Wednesday, December 23, 2015

`You Must Wear Your Rue with a Difference!'

A.E. Housman took me by surprise. I was walking through fallen leaves, returning to my office from the library, when the words appeared on my lips and, after a muddled pause, in my awareness: “With rue my heart is laden, / For golden friends I had.” I don’t remember consciously memorizing any Housman, including “LIV” in A Shropshire Lad, but his music is subtly seductive. Perhaps it was the fallen leaves, a conventional enough symbol of time passing, mortality and all the rest. I read Cymbeline again not long ago, and perhaps I was hearing an echo (as perhaps Housman heard) of “Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” “Rue” also is a deliciously Shakespearean word, as a feeling and an herb. Mad Ophelia sings: 

“There’s fennel for you, and columbines. There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me. We may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays. O, you must wear your rue with a difference! There’s a daisy. I would give you some violets, but they wither’d all when my father
died. They say he made a good end.”

That same morning I had been reading the late Samuel Menashe’s New and Selected Poems (2005), and perhaps I was remembering “Rue,” his antidote to Dylan Thomas’ bathetic blather: 

“For what I did
And did not do
And do without
In my old age
Rue, not rage
Against that night
We go into,
Sets me straight
On what to do
Before I die—
Sit in the shade,
Look at the sky”

Or maybe memory was merely paying homage to Housman, as Kingsley Amis did in The Amis Anthology: A Personal Choice of English Verse (1988):

“Of course I think it ungrateful and wrong that Housman should never have been conventionally admitted as a great English poet, one of the greatest since Arnold, but not so surprising when you consider some of the people who have been so admitted.  What are the objections to him? . . . His themes are restricted:  I started to make a list of them until it occurred to me that the same objection would exclude from the canon Milton, Herbert, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats. . . . He turns his back on the modern world:  next question.  He made no technical innovations:  get out of my sight.”

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