A.E. Housman will never rank with Cowper and Keats among the great letter writers in the language. On most occasions he is too blunt, business-like and unself-revealing to digress and frolic and amuse readers who are less than infatuated with his life and work. But readers (or skimmers, like me) of The Letters of A.E. Housman (Oxford, 2007), edited by Archie Burnett, will discover a Housman at odds with the dour caricature of repressed sexuality accepted as gospel today. Burnett’s two-volume, 1,228-page act of reclamation is peppered with the wisecracks of a very funny man. (As a scholar, Burnett seems attracted to misunderstood poets, as his edition of Larkin’s Complete Poems attests.) On Sept. 27, 1921, Housman writes to his publisher Grant Richards, who is about to bring out the ironically mistitled Last Poems:
“Tell him that the wish to include a glimpse of my personality in a literary article is low, unworthy, and American. Tell him that some men are more interesting than their books but my book is more interesting than its man.”
The ever-resourceful Burnett, who detects allusions where others nod, notes the echo of Dr. Johnson’s "The Plan of the English Dictionary": “my book is more learned than its author.” Another friend of Housman’s was Dr. Percy Withers, a physician and writer who after Housman death published A Buried Life: Personal Recollections of A.E. Housman (Burnett calls it “sympathetic but somewhat baffled”). In a June 12, 1922 letter, Housman thanks Withers’ wife for the jar of marmalade she had given him, and adds of a photograph taken of him a month earlier: “The photograph is not quite true to my own notion of my gentleness and sweetness of nature, but neither perhaps is my external appearance.” The sentence is a perfectly tuned instrument of ironic self-awareness.
To Richards on Nov. 30, 1922, Housman writes: “Mr Vickers can have what he wants, and any of his countrymen. I am told that Americans are human beings, though appearances are against them.” And here, to Richards again, on Jan. 23, 1923, my favorite: “I suppose the Braille people [The National Institute for the Blind] may do Last Poems as they did the other book. The blind want cheering up.”