“Any fool can write a sonnet, and most fools do.”
A. E. Houseman (1859 – 1936)
by W. H. Auden (1907 – 1973)
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.