Warning against the intellectual frivolity of poetry, the classics scholar Alfred Edward Housman (March 26, 1859 – April 30, 1936) argued “The legitimate meanings of the word poetry were themselves so many as to embarrass the discussion of its nature.”
I said that the legitimate meanings of the word poetry were themselves so many as to embarrass the discussion of its nature. All the more reason why we should not confound confusion worse by wresting the term to licentious use and affixing it either to dissimilar things already provided with names of their own, or to new things for which new names should be invented. There was a whole age of English in which the place of poetry was usurped by something very different which possessed the proper and specific name of wit: wit not in its modern sense, but as defined by Johnson, ‘a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike’. Such discoveries are no more poetical than anagrams; such pleasure as they give is purely intellectual and is intellectually frivolous.
From A. E. Housman’s “The Name and Nature of Poetry”
A surprise perhaps, that one of the world’s greatest classics scholar A. E. Housman, would be a proponent of humble, unadorned verse. Housman taught at Cambridge University from 1911 until his death. His poetry was less well-known (and received less critical acclaim) than his translations and he only lectured on poetry once.
Housman’s poignant few published poems, as well as his lecture on poetry, are included in this collection: A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems.
Now dreary dawns the eastern light
Now dreary dawns the eastern light,
And fall of eve is drear,
And cold the poor man lies at night,
And so goes out the year.
Little is the luck I’ve had,
And oh, ’tis comfort small
To think that many another lad
Has had no luck at all.
Housman’s poetry is oft criticized as sentimental due to its plain-spokenness. And there is something of the overly-patriotic note sounded in poems like “The Recruit.”1
Yet there is no denying the emotional force of Housman’s work, grounded in sorrow and longing. Housman, like his Romantic predecessors, believed poetry sprung from a by-product of emotions of life. He writes:
The production of poetry, in its first stage, is less an active than a passive and involuntary process; and if I were obliged, not to define poetry, but to name the class of things to which it belongs, I should call it a secretion; weather a natural secretion, like turpentine in the fir, or a morbid secretion, like the pearl in the oyster.
From “The Name and Nature of Poetry”
For Housman, that life-induced emotion was torrential. In his early years he attended Oxford only to fail out after he fell “irreparably in love” with Moses Jackson, a heterosexual. Housman lived a life of unreturned love and a lifetime longing for the impossible.
You smile upon your friend to-day,
To-day his ills are over;
You harken to the lover’s say,
and happy is the lover.
‘Tis late to harken, late to smile,
But better late than never:
I shall have lived a little while
Before I die for ever.
From “A Shropshire Lad”
Housman’s poems that include love or lovers often end in bitterness, death, and disappointment. All written from the angle of this Shropshire Lad, seemingly the youthful Housman:
Along the field as we came by
A year ago, my love and I,
The aspen over stile and stone
was talking to itself alone.
‘Oh who are these that kiss and pass?
A country lover and his lass;
Two lovers looking to be wed;
And time shall put them both to bed,
But she shall lie with earth above,
And he beside another love.’
From “A Shropshire Lad”
Housman published only two collections of poetry although further collections were published posthumously. His talent crested during periods of deep pain, the loss of Moses Jackson first to India and then to death.
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town. […]
From “To an Athlete Dying Young”
Through his unending and deeply buried emotional pain, Housman finds an ear for truth. “A Shropshire Lad,” his most famous poem, is about longing to return to an innocent place before death inevitably claims us.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
From “A Shropshire Lad”
Accompany Housman’s unique ballads with Leonard Cohen’s late-in-life collection of poetry and musings on the kind of soulful longing that echoes Housman’s.
The English countryside is such a nurturing soil of prose and poetry because it turns memory to sediment. Dig into Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways a study of the paths we make and what they make of us, (Housman was a noted ambler), or Romantic poet John Clare’s celebration of the land and sadness at its irreversible change. And compare Housman to equally plain-spoken and sentimental Laurie Lee’s exquisite reminiscences of childhood: Cider with Rosie, I Can’t Stay Long and A Village Christmas,