A. E. Housman is chronologically a poet of the 1890s, and since I have been reading some of them I took the excuse to revisit A Shropshire Lad (1896). Any excuse is a good one, since he is a great favorite of mine. Aesthetically, he is about as far from the elaborate, Decadent world of Dowson and Wilde as I can imagine. The 1890s did not know what to do with Housman (although British composers liked his songful poems right away), but soon enough England learned, to its sorrow, that Housman had somehow, twenty years in advance, written a classic of war poetry, ready for when England needed it.
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade. (poem LIV)
Pure, melancholy lyric poetry as song-like as possible, with hints of old ballads and Robert Herrick but hardly anything to suggest composition in the 19th century, much less 1894. I might even call Housman’s poems simple, grudgingly – the compliment, for me, is “complex” – but if the poems are so simple why are there so few like them? Housman’s poetry is still much read but little studied. Study seems pointless. Memorization is rewarded, though. Housman is easy to memorize.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are these blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again. (XL)
“Heart” is a favorite word. So is “lad,” “man,” “young.” Neither of the above has “grave” or “earth,” even though they are present in the first poem, veiled by metaphor. At least the sad sack in the second poems is presumably alive. Housman can become repetitive and morbid, sometimes comically so, especially when the 63 poems of A Shropshire Lad lead directly to Last Poems (1922) and the posthumous More Poems (1936), published much later but I believe mostly from Housman’s youth. More young men wandering the earth or falling in love only to die.
Now hollow fires burn out to black,
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go.
Oh never fear, man, nought’s to dread,
Look not left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
There’s nothing but the night. (LX)
I have included these little eight-liners simply in order to enjoy complete poems, but they rarely go over forty or fifty lines. One that does, one of my favorites, is proof of Housman’s sense of humor about his low key excesses:
‘Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ‘tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ‘tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.’ (LXII, ll. 1-10)
The poet spends the next sixty lines or so describing his method, comparing it to the taking of tiny doses of poison to build immunity for when, as is inevitable, your enemies try to assassinate you. He also recommends beer as a cure for the ills untempered by poetry.
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man. (ll. 17-20)
The poetry will be more help on “the dark and cloudy day.” Housman’s poems have never seemed so bitter or poisonous to me, though, but perhaps I had been previously immunized and thus developed a taste for mournful tunes.