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3 July 2016

What A E Housman tells us about Englishness

Housman Country: Into the Heart of England by Peter Parker is in intriguing accumulation of evidence and analysis about an elegantly restrained poet.

By John Mullan

Housman Country is Shropshire, the landscape of wooded hills and buried villages that we know from A Shropshire Lad, the collection of melancholy, clipped, aching poems that A E Housman published in 1896. In fact, Housman, born and bred in Worcestershire, did not know Shropshire well and later conceded that some the topographical details in his book were wrong. Housman Country was really a landscape of the imagination, its cherished place names – Bredon Hill, Clee, Wenlock Edge – chosen for euphony rather than personal associations. It is this imaginary place that Peter Parker explores in his new book, written with some of the elegant restraint he admires in his chosen author.

As Parker’s subtitle indicates, he feels that there is something peculiarly English in the achievement and the appeal of Housman’s poetry. So much is this book a homage to that poetry that it prints the whole of A Shropshire Lad as a kind of appendix,
encouraging the reader to keep turning to and reading (or, more probably, rereading) the particular lyrics under discussion. Parker’s method is unusual but rewarding. Though there are sections of biographical narrative, the book is not chronologically ordered. Instead it takes themes in Housman’s poetry and circles ruminatively around them. This makes an advantage out of a necessity: Housman was private, retentive, resistant to all inquiry. The fund of stories about him is very limited and was spent long ago.

Housman was a brilliant classicist. He was appointed to a chair in Latin at University College London even though he had been working in the Patent Office for a decade after failing his finals at Oxford. This sudden crisis seems characteristic: a sign of inner struggles that were otherwise wholly concealed. The main emotional commitment of his early adult life was to his friend Moses Jackson, whom he met as an undergraduate at St John’s College, Oxford. It is generally accepted that Housman felt a deep homosexual passion for Jackson that was not reciprocated (though he possibly had a compensatory sexual relationship with Jackson’s younger brother Adalbert) and that the two young men fell out because Housman made some declaration of his feelings. Eventually, friendship was re-established, though Jackson then left England for India, where he married. Housman seems to have remained infatuated with this lost love for the rest of his life.

In 1911 he became a professor of Latin at Cambridge and a fellow of Trinity College, a daunting figure noted for his asperity and refusal to discuss his poetry. (He kept his devoted readers waiting 28 years for the second volume of poems published in his lifetime, its title – Last Poems – warning them off further anticipation.) Parker mentions that his scholarly energies were given over for years to editing Manilius’s Astronomica, but hardly does justice to the weirdness of Housman’s dedication. The text to which he gave so much time and energy was both obscure and tedious. He was under no illusions about its inherent merits. The undertaking was self-mortifying – a way of not allowing his mind to dwell on other things.

Parker respects his self-subjugation. “The repression that seemed to characterise Housman’s life and conduct were precisely what produced the poetry and directed the form it took,” he writes. He is not the first to notice the strict emotional containment of the poems, nor the first to value them for just this containment. Some readers did immediately sense in A Shropshire Lad the intimation of sexual longing that could never be expressed directly. E M Forster recalled that he “read it for seven years in an awed, muddled sort of way”. Alan Bennett observed in the introduction to his 2014 anthology Six Poets that “in the days of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ Housman was a telltale volume to have on the bookshelf”.

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“Repression” is not quite the word for what the poems perform. Some are so evidently about the yearnings of a homosexual man that it seems strange they were ever seen as anything else. In one (“Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?”) Housman addresses a young man who has killed himself rather than face a life of “long disgrace and scorn”, the poem inspired – if that is the right word – by the suicide of a young soldier at a London hotel. Parker wrestles with its apparent endorsement of self-annihilation: “You would not live to wrong your brothers:/Oh lad, you died as fits a man”. Yet, as he rightly says, Housman was so wedded to irony that a reader can always hope that the poems’ declarations are self-undermining.

Parker’s book is best not on the qualities of Housman’s poems so much as the powers that his devotees have found in them. After the initial biographical sketch, chapters discuss “English landscape” and then “English music”, trying to catch his influence on a national culture. His verse was seized on in the first decades of the 20th century by composers who wished to “forge a new national style”. Parker relates the many musical settings of poems from A Shropshire Lad to the upsurge of interest in English folk music, led by the likes of Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and describes with close attention the settings of Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, John Ireland and Samuel Barber.

The horrors of the First World War gave special powers to Housman’s poetry. Composed at the time of the Boer War (Housman’s youngest brother, Herbert, was killed in 1901 while fighting in South Africa), A Shropshire Lad is full of soldiers and the echoes of war, and another of Parker’s thematic chapters is given over to “English soldiers”. He finds the bereaved relatives of young men killed in action quoting lines from the collection to console themselves. Housman’s melancholy idealisations of young manhood, of “lads” who had died and would never grow old, had taken on a new force. Many bookish young officers – including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – left for the Western Front with a copy of A Shropshire Lad in their pocket.

After the war his first collection, rather than abating in popularity, became a kind of handbook to what Parker calls “the Rediscovery of England”. Now ramblers, not soldiers, put A Shropshire Lad in their pocket. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, glorying in his own countryman image, was apt to quote from it in speeches. Later, during the Second World War, the poems maintained their hold on a certain kind of British soldier. Among many telling vignettes, Parker tells of a future Eton headmaster, Anthony Chenevix-Trench, who survived as a Japanese prisoner of war by translating A Shropshire Lad into Latin while breaking stones on the Burma railway.

Occasionally, as he documents the ways in which Housman’s poems have “entered the culture”, Parker can become list-like: here are all the composers who set his poems to music; there are all the book titles that are quotations from his work. Inspector Morse stories are full of allusions to him; he is quoted in The Simpsons; Bert Fry in The Archers is a Housman aficionado; Morrissey concerts have featured readings from A Shropshire Lad. Yet the mere accumulation of evidence is intriguing. We cannot get away from Housman’s sad, lucid rhythms. 

John Mullan is a professor of English at University College London

Housman Country: Intro the Heart of England by Peter Parker is published by Little, Brown (544pp, £25)

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This article appears in the 29 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies