The Poet Alfred Edward Housman

A Shropshire Lad, XLV:

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.

I thought it was clever. It doesn’t look like much of a poem, but the end is good. It raises a question or two as to how Housman wants us to take it. Is he being trivial with the advice of Jesus? One doesn’t read a whole lot of A.E. Housman’s poetry and get the idea sarcasm was what he aimed at. The opposite assumption, that he is quite serious about it all raises a further question. If he’s being earnest, does his logic follow?

I don’t think the answer is to ask whether he is really advocating suicide. If we concluded that, we would have to conclude against the evidence of his other poetry, that Housman was just giving us a trick, something cute and clever merely. If the poet is good, we ought to look better, and Housman is good. What is, then, he’s talking about? How is this poem true?

Consider another much better known one, LIV:

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.

Typical sad stuff, another Thomas Hardy, another luddite of the wan variety, more anti-progress: lament, regret, sentimentality, agrarian nostalgia, cliche, cliche, cliche. Do we need more tears in our beers about the past? And the herbal lore, the flower symbolism, please! How cheap. And so Housman languishes.

But what if we were to take him seriously?

The first stanza is about vitality, about life, about something precious that has been lost. Ought it not to be regretted? It is lamented in the terms of that which is gone, with is only natural to mourning. We would not eulogize the dead in terms in which we differed from them, in words and feelings they found execrable. When we read faded expressions such as ‘with rue my heart is laden’ we ought to take them with some sympathy; it is, after all, an order of symbol and ritual Housman laments. We are too much the outsiders and we read too much like parochial and gawking tourists if we do not sense a serious and solemn lament.

But the pathos of the poem really comes with the second stanza, when the tragedy of distance, of an absolute, eternal separation, opens before us like an abyss. That first couplet is too perfect for explanation. If you can’t think about it and see the implications, you need to go back to Mother Goose. And the sad resignation of the second couplet ought to come as an ache. What is there in this world which can express this separation like the yawning chasm of death? What is more irreversible? What might be mistaken for sentimentality and cliche is really strong, upon closer examination, with the feeling of an absolute and abject loss. Housman uses his symbols in a simple, direct (almost unsymbolic!) way.

Death is Housman’s theme: death of a sweetheart, of a lad, of an ideal, of a symbol, of memory, of a way of life. The question is not why couldn’t Housman think of anything else: sometimes a poet is limited and it is good for him to know and work within his limitations rather than fail at what he was meant for. No, Housman can’t be expected to give us anything other than he gave us. What we should ask is, is there a good reason he, a classics professor not unaquainted with great poetry, only had one overriding theme?

Loss, regret, and especially transcience characterize the themes developed in connection with death. Especially transcience, because in the transcience of life, which in turn causes loss and gives rise to the regret he senses, comes the tragedy. And so he mourns in A Shropshire Lad for whom everything seems to be dying, changing for the worse, passing irrevocably away. It is a world brimming with melancholy.

Time only works in one direction, and perhaps for that reason we don’t have laments for the way of life that has not yet come to pass. If it is still in the future it cannot be regretted, or lamented with any of the necessary familiarity, though it can be anticipated with a sense of doom. The past is familiar, and putting the familiar into the grave, watching it become ephemeral memories and dust and blow away only becomes tragic with a sense of an evil in the future. This is the position of the poet in A Shropshire Lad: he is outliving the good way he knew, and is still tragically alive to remember.

Consider ‘Hughley Steeple:’

THE VANE on Hughley steeple
Veers bright, a far-known sign,
And there lie Hughley people,
And there lie friends of mine.
Tall in their midst the tower
Divides the shade and sun,
And the clock strikes the hour
And tells the time to none.

To south the headstones cluster,
The sunny mounds lie thick;
The dead are more in muster
At Hughley than the quick.
North, for a soon-told number,
Chill graves the sexton delves,
And steeple-shadowed slumber
The slayers of themselves.

To north, to south, lie parted,
With Hughley tower above,
The kind, the single-hearted,
The lads I used to love.
And, south or north, ’tis only
A choice of friends one knows,
And I shall ne’er be lonely
Asleep with these or those.

The poet is too much a part of something that remains only in the memory, and which shall also pass. His life is a sort of death, for death has not only become his theme, but all his world. All that Housman could see was the loss of something irretrievable.

With that in mind we can return to the first poem and consider the ending again. Is it true?

But play the man, stand up and end you,
When your sickness is your soul.

I think it is, and I think it is a great poem. It is true within the context of Housman’s lament for a vanished way of life and a modernity from which there is no returning. Reading A Shropshire Lad, you get the idea something has been irremediably ruined, irretrievably lost. He advocates despair in the face of life on a darkling plain on which ignorant armies clash by night, a wasteland. He is saying the logic of religious devotion has nothing to do with modern conditions. In other words, he is saying that we require other conditions for a worthwhile life, and that those conditions, like the population of Hughley, are all in the grave.

One hundred years or so after Housman’s reflections, don’t you think he had a point?

3 thoughts on “The Poet Alfred Edward Housman

  1. Thanks for this post. I’d never read Housman, but I recalled a passage from Alan Jacobs’s The Narnian:

    He mentions Housman rarely in his letters, but in a 1929 letter to Arthur he gives some indication of how well he knew the poems: ‘I also glanced through A.E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad for the hundredth time. What a terrible little book it is—perfect and deadly, the beauty of the gorgon.’ It is difficult to overstress the centrality of Housman for young men of Lewis’s generation. George Orwell, less than five years younger than Jack Lewis, once wrote, ‘Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and not at all easy to understand. In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the Shropshire Lad by heart.’ Given Lewis’s extraordinarily retentive memory and the frequency with which he picked up the book, it is almost certain that he knew it as well as Orwell did. (Though he had clearly become wary of it by the time he wrote that letter to Arthur—thus ‘the beauty of the gorgon’, fascinating but ‘deadly’—he had scarcely rejected the book. When he was about sixty he and his wife were found—by her son—weeping in the common room of their house. ‘Nothing’s wrong, Doug,’ Lewis said. ‘We’re reading the poems of A.E. Housman and they always do this to us.’) [p. 77]

  2. That is interesting.

    Wonderful the amount of insight and literary criticism Lewis has in his letters, isn’t it? I’m very interested in Ruth Pitter because he has a few letters telling her his opinions of her poetry, poem by poem.

    What would be really great would be if any of his researches into the poetry of Charles Williams were extant and available.

  3. Thanks for the posting on Houseman’s work. I had heard of him, and even, upon reflection, of Shropshire Lad. However, it was good to clear away some cobwebs from my brain. I am now, in my 40’s, returning to some of the things to which I aspired in my youth.

    I find it interesting, also, that many of the men of that generation were tremendously influenced by the Great War. This isn’t surprising, but it is in great contrast to much of the reaction our own generation has, at present, to the turmoils of war.

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