Housman Country: Into the Heart of England
by Peter Parker
(Little Brown, 2016, 544 pgs., £ 25.00)
Housman Country: into the Heart of England appeared in 2016; its publication coincided with the Brexit debate and referendum on the UK’s leaving the European Union. Englishness itself, perhaps, long subsumed in Britishness, needed new surveyors, its boundaries to be rediscovered or redrawn. Though the referendum looked to the future, the appeal (particularly of Leavers) was often to the past, a land of lost content, happy highways and blue remembered hills. My hunch (quite possibly wrong of course) is that this project started with a focus on Housman and his landmark book, and expanded to be more topical; it feels both deeply researched and suddenly expanded. In the preface alone, Peter Parker explains the book in two ways: “an account of the life and times of A Shropshire Lad” and an investigation into “what I have called ‘Housman Country’, an English sensibility in which literature, landscape, music and emotion all play their part, and which finds one of its most perfect expressions in Housman’s poetry.”
There are other English poets with other senses of Englishness—the Englishness of Housman is not the Englishness of Ted Hughes, or Philip Larkin, or John Betjeman, or Alice Oswald. If Housman’s Shropshire is England, it is a nostalgic one, centered in an idyllic and relatively peaceful countryside (but for the odd murder, and the red coats of soldiers), dotted with sheep and songbirds but no Hughes-ish blood-draggled wildlife; not in London, say, or Hull, or suburbia (though some poems are set in London as exile.) And it is, as Housman himself suggests, an imaginary place, a state of mind to which one cannot return, and which shares only sketchy geographical details with actual Shropshire. Famously, answering a questionnaire sent him by a young French admirer some forty years after ASL was first published, Housman admitted:
“I was born in Worcestershire, not Shropshire, where I have never spent much time. . . . I had a sentimental feeling for Shropshire because its hills were our western horizon. I know Ludlow and Wenlock, but my topographical details—Hughley, Abdon under Clee,—are sometimes quite wrong.”
Parker points out that much of the knowledge Housman “possessed about Shropshire was derived not from personal observation but from what he had been told about the county while out walking with W.H. Eyre [and John Maycock] during his Patent Office days.” Housman says he often used place names for their “euphony,” and we know that he gleaned many details from Murray’s Handbook of Shropshire and Cheshire (1879). (That said, I was pleased to learn that the title “Hell Gate”—as opposed to what one might expect, “Hell’s Gate”—is taken from the name of “one of the entrances to some ancient British earthworks on the Wrekin”). Housman knew something of, and “confined” himself to, the “southern half of the county” (and visited to “gain local color” for the poems.) But Shropshire also contains Ironbridge Gorge “the crucible of the Industrial Revolution,” the site of the world’s first iron bridge, which spanned the Severn. Although there is a train track running through the heart of ASL, its pastoral does not have room for collieries. Parker seems to approve of this aspect of the pastoral framing: “It is also notable that this southern part of Shropshire is largely rural, an England that seemed then, and seems now, unchanging.”
ASL does not go in for much detailed description of landscape at all: details are perhaps supplied by the imagination of its readers. That has not stopped people, including famous writer-fans such as Willa Cather, from going to Shropshire and trekking through the countryside, or wheeling through on bicycles, with ASL as a pocket guide. Even Housman’s brother Laurence went looking about the place after the book was published and reported back to A.E.H. on mistakes regarding steeples and weather vanes and churchyards. This book too does some tromping through actual Shropshire; Parker was “brought up in Herefordshire, a few miles from the Shropshire border.” But “although people have used the book ASL . . . as a kind of guidebook to a specific English region,” he adds, “it could more accurately be described as a gazetteer of the English heart.”
This book does not fit in a pocket: a handsome, thick-papered hard-back (bookended with striking woodcuts), it is something of a brick, weighing in, with bibliography and note and index, at 446 pages, not including the full text of A Shropshire Lad, conveniently added to the end. Ultimately I felt this was two books, one about Housman and ASL, and one about Englishness; a Venn diagram. Where do Housman and Englishness intersect? A glance at the hefty index, under Housman, and under Englishness, gives an idea of the argument. (These are only partial listings.)
Housman, Alfred Edward (AEH):
complaints over misprints and errors depressions dry humour and teasing fails finals at Oxford frequent trips abroad and gloominess and melancholy and long walks refusal of honours repressed emotion sense of humour sex life taste for risqué stories use of irony and word ‘lad’
and the age of chivalry and Arthurian legends Christian English gentleman countryside as true locus of dry humour and teasing and empire the gentleman amateur ‘Merry England’ term sexual and emotional repression stiff upper lip
see also England, rural; music, English
I kept imagining a much more slender volume, with some detail pared back to footnotes and indices. The heart of the tome is “The Man and His Book,” a history of A Shropshire Lad, from its fizzled launch to its phenomenon of popularity, as well as a life of Housman, covered with efficiency and thoroughness; the volume is worth the price for this book-within-a-book alone. After all, it is hard to think of a single book of poetry that has more deeply entered the collective Anglophone subconscious (and consciousness). First published partly at the poet’s expense in 1896, the year of the first modern Olympics (not such a coincidence as that sounds—consider that Coubertin had Shropshire’s Wenlock Games in mind as a model), the initial run was a modest 500 copies; only 381 copies were sold that year. The poet’s brother Laurence bought the remaindered copies. The book got a second chance with another publisher, Grant Richards; steadily gaining in popularity. By 1918, a new edition of 4,000 sold out in a day, with the publisher having to print a further 17,000 copies in the next ten weeks.
Parker is alive to where the paths of life and art cross, without reducing biography to poetic scholia. The outlines of Housman’s life are well enough known: as the beloved oldest brother of seven siblings, he passed a happy childhood in Bromsgrove. This idyll ended with the death of his mother when he was twelve; he lost his Christian faith at the same time, becoming an atheist by 21. A shoe-in for a First at Oxford, he was instead “ploughed outright.” (Potential causes of this flummoxing failure include academic hubris, and unrequited passion for fellow undergraduate Moses Jackson, with whom he had fallen in love once and forever.) Housman left Oxford without a degree, took the civil service exam, and went to work at the Patent Office in London. (Later of course he would be recognized as “the Latin scholar of his generation.”) One can think of A Shropshire Lad as a young man’s book, with its “When I was one-and-twenty”, but it is written neither in the countryside nor by a young man, rather from the vantage of London’s urban wilderness, Hampstead Heath, in the ruins of disappointed middle life. Housman published only one other collection in his lifetime: the mordantly titled Last Poems, a book stylistically of a piece with ASL, came out in 1922, a coeval with Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Parker’s focus on Housman’s father, a cheerful ne’er-do-well whose drinking and financial recklessness put the family’s respectability on uncertain footing, is enlightening. It is against this background, Parker reminds us, that Housman’s failure at Oxford should be understood, not just as a personal disappointment and disgrace, but also as a family catastrophe, potentially dragging down the academic fortunes of younger siblings. Housman’s father’s alcoholism adds an edge perhaps to a poem like “Terrance, this is stupid stuff”: “Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink/ For fellow’s whom it hurts to think:/ Look into the pewter pot/ To see the world as the world’s not.” But it also sheds some light on Housman’s reserve and probity as a filial reaction. Housman’s sister, Kate, recalling him and their childhood remarked, “Punctuality, industry, fixed routine, daily walking, love of flowers and trees, woods and hills, all were part of his Fockbury life, and these habits never left him.” Kate also connected the outpouring of emotion in 1895 (during which a large chunk of ASL was written) with their father’s death, “the removal of a burden & a distress” that also stirred up again “the inevitable poignant memories of youth.” At 61, Housman’s father never attained the three-score-and-ten years promised man in the Psalms, the seventy years invoked in “Loveliest of Trees”. “My family are tough and long-lived, unless they take to drink,” Housman wryly warned one American admirer who aspired to write a study of him. (Housman had urged the man to restrain his “indecent ardour” until the subject should be properly dead.)
Solvitur ambulando: the writing of ASL was peripatetic, lines and stanzas coming into Housman’s head during two or three hour walks “after a pint of beer at luncheon,” as Housman later recalled. Parker reminds us these walks were over Hampstead Heath rather than Salop countryside. Depicted as dour in later life (some descriptions include like “an undertaker’s mute” or “descended from a long line of maiden aunts”), Housman is remembered with warmth as a sparkling conversationalist by colleagues from his time in the patent office, such as his friend John Maycock, with whom he would take long rambles. Parker is good on the way in which unconventional sources inspire Housman, how the wording of a prosy private letter can tune a verse. When Maycock wrote Housman to congratulate him on his appointment as Chair of Latin at University College, London, he says “I am as delighted with your success as though I had got something for myself,” adding with (un-English?) enthusiasm, “I like you better than any man I have ever known.” Parker connects the wording of this to “Because I liked you better/ Than suits a man to say” (although the poem itself is “generally agreed” to be about a quarrel with Moses Jackson).
We are used to taking poets with a grain of salt when they speak in the first person in their poems; but we tend to take a poet’s prose at face value. One of the most frequently quoted letters of Housman, because it directly answers questions about ASL, was the answer to Pollet’s questionnaire of 1933. As we know from a cancelled paragraph in a draft, it is arguably to posterity and not M. Pollet that the reply is addressed. Housman wants us to know:
“No doubt I have unconsciously been influenced by the Greeks and Latins, but I was surprised when critics spoke of my poetry as ‘classical’. Its chief sources of which I am conscious are Shakespeare’s songs, the Scottish Border ballads, and Heine.”
Critics wisely have looked further afield than these openly-admitted influences (the brilliant work of Archie Burnett, in particular, has greatly expanded and deepened our understanding of sources and allusion in Housman). Just for starters, consider that the only poet mentioned by name in ASL is not Heine, but Milton, with a direct snippet of quotation from Paradise Lost (“justify God’s ways to man”) to boot. Paradise Lost is directly nodded to again in “Hell Gate” from Last Poems. But even more importantly perhaps there is Lycidas, a pastoral elegy to Milton’s friend, Edward King, who drowned in 1637 in a shipwreck at the age of 25. In Lycidas, the reedy wetlands of Cambridge are given a Theocritean or Arcadian window dressing, but for Housman, the grief the poem conveyed was intense, direct, genuine. As he says in his lecture on “The Name and Nature of Poetry” of the line:
Nymphs and shepherds, dance no more—
“What is it that can draw tears, as I know it can, to the eyes of more readers than one? What in the world is there to cry about,” then, connecting the verses both to ancient poetry and to the Cambridge landscape:
“I can only say, because they are poetry, and find their way to something in man which is obscure and latent . . . like the patches of fen which still linger here and their in the drained lands of Cambridgeshire.”
Samuel Johnson’s harsh assessment of Lycidas (from around 1780) is one that is often leveled at the pastoral generally: “It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. . . .Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.” Housman quips, “Johnson’s unlucky frankness in letting the world know how he was affected by ‘Lycidas’ has earned his critical judgment discredit enough.” But in defending the pastoral of “Lycidas,” Housman is also defending ASL, which repeatedly incurred the charge of “false pastoral” (as in H.W. Garrod’s lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry). The whole point of pastoral is that it is artificial and sophisticated while pretending to be spontaneous and “rude”; this layer of artifice was perhaps more emphasized in ASL’s original title, The Poems of Terrance Hearsay, but as Housman knew, that did not mean that the underlying emotions were any less passionate or true. When Housman donated the manuscript of ASL in 1926 to Trinity College, Cambridge, he observed with pleasure that “it reposes in the appropriate company of Milton’s Lycidas.”
Housman’s deep connection to the Classical pastoral mode is marked even in juvenilia, in an early poem before his Oxford failure and his broken heart. Parker quotes one stanza from “Summer” (written while Housman was a teenager) to show Housman’s voice in early evidence, as well as his fondness for beech trees:
And yet the broad-flung beechtree heaves Through all its slanting layers of leaves With something like a sigh.
Housman, as all great poets I think (I certainly count him as great), has an idiosyncratic way with modifiers. “Broad-flung” is recognizably Housman, but it is also Virgil, just as “strengthless” when referring to the dead (in “To an Athlete Dying Young”) is Housman, but also Homer, via the Odyssey. Housman’s modifiers are often classical epithets in a Shropshire accent. The broad-flung beech ties Housman to both Virgil’s Eclogues and to the Georgics, the one poem beginning:
Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi (Tityrus, you lolling under the canopy of a sprawling beech)
And the other ending:
Tityrus, te patulae cecini sub tegmini fagi. (Tityrus, you I sang under the canopy of a sprawling beech)
This cannot be an accident for a young Classicist, and connects Housman from the get-go to the lads and lasses of Classical (which is to say false, and true) pastoral. This in no way diminishes Housman’s real love of English countryside, even if Shropshire, as the Western horizon of his childhood, was a county of the imagination, bathed in the gilded hindsight of the setting sun.
For all its Englishness, ASL is framed with Empire, starting, after all, not with a word, but a number—1887–the date of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (the poem, in fact, must be set on June 20th or the eve thereof), and ending (if you will grant me that LXIII has the feel of an epilogue), on the death of the Pontic emperor, Mithridates, defeated by Rome. Both poems, though set in Shropshire, suggest an Empire upon which the Sun Never Sets, and bring up the specter of far-flung wars. In keeping with the English theme of the book, Parker focuses not on soldiers in empire, however, but “English Soldiers,” lads of the 53rd perhaps who go off to die in corners of foreign fields that are forever England. Sometimes Parker gets caught up in the serendipities of research. He relates how, in World War 1, English soldiers no longer wore the dashing redcoats that catch the eye in ASL and Last Poems (in “Hell Gate,” the ghostly Ned wears a literal coat of flame, a “thing for women to admire/ in his finery of fire.”) On the khaki uniforms that replaced the red ones, Parker remarks: “It is a curious fact, and a nice coincidence, that khaki dye was originally made from damsons, which were widely grown for this purpose rather than for eating in both Shropshire and Worcestershire. As the Shropshire-based gardening writer Katherine Swift put it, soldiers ‘marched off to Gallipoli and the Somme with the khaki of Shropshire damsons on their backs’—though the demand was such that this natural dye was soon replaced by a chemical one.”
Likewise, though clearly the musical reception of ASL is an essential part of its cultural afterlife, the level of detail in the chapter on English Music makes it a very good reference article, but a tough row to hoe for the reader more interested in Housman than Elgar, or Butterworth. In a thematic anecdote, Parker relates the tale of a walk taken by the composer E.J. Moeran with his friend Lionel Hill on a trip to Rhos Fawr. Lionel Hill recalls of Moeran: “I remember Jack pointing and saying ‘ Over there is Elgar country, and there, Housman country.’” Parker goes on to explain: “Elgar Country and Housman Country are linked both geographically, by the River Severn, and spiritually, by a sense of place and a certain melancholy.” Outside of Elgar country, I would have been just as happy to the have four pages on “Interlude 1918: A Shropshire Lad Spat,” about a dispute between Ernest Newman and Edwin Evans regarding the “Englishness of English music” in an appendix. Interestingly, Housman nearly always gave permission to composers asking to set his verses to music, so long as they did not print them in the program, mostly out of indifference: he didn’t think the music added to or detracted from the poetry.
Housman Country admits very few women, only slightly more perhaps than an Oxford college of Housman’s own era. One will not learn from this book how much Housman admired Edna St. Vincent Millay, for example, though she is one of the only poets among Housman’s contemporaries to have garnered unqualified praise from him. (His verdict on Fatal Interview was simply that it was “mighty good.”) Fair enough; she is not only a woman, she is an American, entirely too far afield for Housman Country. But I wonder why the only mention of Wendy Cope is a reference to Housman at two removes: “As Wendy Cope has noted, Clive James’s observation that Larkin ‘faces the worst on our behalf, and brings it to order’ might equally apply to Housman.” I suppose Cope, as with Housman, has the strike of popularity against her when it comes to being taken seriously by the academy. But not only is she influenced by Housman (and thus one would think a lodger in Housman Country), she is the author of the most famous contemporary squib about him, “Another Unfortunate Choice,” which does double duty as praise poem and parody:
I think I am in love with A. E. Housman, Which puts me in a worse than usual fix. No woman ever stood a chance with Housman, And he’s been dead since 1936.
That “1936” leads us to do the math—suggestive of “doing sums in verse,” that backhanded compliment that Housman delivered to the Roman poet Manilius regarding the Astronomica, which Housman edited. As Dick Davis, another Housman-influenced English poet not mentioned in the book has remarked, Housman himself has a fine example of versified subtraction in “Loveliest of Trees”. (As usual, we should take Housman’s wry put-down of Manilius with a grain of salt; Housman had an early passion for astronomy, and his Latin dedication to the poem connects the scholar and the poet, the English yeoman and the Roman perhaps, in their stargazing across time and space.)
Housman, a writer of sharp light verse as well, would have appreciated Cope’s dark, English humor. Parody is surely a stretch of Housman Country; here I would have welcomed a whole chapter, both of Housman’s parodies (his evisceration of Frances Cornford’s triolet, “To a Lady Seen from a Train” for instance), and the rich field of parodies of Housman. Parker refers to Ezra Pound’s tone-deaf attempt, in passing, but doesn’t quote much from it. It begins:
O woe, woe, People are born and die, We also shall be dead pretty soon Therefore let us act as if we were Dead already.
“O woe, woe / People are born and die” in fact sounds more like Housman imitating Browning translating Aeschylus than anything. Or take this bit of Housman’s immortal squib “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy”:
But after pondering much To this conclusion I at last have come: LIFE IS UNCERTAIN.
Housman’s own favorite parody of himself was Hugh Kingsmill’s (not mentioned in this book, alas), which is so convincing and dark it reads like a genuine Housman out-take, and is just as memorable:
Like enough you won’t be glad When they come to hang you, lad, But bacon’s not the only thing That’s cured by hanging from a string.
Perhaps the most interesting digression to me is the chapter on “Aftermaths” (aftermath, as Housman and Parker both remind us, being, properly, “what follows the mowing”), about Housman’s influence in popular culture. Housman poems have been reckoned the third most popular source (behind the Bible and Shakespeare, to put this in perspective) for English-language book titles. (For starters, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Corners.) The poems make appearances in countless novels, movies and television shows, from the Simpsons (Krusty the Clown quotes from “To an Athlete Dying Young” in a retirement speech) to Inspector Morse. And they continue to inspire contemporary song-writers, including the moping and melancholy Morrissey of The Smiths.
Parker spends several pages on the Morrissey/ Housman connection, even asserting that “while Housman’s words are used by a wide variety of bands, the musician who most embodies the poet’s spirit is Morrissey.” Surely that goes too far. While Parker carefully parses Morrissey’s uses of and allusions to Housman over several pages, these connections often seem superficial to me, pose rather than essence. Morrissey is quoted during a 1998 phone-in radio show as saying “Well, the poet who means the most to me is a poet called A. E. Housman,” but then he declines to mention the titles or lines of any poems, saying only that the poems are “really really sad and really powerful but beautiful.” That a fan hurls a copy of A Shropshire Lad onto the stage at a 1992 concert (in America, for that matter), seems little more than trivia. More convincingly, perhaps, is the rather arcane fact Parker digs up, regarding Morrissey’s selection of a still from Yield to the Night as the cover image for the compilation album “Singles”. Yield to the Night, evidently, was based on a 1954 novel of the same name, in which “Loveliest of trees” was a “constant motif.” If Housman Country is a narrow kind of Englishness, songs of morbid melancholy and violence with the possibly-ironic suggestion of suicide thrown in (“If a double-decker bus/ crashes into us/ to die by your side/ is such a heavenly way to die”), and the occasional nod to Housman himself, the Smiths are squarely within in its borders. What the Smiths are not on the whole is pastoral, that most sophisticated and slippery of genres, preferring urban squalor to blue remembered hills. Morrissey seems to share with Larkin the preference for deprivation over daffodils.
While Parker’s index includes Davies, W.H., it makes no mention of Davies, Ray or Davies, Dave. This strikes me as a missed opportunity, because if there is a rock album that is truly in the territory of ASL, it is the Kinks’ 1968 masterpiece We are the Village Green Preservation Society, an album that sold only moderately well on its release (it had the misfortune of debuting the same day as the Beatles’ White Album), but which went on to increased popularity and nearly universal critical acclaim. With the album’s nostalgia for small-town English life, its focus on a land of lost content, its village characters (Walter, Monica, Tom), a river, its song-bird, and even an old-fashioned steam train at its heart, as well as sophisticated but smoothly-incorporated allusions (to Bach in this case), it is hardly surprising to learn that Ray Davies had been reading Housman among other writers (Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, for instance) for its inspiration. “Village Green” is the most ASL song of the album. It isn’t just the church, the clock, and the steeple (solid Salopian nouns) or the fact that the singer has left the village green for the city and regrets it, or even the archaic twang of “twas”—“Twas there I met a girl called Daisy/ and kissed her by the old oak tree”—Daisy could well be some descendant of Fred and Rose Harland. She is forgetful of the singer, of course, and ends up married to someone else—Tom the Grocer’s boy. While the lyrics are more cheerful than the words of “Is my Team Ploughing”, the minor-key melody and ironic delivery add an almost unbearably melancholy strain to the nostalgia. As Ray Davies explained later (as quoted in Rob Joavanovic’s God Save the Kinks: A Biography) “I . . . wanted to write about England and imaginary people and myths . . . It’s a series of dreamscapes. It’s to do with innocence and lost youth. The village green is beyond fashions, news, wars, the media.” Although Parker did not get around to including this album in his capacious and generous book, I think he would surely recognize the geography: this is Housman Country.