- BuyHousman Country: Into the Heart of England by Peter Parker
Little, Brown, 446 pp, £25.00, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 4087 0613 8
Any life of A.E. Housman is an assemblage of the already known and the well documented. Housman’s stage-management of his reputation was as controlled as his quatrains, and the mask of reserve – assumed directly after he inexplicably failed his finals in Greats at Oxford – became a perfected gesture, a way of being in the world structured as a renunciation. Most versions of the story prefer a Housman who was ‘suicided’ by society – as Artaud said of Van Gogh – or, worse, a Housman who was his own natural victim, repressed and mined from within. The familiar tale includes his Worcestershire childhood among numerous siblings in Bromsgrove and its rural environs, looking across the Severn plain towards the unattainable western horizon of Shropshire; the precocious gift for Greek and Latin; the unaccountable fall at the last Oxford fence; the decade-long penance of days working in the Patent Office and evenings in the British Museum writing papers savaging tenured classicists; then the serendipity of his appointment in 1892 – ‘picked out of the gutter’ – as professor of Latin at University College London; the abrupt appearance of A Shropshire Lad four years later (no mention in the surviving letters about writing or assembling poems), its slow take-off then rapid ascent; his election in 1911 as Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge; his separate apotheoses as scholar and poet. Apart from a sabbatical term in 1934, he lectured in Cambridge twice a week for 25 years, until only days before his death.
He was aware that the less he said the more was said about him (‘It is his fault if we stare,’ H.W. Garrod said testily in an Oxford lecture on Housman in 1929), and the life was measured out in anecdotes, captured in memoirs, diaries and letters, preserved in the aspic of college rumour, handed down by the primary witnesses: his siblings Laurence and Kate, his publisher Grant Richards, the small group of Cambridge initiates. Auden called Housman one of the classic case-histories, and most accounts of his life have a spurious smoothness about them, as if the teller were at the helm. A biographer can but do as Housman exhorts in one of his blasphemous squibs: ‘Mary-Jane the train is through yer:/Hallelujah, Hallelujah!/We will gather up the fragments that remain.’ In Housman Country, Peter Parker does it by writing the life and times not of the man but of his most famous book: the growing pains of A Shropshire Lad, the vicissitudes of its reception, its cultural ‘aftermaths’. The word comes from agriculture, as Parker points out (new growth appearing in fields after harvest), and Housman used it in the most patiently descriptive of his poems, itself an aftermath, written in 1922 and included in Last Poems: ‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying,/What tune the enchantress plays/In aftermaths of soft September/Or under blanching mays.’ A year later, reviewing a life of Louis-Napoleon, he drily noted some inexact uses among ‘the daisies and dandelions of contemporary metaphor’: ‘I did not know that a storm could have an aftermath, nor that an aftermath could reach a throne.’ The unforgiving scholar and the poet who forgives – if only as a form of cosmic defiance – have usually been seen as barely inhabiting the same life, but they shared an insomniac watch over words.
The uses to which Housman has been put are something else. Geoffrey Hill noted that ‘the century-long chronicle of the varied fortunes of A Shropshire Lad is not without its grotesqueries,’ and these are among Parker’s themes. His title is itself a challenge, with its air of Heritage ersatz. Housman was averse to many things, in a life of refusals, but he was up for impiety of all sorts. He would not have been dismayed by the uses to which his poetry has been put, and he provoked some of them. Parker details Housman’s publishing arrangements with Grant Richards after A Shropshire Lad was turned down by several others: his spirited role in its commodification (‘I rather like the notion of a pocket edition’), its progressive miniaturisation – octavo editions, editions for waistcoats, for the queen’s doll’s house – and his endless enjoinders to reduce the cover price, forgoing royalties so as to have an upper hand.
The book became ubiquitous but it also travelled incognito, slipping neatly into heterosexual breast pockets or, at a later date, tunic pockets. In a 1910 lecture on Swinburne, Housman recollected being told by Hardy that when he was a young man in London ‘there was a whole army of young men like himself, not mutually acquainted, who nevertheless, as they met in the streets, could recognise one another as spiritual brethren by a certain outward sign. This sign was an oblong projection at the breast-pocket of the coat.’ He is referring to the 1866 edition of Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads, worn just over the heart by what Housman, in his obscurely provoking way, calls ‘the sons of fire’. But the passage also describes a dress rehearsal for A Shropshire Lad, and its double lives in the world.
Parker is interested in the daisies and dandelions, the untidy and contingent evidences of Housman’s continuing presence in an England whose further reaches include Morse or Morrissey. In the West Country you can drink Shropshire Lad ale or you could (until recently) be drawn by a locomotive of that name. But Housman had foresuffered all, with his lads who down their troubles in ‘pints and quarts of Ludlow beer’; or in a letter to his brother Laurence in 1920: ‘I have just flown to Paris and back, and I am never going by any other route, until they build the Channel Tunnel.’ Housman was already in full possession of the Housman effect. If it is time to move on, moving on is what Housman makes difficult. ‘Housman has left no followers,’ MacNeice wrote in 1938, while also suggesting that he was the poet ‘with whom any history of modern English poetry might very well start’. Opinion about his relation to his age has always been self-divided. He said he had no relation to it. Edmund Wilson wrote in 1938 that the poems ‘went on vibrating for decades’, despite their lethal pastoral of condemned men and suicides, soldiers and doomed lovers, their stopped clock of velleities and arrested intimacies.
The poems have often been mothballed as the sum of their props, starting with Pound’s ‘Song in the Manner of Housman’: ‘People are born and die,/We also shall be dead pretty soon/Therefore let us act as if we were/Dead already’; Woolf in 1936 summarised the personal mythology as ‘May, death, lads, Shropshire’; Orwell in 1940 listed ‘suicide, unhappy love, early death’; Forster in 1950 ticked off ‘the football and cherry trees, the poplars and glimmering weirs, the red coats, the darnel and the beer … the homesickness and bed-sickness, the yearning for masculine death’. Larkin in 1979 noted ‘ploughing, enlisting, betrothals and betrayals and hangings’. No other poet has been so itemised, and Parker’s angle widens dramatically to include ‘love and loss; youth and death; friendship and betrayal; crime and punishment; the passing of time; the military calling; the English landscape; exile from places of past happiness; the country versus the city; the absence of God and the indifference of the natural world to the fate of men’. The inclusiveness hopes to catch that fugitive thing – Englishness – in the darkened Claude glass of the poems. Housman Country tells us many things about England, whose future has so often been taken to lie in its past, while also raising questions as to what England can tell us about Housman.
The subtitles of the early memoirs and lives – ‘A Buried Life’, ‘A Divided Life’, ‘Man behind a Mask’ – suggest how concerted the impulse was to get at what Spender called ‘some nagging Housmanish secret’, and explain a surface in terms of a depth. The Times obituarist referred to ‘the fence of his verse’. ‘He very much lived in watertight compartments,’ his sister Kate Symons said after his death, ‘that were not to communicate with each other.’ But early accounts were reluctant to acknowledge that the poems censor themselves in public, that the homoerotic element was clearer to more of his early readers than just those who were interestedly ‘in the know’. This tacit element is one of the English cultural knots that Parker might have been expected to untie, and he does point up how during the First World War the overt expression of love for beautiful ‘lads’, dying or suffering, was sanctioned by Housman’s poetry and in turn sanctioned its less overt tonalities.
In all versions, Housman’s secret hurt – for Moses Jackson, his unswervingly heterosexual Oxford contemporary – is all-determining. He had, Tom Stoppard wrote, ‘an unremitting, lopsided, lifelong, hopeless constancy to a decent chap who was in no need of it, temperamentally unfitted for it, and never for a moment inclined to call upon it’ – and from whom, in Laurence Housman’s laconic words, ‘there was no response in kind.’ Until his death in Canada aged 64, Jackson was the emotional north of Housman’s life. After Oxford both men worked in the Patent Office, and shared rooms until at some point in 1885 there was a crisis and a brief rupture, before or during which most of the poems in A Shropshire Lad got written. Jackson went to India in 1887 and married; thereafter there was a world between them, though they remained tethered to the end. Shortly before Jackson died, Housman wrote to him in his mistakable tones of being ‘an eminent bloke, though I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots’. Little else had ever been said, and the few facts have been given their due.
The idea of a doubled Housman places him in the 1890s, at the moment of A Shropshire Lad, when the air was thick with such notions. But Housman Country refers the scholar-poet back to the ‘distinctly’ English idea, itself bifurcated, of the gentleman amateur – putting his talent into this and his genius into that – rather than forwards to the immediate stirrings of a literary moment whose play with personae and masks took some of its cues from earlier uses of imaginary portraiture. Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley is a Housmanesque figure of sorts, ‘out of key with his time’, just as Housman’s spareness and shiftingness, from poem to poem, connect him to a wider present. But we are rarely given Housman the contemporary: rather a Housman posthumous from the first, his poems backward-looking but ‘somewhere becoming rain’ – not least during the First World War, when sales of A Shropshire Lad peaked at 16,000 copies a year.
Before it was published in 1896, Housman was a light versifier. It took him most of a decade to draft a third of it; he wrote the remaining two-thirds during what he later called the ‘continuous excitement’ of 1895, as well as a number of other poems which he excluded. The latter are among his best. Some were eventually released in the only other collection published in his lifetime, Last Poems, in 1922, itself provoked by another period of intense somatic activity, coinciding with the news of Jackson’s terminal illness; the rest were published posthumously by Laurence (as More Poems, 1936, with a further group of ‘Additional Poems’ appearing the following year in his memoir, A.E.H.).
Reviewing More Poems in 1937, Empson suggested Housman had rejected some of them ‘for making the stock situation of his poems too obviously a personal one’, meaning those which concerned Moses Jackson. Archie Burnett’s Oxford edition of 1997 shows how closely Housman brooded over demarcations. ‘Because I liked you better’ is one example, whose drafts and variants haunt what we have as a final text:
Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
I’d throw the thought away.
To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry:
‘Farewell,’ said you, ‘forget me.’
‘Fare well, I will,’ said I.
If e’er, where clover whitens
The dead man’s knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,
Halt by the headstone shading
The heart you have not stirred
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.
The variants reword the contract between the speaker and the poem’s silent partner. Housman made several attempts at line 14: ‘The heart no longer stirred’ (because dead); ‘The heart that is not stirred’ (in an endless stoical present); ‘The heart by nothing stirred’ (of a piece with the rigidly debonair variant for line 8: ‘“No fear, I will,” said I’). Parker suggests that ‘the promise has been kept because the speaker’s heart is beyond stirring, and his ability to remember has been extinguished by death.’ This is true of all the alternatives, but the final version – ‘The heart you have not stirred’ – says something else again, for it repeats by rote an untruth, the allegiance to an agreed story, and looks far from final. The poem’s loyalty is to loss, not as an occurrence but as a medium; the unfinished business of forgetting has to be repeated, just as the loved one is lost and lost again, in poem after poem.
Housman worked for his spontaneities, and listened for his effects. Hence their air of lapidary heartlessness, as if they stand to one side of their sufferings. His compressions and sensuous particulars are full of brilliant discoveries, in the small gearshifts between colourless words like ‘still’ and ‘stand’ and ‘lie’, or ‘nod’ and ‘not’ and ‘nothing’ – ‘not’ in particular performing its own dance of unsaying, in poem after poem – as if relying on the plainest lexicon to deliver meanings beyond their own understanding. However stacked the odds, and they always are stacked, the verbal economy is working at peak, over the brief length of poems whose dash to the finish plays against the scale and implication of what is being said.
Housman’s canon is partly a marvellous salon des refusés, some of which waited in the wings for decades, and shows how carefully he ring-fenced the pastoral unities of A Shropshire Lad. The excluded tonalities, of acerbity and rhetorical unreason, are differently revealing, and range from the unhousedness of
Some can gaze and not be sick
But I could never learn the trick.
There’s this to say for blood and breath,
They give a man a taste for death
to the hypnotically broken propositions of
The stinging-nettle only
Will aye be found to stand:
The numberless, the lonely,
The filler of the land,
The leaf that hurts the hand.
to the anapaestic anarchy of his running commentary on the 1895 Wilde trial, which opens: ‘Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?/And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?/And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?/Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.’ As Janet Gezari noted in a recent essay, this is a cover version of Carroll’s lobster quadrille, and his most bitter and disruptive verses learned their steps from nonsense. Archie Burnett’s edition doubled the canon with previously ungathered light verse. Housman Country is less concerned with this aspect, though it seems relevant, nonsense being an English vintage, of recent date, which linked Housman with Carroll – another Oxbridge don and college man with secrets and a principle of reserve – or with the peremptoriness of Edward Lear. Parker cites, as a grotesquerie, one of the earliest reviews of A Shropshire Lad by an American critic who decided it was all an elaborate joke, with Housman as the lachrymose Mock-Turtle (‘Bless you he haint got no sorrows. It’s only his imagination’) – but it has often taken an American to hear what is going on. Housman had an unerring sense of his oddity and a mission to withhold. Parker rightly treats all the poetry as having equal claim, and some of his best pages are on the poems written or drafted at the same time as A Shropshire Lad.
Towards the end of his life Housman cautioned that ‘the Shropshire Lad is an imaginary figure, with something of my temper and view of life. Very little in the book is biographical.’ As Parker notes, he originally wrote ‘character’ and changed it to ‘figure’, as less embodied, suggesting a sensibility rather than an individual. But even ‘figure’ seems too fixed a term for the melancholic, at times clownish narrator. John Berryman – one of Housman’s most creative readers, working him deeply into the fabric of The Dream Songs – catches something Housmanish in his prefatory disclaimer: ‘The poem then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry.’ Housman originally planned to publish A Shropshire Lad anonymously as Poems by Terence Hearsay, and ‘Terence’ (after his exilic namesake, the Latin playwright brought to Rome as a slave) is one of many who trudge this landscape – locals and rustics but also exotics like Lot’s wife, who looked backwards, and Lot, who stood aside from what the age demanded. One of the droller items in the biographical display cabinet is Housman’s refusal to accommodate a permissions request: ‘To include me in an anthology of the Nineties would be just as technically correct, and just as essentially inappropriate, as to include Lot in a book on Sodomites.’ Lot appears in A Shropshire Lad as if torn from another story:
Half-way, for one commandment broken,
The woman made her endless halt,
And she today, a glistering token,
Stands in the wilderness of salt.
Behind, the vats of judgment brewing
Thundered, and thick the brimstone snowed:
He to the hill of his undoing
Pursued his road.
Lot avoids his wife’s fate only to embrace his own unwittingly, drunk with his daughters in a cave. Parker refers to Housman’s allusions and their crowd effect as a ‘striking and attractive feature’, but they are load-bearing, not least because they deflect our attention from what the speaker is intimating. The extensive use of Ecclesiastes or the Psalms or Shakespeare or Gray’s ‘Elegy’ made the poems familiar on first acquaintance, as if self-memorising. But the reception crackles with distortion, and the voices are unsettling. If the speaker’s image of himself as ‘a dead man out of mind’ in the last poem of A Shropshire Lad remembers Psalms 31:12 (‘I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind’), the impersonation is insurgent rather than clinching, and Housman filleted the Bible for his purposes as remorselessly as a counsel for the prosecution.
One of the difficulties is knowing how to hear rather than how to read the poems. One anecdote that Parker does not pass on to us concerns a meeting with Frank Harris, in which Housman took offence at Harris’s suggestion that the final stanza of ‘1887’, the introductory poem of A Shropshire Lad, was darkly intended. The poem remembers the Silver Jubilee celebrations, and Housman tests an ossified phrase, ‘God save the Queen,’ by putting it through various permutations – ’Tis fifty years to-night/That God has saved the Queen’ – and forcing open the sentiment to include those who had died to uphold it (‘Themselves they could not save’) in foreign wars. Harris praised its ‘splendid contempt’ and paraphrased Housman’s ‘Oh, God will save her, fear you not’ as ‘Yes, God will save her, the old bitch, until the many refuse to be fooled any longer.’ Housman was indignant. Empson relished the incident, as an example of how misleading Housman can be, ‘and how excellent the poetry remains after you have been misled’.
Housman still makes readers anxious for reassurance about his ironies. The ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ was printed in the Times in October 1917, beneath a leader entitled ‘The Anniversary of Ypres’.
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
The poem remembers the autumn of 1914, when a small expeditionary force held the town of Ypres, unsuccessfully, at a cost of over 50,000 British lives. It is written against the backdrop of what has intervened – the extent of the slaughter since 1914 – and it alludes to a forgotten war, in South Africa, when Germany had disparaged the British as a mercenary army, ‘as in fact it was and is’ (Housman to Grant Richards in 1927). The poem presses steadily into the word: their ‘mercenary calling’ is both oxymoron and unvarnished fact. ‘Calling’ raises the stakes (as do ‘sum’ and ‘wages’ and ‘pay’) but refuses disparagement: heroism is indivisible, and the mercenaries displayed it, even as the reader is driven back and forth inside its eight lines, which are packed with echoes: of Cymbeline (‘Thou thy worldly task hast done,/Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages’), Milton, the Psalms, the myth of Hercules. What the poem is not is a straight riposte, of a kind that many have wished it to be.
Parker notes that this was Housman’s ‘only true First World War Poem’, and considers him as a ‘war poet’ by stressing the anachronisms: Housman’s allegiances are after all classical – to the tradition of the military epitaph, for which a poem in response to one war can be used in another. He is not a war poet in the accepted sense of authentic witness, but his poems were used during the war in which such witnessings acquired unprecedented authority. Robert Lowell’s remark that it was as if Housman had foreseen the Somme is one of the more complicated signposts in Housman country. His youngest brother, Herbert, was killed in action in 1901, and his nephew Clement Symons in Flanders in 1915. He wrote in 1933 that ‘the Great War cannot have made much change on the opinions of any man of imagination.’ That Housman abided his own words, early and late, is attested in a letter which Parker has unearthed – it doesn’t appear in the recent and comprehensive two-volume Oxford edition of the Letters. It was written in 1904, in response to the composer Arthur Somervell, who in seeking permission for a setting expressed unease at the word ‘rotten’ in one of the Shropshire Lad poems (‘Lovely lads and dead and rotten;/None that go return again’). This has its own decorum, no less than Eliot’s reference, in a Criterion editorial of 1934, to ‘a friend who was later (so far as I could find out) to be mixed with the mud of Gallipoli’. Housman stood imperturbably by ‘rotten’: ‘My opinion of the propriety of the word has not been altered by the death of one of my brothers in the war.’
The same letter contains the unmusical Housman’s most extended musical reflection on song settings of A Shropshire Lad, which he tolerated but where possible discouraged:
I am not willing that poetry should make any concessions to music, at any rate to European music, which I regard (I am afraid you will think this another hard saying) as unsuitable for union with words. Europeans, in order to enjoy the sensual luxury of harmony, employ the diatonic scale, whose intervals have no resemblance to the modulations of human speech, which is the interpreter of human emotion; and consequently European music can only express emotion in the vaguest manner, and when wedded to words, which express emotion with precision, it becomes, strictly speaking, nonsensical.
Parker gives a detailed account of the musical afterlives of A Shropshire Lad. Most settings date from the decades immediately before and after the Great War, and contributed to the English musical renaissance and its recovery of an English folksong tradition, from the founding of the Royal College of Music in 1882 onwards. Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney studied there, and all were to produce song-cycles from A Shropshire Lad, as did John Ireland. The appeal of the poems lay partly in their concision and surface simplicity of rhythm and metre, their lack of figurative recesses, their closed forms and antiphonal structure, their balladry.
Housman was more interested in traditional ballads and, like Eliot, in music hall, than in art song. Parker mentions the publication of Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads between 1884 and 1898 as part of the new national conversation, though not William Allingham’s earlier anthology of British ballads, a copy of which Housman owned, and in whose margins he hazarded alternative readings, his interest piqued by the vagaries of oral transmission. Housman diverted the traditional ballad to his purposes – the compressed narrative, the omission of incident and motive, the focus on a particular episode, the anonymity effect. And he allies these elements to a lyric mode which nevertheless withholds something ‘even when [the speaker’s] emotion is the subject of the poem’, as Thom Gunn said of Hardy’s uses of ballad. And, as often with ballads, there is just a hint of hoax.
The English musical renaissance before the war is intimately linked to what Parker calls the rediscovery of England after the war: as a response to place – particularly the lands around the Severn – in which Housman plays his complicating role. The redefining of England as inherently rural involved a southward move from northern wilderness to the tended post-enclosure landscapes of the south and west, part of the careful parsing of a ‘green’ land. Their regionality was their essence: the more the shires were themselves, the more ‘English’ they were. In which case, where was England? Parker cites the move to the cities in the 19th century as begetting the idea of a rural England in need of preservation. And a dream of return, perhaps, after waiting out the catastrophe of the industrial present. The ‘rediscovery of England’ by returning soldiers, sketched with much circumstantial detail by Parker as a great migration – on foot, on bicycles, in motor cars – was also a symbolic act of repossession. ‘Never before have so many people been searching for England,’ H.V. Morton wrote in his blowsy Baedeker of 1927, In Search of England. They were looking for something which many of them had never seen. But if the countryside was unrecognisable, however untouched by war, it was also because the eyes that saw it had been changed utterly. Shortly before his death Rupert Brooke planned a long poem ‘about the existence – and non-locality – of England’.
A Shropshire Lad helped to remember England in time of war, and helped afterwards to forget the trauma of war, because in his poetry that war had yet to happen. In either case, Housman’s nostalgia became a nostalgia for Housman. He may be the first poet to create an England purely of the mind, to which no return can be made, partly of course because his Shropshire was, in his words, ‘not exactly a real place’. Nostalgia is invoked by Parker as part of the elegiac burden of every Englishman, but it was originally named and treated for much of the 19th century as a form of ‘pathetic insanity’. Parker acknowledges Housman’s nostalgia as being among other things ‘an air that kills’, and this gets us closer to a condition of missing something we have never known, as if the ‘blue remembered hills’ are an image of involuntary memory: not experienced consciously at the time, as a condition of being recoverable in another time.
It has often taken outsiders (James, Conrad, Eliot) to define Englishness – and to defend Housman. The well-wrought urn of his poetry suited New Critical precepts, even while his own precepts antagonised them (‘the function of poetry is to transfuse emotion not to transmit thought’). The best Housman criticism has tried to address the charge that the poetry is ‘adolescent’, its outlook repetitive and immature. The rebuttal usually combined close reading with philosophically common-sense arguments along the lines of ‘I have yet to meet the man who has not …’ Randall Jarrell showed how the particularities of the poetry manage to secrete or imply a general truth. If A, then B. One of the words that works hardest in Housman’s poems is the definite article:
The nettle nods, the wind blows over,
The man, he does not move,
The lover of the grave, the lover
That hanged himself for love.
Any nettle, any lover. If one lover, then all lovers – and by extension all men – are motivated by love of the grave and the wish for death.
Housman Country doesn’t engage with some of Housman’s more astringent indigenous admirers – Auden, Larkin, Empson – for whom his poetry and person were enduring preoccupations. Empson, like Jarrell, goes unmentioned, though his scattered encounters with the poetry are more illuminating than any others. He replanted Housman country in remote places – teaching the poems in Japan and then China, during the early 1930s and late 1940s – partly because he knew so many by heart and partly in a spirit of experiment, because ‘the music and structure are obviously good, and the meaning looks so plain, and is really so subtle, that people cheerfully read into it what they feel themselves.’ His Japanese students – awaiting conscription – responded eagerly, along the lines of ‘Housman is quite right. I will do no good to anyone by dying for our country, but we will be admired, and anyway we are better dead’; whereas students in China had no time for this version of war as dignified suicide and responded blankly. Empson was shocked, and thought Housman would have been shocked, and concluded that it was the only poetry he had ever taught which could have a pernicious effect on the young. It raised in pressing form questions about poetry and belief. If you simply agreed with what the poems assert, you have ‘a philosophy for the village idiot’; but it would be equally impoverishing to say that the truth or falsity of the assertions was simply irrelevant: you are asked to imagine the circumstances and state of mind in which they would appear to be true.
Housman Country doesn’t register unofficial or hidden presences: the chemical trace of Housman in Penelope Fitzgerald’s biography of the Knox brothers, to take a random example. The absence of Enoch Powell, for whom Housman was ‘the most powerful single intellectual influence in my life’, is especially curious. A classicist whose gifts were of the order of Housman’s, Powell attended his lectures as an undergraduate, and at the end of term sent him a suggested emendation to Aeneid IX. 214, receiving the unforgettable reply (from a Paris hotel): ‘Dear Mr Powell. You analyse the difficulties of the passage correctly, and your emendation removes them. Yours sincerely, A.E. Housman.’ Five years later Powell too was a classical fellow of Trinity College, elected shortly before Housman’s death. He said that the correct use of red pepper in cooking was the only thing he learned directly from Housman. The affinities are many: the reticence, the militancy and godlessness (neither of them was in any real sense a Trinity man), a romanticism of the soil which fails to satisfy the need for a spiritual home – Powell until 1934 thought of Germany as his. Powell’s homoerotic youthful verses are Housmanish, and he was sexually ambivalent until late in the war, referring to his married friends as ‘dead’ and preferring a context in which men ‘understand one another’, whether college or regiment or parliament. He wrote home in 1940: ‘I have had and finished what is likely to be the one real love affair of my life’ – with an undergraduate, A.W.J. Thomas, whom he had taught in 1936. Thomas died, in the Pacific, at the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, in 1942. Asked nearly fifty years later what his greatest regret had been, Powell replied: ‘I should like to have been killed in the war.’
In The Name and Nature of Poetry Housman suggested that readers are often taken by ‘something else’ in a poem which they like better than the poetry. The subject of Housman Country is this something else: charting the ways in which it has been possible over the past century to value A Shropshire Lad for reasons other than the poetry. It is a good story: if Housman has been taken to express a lost world, it is because the poems can seem to conjure not a world but an emotion, in ideally compressed terms, such as can be used to suit a variety of ends. In which respect he has become, if not a land (as Auden said of Edward Lear), then a currency. The most bereft of his settings occurs in The Name and Nature of Poetry, when he asks of Milton’s line, ‘Nymphs and shepherds, dance no more’: ‘Why have the mere words the physical effect of pathos when the sense of the passage is blithe and gay?’ It’s a question that also describes the oblique relation of effects to purposes in his own poetry. The answer he gives is that they find their way to something ‘obscure and latent … like the patches of fen which still linger here and there in the drained lands of Cambridgeshire’. His readers know this landscape, and his audience knows something different. But with his odd proleptic flair Housman may yet provide the motto for England’s solitary tomorrows: ‘In the nation that is not/Nothing stands that stood before.’