A.E. Housman famously devoted a third of his life, from 1903 to 1930, to editing and publishing a five-volume critical edition of Manilius’ Astronomicon, as well as works by Juvenal (1905) and Lucan (1926). Shortly before publication of the fifth Manilius volume, Housman wrote to Robert Bridges that its appearance would mean “I shall have done what I came on earth to do.” The passage quoted at the top is from a letter to Houston Martin, an admirer of Housman’s verse, to whom the poet wrote seven months before his death in 1936: “Your questions, though frivolous, are not indecent, so I suppose I must humour you.” This should not be mistaken for false modesty, a common stratagem among poets. Nor is it mere crankiness. Housman’s understanding of his accomplishments is as radical a case of critical dissonance as any I know. We can’t conclude his self-assessment was wrong. We can say the author of A Shropshire Lad had priorities at variance with those of most readers.
As the excerpts from his letters suggest, Housman’s prose is distinguished by its clarity, forcefulness and acerbic wit. To echo Pound, his verse is at least as well written as his prose. The quip about the mattress and the hard ground is as splendidly poker-faced and well-timed as a good joke. That a poet renowned for melancholy verse should also be funny ought not surprise us. Humans are generally more complicated than we give them credit for. He was Kingsley Amis’ favorite poet and Philip Larkin called him “the poet of unhappiness,” though he added provocatively that Housman “seems to have been a very nice man.” In more than his devotion to Juvenal, Housman reminds me of no other writer so much as Dr. Johnson. The differences are obvious but both men embodied scholarship and stoicism. See Johnson’s “Preface to Shakespeare” for a scholarly antecedent. Neither man sought the pity or even understanding of others. Both detested cant. Here is Housman’s XXXV from Last Poems (1922, annus mirabilis):
“When first my way to fair I took
Few pence in purse had I,
And long I used to stand and look
At things I could not buy.
“Now times are altered: if I care
To buy a thing, I can;
The pence are here and here's the fair,
But where's the lost young man?
“ --To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long 'tis like to be.”
In his great edition of The Poems of A.E. Housman (Clarendon Press, 1997), Archie Burnett (later Larkin’s editor) identifies in his notes to this poem allusions to The Greek Anthology, Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village and Pope’s Dunciad. He also quotes Johnson as quoted by Boswell in The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides:
“Johnson: `Sir, sorrow is inherent in humanity. As you cannot judge two and two to be either five, or three, but certainly four, so, when comparing a worse present state with a better which is past, you cannot but feel sorrow.’”
Cant-free common sense and a profound understanding of the human state. Housman, thinking of his love for Moses Jackson, might have written this, from The Rambler #47:
“Sorrow is properly that state of the mind in which our desires are fixed upon the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant wish that something were otherwise than it has been, a tormenting and harassing want of some enjoyment or possession which we have lost, which no endeavours can possibly regain.”