Mark Ford

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Mark Ford

Hous­man Coun­try:

Into the Heart of Eng­land by Peter Parker.

Far­rar, Straus and Giroux, 530 pp., $30.00

In the sum­mer of 1902 the Amer­i­can novelist Willa Cather set off from Pitts­burgh for Europe with her friend Is­abelle McClung. Soon af­ter dock­ing at Liver­pool they ex­cit­edly em­barked on a lit­er­ary pil­grim­age to an English county that had hith­erto rarely fea­tured in Amer­i­cans’ Euro­pean itin­er­ar­ies. “When we got into Shrop­shire,” she wrote to her friend Dorothy Can­field from Lud­low on July 6, “we threw away our guide books and have blindly fol­lowed the trail of the Shrop­shire Lad and he has led us be­side still waters and in green pas­tures.” From Lud­low they vis­ited other lo­ca­tions men­tioned in A Shrop­shire Lad (1896), the cel­e­brated cy­cle of sixty-three po­ems by the English clas­si­cist and poet A. E. Hous­man. They went to Shrews­bury and Knighton, as well as the rivers Ony and Teme and Clun, in­voked in the open­ing lines of the fifti­eth poem in the se­quence (“In val­leys of springs of rivers,/By Ony and Teme and Clun”).

Hous­man’s lyrics ring­ing in her head, Cather was de­lighted to find boys play­ing soc­cer on the banks of the Severn, as they do in poem XXVII (“Is football play­ing/Along the river shore,/With lads to chase the leather,/Now I stand up no more?”); also to note that the jail in Shrews­bury was in­deed close to the rail­way tracks, as in­di­cated in poem IX:

They hang us now in Shrews­bury jail:

The whis­tles blow for­lorn,

And trains all night groan on the rail

To men that die at morn.

One af­ter­noon she and McClung rented bikes and ped­aled hap­pily off to the forested lime­stone es­carp­ment known as Wen­lock Edge—“On Wen­lock Edge the wood’s in trou­ble” (XXXI); “Oh tar­nish late on Wen­lock Edge,/Gold that I never see” (XXXIX). She was even in­spired to write a sub-Hous­man set of qua­trains her­self, about the pop­pies grow­ing on the top of “Lud­low keep.” “I’ll not quit Shrop­shire till I know ev­ery name he uses,” she ex­claimed to Can­field. “Some­how it makes it all the greater to have it all true.”

Cather, alas, de­cided it might also prove re­ward­ing to seek out in per­son the author of the po­ems that had so en­chanted her. As Peter Parker notes in Hous­man Coun­try, his new study of the poet’s work and in­flu­ence, Hous­man (born and bred in neigh­bor­ing Worces­ter­shire) didn’t in fact know Shrop­shire par­tic­u­larly well; he had quar­ried the de­tails so ad­mired by Cather from Mur­ray’s Hand­book, which was per­haps one of the guide­books that Cather had dis­carded in fa­vor of A Shrop­shire Lad. While stay­ing in Lon­don she “bat­tered on the doors” of Hous­man’s pub­lish­ers un­til they re­luc­tantly fur­nished his ad­dress, then tri­umphantly set off in pur­suit of her idol.

Hous­man’s res­i­dence at this time was 1 Yar­bor­ough Vil­las in far-flung Pin­ner, which Cather dis­cov­ered to be “an aw­ful sub­urb” to­ward the end of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Line in northwest Lon­don; there she found the singer of the rivers of Ony (nowa­days Onny) and Teme and Clun re­sid­ing “in quite the most hor­ri­ble board­ing-house ever ex­plored.” The visit, need­less to say, was not a suc­cess; even “the state of the car­pet,” Cather re­ported, “in his lit­tle hole of a study gave me a fit of dark de­pres­sion.” The im­mor­tal bard of Shrop­shire struck Cather as “the most gaunt and gray and em­bit­tered in­di­vid­ual” she had ever met. His shoes and cuffs were in a poor state. Brusquely ig­nor­ing her at­tempts to en­gage him in dis­cus­sion of his po­etry, he deftly ma­neu­vered the con­ver­sa­tion into “safe and im­per­sonal chan­nels.” Af­ter­ward Cather was ap­par­ently so up­set that she burst into tears.


(1859–1936) was him­self acutely aware of the dra­matic dis­junc­tion be­tween his po­etry and his life. He once ob­served that some authors are more in­ter­est­ing than their books, but that his book was more in­ter­est­ing than he was. In “The Name and Na­ture of Po­etry” (1933), a lec­ture given at Cam­bridge near the end of his life, Hous­man de­scribed writ­ing po­etry as a “pas­sive and in­vol­un­tary process” and com­pared his po­ems to a “mor­bid se­cre­tion, like the pearl in the oys­ter.” Lines or stan­zas would come to him on walks, of­ten af­ter he’d had a pint of beer with his lunch, “with sud­den and un­ac­count­able emo­tion,” and their source was not his brain, but “the pit of the stom­ach.” It was vi­tal, in other words, for Hous­man to view his Muse as be­yond the con­trol of his con­scious in­ten­tions, to think of him­self as a mere ves­sel to be vis­ited by his in­te­rior paramour, to bor­row a term of Wal­lace Stevens, when and where she chose. His po­ems would “bub­ble up,” as if con­cocted by the gods of the imag­i­na­tion in the caul­dron of his di­ges­tive sys­tem.

While Hous­man was by no means unique in em­brac­ing this ap­proach, I think it fair to say that he was un­par­al­leled in the thor­ough­ness with which he re­signed him­self to a pas­sive vi­sion of cre­ativ­ity. (W.B. Yeats, who loved to as­sert and dra­ma­tize the power of his own po­etic will, would stand at the op­po­site end of the spec­trum.) Among other things, this extreme self­ab­ne­ga­tion meant, as Cather found to her con­ster­na­tion, that Hous­man was ex­tremely re­luc­tant to dis­cuss his work; as with his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity or his hope­less life­long love for his very un­ho­mo­sex­ual Ox­ford class­mate Moses Jack­son, he clearly ex­pe­ri­enced his po­et­hood as a non­nego­tiable fact to which he must un­con­di­tion­ally sub­mit. Only in his late Cam­bridge lec­ture does he re­veal, and in a man­ner provoca­tively de­signed to strike his aca­demic au­di­ence as verg­ing on the philis­tine, the con­di­tions that al­lowed him to evade his rigor and in­tel­lect and write the po­etry that made him fa­mous.

As a clas­si­cal scholar Hous­man was renowned for his ex­co­ri­at­ing de­nun­ci­a­tions of the stu­pidi­ties of fel­low or ear­lier ed­i­tors of Latin texts, but to cre­ate his own po­etry he ev­i­dently had to lull to sleep his acer­bic, judg­men­tal im­pulses. Ill­ness seems to have helped in the re­lax­ation of his crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties: in “The Name and Na­ture of Po­etry” he re­marks, “I have sel­dom writ­ten po­etry un­less I was rather out of health,” and he once at­trib­uted much of A Shrop­shire Lad to a per­sis­tent sore throat. It’s hard not to imag­ine Hous­man’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the ar­rival of the Muse as anal­o­gous to the over­pow­er­ing feeling de­picted in one of his most fa­mous qua­trains:

Into my heart an air that kills From yon far coun­try blows: What are those blue re­mem­bered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

Com­men­ta­tors and ad­mir­ers have of­ten sought to dis­cern a buried nar­ra­tive or se­cret pat­tern in the lyrics col­lected in the book. Parker is clear that all such at­tempts are doomed. Nor is it easy to char­ac­ter­ize the Shrop­shire lad him­self—ini­tially Hous­man in­tended to call the book Po­ems by Terence Hearsay, who fea­tures in poem LXII; he changed his mind and opted for A Shrop­shire Lad only at the last mo­ment. What shape or story the vol­ume presents de­rives from po­ems such as XXXVII, which de­scribes a train jour­ney from “the wild green hills of Wyre” and “the high-reared head of Clee” to Lon­don; or XLI, in which the trans­planted coun­try lad walks the streets of the cap­i­tal, musing on the shire he left.

While the po­ems are all freestanding, they are linked not only by their shared me­ters and rhymes, but by their per­sis­tently mor­bid themes. A num­ber tell con­densed, of­ten grisly sto­ries: in poem VIII the speaker kills his brother Mau­rice, leav­ing his corpse in a hay­field, while in IX the speaker’s friend is about to be hanged (in the jail in Shrews­bury near the rail­way line). In the most grue­some, LIII, a lover lures his beloved to join him out­doors one star­lit night, only to re­veal that he has cut his own throat. Here the close­ness of Hous­man’s ef­fects and tone to tra­di­tional bal­lads is es­pe­cially strik­ing:

“Oh lad, what is it, lad, that drips Wet from your neck on mine? What is it falling on my lips, My lad, that tastes of brine?”

“Oh like enough ’tis blood, my dear,

For when the knife has slit

The throat across from ear to ear ’Twill bleed be­cause of it.”

Not all Hous­man’s Shrop­shire lads die so sen­sa­tion­ally; some find an early grave by nat­u­ral, or undis­closed, causes, while oth­ers en­list and per­ish in for­eign parts.

Most of the po­ems were writ­ten in 1895, when Hous­man was liv­ing in Highgate in north Lon­don. The book was pub­lished by Ke­gan Paul, Trench, Trüb­ner & Co. early the fol­low­ing year, with Hous­man con­tribut­ing £30 to cover costs. Its pop­u­lar­ity was not im­me­di­ate: by the end of 1896 only 381 copies out of a print run of 500 had been sold. It was not un­til the vol­ume was reis­sued in 1898 that this un­likely sleeper slowly but steadily be­gan to find a re­cep­tive au­di­ence. By 1911 it was sell­ing in a va­ri­ety of for­mats at the stag­ger­ing rate of 13,500 copies a year. Com­posers such as Vaughan Wil­liams and Ge­orge But­ter­worth vied with each other to set its lyrics to mu­sic, while for many caught up in World War I A Shrop­shire Lad came to sig­nify all that was pre­cious in Eng­land and English­ness. Hous­man’s lyrics, as Parker il­lus­trates in metic­u­lous and com­pen­dious de­tail, were taken by many sol­diers to en­cap­su­late a vi­sion of the na­tion’s land­scape and val­ues worth de­fend­ing at all costs.

It is, of course, fit­ting that A Shrop­shire Lad be­came pop­u­lar with young men in the trenches, since many of its po­ems con­cern sol­diers and vi­o­lent death. “Shot? so quick, so clean an end­ing?” opens XLIV. But the par­tic­u­lar sol­dier this poem in­vokes was not one of those who came to grief on the Em­pire’s fron­tiers or in colo­nial skir­mishes in Asia or Africa. In Hous­man’s own copy of A Shrop­shire Lad the poet’s brother Lau­rence found tucked next to this poem a news­pa­per ar­ti­cle dated Au­gust 10, 1895 (the year of the trial of Os­car Wilde), de­scrib­ing the in­quest into the death of a nine­teenyear-old Wool­wich cadet named Harry Maclean.

The ar­ti­cle cut out and pre­served by Hous­man re­ports how a week ear­lier Maclean had come up to Lon­don, taken a room in the Char­ing Cross Ho­tel, and then shot him­self in the head. He left be­hind a sui­cide note that the poet clearly had no trou­ble de­cod­ing—in­deed a sen­tence from it cap­tures pretty much ex­actly his own im­pos­si­ble re­la­tion­ship with Moses Jack­son: “There is only one thing in this world that would make me thor­oughly happy; that one thing I have no earthly hope of ob­tain­ing.” The poem, with what de­gree of irony it is not easy to judge, com­mends the young cadet’s de­ci­sion to kill him­self and thus es­cape the con­tu­mely heaped ear­lier that year on the con­victed Wilde:

Shot? so quick, so clean an end­ing?

Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:

Yours was not an ill for mend­ing, ’Twas best to take it to the grave. . . .

Oh soon, and better so than later Af­ter long dis­grace and scorn,

You shot dead the house­hold traitor,

The soul that should not have been born.

Hous­man’s sense that he him­self also har­bored a “house­hold traitor” was ev­i­dently a vi­tal im­pulse for his pe­ri­odic bouts of po­etic com­po­si­tion. In a let­ter writ­ten just a few weeks be­fore Jack­son died of stom­ach cancer in 1923, Hous­man went so far as to sug­gest that it was his friend who was “largely re­spon­si­ble” for the po­ems col­lected in A Shrop­shire Lad and Last Po­ems, which he hur­ried into print so that Jack­son could read the book on his deathbed. The lines and verses that bub­bled up from the pit of Hous­man’s stom­ach were, it seems clear, his way of deal­ing with the emo­tions that might other­wise have tempted him to com­mit sui­cide like Maclean, or to risk “dis­grace and scorn” like Wilde. They also al­lowed him to forge mo­men­tary metaphor­i­cal links with oth­ers whom he imag­ined to be in the same sit­u­a­tion; some of his most mov­ing stan­zas are those that reach out from the page to their ad­dressee, though he is of­ten, like Maclean or the ath­lete who dies young in XIX, in the grave:

Turn safe to rest, no dreams, no wak­ing;

And here, man, here’s the wreath I’ve made:

’Tis not a gift that’s worth the tak­ing,

But wear it and it will not fade.

The non­be­liev­ing Hous­man knows that the brave cadet will never wake; and yet, in the grip of the poem’s fan­tasy, di­rectly ad­dresses him, with ap­pro­pri­ate amounts of self-dep­re­ca­tion and English re­serve, across the im­pass­able gulf.


Hous­man Coun­try is partly about the con­tem­po­rary events and per­sonal griefs re­fracted in A Shrop­shire Lad, and partly about the his­tory of the work’s re­cep­tion: he ex­plores the ap­peal of Hous­man’s exquisitely chis­eled qua­trains to read­ers from Win­ston Churchill to Tom Stop­pard (whose 1997 play The In­ven­tion of Love un­fa­vor­ably con­trasts Hous­man’s re­pres­sion and timid­ity with Wilde’s reck­less flam­boy­ance); from Vaughan Wil­liams and Ge­orge But­ter­worth to Mor­ris­sey of the Smiths, whose mo­rose lyrics reprised for the late twentieth cen­tury Hous­man’s melan­choly fu­sion of sti­fled long­ing and in­evitable dis­as­ter.

Parker is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing on the in­ter­sec­tion of Hous­man’s mourn­ful por­trayal of Shrop­shire as “the land of lost con­tent” with the ele­giac strain in myths of English­ness. The open­ing poem of A Shrop­shire Lad, “1887,” is os­ten­si­bly a cel­e­bra­tion of Queen Vic­to­ria’s Golden Jubilee, but its pa­tri­otic trib­ute to her reign is quizzi­cally bal­anced by the ref­er­ences Hous­man makes to all the sol­diers buried in for­eign parts:

It dawns in Asia, tomb­stones show

And Shrop­shire names are read;

And the Nile spills his over­flow Be­side the Severn’s dead.

The dis­tant graves of th­ese Shrop­shire-born sol­diers per­form a kind of ini­tia­tory rite of sac­ri­fice: if their deaths have helped make pos­si­ble the Em­pire, they are also shown to li­cense the pas­toral myth of English­ness ex­plored in A Shrop­shire Lad it­self; in­deed they dis­con­cert­ingly fore­ground the im­por­tance of such myths

to the ide­ol­ogy of Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ism. Hous­man, it should be noted, de­lib­er­ately presents his ru­ral land­scapes in a way that is largely ab­stracted—his Shrop­shire has none of the par­tic­u­lar­ity and his­tor­i­cal lay­er­ing of Thomas Hardy’s Wes­sex. It is a coun­try of the mind, a nos­tal­gic na­tional fan­tasy ex­plic­itly ex­posed as such, and yet one that also in­spires gen­uine feeling and even, as “1887” and po­ems such as “The Re­cruit” and “Reveille” demon­strate, pro­vokes a de­sire to par­tic­i­pate in the im­pe­rial mis­sion. The hills of pro­vin­cial Shrop­shire achieve their lyric and pas­toral po­tency—be­come, that is, the “blue re­mem­bered hills” of “yon far coun­try” (XL)—only be­cause many have left them trag­i­cally for else­where: for the im­pe­rial cen­ter, Lon­don, to which the Shrop­shire lad him­self is ex­iled, or for con­quered realms be­side the Nile or in Asia.

It was to Karachi, which was then in In­dia, that Moses Jack­son de­parted in De­cem­ber 1887 (it is surely no co­in­ci­dence that A Shrop­shire Lad opens with this date), to take up an ap­point­ment as prin­ci­pal of Da­yaram Jeth­mal Sindh Science Col­lege. Jack­son and Hous­man had met eight years ear­lier as stu­dents at Ox­ford, where they shared lodg­ings in St. Giles’, just op­po­site their col­lege, St. John’s. Hous­man had early es­tab­lished him­self as an ex­tremely talented stu­dent of Latin and Greek, gain­ing high marks in his first-year ex­ams; a promis­ing aca­demic ca­reer seemed to beckon—un­til he ut­terly failed his fi­nal ex­ams. It has never been as­cer­tained whether this un­ac­count­able dis­as­ter was the re­sult of some vi­o­lent emo­tional up­heaval brought on by his at­trac­tion to the ath­letic, hearty Jack­son, a no-non­sense stu­dent who had come to Ox­ford on a science schol­ar­ship. What­ever the dis­tur­bance, it didn’t af­fect Jack­son, who was awarded a first.

Undeterred by this set­back, Hous­man found a job at the Patent Of­fice in Lon­don and spent his evenings pur­su­ing his clas­si­cal stud­ies in the Bri­tish Li­brary, pub­lish­ing and edit­ing at such a rate that in 1892 he was able to ap­ply for, and be ap­pointed to, a pro­fes­sor­ship of Latin at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don. He and Jack­son again shared ac­com­mo­da­tions in 1883–1885, on Tal­bot Road in Bayswa­ter. Jack­son later moved to Maida Vale, where he met and fell in love with his land­lord’s daugh­ter, Rosa Cham­bers. They mar­ried dur­ing his first re­turn from In­dia in 1889. Rosa trav­eled back with Jack­son to Karachi, and in due course gave birth to four sons, leav­ing Hous­man to pon­der his un­re­quited “long and sure­set lik­ing,” and even­tu­ally to com­pose po­ems in which his stiff up­per lip, al­ways el­e­gantly mus­tached, is set vi­o­lently aquiver:

Be­cause I liked you better Than suits a man to say, It irked you, and I promised To throw the thought away.

To put the world be­tween us We parted, stiff and dry; “Good-bye,” said you, “for­get me.”

“I will, no fear,” said I.

In a char­ac­ter­is­tic irony, at once ret­i­cent and barbed, we learn that this poem’s lad does in­deed ful­fill his prom­ise, but only by dy­ing:

If here, where clover whitens The dead man’s knoll, you pass,

And no tall flower to meet you Starts in the tre­foiled grass,

Halt by the head­stone nam­ing The heart no longer stirred, And say the lad that loved you Was one that kept his word.

Whereas in XLIV the liv­ing poet imag­ines him­self ad­dress­ing the dead cadet, here the narrator is fig­ured as de­liv­er­ing a post­hu­mous com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the in­dif­fer­ent beloved at the site of his own grave. Given its ex­plic­itly ho­mo­erotic con­tent, it is not sur­pris­ing that Hous­man opted not to pub­lish this poem in his life­time, the “tall flower” of the third stanza be­ing par­tic­u­larly open to a Freudian in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Parker ably charts the weird but po­tent en­er­gies of Hous­man’s po­etic econ­omy, and the pe­cu­liar, dis­tinctly English way in which his work draws on the great ro­man­tic trope of the Liebestod, the con­sum­ma­tion of love in death. As W. H. Au­den noted in his sav­age but acutely per­cep­tive son­net “A. E. Hous­man,” it was Eros that en­twined death and the po­etic in Hous­man’s imag­i­na­tion. In the day­dream of each set of rhyming qua­trains, this ul­ti­mate union af­forded a tem­po­rary respite from the com­plex bar­ri­ers that the poet es­tab­lished be­tween him­self and those he dealt with in his reg­i­mented daily life:

In sav­age foot-notes on un­just edi­tions

He timidly at­tacked the life he led, And put the money of his feel­ings on

The un­crit­i­cal re­la­tions of the dead,

Where only ge­o­graph­i­cal divi­sions

Parted the coarse hanged sol­dier from the don.

It was just this kind of English re­pres­sion, even hypocrisy, that Au­den moved to Amer­ica to es­cape, but Hous­man—like his suc­ces­sor as lau­re­ate of English un­hap­pi­ness and un­ful­fill­ment, Philip Larkin—used his mis­ery to cre­ate a body of po­etry that sank, to bor­row Parker’s sub­ti­tle, deep “into the heart of Eng­land.”

Hous­man also found com­fort, or at least the po­ems of­ten sug­gest he did, in the thought that while his se­cret an­guish set him apart from those around him, it connected him not only to other “luck­less lads”—i.e., young male read­ers of his po­ems fac­ing sim­i­lar quan­daries—but to a chain of his­tor­i­cal fore­bears. In XXXI (“On Wen­lock Edge the wood’s in trou­ble”), he seeks so­lace for the in­ner tur­moil sym­bol­ized by the heav­ing, wind-rav­aged wood in the thought that, cen­turies ear­lier, a Ro­man may have stood and suf­fered in a sim­i­lar man­ner on the very same spot:

There, like the wind through woods in riot,

Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet: Then ’twas the Ro­man, now ’tis I.

While Hous­man pos­si­bly en­gages in such sto­ical re­flec­tions only to heighten the drama of his own suf­fer­ing, the links that he posits with “oth­ers” do serve to chal­lenge his solip­sism, and cre­ate a sense of con­ti­nu­ity and shared ex­pe­ri­ence. XXX ad­dresses the same theme:

Oth­ers, I am not the first,

Have willed more mis­chief than they durst:

If in the breath­less night I too Shiver now, ’tis noth­ing new.

Like his pre­de­ces­sors in pain, he will even­tu­ally find a res­o­lu­tion to his tor­ment in death, al­though in fact in this par­tic­u­lar poem—Hous­man’s most ex­cru­ci­at­ing po­etic evo­ca­tion of a dark night of the erotic soul—the re­flec­tion pro­vides only min­i­mal re­lief:

But from my grave across my brow

Plays no wind of heal­ing now, And fire and ice within me fight Be­neath the suf­fo­cat­ing night.

The hold of such po­ems on read­ers owes much to their mem­o­ra­bil­ity: the trip­ping tetram­e­ters, the jin­gling rhymes that we as­so­ci­ate with bal­lads or chil­dren’s verses or non­sense po­etry, are here re­pur­posed to present a har­row­ing con­fes­sion of per­sonal tor­ment as extreme as that dra­ma­tized in John Donne’s “A Noc­tur­nal Upon St. Lucy’s Day” or the dark son­nets of Ger­ard Manley Hop­kins. Not a word is wasted. Hous­man Coun­try presents a com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of the ef­fect of such po­ems on suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions. It must be ac­knowl­edged that cer­tain chap­ters—such as the one on mu­si­cal adap­ta­tions of Hous­man, or the fi­nal one on his pres­ence in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture—read rather too much like a cat­a­log, or a series of en­cy­clo­pe­dia en­tries, and the book over­all would have ben­e­fited from a stronger nar­ra­tive shape. But many of the re­sponses, trib­utes, and rec­ol­lec­tions un­earthed by Parker are both strik­ing and mov­ing. Con­sider, for in­stance, the con­tem­po­rary writer Mag­gie Fer­gus­son’s ac­count of her grand­fa­ther, a sur­vivor of the trenches, sit­ting in old age at twi­light with a tum­bler of whisky while lis­ten­ing to Vaughan Wil­liams’s set­ting of “Bre­don Hill,” “play­ing the record over and over as tears streamed silently down his ru­ined face.” For nu­mer­ous read­ers, as Parker demon­strates in rich and var­ied de­tail, Hous­man’s po­etry both ar­tic­u­lated and in­car­nated “the land of lost con­tent.”

A.E. Hous­man, circa 1900

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