Housman Country: Into the heart of England
Little, Brown £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50
THERE is a healthy existing body of Housmaniana: books that explore both the man and his poetry. In this valuable and extensive new offering, however, Peter Parker treads new ground. The book is, in a sense, a successful anthology: there are several tangential areas that he embraces and instructively makes his own.
His first chapter (almost 160 pages) explores fresh, informed connections among the 63 poems of A Shropshire Lad. He usefully details the numerous editions: a tentative start, rising to 13,500 in 1911, and 16,000 in 1918. By the outbreak of the First World War, there was one “in every pocket”, the poet Robert Nichols said.
Views on the man varied. The American writer Robert Lowell observed: “The one poet who most moves me to tears is Housman.” John Berryman commented: “A detestable and miserable man. Arrogant, unspeakably lonely, cruel, but an absolutely marvellous minor poet and a great scholar.”
Some saw Housman as “austere, unapproachable, aloof, impenetrable, taciturn, morose, rude, morbid, misogynistic, self-pitying, even self-loathing”; others, as “clubbable, amusing, a good conversationalist, generous, loyal”. Was he, perhaps, all of these?
In boyhood, he was nicknamed “Mouse”. A. C. Benson, though an admirer, said that he “looked as if he were descended from a long line of maiden aunts”. He was a passionate walker. Curiously, he learned much about Shropshire countryside from a walking colleague from London’s Patent Office. Not Shropshire (”the coldest of English counties”) but Hampstead Heath gave birth to much of A Shropshire Lad.
In one chapter, “English Music”, Parker points to some intriguing rare offerings, including Bernard Herrmann’s A Shropshire Lad for speaker and orchestra; Ernest Farrar’s Three Part Songs; or Worcestershire-born Julius Harrison’s Bredon Hill: A rhapsody for violin and orchestra.
Britten thought John Ireland’s song cycles “the best of Housman settings”. Parker admits popular music, too, and notes that Housman was set by the band Wild Billy Childish and the Spartan Dreggs. The musician, it is suggested, who most embodies the poet’s spirit is Morrissey, who sympathetically observed: “He lived a solitary existence of monastic pain”.
Brooke, Sassoon, Graves, Owen — all admired Housman (Owen, too, employed the word “lads” to denote vulnerable young men). Although “the faint note of suppressed homosexual desire . . . sounds like a muffled drumbeat throughout ASL”, and Auden held him “perfectly to express the sensibility of the male adolescent”, Parker dismisses as unproven sundry biographies that aver that Housman had a demonstrably active sexual life, in France or Italy. The evidence, he asserts, is simply not there.