Friday 10 March 2017

Beyond the love of comrades: the poetry of AE Housman (2)

A. E. Housman photographed by E. O. Hoppé
A. E. Housman
photographed by E. O. Hoppé
In my previous post, I talked about the poet AE Housman's unrequited passion for his friend from university days, Moses Jackson and how this single relationship seems to have coloured Housman's emotional life. 

His later poems feature in my song cycle Four Songs to Texts by AE Housman and in my song When Summer's end is nighing. Baritone Johnny Herford and pianist William Vann perform both works on the new disc of my songs, Quickening , for which we are currently crowd-funding.

When reading some of these later poems it is difficult not to read auto-biographical elements into the poems, and this is particularly true of the ones published by Laurence Housman after AE Housman's death.

Whilst 'A.J.J – When he's returned' is clearly referencing the death of Moses Jackson's younger brother Adalbert (who died in 1896 and with whom Moses and AE Housman shared accommodation for a period), the dignified restraint of the poem allows for a welter of other connections to be made.

Strange, strange to think his blood is cold
  And mine flows easy on:
And that straight look, that heart of gold,
  That grace, that manhood gone.

The word unsaid will stay unsaid
  Though there was much to say;
Last month was time enough: he's dead,
  The news must keep for aye.

The poem also links to a recurrent theme in Housman's work, the loss of youth in the war. Housman's poems for A Shropshire Lad were written under the influence of the Boer War, but a poem like 'The lads in their hundreds' came to be very telling during World War One, and many of Housman's later poems were written with this war in mind. A poem like 'He looked at me' evokes these ideas with its memories of 'eyes I though I was not like to find':

He looked at me with eyes I thought
  I was not like to find,
The voice he begged for pence with brought
  Another man to mind.

Oh no, lad, never touch your cap;
  It is not my half-crown:
You have it from a better chap
  That long ago lay down.

Turn east and over Thames to Kent
  And come to the sea's brim,
And find his everlasting tent

Poems like the above clearly fit into the mould of the love of comrades, but some of the other poems go further. In 'He would not stay for me' we perhaps get an echo of Housman's continuing to hold a torch for Moses:

He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
  He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,
  And went with half my life about my ways.

Whilst in 'Because I liked you better' you get a clear picture of the stiff relationship between AE Housman and Moses Jackson, a far cry from the lyrical imagining. This was a poem that AE Housman never published, though Laurence seems to have been happy to after AE's death.

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

To put the world between us
  We parted, stiff and dry;
`Good-bye,' said you, `forget me.'
  `I will, no fear', said I.

If here, where clover whitens
  The dead man's knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
  Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
  The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
  Was one that kept his word.

All the above poems feature in my Four Songs to Texts by AE Housman, but the final Housman song takes a poem from Housman's final publication, Last Poems of 1922. This is one of lyrical regret for a life lived, one who has grown old and whose comrades have not returned. It is classic Housman, in Virginia Woolf's tart summary of the poet's work 'May, death, lads, Shropshire'.

When summer's end is nighing
   And skies at evening cloud,
I muse on change and fortune
   And all the feats I vowed
   When I was young and proud.

From hill and cloud and heaven
   The hues of evening died;
Night welled through lane and hollow
   And hushed the countryside,
   But I had youth and pride.

The year might age, and cloudy
   The lessening day might close,
But air of other summers
   Breathed from beyond the snows,
   And I had hope of those.

They came and were and are not
   And come no more anew;
All the years and seasons
   That ever can ensue
   Must now be worse, worse and few.

So here's an end, an end to roaming
   On eves when autumn nighs;
The ear too fondly listens
   For summers parting sighs,
   And then the heart replies.

Johnny Herford (baritone) and William Vann (piano) perform my Housman settings on our new disc Quickening: songs to texts by English and Welsh poets which will be coming out on the Navona Records label. Please do support the crowdfunding for this,

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