Tuesday, March 04, 2014

`Not the Same as Shallowness'

In his three-part essay “Inside the Whale” (1940), George Orwell looks first at Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, a self-indulgent mess that seemed racy to bookish boys of my generation. Today, Miller’s prose possesses the discouraging properties once attributed to saltpeter. In the guise of a book review, Orwell’s essay looks at trends in English-language literature published between the end of World War I and the start of World War II. When I first read it in 1968, I was still a year away from reading Miller (in the pulpy, smudged Grove Press edition), but I had read A.E. Housman, Orwell’s next subject, thanks to my eighth-grade Latin and English teacher, Miss Clymer. Her timing was perfect. On one hand, I fell for the seductive melancholy of A Shropshire Lad, as only a thirteen-year-old can. On the other, I also fell for the deceptive simplicity and music of Housman’s lines, the way they make sadness seem almost jolly, and was moved to memorize some of my favorites. He was one of those poets who made me think (wrongly) that even I could write poetry. Orwell quotes LIV, “With rue my heart is laden,” and writes: “It just tinkles. But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920. Why does the bubble always burst?” 

Fortunately, it doesn’t always. Kingsley Amis provocatively named Housman his favorite poet. If not my favorite – not even close, in fact – Housman remains on the short list of poets I’m frequently rereading, dipping into as inspiration strikes. Shropshire becomes a familiar neighborhood in one’s imaginative landscape. Sensibly, Orwell says, “There is no need to under-rate him now because he was over-rated a few years ago.” Anthony Daniels (Theodore Dalrymple) in "The Tragi-Comedy of A. E. Housman” eludes that tempting trap: 

“There is no great originality of thought in Housman. That is to say there are no underlying insights that have never been expressed before; but the demand that there should be such would have silenced all poets since Shakespeare at the latest. A lack of originality is not the same as shallowness. And similar deep emotions are capable of an infinite variety of expression. Indeed, that is one of the tests of their depth.” 

Daniels here reclaims vast swathes of poetry disinherited by the deep-thinkers of literature. Consider the critical reputations today of Cowper, Gray (mentioned later by Daniels), Tennyson, Chesterton and de la Mare, among many others. All wrote too much and too hastily, and all in their best lines are profoundly moving. Daniels is correct to see in Housman’s “strangely consolatory bleakness” a kinship with Larkin, who judged Housman “the poet of unhappiness,” a title Larkin might have claimed as his own. As he said in his 1979 interview with the Observer: 

“It’s very difficult to write about being happy. Very easy to write about being miserable. And I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any – after all most people are unhappy, don’t you think?” 

When it doesn’t tip into self-pity, and when it hints at some of Larkin’s comic delectation of unhappiness, Housman’s rendering of low-grade melancholia, along with his flawless technique, is the source of his poetry’s perennial re-readability. He skirts aloofness on one side and tearjerking on the other.  Daniels is aware that such nuances are alien to most contemporary poets and their readers: 

“His reticence about himself (in part, of course, the consequence of his homosexuality) was famed. Nothing could be more remote from him than a fashion for incontinent public confessional which combines exhibitionistic frankness with moral and other forms of dishonesty. But it was his reticence that enabled him to sublimate his powerful emotion into poetry that struck a universal, or at least a very common, chord. If he had either wanted or been able to express his emotion outwardly, he would not have been able to write his poetry—or at least not the poetry that he did write.”

1 comment:

Don said...

Nothing could be more remote from him than a fashion for incontinent public confessional which combines exhibitionistic frankness with moral and other forms of dishonesty.
Great comment for our times -- maybe you should tweet it (he wrote mischievously).