From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither: here am I.
Now—for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart—
Take my hand quick and tell me
What have you in your heart.
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
I take my endless way.
Whew! It’s March and a burst of spring sunshine today betrayed the nearly foot of fresh snow of the past week, melting it rapidly. March is the month of muddy foot prints on kitchen floors in Minnesota. The earth comes out of its frozen slumber wet and slimy, attaching itself to everything with which it comes into contact, reminding us that the ubiquitous stubbornness of clay and organic matter is the very stuff from which new life springs. The beauty of spring flowers doesn’t come from April showers, it comes from the black muck that holds the nutrients that feed beauty.
It’s time to move on into more playful fare in this blog. I used the month of February to stray into history and politics, probably wearing everyone out, temporarily avoiding the true reason for starting this blog; the exploration of poetry as a mirror by which love is reflected. Love is a complicated thing. I’m lucky. I have had good role models for love my entire life, by those around me and those that have been gracious enough to love me. I hope love continues to teach this old dog a few more new tricks.
No one, not even Cambridge was to blame
(Blame if you like the human situation):
Heart-injured in North London, he became
The Latin Scholar of his generation.
Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer;
Food was his public love, his private lust
Something to do with violence and the poor.
In savage foot-notes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led,
And put the money of his feelings on
The uncritical relations of the dead,
Where only geographical divisions
Parted the coarse hanged soldier from the don.”
The critics didn’t think much of Auden’s sonnet when it was published in 1936, the year of Housman’s death. It was viewed as cynical and priggish. Auden was pressured not to include it in later collections of his work. I look at the sonnet differently. I don’t think it was intended as a literary left jab. I think it was a straight on assessment from one poet to another, an homage from one scholar to another, and a gesture from one man to another. In the company of men it is far better to be teased than ignored if Auden in fact meant it as such. Auden wouldn’t have wasted his time writing a sonnet for someone who hadn’t captured a part of his imagination. It’s possible it was written as a bit of politcal statement on acceptance of homosexuality in his own inimitable way. I know I would be flattered if a writer of the stature of Auden had taken the time to write a sonnet with me as the central figure, even if it contained some inconvenient implications.
The trouble with trying to relate a sonnet to a flesh and blood person is how much does anyone really know about another person? Housman taken at his word in private correspondence stated “very little in my work is biographical” and appeared in later life to distance himself from his poetry which although popular was under siege by critics of his day as somewhat immature in its themes and poorly constructed. Housman rested his professional reputation as a scholar, not as a poet.
I think that Housman might protest a bit too much in denying that his poetry did not come from his own experience. There is an underlying grey cloud of depression that permeates his poetry. It is not surprising given that he was homosexual and unable to realize relationships with men given the criminality of homosexuality at that time. In the on-line Poetry Foundation biography of Housman he is quoted in a letter that his writing of poetry came like;
‘a morbid secretion’, as the pearl is for the oyster. The desire, or the need, did not come upon him often, and it came usually when feeling ill or depressed.”
I have sympathy for Housman, it can’t be much fun as a writer if the source of your inspiration is only fueled by the dark side of your psyche.
What does Auden mean by the line “In savage footnotes on unjust editions”? I think it might reference the publication of some of Housman’s poems after his death by his brother Lawrence. Auden’s sonnet came out three years after the following two poems were published posthumously in 1933.
by A. E. Housman
He would not stay for me; and who can wonder? —He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand tore my heart in sunder —And went with half my life about my ways.
by A. E. Housman
Because I liked you better —Than it 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;
‘Goodbye’, 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 who kept his word.
A further footnote that Auden was unaware, is an essay deposited in the British Library in 1942 by Lawrence Housman titled “A. E. Housman’s ‘De Amicitia'” with instructions it not be published until 1967. The essay talks candidly of Housman’s homosexuality and for his love of Moses Jackson as a young man which he repressed.
It is hard for us to understand homosexuality having such dire consequences through today’s lens of protection under the law for non-discrimination based on sexuality. Remember that in 1895 Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for indecency for being a sodomite. He would die in 1900 as a direct result of the conditions he was subjected to in prison. It makes it easier to understand why Housman might create a healthy distance from the rhymes of his poetry that reveal his most private thoughts. I’ll end this blog entry with a poem Housman penned as brilliant homage to Wilde following his trial. I wonder what Housman would have written if he had been un-cuffed and free to express whatever he chose?
Oh Who Is That Young Sinner
By A. E. Housman
Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
‘Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time ’twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.
Oh a deal of pains he’s taken and a pretty price he’s paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they’re haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.
Now ’tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.
Here dead lie we because we did not choose —To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose; —But young men think it is, and we were young.
A. E. Housman (1859 – 1936)
A. E. Housman and Wilfred Owen both have childhood connections to Shropshire, England. It is there alone, separated by a gap of more than 30 years, that their lives intersect beyond poetry. Wilfred only published 5 poems while alive and penned nearly all of his poetry in the 18 months prior to his death. His friend and fellow soldier, Siegfried Sassoon, oversaw the editing and publication of his work in 1920 following Owen’s death.
Owen is revered as one of the great war poets of World War I, his poetic talents heightened by his harrowing experience. Owen, in letters home, regretted returning to the front after recuperating in Scotland from injuries sustained in France the year prior, but kept his anti-war poetry to himself among the soldiers he fought alongside. He lost his life at the age of 25 in battle, by all accounts, a brave and loyal soldier.
I do not consider A. E. Housman a war poet. He lived comfortably, if unhappily, to the age of 77. He published only 2 volumes of poetry during his lifetime. His first volume, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896, enjoyed critical success. Housman was an acclaimed Latin scholar and along with his success as a poet, landed several prestigious academic positions, which allowed him to retreat from the difficulties of life among the elite in Oxford. I don’t cast spurious judgement upon Houseman for being pampered, sullen, private and un-prolific, he earned his success. However, his poetry lacks the tension of Owen’s in part because of his lack of real world experience. Owen risked much more in the creation of his art or was it the risk that created his art?
I am unable to find a single sonnet from Housman in his collected works. He wrote several 4 line poems that follow 10 syllables per line that could be considered the start of sonnets but were clearly complete in their simplicity. He seemed to prefer a structure of 8 syllables per line, with many of his poems either 12 or 16 lines in length.
Owen’s legacy is as a voice of humanity in the insanity of war. Owen’s anti-war sentiments caution readers that governments will pander to men’s patriotic proclivity and entice them to enlist with promises of sacrificial glory. Though both wrote during a period of nearly endless conflicts and foreign wars in which recruits were needed for the ascension of the British Empire, it is Owen’s poetry which stands out for me in its brave clarity. To die for one’s country or fellow soldiers can be a noble act, but even the noblest of deaths are haunted by the questions from grieving loved ones if such a thing as a just war exists? The history of humankind littered with wars fueled by madness and vanity when the spotlight of history is finally lit.
I did not recognize Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est initally as a sonnet. On closer reading, the poem is 28 lines written as two sonnets back to back. The ending, Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori, translates roughly as “it is sweet to die for one’s country”.
Much has been written about the cruelty of mustard gas during World War I. It was in some ways the first weapon of mass destruction, though in the end it killed relatively few. Mustard gas instilled terror and was as much psychological warfare as an agent of death. Mustard gas was first developed by German chemists who falsely believed it would end the war quicker and reduce loss of life on both sides. 2017 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the use of chemical weapons in artillery shells and the rapid industrialization of weapons of mass destruction. Germany is not alone in its shame, with England and the United States both following suit, deploying chemical weapons as a precursor to the greater insanity of nuclear weapons. Our ability as humans to deceive ourselves as to what is justifiable is fathomless. Owen captures in Dulce et Decorum Est the inhumanity of chemical weapons. The poem is an anti-war testament for why no nation should ever deploy them again.
Dulce et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.