- The Can Of Ail: A. E. Housman’s Moral Irony
Academic readers have been kinder to A. E. Housman’s poetry in the second half of the twentieth century than in the first half. Critical respect for Housman has increased considerably since the Times Literary Supplement’s fiftieth-anniversary assessment of A Shropshire Lad, which contains a handful of quotations used to exemplify broad themes such as “personal affection” or “external nature,” and which not surprisingly concludes that the popular appeal of his poetry “is not derived from its intellectual or its moral content. Housman is not a philosophical or an imaginative poet: he displays no Wordsworthian insight into the deep springs of human sympathy, no Shakespearean understanding of the range and intensity of human passions.”1 Since then, new critical editions of the poetry and letters have come forth and the Housman Society has been formed. Many more articles have taken his work seriously, for example those cited in the collections edited by Christopher Ricks and Philip Gardner.2 The debt of his poetry to his classical background has been more thoroughly explored; studies relating his work to larger contexts such as his gender-orientation and the historical conditions of late-Victorian society have broadened what had seemed to be the limited cultural scope of his few and simple poems.
Not many critics, however, have found enough rhetorical and stylistic complexity in Housman’s poems to justify extended close readings of them. Housman has appeared to discourage such attention, because his prose criticizes many of the modernist philosophical assumptions and corresponding uses of language, especially tropes adapted from metaphysical wit, that evolved symbiotically with the practice of close reading.3 As a result, those interpreters who have given him credit for ironic wit have cited few detailed examples, implying that such wit is less than central to his purpose or practice.4 The one recent study that has done comprehensive close analysis of his poems maintains that Housman uses wit primarily to subvert his “official” level of meaning by creating a homoerotic subtext.5
I will argue, on the contrary, that Housman’s overt use of wit to convey both verbal and dramatic irony is central to his presentation of the human condition. In his first volume of poetry, A Shropshire Lad, Housman develops a rhetorical strategy that sets a precedent for interpreting the speakers in [End Page 267] his poetry, whether himself or others, as consciously but never sufficiently self-ironic. If Housman had written only his later poetry, in which he is generally the speaker, readers might be justified in assuming that authoritarian assertion characterizes his poetics and that his tone is the equivalent of William Ernest Henley’s self-congratulatory pessimism in “Invictus.” But in A Shropshire Lad, Housman elaborates on the narrative complexities of Blake and Wordsworth to dramatize an almost postmodern degree of irony about whether any speaker, including the author, can control the meaning of his actions or the implications of his language. Housman implies we can never avoid indulging in human ignorance and folly, even while doing our best to locate and criticize it in ourselves and others.
The key to Housman’s strategy is that the speaker in most of this volume, a common country “lad” named Terence Hearsay, is also the author, who directs irony at both his past and present self. Terence has generally been interpreted as an uneducated innocent who seldom serves as Housman’s spokesman. But in LXII, the original end-poem of the volume, Terence implies he is the author of all the poems, and the story he tells of his trip to Ludlow Fair epitomizes the sophisticated self-irony he has already deployed in crafting the poems about his past self. In a pun which informs the entire volume, Terence says that the purpose of his acerbic wit is to help people face the “ill” of life rather than escape into “ale.”6 Yet the worst ill Terence’s language reveals in the Ludlow Fair episode is that he can never learn enough to face fully and resist indulging in the “ail” of his own emotional “ale.” Accordingly, in the preceding poems...