It took Nabokov to remind us that snow is blue and Housman to notice the same of hills. Good writers are corrective lenses. They don’t exactly boost visual acuity, but do remind us how much we’ve failed to see by pointing out the easily dismissible and making it new. Thanks to XL. in A Shropshire Lad -- “What are those blue remembered hills, / What spires, what farms are those?” – I have seen blue hills in the Finger Lakes of New York, in the Hill Country of Texas and in Provence. But more than a geographical feature, blue hills suggest something elusive and ultimately irrecoverable. Live long enough and you will know blue hills.
Housman was born on this date, March 26, in 1859, and died on April 30, 1936. His ashes are buried in St. Lawrence’s Church, Ludlow, Shropshire, where he never lived. The spot is marked by the stump of a cherry tree, an allusion to the second poem in A Shropshire Lad: “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now / Is hung with bloom along the bough.” A vital melancholy strain runs through English poetry. One line of descent is Hardy, Housman and Larkin. These are poets not given to exultation. Each is ruminative and contemptuous of rah-rah optimism. In no conventional sense can they be called inspirational. In “The Tragi-Comedy of A. E. Housman,” Anthony Daniels reminds us of Housman’s centrality:
“For me the blue remembered hills are indeed, literally, the hills of Shropshire, but everyone, metaphorically speaking, has his own blue remembered hills. This is because content is always lost, because it cannot be truly appreciated until it is over: It can be written of only in the past tense. In language if not quite demotic then certainly plain, Housman goes straight to the essence of the human.”