I think I am in love with A.E. Housman,
Which puts me in a worse-than-usual-fix.
No woman ever stood a chance with Housman,
And he’s been dead since 1936.
(Serious Concerns)

His stock is definitely on the rise (there was Tom Stoppard’s Invention of Love, and now an edition of his letters, which I would love to review, since, er, the book is priced a little out of my range!) I confess it was almost more fun to announce him as maybe my favorite poet when this would result in jaws dropping open at poetry dinners and a polite averting of eyes. (Or maybe that is still true? I’ll soon find out.)
By favorite I don't mean Greatest or Best or even Most Influential. I just love everything he wrote. His criticism is as delicious to me as his poetry. Auden’s famous sonnet suggests that Housman retreated into dry-as-dust scholarship to avoid passion, but Housman clearly gets an awful big kick out of criticism. His prefaces aren’t just savage, they are gleeful. Manilius may be more famous for Housman’s preface of his work now than as the 1st century AD author of Astronomica.
Some quotations from the title lecture of The Name and Nature of Poetry:
“Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not. If it were, the eighteenth century would have been able to write it better.”
(He goes on to praise Collins, Christopher Smart, Cowper, and Blake over, say, Pope. "And what other characteristic had these four in common? They were mad.")
And asked to define poetry: “I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.” And goes on to give his famous account of being unable to shave properly if a line of poetry strays through his mind, because his hair stands on end.
This is a favorite and not-too-anthologized poem of mine—Housman had a lifelong interest in astronomy (hence Manilius)—and here he puts it to wonderful, accurate use. For Housman, the night rises rather than falls. You almost need to picture a three-dimensional model of movements of the earth, the moon, and the sun here:
West and away the wheels of darkness roll,
Day’s beamy banner up the east is borne,
Spectres and fears, the nightmare and her foal,
Drown in the golden deluge of the morn.
But over sea and continent from sight
Safe to the Indies has the earth conveyed
The vast and moon-eclipsing cone of night,
Her towering foolscap of eternal shade.
See, in mid heaven the sun is mounted; hark,
The belfries tingle to the noonday chime.
‘Tis silent, and the subterranean dark
Has crossed the nadir, and begins to climb.

Originally Published: October 5th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. October 5, 2007
     Don Share

    Wonderful stuff. Yes, the new edition of the letters is really, really expensive - but fans of AEH will adore them - not so much for insights or gossip, which he almost inevitably abjured, but for the relentless insistence on matters of principle, even at his own expense.
    You folks who are getting hooked on Housman - and Wendy Cope - might like to proceed to Gavin Ewart next!

  2. October 5, 2007

    I thought to myself, "What is 'expensive' when it comes to books?" So I checked. And let's clarify: it's over three hundred dollars.
    I'm trying to think what I would do if that were, say, Wallace Stevens's or John Ashbery's letters. Gulp!

  3. October 5, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Yes, you'd think that for upwards of $300 they might throw in an ACTUAL letter by Housman...

  4. October 5, 2007
     Vivek Narayanan

    Last week for some reason, in a kind of zeitgeist fashion, entirely unaware of his letters or his stock secretly on the rise, I was thinking fondly of how much I liked Housman and his land of lost content, and so looked him up, startled to find that Shropshire Lad appeared in 1896. Somehow I had mentally dated it at least 30 years later-- the diction so fresh that many of his poems could easily have been written yesterday.

  5. October 5, 2007

    Alicia, you now have to tell us what you think of "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy."
    Don, I can't second the recommendation that lovers of Housman proceed directly to Ewart-- perhaps a detour at Landor? (Has anyone here spent time with Landor's prose works? I've always wanted to, but I just haven't.)
    There are two Wendy Copes, the literary-historical parodist and the author of well-made light or comic verse about courtship from an urbane Englishwoman's perspective. Lovers of the former should probably read Ewart; lovers of the latter should certainly check out Sophie Hannah.

  6. October 5, 2007
     Don Share

    Steve, I think you're exactly right about the detour to Landor, whose poems, by the way, ought to be more easily available (if you have a thousand bucks, you can get them all on CD-ROM). As for his prose, I tried to engage in some of his many "Imaginary Conversations," but they have faded from my own imagination, unlike the best of his poems.

  7. October 5, 2007
     Don Share

    Re Ewart - ah, but notice I said to proceed to him from Wendy Cope, post-Housman - not to go directly from him.
    Actually, I think you can probably stop dead in your tracks when you reach the end of Housman...

  8. October 6, 2007
     ALicia (AE)

    I--maybe I should say WE because it is a favorite of my husband's, who has about memorized it--ADORE Fragment of a Greek Tragedy. It is in the most perfect classical Translationeze. (Ange, you would appreciate it from you Greek classes.) Really, it has to be performed to be appreciated. Housman had a real flare for light verse and parody ("The shades of night were falling fast/ And the rain was falling faster,/ When through an Alpine village passed/ An Alpine village pastor")...
    To me, Housman seems less "dated" now than many modernist experiments (I say this as a fan of Eliot), less a product of a specific time, that is, which makes sense because he was striving for a timelessness. It is kind of bizarre to think that The Waste Land and Last Poems both came out in 1922.
    The accusations of "false pastoral" that dogged him from the appearance of Shropshire Lad have always seemed to me misplaced. All pastoral is "false"--it is the most pointedly artificial of the genres.

  9. October 6, 2007

    But really the closest contemporary heir of Housman is... Robert Creeley!
    (I am actually serious about this claim, but will be explaining it, with any luck, at greater length in another venue a couple of months from now.)

  10. October 21, 2007
     Don Share

    I hate to see this thread fade away, so here are some teasers form AEH's letters, taken from Paul Johnson's review for the Literary Review:
    "He could be sharp. He refused to be included in an anthology with Meredith 'as I am a respectable character and do not care to be seen in the company of galvanised corpses. By this time [1903] he stinketh for he has been dead twenty years.' He wrote: 'I do not want to write letters to a woman whose name is Birdie.' He wrote: 'Mr Thomas thanks me for "a poem", and prints two: which is the one he doesn't thank me for?' Here is a letter received by another anthologist called Moore of Burton-upon-Trent:
    Permission to quote is one thing, permission to misquote is another. First you take certain verses of mine and disfigure them with illiterate alterations, then you ask me to let you attribute them publicly to me, and now, because I do not abet you in injuring my reputation, you think it rather hard. Why was Burton built on Trent?
    But though he often refused permission to quote, he also declined fees and royalties. He wrote:
    Vanity, not avarice, is my ruling passion; and so long as young men write to me from America saying that they would rather part with their hair than with their copy of my book, I do not feel the need of food and drink."

  11. October 22, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    One certainly gets a taste of this personality in the letters printed in his brother's book, "My Brother, A.E. Housman", or whatever it is called... including some terrific "critiques" of his brother's poems, which are sharp and funny without ever being cruel. If I were at home, I'd take the book down and post some. Maybe when I get back to Athens in a week.
    Again I say... won't someone ask me to review this and send me a review copy? Any takers? Poetry Foundation?