A Poetry of Opposites

C.H. Sisson

  • Housman’s Poems by John Bayley
    Oxford, 202 pp, £25.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 19 811763 9

Whatever may now be the state of the market for A Shropshire Lad, the poetry of A.E. Housman has certainly been among the most read of the 20th century. Or in the 20th century, for the earlier poems belong to the end of the nineteenth. When A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, it was at the author’s own expense; presumably it did not then look like work that would attract the public. It was not in the drift of the times: Housman was not the man to be a ‘companion of the Cheshire Cheese’. It was not quite the thing for the Yellow Book. Housman was six years older than Yeats and eight years older than Lionel Johnson, but they were much more dependent than he was on the work of the Victorian era, and it was the novelty of his tone which set him apart. The moment of the break-up of existing verse-forms, with Pound and his associates, still lay ahead. Housman was not that kind of innovator; he felt rather for the relatively straightforward rhythms of Heine and the Border Ballads, but he imported into them an entirely individual content.

He was not a poet by design, as Yeats, stroking back his lovely hair, may be said to have been. He was the son of a Bromsgrove solicitor. At Oxford he failed in his final exams, apparently owing to an emotional crisis which contributed largely to shaping both his future career and his work as a poet. The direct course he might have followed, to a regular academic career in Oxford, was deflected. He found himself in the Patent Office, where the flow of patents was not so overwhelming as to stop him going on with his work as a Classical scholar. His friend Moses Jackson, with whom he had shared a flat for some time, but who apparently did not suffer from a reciprocal emotional arrest, went off to India, and married. Housman became Professor of Latin at London University, and later ended his career at Cambridge, amidst the usual donnish splendours, drinking wine rather than the beer his Shropshire inventions grew drunk on. And he bickered with other scholars, in trenchant notes, rather than fighting over girls or serving the Queen as a soldier for thirteen pence a day.

Yet there is an unmistakable authenticity about Housman’s work. John Bayley starts his explorations by emphasising Housman’s pessimism, and this is not a mere set of ideas: it had grown from a personal disappointment deep into the roots of his mind. The Martyrdom of Man (1872) – Winwood Reade’s reach-me-down history of mankind which Bayley misleadingly describes as a novel – ‘seems’, we are told, ‘to have caused a number of suicides,’ but Housman was not the man to go along with merely fashionable currents. Bayley sensibly says: ‘For him the thinkers of the 19th century have not discovered anything that would have been unfamiliar to poets, generals and loose-livers in Classical times.’ The ‘loose-livers’ must be a touch of learned humour, directed against the supposed innocence and respectability of later times. Certainly Housman was not one who boasted, like Philip Larkin, that ‘the whole of the ancient world, the whole of Classical and Biblical mythology’, meant very little to him.

The plan of John Bayley’s book is not to set Housman’s work against any such wide background, nor indeed to indicate – unless in the most peremptory fashion – his place among the more restricted influences of his own time. He is concerned rather to show that it is acceptable in the light of criteria evinced in the work of ‘more recent European and American poets’, some of them certainly of less importance and durability than Housman himself. There is much analytical exercise designed to get behind the ‘deceptive simplicities’ of the work. Yet the poems themselves are outstandingly accessible, and in reading Bayley one cannot help thinking occasionally of Pound’s remark about critics ‘who take the ground that Jojo’s opinion of Jimjim’s explanation of Shakespeare will shed greater light on the reader and initiate him into a higher degree of perception than would the perusal of the bard’s original text.’

Housman himself made the point, in his lecture on The Name and Nature of Poetry, that ‘if a man is insensible to poetry, it does not follow that he gets no pleasure from poems.’ ‘Poems very seldom,’ he goes on, ‘consist of poetry and nothing else; and pleasure can be derived from their other ingredients. I am convinced that most readers, when they think they are admiring poetry ... are really admiring, not the poetry of the passage before them, but something else in it, which they like better than poetry.’ It is impossible to imagine that a Warton Professor could be so deceived, but it is hardly deniable that many of the hares started in this book owe their life rather to the Eng Lit culture of the late 20th century than to anything which could be identified as that natural hunger for poetry for the existence of which the long-continued tradition of poetry must be taken as some sort of evidence. Of the difficulty of defining the nature of poetry itself, Housman was as acutely aware as anyone: ‘the legitimate meanings of the word,’ he said, ‘were themselves so many as to embarrass the discussion of its nature.’ If he emphasised the dangers of thinking of a line of poetry while shaving (‘my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act’), it was no doubt to make clear to everyone that he had no confidence in the Cambridge fashions of his day. Bayley makes the point that Housman ‘was a man who had been soaked in poetry and the Classics all his life. In other words, the primitive response, which he had claimed by implication might be felt by someone with no experience of poetry and literature, was in fact a highly specialised reaction to a set of exceedingly complex stimuli, the unconscious product of voracious reading, feeling, and thinking. The student guinea-pigs whose reception of poems is recorded in Practical Criticism could not have been expected to have this reaction, or to base their judgment on it. Nor did they.’

So the conclusion was drawn, in Cambridge and elsewhere, that ‘poetry needed to be taught, and the difference between good and bad inculcated and learnt ... Hence the revolution in English studies, which in thirty years raised status and morale to such heights.’ Housman himself is hardly likely to have favoured such developments: ‘I have not so much improved as to become a literary critic,’ he told his lecture audience, ‘nor so much deteriorated as to fancy that I have become one.’ On page one of his book Bayley quotes an early letter of Housman’s to Gilbert Murray, ‘who had been urging the claims of pacifism and international morality based on Christian principles.’ ‘I rather doubt,’ Housman says, ‘if man really has much to gain by substituting peace for strife, as you and Jesus Christ recommend.’ Gilbert Murray was a man in tune with all the shoddier liberal sentiment of his day, and Housman is clearly amusing himself by pulling him to pieces. Bayley goes on to speak of Housman’s ‘matter-of-fact theology’ with ‘God and Jesus Christ ... taking different sides of the question, God being on Housman’s side’. But what is involved here is a mood or an attitude rather than a doctrine. This is true also of many of the more uncompromising statements in Housman’s poetry. Bayley aptly says, in relation to a particular poem: ‘The poem evades or displaces all the formulae in it ... Its various tones of communication are by no means all compatible with each other: but they unite in an obscure satisfaction and superiority, which also seem sardonically conscious of their own attitude.’ This surely defines the attitude of the sharp-minded Classical scholar, discreet about his own deep-rooted problems but bandying about, in conversation, assertions too absolute to be sustained in ordinary conventional professional life.

The real trouble Housman had was that he was a poet, although, as Bayley says, not given to ‘adopting the persona of a poet’. He was, on the whole, given rather to being what he was, and to behaving as seemed ordinary and sensible for a man of his profession and social circumstances. What more appropriate than that such a man should seek to keep curiosity away from himself and to transfer his emotions to a set of pastoral figures? Bayley speaks ‘a poetry of opposites, and of reversals. Sadness becomes cheerfulness; horror becomes beauty; deprivation becomes fulfilment.’ In the end, we have Larkin and Housman presented as representing, ‘with singular emphasis, the enclosed, as opposed to the open, category of poetry.’ The open category – apparently more common, in ‘our contemporary poetical speech’ – is ‘more hospitable to everyday life and the concerns of communal living’. One might have thought that Larkin had some claim to membership of both categories: he is certainly more ‘hospitable to everyday life’ than Housman. But he is plumped firmly into the ‘enclosed’ category. The secret of Housman and Larkin, and the reason for bracketing them, is in ‘the seeming indifference’ of their poems to the reader – an indifference which is the correlative of the supposed indifference of Moses Jackson and of ‘the bosomy English rose’ to their respective admirers.

Be that as it may, it is at least arguable that this categorisation tends to obscure the extent to which Housman, for all the inner drama he must be supposed to have lived through, shared the conventional social attitudes of his day. A Shropshire Lad begins with ‘1887’, a poem on Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Bayley tells how Frank Harris and some of his journalist friends ‘tried to flatter the author ... by praising the “bitter sarcasm” ’ of the poem – a sarcasm more evident to the smart journalists of the 1890s, or to a searching professorial mind of a hundred years later, than to Housman himself, who reacted angrily, saying: ‘I never intended to poke fun, as you call it, at patriotism.’ What troubled Harris, and apparently now troubles Bayley, is such sentiments as are expressed in

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home tonight:
Themselves they could not save.

‘Sharing with God the work of saving the Queen is an idea that would have given the troops some amusement,’ Bayley says, adding, rather mal-à-propos, ‘as if the troops in Vietnam had been engaged in saving their president’. My own experience of army camps ‘in distant places’ have left me with less certainty that the soldiery would have found the plain sense of the phrase so absurd, and I do not suppose that Housman’s ‘lads of the 53rd’ would have disliked the sentiment of

Be you the men you’ve been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.

There is a genuinely popular element in the poetry. No doubt A Shropshire Lad has had thousands of enthusiastic readers ‘who were interested in something other than the poetry’, and why not? A poet is, after all, ‘a man speaking to men’, and he speaks not as a representative of ‘the Arts’ or some other imagined speciality, but as an ordinary inhabitant of his time and place. Bayley remarks of A Shropshire Lad that there ‘seems to be no secret or hidden pattern in the sequence’, but notes that this has not stopped readers producing ‘a number of explanations’ of its ‘structure and arrangement’. ‘As with Shakespeare’s Sonnets,’ he goes on, ‘a key and a lock have to be supplied by the customer; the maker did not imagine the need for one.’ There are always those who prefer dark ladies to sonnets, or any kind of explanation to the mere pleasure of poetry. Bayley understandably finds in Housman’s difficulties with his razor something less than a complete guide to the nature of poetry, but when he speaks of those symptoms ‘not being part of a professional appreciation’, and asserts that ‘those who read poetry usually do so in the same sense in which regulars visit the theatre’, he does not make the matter much clearer.

Housman was surely right in suggesting that poetry can be recognised immediately by those who do recognise it. ‘In any age,’ Bayley says, ‘there must be different kinds of poetry, kinds which require other kinds of attention, kinds which do not produce’ the symptoms Housman notes, at all. Maybe, but so much goes under the name of poetry that the trade description must be regarded with scepticism. Many people – probably most – do not distinguish between the living word and the dead, just as an alarming number do not distinguish between pictures and buildings which are compellingly beautiful and those of which the aesthetic pretensions are a lie.