Saturday, December 07, 2013

`He Is Simply a Singer'

Enjoy a happy convergence of reader and writer when Willa Cather, not yet twenty-four, reads A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad within months of its publication in 1896. Cather had moved to Pittsburgh that year and gone to work as managing editor of The Home Monthly, founded after Ladies Home Journal proved a circulation success. The first edition of Housman’s volume was self-published in England, and one wonders how Cather found a copy of so obscure a volume so quickly. She became the first American editor to republish some of Housman’s verses. In a recurring feature titled “Old Books and New,” she quotes poem XXXIX in Housman’s sequence -- “’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town” – and writes: 

“Pretty verses, are they not? I found them in a little volume entitled, A Shropshire Lad, by A. E. Housman. Who Mr. Housman may be I know not, save that he is an Englishman and that he has written some of the most musical lyrics that have been done in England for many a long day. They are mostly quiet, unpretentious things like the one I have quoted, and very few of them even have titles. So simple are they that he who runs may read, and so shadowed by a gentle melancholy that the swiftest reader may not outrun the saddest of them.” 

Many of the reviews and articles Cather wrote for The Home Monthly are apprentice work, perfunctory and column-filling, the sort of thing young journalists are expected to crank out like so much sausage. But one senses her temperamental and artistic affinity with Housman. She responds to the seeming simplicity of his lines and to his characteristic note of muted melancholy:    

“There is something which makes Mr. Housman different from the poets of the time and sets him quite apart; I should say that is largely because he is simply a singer, and for the most part poets have become philosophers. Like Heine, he has `done nothing but be a poet,’ and like Heine, there is a touch of quiet, grim despair about him which sometimes quite makes you fancy that you are hearing again that voice of bitter melody from the Rue d'Amsterdam, where for so many years the sweetest of German singers lay stricken with a mortal malady.” 

This is perceptive, for Housman acknowledged his debt to Heine. (See Housman and Heine: A Neglected Relationship, ed. Jeremy Bourne, 2011). In 1902, during her first visit to Europe, Cather made a literary pilgrimage to sites in Ludlow and Shrewsbury associated with the Shropshire poems and visited Housman at his rather drab boarding house in Highgate. One of Cather’s American travelling companions apparently monopolized the conversation and the visit was less than successful. The following year, however, Cather self- published her first book, April Twilights, a collection of verse in which Housman’s example is plain. Here is a stanza from “In Media Vita”:      

“Lads and their sweethearts lying
      In the cleft o' the windy hill;
 Hearts that hushed of their sighing,
      Lips that are tender and still.
 Stars in the purple gloaming,
      Flowers that suffuse and fall,
 Twitter of bird-mates homing,
      And the dead, under all!” 

Not good poetry but suggestive of the pastoral, elegiac strain in Cather’s future novels. In Willa Cather: A Life Saved-Up (1989), her biographer Hermione Lee relates the novelist to the tradition of Virgil’s Georgics: 

“Like his later epic writing, Virgil’s pastoral is weighted with the sense of `the tears there are in things’: sunt lacrimae rerum. It was that tone which attracted Cather to Virgil and to the pastoral writers – Robert Burns, Turgenev, Sarah Orne Jewett, George Eliot, Housman, Robert Frost – who found, in their quite different contexts, Virgilian ways of reconciling rural hardship and suffering with a tender retrospect on lost youth, with a celebration of dignified human endeavor…” 

Willa Cather was born on this date, Dec. 7, in 1873, in Virginia, and died on April 24, 1947, in New York City. 

[See poems on Housman by W.H. Auden, Kingsley Amis and John Berryman.]

No comments: