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Alfred Edward Housman: a Maestro of Time and Place

Has history too soon forgotten this masterful scholar and poet?

My first interaction with Alfred Edward (A.E.) Housman came, surprisingly, whilst watching an evening showing of Question Time, a political British panel show and all-round opportunity for the arrogant and ignorant to demonstrate just as much to the nation. On this one occasion, however, whilst the importance of poetry in primary schools was the topic of debate, arch-conservative Peter Hitchens, having accepted the audience-birthed challenge to recount from memory any poetry he had learnt in school, rattled off two formidable verses: a brief extract from A.E. Housman’s seminal A Shropshire Lad.

“Into my heart an air that kills/ From yon far country blows:/ What are those blue remembered hills,/ What spires, what farms are those?” begins poem 40 of A Shropshire Lad. One senses immediately the melancholy imbuing the protagonist’s recollection, as death (and thus disappearance) surge forth into his lungs’ chambers. “That is the land of lost content,/ I see it shining plain,/ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again.” Pain oozes from the irreversibility of life; happy memories shall remain that, and only that, for the remainder of our days. These short verses are characteristic of Housman: the pang forcibly engendered in the reader; the biting intimacy of loss; the spectrum that binds ineluctably mirth and disappointment. His oeuvre, albeit large and expansive, manages to recreate such sentiment with impressive consistency.

One might suggest that raw emotion is but inevitable upon reading him, given his seeming obsession with war. Alive during World War I, that conflict, mortal loss, and noble camaraderie each played in turn on Housman’s mind is understandable. Having not gone to fight himself (he would have turned 55 in 1914), he captures so sweetly the idyllic landscapes left and not returned to, “Look left, look right, the hills are bright,/ The dales are light between,/ Because ‘tis fifty years to-night/ That God has saved the Queen.” Illustrating what mental machinations may have affected any one of the countless young men making their way to the military, The New Mistress virtuously demonstrates the ends to which one may be driven by a bitterly-ended relationship: “I will go where I am wanted, where there’s room for one or two,/ And the men are none too many for the work there is to do;/ Where the standing line wears thinner and the dropping dead lie thick;/ And the enemies of England they shall see me and be sick.”

Nevertheless, whilst crafting with intense precision a picture of war that is just as tragic, clouded, and nuanced as it ought to be, Housman cannot dissimulate his irresistible wit, as he highlights the awkward — perhaps, even, deeply unnoble situations — that are to be found back in the Shires. In poem 27 of A Shropshire Lad, the deceased appears to write to his on-living pal, “’Is my friend hearty,/ Now I am thin and pine,/ And has he found to sleep in/ A better bed than mine?’/ Yes, lad, I lie easy,/ I lie as lads would choose;/ I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,/ Never ask me whose.” In this way, Housman prompts questions within us, as if these relatively brief poems had behind them a much more intricate, potentially tragic, potentially amicable, potentially despairing, backstory. It is not challenging to exchange oneself for each poem’s narrator and imagine the whirlwind of emotion — negative or otherwise — that must have been circling, hounding, and unendingly tumultuous. Whilst one could perceive Housman’s poetry to depict war-torn wounds somewhat cauterised by predominant romance, or shire-bound emptiness overturned by the boyish charm of those who were too young to pack up their troubles in their old kit bag, such idealism is often fleeting, and subsequently crushed. Love itself receives a similarly acrid treatment, awash as it is with failure, abandonment, and unrequited favour.

Because I Liked You Better, a poem worthy of any and every analysis, remains a rhythmically and affectively perfect poem which in spite of its old age replicates incomparably a good, old-fashioned 601 club-night rejection. It may, in its poetic liberty, go a little further in its melodrama than even the dancefloor-bound, tear-streaming, Pablo-drinking rejectee. Yet, Housman has the right so to do; the questionably stoic narrator (who the reader is inclined to believe, as is par for the course with most love poetry, represents Housman himself) grips the reader and, with cosmic strength, floats them ever nearer the blackhole of hurt within him.

Indeed, Housman comes across as cynical of love point court. By now, who isn’t? However, this need not be a bad thing; a colder, hardbacked approach is merely a different way of seeing the world. Ultimately, to be free of the delusions of love and instead to be acutely aware of life’s incoming vicissitudes is celebrated by Housman, in Petersonian ‘clean your room’ fashion. Whilst it may be psychologically unhealthy, and a little devoid of hope, that “The thoughts of others/ Were light and fleeting,/ Of lovers’ meeting/ Or luck or fame.” There is an empowering self-responsibility in the confession “Mine were of trouble,/ And mine were steady;/ So I was ready/ When trouble came.” Herein is found a genius amalgamation of the age-old dichotomies between chance and certainty, between the Other and I, between the temporary and the enduring.

It is this final theme, that of time, which endears me most to Housman. He recognised the deceitful hope it could provide and the stinging memories it could maintain. He wrote of both with equal guile, and all the while with an appreciation of the honourable, of the humble and the homely, of the peaceful and the departing, each of which serves to populate the timeline of our lives. Furthermore, which sets him apart from his contemporaries today, he had a knack for making those who read him proud of who they were and of where they came from. Akin to Vera Lynn, who, in analogous fashion, mastered the zeitgeist of her day, Housman gave his (admittedly English) readers the ultimate gift of saying to themselves that — albeit a hard life — there’s nowhere I’d rather live it than here.

Illustration: Isabelle Holloway

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