Victorian Poetry 40.3 (2002) 328-332
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Guide to the Year's Work
The Poets of the Nineties
Benjamin F. Fisher
Several recent books merit attention as important contributions to 1890s studies. First, although its subject would object to the 1890s association—as he did roundly in October 1928 when A.J.A. Symons queried Grant Richards, the poet's longtime publisher, about including some of Housman's poems in an anthology of period writing—is Carol Efrati's The Road of Danger, Guilt, and Shame:The Lonely Way of A. E. Housman (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press). Efrati has been an active member of the Housman Society, has published several brief studies of AEH, and her [End Page 328] book will doubtless renew interest in her subject's writings and life, which, as she convincingly demonstrates, repeatedly intersect. That AEH cherished an intense passion for Moses Jackson is, to be sure, not news, but Efrati opens up numerous new possibilities for perceiving that passion, as well as Housman's more general attitudes toward his homosexuality, that have only been guessed at or skirted in many previous, but, in some cases, long "standard" works about him.
The Road of Danger offers ample testimony to its author's impressive command of Housman's writings, poetic and scholarly, as well as the extensive secondary bibliography for AEH. Although Efrati's readings of the poems are decidedly biographical, her book will stand with those by B. J. Leggett, John Bayley, Keith Jebb, and Jeremy Bourne (whose works she often supersedes) as a cornerstone in keenly perceptive analytical criticism of Housman's writings. Efrati also brings to bear a broad and deep acquaintance with Anglo-American and World literary canons, and that breadth and depth assist significantly in strengthening her interpretations of Housman's poems, individually and collectively.
Arguing a basic premise that Housman's poems were inspired either by his feelings about Moses Jackson or his broodings about his own sexuality, Efrati gives us a succinct overview of important works about AEH, an equally tight, but nonetheless informative biographical sketch, followed by chapters entitled with the names of one of the Muses, and organized around biographical themes, which offer close readings of more of the individual poems, and to which she links examples from others not explicated in such detail, than I have encountered in any other book on Housman. Efrati's knowledge of the respectable and the seamier sides of Victorian culture enables her to probe Housman's maskings of his genuine feelings and outlooks, as expressed in his poems, under what have for more than a century appeared to many, partly as standard Victorian love-poem fare and, partly as signals of developing literary themes and substance, such as the fragmenting self in an alien world or the increasing ellipticalness, in post-Victorian poetry.
Housman's characters are, to borrow a term from Herman Melville, isolatoes, and their stances as outcasts, particularly in love situations, mirror Housman's own, albeit his isolation relates to his homosexuality, as others' might not. Although Efrati repeatedly turns to the recurrent military characters in the poems, it might be well to make the point here that in addition to such types often figuring into gay contexts (and they did), that the theme of war offers realistic interplay with that of love throughout A Shropshire Lad and the poems that later appeared in Last Poems (1922) or the two posthumous compilations by his brother and literary executor, Laurence Housman. Many of these poems were composed [End Page 329] or begun, however, during the 1890s. If AEH promulgated anti-war atmospheres in his poems and personal comments, as Terence Allan Hoagwood argues in A. E. Housman Revisited (1995) and Efrati herself notes in "Housman's Military Epitaphs" (HSJ 27: 79-90), part of the timeliness of A Shropshire Lad resided in its military features, and it captured one large segment of the literary marketplace on just such grounds, as did work of Kipling, Henry Newbolt, and the American Stephen Crane. These are only a few of the many authors in the period...