- Housman's Compassionate Didactic
Man behind a mask." "A divided life." These subtitles of biographies of A. E. Housman attest to the surprise felt by many readers that the author of such popular and moving poetry should have been an acidulous philologist and former civil servant. Equally puzzling is the apparent discrepancy between the somber content of many of his poems and their consolatory effect. Clearly with such an intended effect, for instance, were these literally unhappy verses recently offered on a social media page, to "all those struggling with loss or having a hard time":1
That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain,The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.
How is it, as one critic wonders, that although "if you were to paraphrase [Housman's poems] or put them into French, they would seem consistently bleak," they nonetheless evince a "curious buoyancy, which proves a kind of resilience"?2
This essay begins by considering the question "why did Housman write poetry?"—both in the sense of what he wished his poetry to do ("why did Housman write poetry?") and in that of why he used poetry to do it ("why did Housman write poetry?"). These questions of purpose, which have not been addressed in detail by scholars of Housman, are particularly important in his case because some of the more lamentable misinterpretations of his poetry stem at least in part from mistaken suppositions about his purpose. Critics have variously labeled his poetry adolescent, self-centered, despairing, or even misanthropic. Housman's attitude, says A. F. Allison, is that "of the child whose party has been spoilt," and his poetry sometimes possesses "neither kindliness nor fortitude nor sanity of judgment"; it contains, says Randall Jarrell, "more than a suspicion of the child's when I'm dead, then they'll be sorry"; for R. P. Blackmur, he is "a desperately solemn purveyor of a single adolescent emotion"; and William R. Brashear speaks of his "unmitigated anguish" and claims that [End Page 451] "despair . . . is central to Housman's poetry."3 But these assessments all tend to assume that Housman wrote essentially to express his own feelings, an assumption that is in fact unwarranted; and once we no longer simply assign the emotions exhibited by Housman's speakers to Housman, it becomes possible to consider why he adopted certain attitudes and emotions rather than dismiss them as the product of some psychological defect.
Indeed, my examination of Housman's writings reveals an attitude the very opposite of adolescent or misanthropic, for they show that his motivation for writing poetry was primarily didactic and compassionate: to teach his audience certain unpalatable yet unavoidable facts about the human condition and, in teaching, to cause as little hurt and to make it as likely that these facts would be accepted as possible. I then suggest how this understanding of Housman's poetic purpose illuminates the criticism of his poetry, and in particular how it appeals and consoles despite its grim materialism; consider why Housman customarily adopted the persona of the rustic poet Terence; offer readings of a few poems from A Shropshire Lad; contextualize this understanding of Housman's poetics in a broader interpretation of his philosophy; and, in closing, situate his poetics in the didactic tradition.
Why Did Housman Write Poetry?
With one, polemical exception to which we shall return, Housman produced no extended statements on either poetry in general or his own poetry. We can do worse, then, than to start with the "Introductory Lecture" that he delivered at University College, London in 1892, on the purpose of scholarship. Housman devoted much more of his life to editing than to writing poetry, and what he says about scholarship may shed light on what he thought to be the worthy ends of human endeavor in general and have some application, a fortiori, to his poetry.
Indeed, there are striking similarities between the fruits of learning as set out in the "Introductory" and the materialist metaphysics that Housman's poetry assumes and conveys. Each "compels us to take leave of delusions which were pleasant while they lasted," but still cannot