February, twenty six years ago. By this time of the month I was slowly convalescing from the first of two cases of pneumonia that I’ve ever had. The long bed rest was the first intimation of middle age, which I wouldn’t officially enter till a few years after.
I’d been to the library two weeks before and had opted to pay off more of that perennial duty to read the great classics which you had somehow never read before. By some fate, the book was A Shropshire Lad, by A. E. Housman.
Like everyone, I’d read several of the poems deemed suitable for Jr. High and Highschool anthologies, the woodlands hung with snow, of course. That perpetually moldering athlete dying young, as well. It didn’t impress me much. But S.L. was a slim volume, as the chestnut has it, and the poems were short and it wouldn’t cost much time to see what joys Housman held. I knew, of course, that he had been gay. That’s probably the reason I took it off the shelf. Though for him that term is one as ill suited as has ever been appended posthumously.
I read it through the first time as I was getting sick and, I’ll confess, it struck me to my core. The grey toned sadness, the yearning, the longing for connection, the sheer, obvious desire for love with a man, the erotic attraction of a strapping farm boy unsullied by the pollutants of city or university - though an abstract one who seemed to be rather cleaner and freer of sweat than farm boys of my experience*. The underlying theme of Housman is the assumed, permanent state of exile of gay men from the comfort of normal society, from the impossibility of believing that you belonged in the world.
Of course that would speak to any gay man who was leaving youth, alone, without the wonderful, unconscious knowledge that you had deep emotional relationships that would be unmolested by a hostile general culture. Without the possibility of entering into an unremarkable and secure home life. Though fully knowing I was not one, I fell fully into the consolation such that Housman had left to such luckless lads, now that he was dead and gone. More about which in a while. Shropshire girls, apparently were hardly worth mentioning, except in so far as useful to the lads who were, one assumes, trying to pass.
Reagan had been in office three years, Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II around, longer. The televangilists were flowering putridly everywhere, and there was the first realization that your gay friends in New York were coming down with an unknown and yet unnamed illness. The very beginning of that long death watch. It was the perfect time for a sick, gay man to be converted by Housman to his regime of cold comfort, the attractions of suicide, the view that the world was inalterably not for you. Comforted only with the inevitable return to dust and an insensate non-being. Except for that brainless and impatient man of bone that would remain, the part that Housman, apparently, saw as the most significant.
Needless to say, it wasn’t reading that lent itself to therapeutic optimism while facing the onslaught of hacking coughs, painful breathing, fevers and at the lowest point, the real possibility that this could just be the end.
Still, it carried what one might want to grasp on to as a kind of stoic comfort, the assertion that facing the inevitable was the right and brave thing to do. You had to look not left nor right because the only road ahead held nothing but the night. It appealed to the deep agnosticism which I had arrived at by my reading of logic. For agnosticism is as far as logic can honestly lead you. Having thought my way out of the romantic view of science, I was, nonetheless clinging to the rock of logic, unable to, yet, admit that it was, at its core, no more knowable than God. Unable to stand that this most solid of all intellectual positions, was, in itself, not founded on rock. I will say this, agnosticism makes a better life jacket than Housman.
After the crisis passed and it appeared I wouldn’t suffocate in my own lungs I read Shropshire Lad a second time. There were certain erotic themes, I guess that held my interest at that point. This time my spirit rebelled violently against Housman’s invitation to suicide, “so quick and clean an ending” as that might be. I must have noticed that on first reading but suppressed it in view of the said attractions of Housman. Whatever else, I knew it was a horrible idea. With the hardships of growing up gay, it was hardly an act of friendship to promote suicide as an ethical program. It’s pathological in a gay man, it’s self-hatred by proxy. By then, making the effort to breath through the coughing and phlegm must have seemed fully worth it.
I’ve known more straight men than gay ones who have esteemed Housman, though there have certainly been gay men who have. Maybe it’s the en passant uniform fetish. There seems to be a kind of rather nice, often science department based, straight man who relishes The Lad. I recall one such naming it as one of two books he would willingly be shipwrecked with. I don’t recall the other one. I’ve known few women who have had that much use for it, though I know they exist too. The promotion of suicide, dying young, and other such delights of Housman are far easier to take as self-presumed spectator than as intended spectacle.
By the third reading I’d noticed that there was little real love in the book. Yearning, yeah, lots of that of a self-indulgent kind, but not of a kind that carried any hope. There didn’t seem to be much faith in the possibility of it. Better to figure that it’s not worth getting too attached. In fact, other than to kill yourself, I didn’t find there to be a lot of encouragement in the book. By that time I’d learned of the great unrequited love of Housman’s life, Moses Jackson, a straight man who emigrated to India, then Canada, after going to extraordinary lengths to keep Housman from attending his wedding. The first thing that came to mind is if I had Housman yearning after me I might want to put an ocean between us too. His hand of friendship extended doesn’t carry a lifeline, it carries an anvil. I think by then, I was trying to fight my way out of the hole I had gotten into on the first reading. I’ve read recently that Housman, knowing that Jackson was dying in Canada was eager for him to read his unpublished poetry, one does wonder if it was to encourage him to end it all.
I read some of it a fourth time as life turned back to normal, though not every poem, and ended the book knowing I was about through with Housman. I knew the old fart hadn’t shot himself through the head. For himself, at least, he concluded that was not right, that was not brave.
And so Housman endured on in his faculty apartment, reported to have all the ambiance of a public waiting room, sniping at young classicist lads, and I’d imagine, the rising class of classically inclined lasses, who trespassed on his flagstones. The geezer might express sufficient care for their well being to encourage young folk to shoot themselves in the head or to just die, but the desiccated old classicist had no intention of offing himself or tolerating the frolics of youth in the solely imaginary fields and vales of Latin or Greek he’d staked a claim to, grousing at their youthful follies. He was famous for being horrible to his students and never learning their names.
Housman left me with a peculiar taste that I had known before but had never quite identified. A sourness stripped of any bracing tang, bitterness without the persistent effort required by that emotional obsession. V. S. Naipaul is a contemporary specimen. I came to think of the bard of Shropshire as an old fraud. Having read about his jaunts to Paris to indulge in pornography and rent boys and other continental delights forbidden to pollute the green and apparently not so pleasant land of England- I’d asked my brother to pick up a bio of him from the library, perhaps to try to finally get shut of him.
By the last time I got to the penultimate poem, “Terence this is stupid stuff”, another of those sufficiently sexless to enter into the required reading of an American 9th grader of the early 60s, I saw it for the pantomime of mirth it is. Exactly like those numerous and insufferable pieces by knighted British composers that trudge along in jolly good fun, of the most pedestrian and tedious variety. Like Mithridates, Housman intended to die old, stewed in his self-administered poisons.
I went on through to approximate completeness by reading the thankfully few “Last Poems”, so named because by then the aging and very famous poet of young folks dying and oblivion, had said what he could on his abortive theme of discouraging people from hoping and living. It finished in the “More Poems”, which he had left to his brother Laurence to destroy.**
From being obsessed with Housman and the easy attraction of his poetry to a lasting disgust for him and his death cult within the shortest month of the year.
What remains of Housman for me is the key to understand why I dislike a kind of recent British writing and so much English language writing influenced by it*** . First there is just the plain meanness of so much of it, a lack of sympathy, even a distaste for human love. There is the rancid rejection of actual life, the cowardly refusal to abandon the easy way of secure classicism and the conventional attitude.
The conventional attitude. For all its homoerotic content, etc., Housman was unobjectionable to the Victorian audience that first took his cranky poetry to their bosom. That alone should show you that there isn’t anything unconventional about it. Like its author it doesn’t much do without the benefits of comfort and security and the prestige of university life. Its popularity also marks it with the profitable allure it shares with the cosy school of British crime fiction. It is intellectually and emotionally unchallenging and proudly wears its dead-on normal average temperature as if that was sufficient virtue. Billy Collins seems to me to be the direct American descendent, replacing Housman’s mild dyspepsia with cute cynicism.
After Housman I was done with all that. And with more. Once you abandon the cowardice, an attitude that comfortable endurance and the intellectually safe and reputable are the standards to live by, you are free of the morose manacles which held me during that long illness. Any sense of duty to Housman, the eminent gay poet, died. And I think my sense of duty to the officially great, dead writing of white male authors of the English Speaking Peoples and those who imitate them, died with it. For which, I suppose, I might be grateful. Maybe I would be if I didn’t have to worry about gay kids shooting themselves in the head. I’d kind of like for them to grow up and have a real life.
* Being a farm boy myself.
There is in Housman’s stately pose of veneration a feeling of class exploitation, of the young laborer being viewed as an object of use, the poems a recommendation of a varietal to others of Housman’s own class. Like a favorite ale. It has been wondered how much of the local brew he had actually tasted before he wrote the book, famously not having set foot in Shropshire until after he’d written the poems. Perhaps he’d imported.
** A hypocritical pose which any fool who knew him would know he wouldn’t do. Of course Laurence would publish them, and he did. Housman wanted it published but wanted his brother to take any flack from its publication
I haven’t bothered to read the last thing that even his brother held back, the Housman observations on love.
*** Also developed through reading William Carlos Williams essays on Rebecca West and others. It is remarkable how much of British writing in all forms is full to the brim of completely dislikable people and no other kind.