What was — is — Housman's appeal? For over a century he's been reviled by intellectuals but read by the rest of us. I've touched on this before on the Victorian Web, but the question recently came to mind again after re-reading an article written by Cyril Connolly in 1936, the year of Housman's death, and subsequently published in his book, The Condemned Playground. At first Connolly's article just seems querulous and mean-spirited, in keeping perhaps with the man's character, but in the end you begin to realise that here is genuine puzzlement. How can this over-rated poet be so famous? Connolly was obsessed with fame and failure. In 1938 he published Enemies of Promise, a book analysing the reasons why so many promising young writers fail. He'd already written a novel, The Rock Pool, but was never to write another (he died in 1974). He spent his life as a journalist and critic although, throughout the war years, he edited a culturally important literary magazine called Horizon. In 1936, as well, Connolly was thirty three, almost the same age as Housman when A Shropshire Lad made him famous overnight.
Connolly might have tempered his criticism if he'd known what we now know about Housman's ruined emotional life: his hopeless love for a heterosexual man, Moses Jackson, Jackson's terrible death from cancer in Canada, and the fact that Housman rushed out Last Poems so his friend could read them before he died. Less forgivably, Connolly prints the worst of Housman's lines and damns them by comparing him to what even at that time were the bugbears of all intellectuals: the Georgians, Newbolt, Belloc, and Kipling. But even here there's more bile than insight. He compares the following lines of Housman to Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads:
I will go where I am wanted, for the sergeant doesn't mind;
He may be sick to see me but he treats me very kind.
Now, these lines are bad — could they be much worse? — but Kiplingesque they are not. No soldier in any army in the world, I imagine, could identify with Housman's words, except perhaps as a joke. Yet, like it or not, Kipling spoke for the common soldier, as the common soldier knew and appreciated. "Single men in barracks," Kipling told civilians, "don't grow into plaster saints."
Most of the article, however, is about whether or not Housman wrote in the classical tradition, as his admirers claimed. Classical poetry, Connolly argued, was essentially aristocratic; poets like Horace spoke only to their friends — not working chaps called Maurice or Terence (though Housman had the Roman playwright in mind, it seems, when he chose the name). "Golden friends" was a combination of words which no Greek or Roman poet in Antiquity would have put together. (Oh, yes, they would, a Cambridge don drily contradicted him. Connolly admitted he'd been wrong.) He also compares Last Poems with Eliot's The Waste Land, both of which were published in the same year. The Phlebas episode, Connolly claims, is genuinely classical it. Yet, even back then, the argument was irrelevant — perhaps it was just the first stick that came to mind to beat Housman with.
The article was printed in The New Statesman, the socialist weekly. Four letters criticising Connolly were also published. (One was from John Sparrow, a barrister who later became Warden of All Souls, Oxford. He also wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of Housman's Collected Poems. ) The magazine gave Connolly, one of its regular writers, the last word and he took advantage of it to think things through and harden up his argument. He ends by asking:
anyone else who feels like writing a letter to consider first how long it is since they read Housman, and what age they were at the time, for he is a poet who appeals especially to adolescence, and adolescence is a period when one's reaction to a writer is often dictated by what one is looking for, rather than what is there. I think Housman wrote a certain quantity of admirable rhetorical verse, a few beautiful lyrics, and some lovely occasional lines and stanzas, but I still think there is about him something emotionally vulgar and shallow which is reflected in the monotony of his versification and the poverty of his diction. I think he will always have a place, for his good things, in late Victorian poetry, but I shall continue to maintain that he is greatly overrated.
Put like that you can't disagree, or at least not too much. But more than seventy years have passed since then and Connolly is all but forgotten while Housman is still well known. Why? What is his appeal? The Japanese have a word — yojo — which (if I understand it correctly) conveys the idea that an extra-meaning, beyond the reach of the intellect or understanding, can be carried in the overtones surrounding the prosaic every day meanings which words convey. This extra-meaning lodges in the unconscious mind where it works away silently, ungraspably, changing the way we feel and see the world. Unwittingly, Housman created a parallel world, a world-elsewhere made out of this extra-meaning. (Another example from the 1890s, the decade of A Shropshire Lad, might be the Sherlock Holmes stories, many of the plots of which don't bear too much scrutiny.) Perhaps you have to be adolescent for this to happen with Housman (just as you have to be a child for it to happen with, say, Alice in Wonderland or Winnie the Pooh ). Housman's Shropshire is not the rural English county with a river called the Clun and villages called Clunton and Clunbury (did Housman ever actually set foot there?) — it's a never-never land existing nowhere except in the minds of people who once saw, with inner eyes, the saplings bent double on Wenlock Edge where the Roman and his trouble are ashes under Uricon.
Connolly, Cyril. The Rock Pool. Persea. New York, 2007.
Connolly, Cyril. Enemies of Promise. Persea. New York, 1987.
Connolly, Cyril. The Unquiet Grave: a Word Cycle by Palinarus. Harper. New York, 1945.
Connolly, Cyril. The Condemned Playground, Essays: 1927-1944, The Hogarth Press, London, 1985.
Housman, A.E. Collected Poems (Introduction by John Sparrow). Penguin. London, 1956
Last modified 3 June 2007