless than Liberty, and a godsend to people who have to pretend to write about her.’

In his Inaugural Lecture at Cambridge, Housman referred again to Swinburne, and to his ecstatic comment on a line from Shelley’s ‘famous and beautiful lyric, entitled “A Lament” ... known by heart to hundreds of thousands’. The standard text gives, or gave, its last lines thus:

Fresh Spring, and Summer, and Winter hoar
Move my faint heart with grief, – but with delight
       No more, oh never more.

Shelley’s editor, W.M. Rossetti, saw that something was wrong, and substituted the line ‘Fresh Spring and Summer, Autumn, Winter hoar’, which Swinburne denounced as abandoning ‘the melodious effect’ of ‘exquisite inequality ... a thing to thrill the veins and draw tears to the eyes of all men whose ears were not closed against all harmony’. Housman agreed that Rossetti’s emendation was weak, but pointed out that in the MS Shelley had written ‘with his own hand’, ‘Fresh Spring and Autumn, Summer and Winter Hoar’, and that the melodious effect of exquisite inequality had therefore been achieved not by the poet but by the compositor.

There seems to be some doubt whether Housman was right about the MS, and Ricks is uncharacteristically evasive on the point, but it is a signal instance of Housman’s instinct where emendation was concerned. It seems he edited Manilius, whom he tells us was not much of a poet, because bad poetry in a corrupt text is more challenging to emend than good. In his introductory comments, remarking on other editors with what his brother Laurence called a ‘jolly ferocity’ (he thought up appropriate insults against the time he might have occasion to use them), he ends by quoting a verse from Walter de la Mare which he read in some review. ‘May the “rustling” harvest hedgerow / Still the Traveller’s Joy entwine.’ ‘I knew in a moment that Mr de la Mare had not written rustling, and in another moment I had found the true word.’ So, perhaps, might anyone else, and Housman does not bother to tell us what it was – ‘rusting’, no doubt – but goes on to make some salutary comments on the way in which critics can persuade themselves, and even others, that any given word in a poetic text is the only possible one on ‘aesthetic’ grounds. (How exquisitely apt an epithet for autumn when the leaves are dry and do indeed rustle, with straw ‘from the passing harvest-wain – to which “harvest” is so plain an allusion that only a pedant like me could miss it ...’)

This is Housman the spruce, inimitable in action in prose as in his verses. It is not his most amiable side, and indeed there is an odd parallel between the way he writes prose and the way he wrote a poem like ‘Hell Gate’. He was a real Lieutenant-Colonel Mary Jane, and we get an almost physical apprehension of ambivalent military trim, that formidable nose and moustache, and the incisive way (according to one aquaintance) he gestured with his left hand. Truth with Housman is a serious matter: nevertheless we may feel that much of what he did in public was done for effect. It was very much in private that the best poems were written, and here truth is a quieter and, as it were, more speechless thing. ‘Into my heart an air that kills ...’ Auden wrote that Yeats never told the truth but only made up ‘stories’. Housman’s best poems are not made up, in this sense, any more than Shakespeare’s sonnets are. However popularly and effectively commomplace the sentiment (‘No more, oh never more ...’), it brings the authentic frisson of personal and poetic truth.

Ricks has make a splendid selection from Housman’s personal correspondence. The idiom here – pawky, deadpan, seemingly laconic – was evolved deliberately, until it carried his trademark. Without asking permission the poet Edward Thomas anthologises him. ‘Mr Thomas thanks me for “a poem”,’ writes Housman to his publisher, ‘and prints two: which is the one he doesn’t thank me for?’ In 1922, commenting on his photo portrait to another correspondent: ‘Not quite true to my own notion of my gentleness and sweetness of nature, but neither perhaps is my external appearance.’ To the American poet Neilson Abeel, in 1935: ‘My heart always warms to people who do not come to see me, especially Americans.’ To Robert Bridges there is a judicious criticism of Hopkins (sprung rhythm is not difficult to write well, but Hopkins writes it badly) and he thanks Witter Bynner for admiring ‘my poems even more than I admire them myself’.

The show-off element is strong, and perhaps is as strong in the poems, but there sheer talent eclipses it. To comparative strangers he specialised in false frankness (‘Oxford had not much effect on me, except that I there met my greatest friend’) and he asks his publisher to tell Arthur Symons that to include him in a Nineties anthology would be as technically correct ‘as to include Lot in a book on Sodomites; in saying which I am not saying a word against sodomy, nor implying that intoxication and incest are in any way preferable.’ In a letter to the Times his knowledge of astronomy exposes ‘the ignorance of Mr Eliot’ on the subject of the ‘silver sphere’ in Shelley’s ‘Skylark’. To the hopeful pacifist Gilbert Murray he suggests that the human lot will never be much improved, because smaller troubles will seem as bad as greater ones do now. A girl has just drowned herself because her dress looked shabby among the Bank Holiday crowd, whereas ‘in other times and countries women have been ravished by half-a-dozen dragoons and taken it less to heart.’ ‘Vanity, not avarice, is my ruling passion,’ he writes to a publisher who tries to get him more royalties, ‘and so long as young men write to me from America saying that they would rather part with their hair than with their copy of my book, I do not feel the need of food and drink.’ Kidding on the level went with epicurean stoicism, but in his last letter he must have taken pleasure in writing: ‘George Eliot said she was a meliorist: I am a pejorist, and also yours sincerely.’

And yet a good man, even a nice man? What seems the most curmudgeonly letter is actually the most affectionate. It is to his young brother Laurence, reporting that a professor of Greek had just told him he thought Laurence’s recent book of poems his best since A Shropshire Lad. Housman was enchanted, particularly by the professor’s reference to the Shropshire Lad’s ‘pretty cover’.

PS After all it was I that designed that pretty cover; and he did not say that cover of Green Arras [Laurence’s latest book] was pretty. (Nor is it.)

PPS I was just licking the envelope when I thought of the following venomed dart: I had far, far rather that people should attribute my verses to you than yours to me.

That is surely not a wounding but a fraternal letter, and Laurence must have been as pleased by the report of the professor’s praise as his brother was by the mistake. The letter starts by saying it has it in its power to give Laurence a happy Christmas, and no doubt it did. Housman was a family man malgré lui, and in such a family he could be – would have been – responsive, kind, sensible, sympathetic. He might have been a delightful lover, for one of either sex, and the sadness is that he wasn’t. But he would have been the first to point out that happiness is not common in good poetry, nor of much value to it.