A. E. Housman: Scholar and Poet

By Norman Marlow | Go to book overview

VIII
CONTEMPORARY CRITICISM OF HOUSMAN

WHEN surveying the unhappy contradictions and fumblings of criticism in dealing with Housman's poetry one is irresistibly reminded of Sir Henry Wotton's remark that 'critics are like the brushers of noblemen's clothes'. There is almost no point over which they are not in complete disagreement. One of the commonest pitfalls is to argue the date of a poem from its contents. H. W. Garrod, for example, sees in Alta Quies, which was written at Oxford before 1881, evidence of ripe maturity. The trouble here is that Housman never allowed anything to be published till it was as perfect as he could make it and nothing more could be done to it. Consequently, when he found the one style which mirrored his passionate feelings he kept to it. He found that style very early, and whenever poetry came to him his natural utterance was this narrow measure. Again, there is admittedly a development of theme and treatment in "A Shropshire Lad" -- sun and spring and morning give way to autumn and nightfall towards the end of the book -- but the development is not readily discernible even there. Still less is it traceable in the poems which he composed in the years between 1895 and 1910 and included in Last Poems. One can date a few of these because they are so obviously written by a man taking farewell of his muse in the autumn of his years; but even there the differences in technique are slight.

Some critics go out of their way to say that Housman's outlook was not intellectual. This may be due to a hasty and superficial

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