Magazine article The Spectator

Why Housman Holds Up

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Housman Holds Up

Article excerpt

Aged 12 or 13 I copied several poems by Housman into a commonplace book I had been encouraged to keep. An English master had read several Housman poems to us, and I've been grateful ever since. For some years Housman was my favourite poet, till superseded by Byron (Don Juan especially) and Eliot. The melody or music of the verse no doubt appealed, the mood and message also: 'We for a certainty are not the first/ Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled/ Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed/ Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.' Just the stuff for an adolescent oppressed by an unsympathetic housemaster and twice-daily chapel.

Actually there came a time when the admiration faded, the gratitude grew weak. In youth one is too often too easily impressed by others' opinions, granting them an authority they scarcely deserve. This was my experience when, in my first year at Cambridge, I read Orwell's essay, Inside the Whale, and discovered that admiring Housman was a sad mistake. 'It merely tinkles, ' Orwell wrote dispprovingly of the verse. 'Hard cheese, old chap', was his response to the sentiments of The Shropshire Lad. Clearly one was in the position of that rising young novelist in Wodehouse's story The Clicking of Cuthbert who rashly speaks of his admiration for a certain Russian novelist to the visiting lion, Vladimir Brusilov, only to be told that the said novelist is 'no good'. Housman, it seemed, was likewise 'no good', a poet for immature public schoolboys, not for stern and committed adults.

In truth Orwell was being somewhat disingenuous. He wrote little verse himself, but, when he did so, the echo of Housman's voice is audible: 'To left the black and budless trees, / The empty sties, the barns that stand . . .' He was in any case an unreliable judge of poetry. The best he could say of Kipling is that he was 'a good bad poet', while elsewhere dismissing Auden as 'a sort of gutless Kipling'. Though he had a real feeling for poetry, he was always inclined to attach too much importance to a poet's message.

Housman himself had a better understanding: 'Poetry is not the thing said, but a way of saying it.' And it is his way of saying that draws one back to his poems and makes them lodge in the memory. …

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