Sunday, March 26, 2017

Birthday: The unassailable Fortress Housman



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Alfred Edward Housman (1869-1936)
Poet, classical scholar

He published only two collections of verse, and never spoke about poetry in public until he gave a lecture on the art of poetry at the age of seventy-four. He built an impregnable fortress of respectability and bristling erudition to protect a passionate nature whose overt expression risked imprisonment in his day. He was one of the most popular poets in the English language for three-quarters of a century, and his work as a classical scholar remains the definitive word on the works of the Roman poets Juvenal, Lucan and Manilius.

Housman was the oldest of seven children of a country lawyer who didn’t have to work very hard at it; he preferred the life of the genial country squire. His was not the usual, Bible, booze and beatings personality stereotypical of the age, and the family lived, by all accounts, a remarkably happy and uneventful life.

When Housman was twelve, however, his mother died suddenly and as is the way for eldest sons in that circumstance, he was obliged to shoulder much of the daily management of his younger siblings. The job comes unsought and without training, only criticism after the fact of every decision taken. One’s brothers and sisters can become natural enemies, chafing under the rule of an unqualified interloper and full-time killjoy. He emerged a serious young man, a piece of his youth lost.

He escaped to boarding school, then won a scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford: the richest in the university, and staffed by some of the most renowned classics scholars of the day. Despite an already bristling erudition and personal reserve, he got on well with his few close friends and distinguished himself in the textual criticism side of his studies. He thought classical history and philosophy useless ornaments, and neglected their study; as a result, he left without a degree. He later recalled, “Oxford had not much effect on me, except that I met my greatest friend.”

That friend, his St John’s roommate, Moses Jackson, got a job at the Patent Office in London and got Housman a place there after him. Housman, Jackson, and Jackson’s brother shared a flat in London for a number of years, until Housman summoned the nerve to confess the feelings he’d suppressed since Oxford. It was a typical, unrequired pairing of opposites: Housman the introvert scholar his schoolmates had dubbed “Mouse,” and Jackson, a science student and university first VIII oarsman.

Jackson let Housman down fairly gently but left Britain in 1867 to become head of a school in India. He came back to England once, in 1889, to marry. Housman was not invited and only learned of the wedding in the newspaper. They never saw each other again.

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During his decade at the patent office, Housman spent his spare time at the British Museum, researching a long and imposing set of scholarly articles on Greek and Roman classicists. At thirty-three, University College London offered him its professorship of Latin. His work had so overwhelmed his poor academic record there was virtually no one his equal to be found.

He spent nineteen years in the post, stacking up more monumental articles while, in his off time, writing pessimistic poetry about an imagined, pastoral English countryside and its people. It was sad, nostalgic verse; death offered no solace. After a number of publishers rejected the book, he published it privately. It found an audience in the educated classes, suffused as they were in Victorian self-repression and a fin-de-siecle sense of foreboding that the old order was passing into an uncertain, degraded future. Composers found the lyric voice in the collection- A Shropshire Lad, Housman titled it- enchanting, and dozens set his words to music. It was pitch-perfect. No one knew Housman had never been to Shropshire until he decided to use it as a framework for what he had to say.

Houseman wrote several layers deep in his poems. To get the full message presupposed a thorough grounding in the classics; in 2001 Anthony Lane wrote in The Yorker that “the ideal Housman reader would have the Authorized Version of the Bible, especially the Book of Isaiah, the Psalms, and Ecclesiastes, at his or her fingertips, plus a heavy grounding in Milton and, for good measure, all of Horace and Heine.”

Not only did Houseman’s depth of field mark him as a poet worthy of his scholarly standing; it allowed him to write, in plain sight, what could not be said. In an era of gender segregation, reminiscences of male friendships, had and lost, rang true with readers looking back through the lens of nostalgia without a sense of scandal. The erudite reader knew how to lift the invisible ink from the page.

Indeed, A Shropshire Lad came out just after Oscar Wilde’s trials; as Oscar Wilde sat in jail, denied reading material; his friend Robbie Ross memorized poems from it to recite to him on visits. They well understood the rage underlying one:

Oh, who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh, they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they're haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.

(In this post-poetry age, it is hard to imagine the role verse- reading, memorizing, reciting- had in the pre-World War II ages. The young writer E.M. Forster was so enchanted by A Shropshire Lad he went on a walking tour, visiting place name after place name in the book before realizing, reading some poems one night, the code: “the poet had fallen in love with another man.” He sent Housman a fan letter, only to get no reply. Only much later did he learn he had failed to give a return address.)

Housman moved up again in 1911, this time to the chair of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge. He spent the rest of his life there, cultivating the eccentricities, feints and diversions inside which he lived. In one of his public lectures he explained his method without actually explaining:

“One lifetime, nine lifetimes are not long enough for the task of blocking every cranny through which calamity may enter. . . . A life spent, however victoriously, in securing the necessaries of life is no more than an elaborate furnishing and decoration of apartments for the reception of a guest who is never to come. Our business here is not to live, but to live happily.”

If emotionally stunted- one colleague said Housman was descended from a long line of maiden aunts- he was not, on the face of it, un-happy. He was a boon companion to the children of friends on seaside holidays. He cultivated a fearsome palate and reputation as a gastronome, once tucking into a hedgehog for the experience. Frank Kermode wrote,

[W]hether or not he was unhappy he was capable of describing the state of man as one of just tolerable discomfort; and of claiming that there were ways of relieving even that degree of misery. He would tour Europe in a chauffeur-driven hired car and fly to France on the fledgling air services, claiming to conquer his fears by reflecting that every crash reported reduced the probability of his being involved in one himself. He invariably celebrated the New Year with a feast of oysters and stout. On hospitable London evenings he liked to entertain his guests at the Café Royal before taking them to a music hall.

Housman loved American humor and adored the comic actress Anita Loos. He was delighted by a 1927 visit from Clarence Darrow, who told him how “he’d often used my poetry to rescue his clients from the electric chair.” He translated Latin obscenities in the  elegant facetiousness of his conversation, and on trips to France, indulged a taste for Continental literature the Lord Chamberlain's Office declared had called obscene.

Life in the closet inevitably needs a pressure valve. Anthony Lane described it:

It was back in his study, though, that Housman was most roused to action. This was of little concern to the world beyond, but it was highly disturbing if your name happened to be Owen, an editor of Persius and Juvenal: “Mr. Owen's innovations, so far as I can see, have only one merit, which certainly, in view of their character, is a merit of some magnitude: they are few.” Or poor Dr. Postgate, an editor of Phaedrus: “Dr Postgate's notes on I 19 7, 28 5, IV 9 5, 17 8 and 10, 18 14, 20 15, V 5 1, app. 13 25, 14 10, 15 10, appear to have been written before he knew what his text was going to be, or after he had forgotten what it was.” Not even those who typeset a new edition of Martial are spared the rod: “The printers have indulged immoderately in their favourite sport of dropping letters on the floor and then leaving them to lie there or else putting them back in wrong places; and at the top of p. 113 of the text their merriment transgresses the bounds of decorum.” In the event that you ever come across the three volumes of Housman's “Classical Papers” in a secondhand bookstore, grab them; even if you don't have a word of Latin or Greek (and Housman convinces you that it is better to have no words than to have the wrong ones), his sense of passionate glee, as he strops his intellectual knives for the purposes of ritual disembowelment, offers the reader as unflagging a demonstration of native wit as can be found in English since the reign of Sydney Smith. Housman has none of Smith's tolerance or Christian benignity, but this is the arena of pure scholarship, where slackness is a sin beyond purgation.

He terrified and intimidated students, bringing many to tears; he took no interest in remembering their names and ridiculed their translation exercises.

“He declined all academic and national honours because to accept them would be to admit comparability with other classical scholars who had received them, admiring the attitude of the 17th-century Greek scholar Thomas Gataker who refused a Cambridge doctorate because ‘like Cato the censor he would rather have people ask why he had no statue than why he had one.’ When he came across some self-critical words of T.E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom – ‘there was a craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known’ – he wrote in the margin: ‘This is me.’ So in the course of his life he turned down everything from the OM to the poet laureateship, not to speak of many honorary doctorates. And he refused all invitations to give lectures except for the ones that he conceived to be part of his job,” Kermode wrote. Anthony Lane thought it a typically Housmanian evasion, designed to make him seem “both lofty and lowly.”

He could be a terror to his colleagues, denying Wittgenstein, who had adjoining, but less grand, rooms at Trinity, access to his private loo, because.

After World War I Housman pulled together another collection of poetry from the Edwardian and Great War days, intending a gift of sort for Moses Jackson, who was retired in Canada and dying. Last Poems came out in 1922, and to Housman’s way of thinking, they were.  His five-volume study of the Roman poet-astronomer Manilius, begun in 1903, he completed in 1930. He unburdened himself, ever so slightly, in his 1933 Leslie Stephen Lecture on poetry, and died, after a period of failing health, in 1936.

His brother oversaw the publication of several posthumous volumes. An essay on friendship- rather like Forster's novel Maurice- was sealed until 1967.

More Poems (1936) contains one in which Housman imagined Moses Jackson passing his grave, everyone keeping the stiffest of upper lips:

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.
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.

Housman’s reputation followed a long, slowly declining trajectory through the rest of the twentieth century. Because his life was so conventional, and his verse so carefully wrought to achieve the veneer of plainspokenness, he had gone out of favor in the new century. As the gay tribe claimed its place in the public square, Houseman seemed not only square but cowardly. Auden mocked him:

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer …
In savage footnotes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led.

Modernist poetry swept away much of the former regard for writing within the artificial disciplines of form; new modes of entertainment removed the audience for poetry across the board. Housman has begun to emerge again, championed by authors like Alan Hollinghurst, for what he managed to say, in the constraints not just of verse, but his time, speaking at once to the universal, and the particular, in his verse. Reading Housman after knowing his life is like reading a Cole Porter after learning he was gay: the same words, but different.

Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all's over;
I only vex you the more I try.
All's wrong that ever I've done or said,
And nought to help it in this dull head:
Shake hands, here's luck, good-bye.
But if you come to a road where danger
Or guilt or anguish or shame's to share,
Be good to the lad that loves you true
And the soul that was born to die for you,
And whistle and I'll be there.


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