restricted access Housman on Poetry. A review of The Name and Nature of Poetry, by A. E. Housman
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[ 557 Housman on Poetry A review of The Name and Nature of Poetry, by A. E. Housman1 Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1933. Pp. 51. The Criterion: A Literary Review, 13 (Oct 1933) 151-54 It has long been known to the majority of those who really care about such matters, that Mr. A. E. Housman is one of the few living masters of English prose; and that on those subjects on which he chooses to exercise his talents, there is no one living who can write better. We hope that he may consent to collect his scattered prose writings: the immortal Preface to Manilius is not so accessible as it ought to be.2 In the present short essay, which was the Leslie Stephen lecture for this year, Mr. Housman is addressing himself to a larger audience, and has adapted himself perfectly to the requirements of such an occasion; and this lecture will serve admirably to introduce his prose to those who are unacquainted with it. Mr. Housman’s prose owes its distinction to the power which separates all first-class prose from the merely efficient: a certain emotional intensity. I say “a certain” merely as a reminder that you cannot abstract completely an identity recognizable in all great prose. Nor is this intensity to be confounded with explicit emotion arising from or suitably infused into the subject-matter, such as indignation, scorn or enthusiasm. It is the intensity of the artist, and is capable of informing any subject-matter, even the most abstract, the most arid, or the most impersonal, narrative, expository, or scientifically descriptive. The present subject, however, gives Mr. Housman a wider range than those with which he is accustomed to deal; for he is both a nineteenth (or twentieth) century romantic poet and an eighteenthcentury wit; and here, in his appreciation and his expression, he is able to expose both aspects in happy union. We must keep in mind that this essay is a lecture; and the exigencies of a popular lecture require the author to select his points very carefully, to aim at form and proportion rather than connected profundity, and to avoid going too deeply into anything which is, for the purposes of the moment, another problem. We must not, in short, judge a lecture on Poetry as if it Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1933 558 ] was a book on Aesthetics. The author may himself walk the straight line, but if he is to say anything at all in the time it is difficult for him, if not impossible, not to make assertions which, if pressed firmly and indefatigably by an unfriendly critic, will not yield a concentrated drop of heresy. I think that such a critic might be able to extract (1) the Essence of Poetry Theory, (2) the Pure Poetry Theory, (3) the Physiological Theory. None of these theories can be flatly denied without equal error; I do not believe that Mr. Housman maintains any of them to a vicious degree; I mention them in the hope of sparing other critics the trouble of denouncing Mr. Housman for what he does not maintain. Repeated meditations led me first to suspect, that there are surprisingly few things that can be said about Poetry; and of these few, the most turn out either to be false or to say nothing of significance. There are a great many things worth saying about one kind of poetry or another; and a good many might not have been said if their authors had not been under the impression that they were talking about all Poetry, when they were only talking about the kind of poetry they liked. Those who indulge in the Essence of Poetry fantasy are given to using “touchstones,” or test lines, which are almost always true poetry, and usually very great poetry.3 What none of them gives us, yet what we are apt to delude ourselves into believing they give us, is an absolute dividing line between Poetry and NotPoetry .Mr.Housmandoesnotactuallysaythatthepoetryoftheeighteenth century (by which he means primarily Dryden and Pope) is not poetry, or rather he seems to say both that it is and is not; but it seems to me, with all due respect, that he is giving himself unnecessary pains.4 We know that there has been much greater poetry both before and since, and that is all that we need. You can assert that Pope was a poet, or you can assert that he was not a poet; if you...


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