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I’m with Wendy Cope when she says…
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.
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.