Thursday, April 13, 2017

`A Deep Vein of Passionate Melancholy'

While a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the early nineteen-thirties, Enoch Powell attended the lectures of A.E. Housman. Powell said of the poet and Latinist that he “could indeed at times scarcely master his emotion sufficiently to read aloud the verses of Horace or Propertius, Catullus or Virgil, upon which he was about to comment.” Assuming anyone still reads Housman, his popular reputation has been reduced to two factoids: 1.) He was gay and unrequitedly smitten with Moses Jackson. 2.) He was a cold, austere, cutting, nasty, dry-as-dust fellow. The first is inarguable. As he wrote in More Poems XXXI:

“Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you and I promised
To throw the thought away.”

The second is intermittently true but veers close to caricature, with an arrogance typical of the enlightened present evaluating the primitive past. Humans will always defy our best efforts to pin them in a specimen box. In group therapy, Housman would not “share,” but Powell’s testimony suggests a man of powerful, if not cavalierly expressed, emotions. In Housman 1897-1936 (Oxford University Press, 1942), Grant Richards includes part of a letter written to the Times of London by Mrs. T.W. Pym less than a week after Housman’s death. She recalls a morning in May 1914 “when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom.” Housman was lecturing on Horace’s Ode IV 7. Pym writes:

“This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and said in quite a different voice: `I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own. `That,’ he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, `I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,’ and walked quickly out of the room.”

This was not the behavior of a cold fish. Housman was a man rightly skeptical of emotional self-indulgence, as were many of his contemporaries. Pym substantiates this in her letter: “A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us. `I felt quite uncomfortable,’ he said. `I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.’” The sight of cherry blossoms in spring moves Theodore Dalrymple, who will never be mistaken for a drama queen, to recall Housman’s lines from A Shropshire Lad II:

“Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.”

Housman made his own a peculiar strain of muted sadness. He didn’t surrender to powerful emotion but contained it. Dalrymple reminds us that poetry is “not the medium in which new ideas are advanced.” Rather, it reanimates old truths. Dalrymple writes of Housman:

“Many people found his personality cold, forbidding, and arrogant; he was not very sociable and did not suffer fools, or in fact most human beings, gladly. But he had, for personal reasons, a deep vein of passionate melancholy from which sprang his poetry (and which spoke powerfully to the common man, who took it with him to the trenches of the First World War by the hundred thousand, often dying with it in his pocket).”

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