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27 THE DIVIDED SELF IN THE POEMS OF A. E. HOUSMAN By Ellen Friedman (York College, CUNY) In poem after poem A. E. Housman uses the rhetoric of irony to express the grim vision that life's joys are won in vain since they must all dissolve in death. The images of pastoral peace, of beautiful Shropshire lads and lasses, of brave soldiers full of patriotic purpose which Housman conjures up at the beginning of a poem are dispelled by the end of the poem. This characteristic is evident in "When I Came Last to Ludlow" (ASL 58): When I came last to Ludlow Amidst the moonlight pale, Two friends kept step beside me, Two honest lads and hale. Now Dick lies long in the churchyard, And Ned lies long in jail, And I come home to Ludlow Amidst the moonlight pale. The short, two stanza structure is a most effective vehicle for the use of ironic reversal. In the first stanza we encounter warm comradeship, but in the second stanza we find only death and loss. This pattern of life and loss is repeated throughout the Housman canon (see LP 11,15,20,21,22,23,27,28 for some striking examples). In some of the two-stanza poems even if the first stanza is sobering, the second is always laden with a heavier, darker aspect: Now hollow fires burn out to black And lights are guttering low: Square your shoulders, lift your pack, And leave your friends and go. Oh never fear, man, nought's to dread, Look not left nor right: In all the endless road you tread There's nothing but the night. (ASL 60) The echoing vowels and ominous images of the first stanza are menacing, but the quality of menace is deepened to dread in the black vision depicted at the end of the second stanza. This technique of ironic reversal or, perhaps more accurately, shift in perception is not limited to the two-stanza poems. It is an obsessive quality in the Housman canon. However, these ironic shifts describing the movement from life to loss in Housman ' s poetry disguise another, almost opposing movement. In many of the poems there is an underlying, muted, mostly hidden celebration of the loss by the speaker who has somehow survived it. This "celebration" is effected in defense, by a painful process 28 of self-isolation and depersonalization, often by an objectification of everything that is not the speaker. It is a separation that may be seen in terms of R. D. Laing's theories of the schizoid (as distinguished from the mental illness, schizophrenia). Laing states» The term schizoid refers to an individual the totality of whose experience is split in two main ways: In the first place, there is a rent in his relation with his world, and in the second, there is a disruption of his relation with himself. Such a person is not able to experience himself "together with" others or "at home in" the world, but on the contrary, he experiences himself in despairing aloneness and isolation; moreover, he does not experience himself as a complete person but rather as a mind more or less tenuously-linked to a body, as two or more selves, and so on. In the light of Laing's theories, Housman's poems take on an interesting dimension. Let us take a closer look at the poem "When I Came Last to Ludlow" referred to above. The poem depicts the fate of the narrator's two friends. Although we feel regret for the change in the three friends* circumstance, and we generalize this regret to all experience, this feeling is not a result of a mood the narrator projects. It is a feeling we automatically bring to the poem in response to the facts presented. The feelings of regret, loss, loneliness; the realization of the transience and mutability of existence well up within us, and we naturally feed these feelings into the poem. However, the narrator expresses no such feeling. The lack of this feeling in the poem, when we disengage ourselves from it, is striking, even startling. There is a divorce between the events and their...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 27-34
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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