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’.

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