One of his friends described Dr. Percy Withers (1867-1945), an English physician and failed poet, as having a “relish for human nature,” an observation confirmed by the varied assortment of writers he befriended, including Max Beerbohm, Charles Doughty, Robert Bridges, Walter de la Mare, William Butler Yeats, Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon and E.M. Forster. Most remarkably, he made friends with the famously reserved A.E. Housman, who even permitted Withers to photograph him. That portrait appears in A Buried Life: Personal Recollections of A.E. Housman, the memoir Withers published in 1940. In 1936, shortly after Housman’s death, Withers published a brief remembrance of the poet in New Statesman and Nation, and reprinted in the July 1 issue of The Living Age. In it he writes:
“The depths and complexities of Housman’s character were almost impenetrably obscured by his reticence, and still more perhaps by his determined habit of self-suppression.”
No mention is made of Housman’s homosexuality. Withers was likely unaware of it. The poet, he observes, “could never be garrulous,” the “easy and traditional exchanges of personalities seemed impossible to him.” Withers describes Housman the critic:
“What was and what was not poetry he decided simply, and I should say with the nearest possible approach to infallibility, by the physical response, or none, in the throat, the spinal cord, or the pit of the stomach, and the last the supreme oracle. Once when he had used the term in conversation, he was asked, ‘What is the solar plexus?’ A doctor present was hastening the Faculty’s definition, when Housman whipped in with the rejoinder: ‘It is what my poetry comes from.’”
This recalls Housman’s well-known declaration in the 1933 Leslie Stephen Lecture at Cambridge, “The Name and Nature of Poetry”: “Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual,” followed by this description of his test for poetry:
“Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’s last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, ‘everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.’”
Withers recalls a conversation with Housman:
“We were discussing friendship, when, after a jibe at my fecundity in this kind, he told me he had numbered but three friends in his whole life, and added with a note of exultation how more comfortably he could die now that he had seen the last of them put to rest.”
LVII in A Shropshire Lad (1896):
“You smile upon your friend to-day,
To-day his ills are over;
You hearken to the lover’s say,
And happy is the lover.
“’Tis late to hearken, late to smile,
But better late than never:
I shall have lived a little while
Before I die for ever.”
Housman was born on this date, March 26, in 1859 and died on April 30, 1936 at age seventy-seven.
Housman (April 30) and G. K. Chesterton (June 14) died about a month and a half apart in 1936.
Your minor fact for the day.
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