Wednesday, November 16, 2016

`His Mind Was Not on Me'

It’s always satisfying to discover that a writer you admire shares your enthusiasm for yet another writer, and the pleasure is even more intense when unexpected. I’m reading
Housman Country: Into the Heart of England (Little, Brown, 2016), a book that mingles biography, criticism and an account of A.E. Housman’s afterlife in English culture. Housman’s first collection, A Shropshire Lad, has remained in print since its publication in 1896. Side by side with Parker’s book I’m reading The Poems of A.E. Housman (Clarendon Press, 1997), edited by Archie Burnett, who performed a similar service for Philip Larkin in 2012. Burnett brings together the two volumes published during Housman’s lifetime, posthumously collected and previously unpublished poems, light verse, juvenilia and translations. Housman at last gets the full Hoover treatment he deserves, and now I’m catching up with the later work, which I know less well than A Shropshire Lad. Included in Last Poems is “The Culprit,” which begins:       

“The night my father got me
 His mind was not on me . . .”

Do you hear the echo? Housman’s comic sense is of the driest sort, easily missed, easily misinterpreted. In his volume, Parker makes a case for Housman as a reflexively ironic writer, in poetry and prose. The opening line of “The Culprit” restates, from two centuries earlier, the opening sentence of Tristram Shandy:      

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing; . . .”

In his notes to the poem, Burnett confirms that Housman owned a copy of Sterne’s novel with “various markings by him,” though not the first sentence, which he probably judged too well-known to be underlined. Burnett nowhere calls the convergence a conscious allusion, but the similarity of thought, if not style, is striking. Consider the rest of Sterne’s lengthy sentence:    

“. . . —that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.”

The editors of The Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne (University Presses of Florida, 1984) devote two pages of elucidation to the first sentence of Tristram Shandy, and they boil down to this: “The idea that the conditions of conception determined the future of the child was a commonplace one.”

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