Friday, 19 August 2011

Strychnine in his Cup

Collected Poems and Selected Prose, A.E. Housman, ed. Christopher Ricks
In Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder recalls that he was proud owner of “the Medici Press edition of A Shropshire Lad”. This is one of the grace notes in Waugh’s grand symphony of conversion: not essential to the plot, but commenting subtly on it. Ryder is an atheo-agnostic pagan about to take up homosexuality and A Shropshire Lad is a collection of classically inspired poems by an atheo-agnostic homosexual. Having Poped, Ryder will describe his Oxonian library as “meagre and commonplace”, but A Shropshire Lad, like Eminent Victorians, another of his books by an atheo-agnostic homosexual, is still secure in the canon. And it deserves to be:
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.
That is the entirety of “LIV”: a Housman poem can be secure in your memory after a single reading, if your memory is good (mine takes a little longer). He’s a minor poet with mostly minor poems, but can say more and with more power than great poets at much greater length. One of those poets is Swinburne, the subject of one of Housman’s rapier-witted essays. Swinburne has vices where Housman has virtues, and vice versâ, which is why, as so often elsewhere, Housman’s study of another writer is partly a study of himself:
To take three of his most impressive and characteristic poems, the three which I have mentioned last, Dolores, and Ilicet, and The Triumph of Time: there is no reason why they should begin where they do or end where they do; there is no reason why the middle should be in the middle; there is hardly a reason why, having once begun, they should ever end at all; and it would be possible to rearrange the stanzas which compose them in different orders without lessening their coherency or impairing their effect. (“Swinburne”, 1910)
Their coherency would not be lessened because they are not coherent in the first place: Swinburne has glorious sound without very much sense. Housman’s verse can’t be called glorious ― it’s too muted ― but combines sound with sense much more happily. And the sense is generally that of loss, melancholy and resignation. The great and perhaps only love of his love, Moses Jackson, was divided from him in three ways: Jackson was not homosexual, not highly intelligent, and not devoted to classical scholarship. Housman dedicated his magnum opus, an edition of the poet Manilius, with the words sodali meo M. I. Jackson, harum litterarum contemptori, “to my comrade Moses Jackson, scorner of these studies”. Though he remained a friend till his premature death in Canada, Jackson had also been a scorner of Housman’s advances. The agony of this unrequited love inspired A Shropshire Lad and the philosophy therein. Here a narrator is addressed by a statue he finds in a “Grecian gallery”:
“What, lad, drooping with your lot?
I too would be where I am not.
I too survey that endless line
Of men whose thoughts are not as mine.
Years, ere you stood up from rest,
On my neck the collar prest;
Years, when you lay down your ill,
I shall stand and bear it still.
Courage, lad, ’tis not for long:
Stand, quit you like stone, be strong.”
So I thought his look would say;
And light on me my trouble lay,
And I slept out in flesh and bone
Manful like the man of stone.
“Turn your aching heart to stone”: that was the cold but sufficient comfort from a nihilistic philosophy that Housman tried to preach in his poems. However, he got hot comfort in his writing too, when he lacerated fellow scholars for their failings. In his poetry he’s generally masochistic, in his prose often sadistic, which is why he did not achieve the Stoic ideal of one who endures suffering without seeking to inflict it. Housman did not suffer fools gladly and it was not difficult for a man of his intelligence to find donkeys to lash:
Most men are rather stupid, and most of those who are not stupid are, consequently, rather vain; and it hardly possible to step aside from the pursuit of truth without falling a victim either to your stupidity or else to your vanity... I do not know which cuts the worse figure: a German scholar encouraging his countrymen to believe that “wir Deutsche” have nothing to learn from foreigners, or an Englishman demonstrating the unity of Homer by sneers at “Teutonic professors”, who are supposed by his audience to have goggle eyes behind large spectacles, and ragged moustaches saturated in lager beer, and consequently to be incapable of forming literary judgments. (“The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism”, 1921)
If he’s being hard but fair in his essay on Swinburne, not seeking to wound and distress, that may be because Swinburne was no longer alive when he wrote it. There was even a sinister side to Housman’s literary aggression: it’s hard to believe this poem inspired no suicides in troubled young men, particularly those struggling with homosexuality:
If it chance your eye offend you,
   Pluck it out, lad, and be sound:
’Twill hurt, but here are salves to friend you,
   And many a balsam grows on ground.
And if your hand or foot offend you,
   Cut it off, lad, and be whole;
But play the man, stand up and end you,
   When your sickness is your soul.
But Housman may have saved more youths than he incited, by hymning the world’s sensual consolations:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Housman himself wrote in “The Name and Nature of Poetry” (1933) that he had to be careful to keep lines of poetry out of his head when he was shaving of a morning, because otherwise his skin bristled and the razor became useless. His own poems can inspire the same sensation and though it would be easy to overlook on a less than thorough reading, there is humor and self-mockery there too. This collection includes a selection of “Light Verse and Parodies”, and even A Shropshire Lad has its jokes:
“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...”
That poem, the penultimate, then goes on to opine that “malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man”, before reprising Housman’s “harden the heart” theme in its description of an Eastern king’s self-medication against assassination:
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
―I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
So did Housman, at the age of seventy-seven in 1936, after an embittered but highly productive life that had its consolations. Some of them are still available in this excellent collection: the beauty of words, the challenge of scholarship, the Stoical acceptance of fate and life’s ultimate futility.

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