Monday, February 14, 2011

Falling in Love Again

A.E. Housman (1859-1936) was probably the most popular poet of his generation. His cycle, A Shropshire Lad has been in print continuously since it was published, at his own expense, in 1896. Most English school children of the first decades of the 20th century knew at least some of the poems from the book by heart. Then came modernism, T.S. Eliot, and Housman suffered a radical shift in poetic taste.

Housman's poetry is imbued with a profound pessimism, and some biographers have suggested it was because of the disappointment in love of his youth. He had met a Canadian named Moses Jackson at Oxford in 1877 and fallen in love with him. Jackson couldn't return Housman's love for him, and eventually married in 1889. Housman was not invited to the ceremony, and didn't know of the wedding until Jackson had left the country. Housman continued to write voluminously, but didn't publish again until 1922, as Jackson lay dying in Canada. One poem, included in his last collection, Additional Poems, reads:

He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,
And went with half my life about my ways.

In his collection, More Poems, Housman was more explicit:

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
`Good-bye,' said you, `forget me.'
`I will, no fear', said I.

If here, where clover whitens
The dead man's knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.

Philip Larkin, who called Housman "the poet of unhappiness," and said of him that "no one else has reiterated his single message so plangently," reviewed a biography of Housman in 1979,(1), which closes with a curious paragraph:

“To be more unhappy than unfortunate suggests some jamming of the emotions whereby they are forced to re-enact the same situation even though it no longer exists, but for Housman it did still exist. If unhappiness was the key to poetry , the key to unhappiness was Moses Jackson. It would be tempting to call this neurosis, but there is a shorter word. For as Housman himself said, anyone who thinks he has loved more than one person has simply never really loved at all.”

Larkin was probably telling more about himself than he wished to, but he was saying what he knew about love, and at a point in his life (only a few years before his death) when he was certain that it was true.

(1) Richard Perceval Graves, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

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