Reading Letters From A. E. Housman For Fun

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Letter from A.E. Housman to his stepmother, Lucy

Made giddy by the half-dozen positive emails I received about last week’s post, A. E. Housman’s “1887″ Laments The Deaths Of Those Who Actually Save The Queen, today I am pushing the envelope – and inside that envelope are letters from A. E. Housman. 1

Yes, I am proposing that A. E. Housman’s correspondence is a rewarding use of the viewer’s time and effort.

There, I said it, and I’m not taking it back.

The Significant Housman Letters That Other Reviews Cover

While many of Housman’s collected letters deal with correcting errors in his manuscripts prior to printing, turning down honors (from honorary degrees to the OM to the poet laureateship), refusing  invitations to speak, granting or denying requests to reprint his work, some offer insight into his thinking on important issues.

When the meaning of a poem is obscure, it is due to one of three causes. Either the author through lack of skill has failed to express his meaning; or he has concealed it intentionally; or he has no meaning either to conceal or express. In none of these cases does he like to be asked about it. In the first case it makes him feel humiliated; in the second it makes him feel embarrassed; in the third it makes him feel found out. The real meaning of a poem is what it means to the reader.

Others are poignant.  To a dying Moses Jackson, the object of his unrequited love throughout his adult life, Housman sent this painfully jocular note with a copy of Last Poems by A. E. Housman, a volume that went to press at that time to assure publication before Jackson’s impending demise.

It is now 11 o’clock in the morning, and I hear that the Cambridge shops are sold out. Please to realise therefore, with fear and respect, that I am an eminent bloke; though I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.

This summary concludes the Heck Of A Guy obligatory consideration of Housman’s letters of substance: there are quite a few significant letters by Housman, and reviews such as those in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, cover them thoroughly.

The Housman Letters  That Are Fun To Read

I have pulled a few excerpts from Housman’s letters. These are obviously not random, but neither are they the result of an arduous search. I am certain that there are many better selections I will use when I publish my long-awaited “Wit and Wisdom of A. E. Housman.” Today, however, I offer these easy to find tidbits with minimal commentary for the reader’s enjoyment.

Most reviewers have little to say about Housman’s letters to his family and friends.  I, on the other hand, find this opening of a routine letter to his stepmother, Lucy, charming:

I was delighted to get your long letter on the 26th: it was quite the best epistle I have ever seen, with the possible exception of the second of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians. The violets were also very sweet: I don’t know whether St. Paul used to enclose violets.

And, I’m wild for his “occasional poems” he would sometimes include in his letters.  A note to his brother Laurence, for example, offers this ode to the overlooked but obvious:

… The sea is a subject by no means exhausted. I have somewhere a poem which directs attention to one of its most striking characteristics, which hardly any of the poems seem to have observed. They call it salt and blue and deep and dark and so on; but they never make such profoundly true reflexions as the following:

O billows bounding far,
How wet, how wet ye are!

When first my gaze ye met
I said, ‘Those waves are wet’,

I said it, and am quite
Convinced that I was right.

Who saith that ye are dry?
I give that man the lie.

Thy wetness, O thou sea,
I wonderful to me.

It agitates my heart,
To think how wet thou art.

No object I have met
Is more profoundly wet.

Methinks, ’twere vain to try,
O sea, to wipe thee dry.

I therefore will refrain,
Farewell, thou humid main.

“Farewell, thou humid main.”  What a great line.  And, it was written by perhaps the greatest Latin scholar of modern times. C’mon – that’s funny stuff.

And what would a Heck Of A Guy post be without a Hallelujah reference?  Again writing to his step-mother, Housman notes,

I shall be interested to see the Devotional Poems.2 Perhaps I myself may write a Hymn-book for use in the Salvation Army:

There is Hallelujah Hannah
Walking backwards down the lane,
And I hear the loud Hosanna
Of regenerated Jane;
And Lieutenant Isabella
In the centre of them comes,
Dealing blows with her umbrella
On the trumpets and the drums

Or again:

“Hallelujah!” was the only observation
That escaped Lieutenant-Colonel Mary Jane,
When she tumbled off the platform in the station,
And was cut in little pieces by the train.
Mary Jane, the train is through yer:
Hallelujah, Hallelujah!
We will gather up the fragments that remain.

It seems to come quite easy.

And, commenting on news from home, Housman is moved to include his views on original sin and marriage.

… I see looking through your letters that Eva is to be married tomorrow; so give her my benediction.

Marriage, and the necessity of filling this sheet of paper, remind me of one of my occasional poems, …

When Adam woke day by day
Woke up in Paradise
He always used to say
‘Oh, this is very nice.’

But Eve from scenes of bliss
Transported him for life.
The more I think of this
The more I beat my wife.

In a similar vein, Housman writes,

Dear Mrs Thicknesse,
… My blood boils. This is not due to the recent commencement of summer, but to the Wrongs of Woman, with which I have been making myself acquainted.3 ‘She cannot serve on any Jury'; and yet she bravely lives on. ‘She cannot serve in the army or navy’ -oh cruel , cruel!- ‘except’ – this adds insult to injury – ‘as a nurse’. … I have been making marginal additions. ‘She cannot be ordained a Priest or Deacon': add nor become a Freemason. ‘She cannot be a member of the Royal Society': add nor of the Amateur Boxing Association. In short, your unhappy sex seems to have nothing to look forward to, except contracting a valid marriage as soon as they are 12 years old; and that must soon pall. …

He was hardly humble but did not encourage accolades.

To Witter Bynner4

My dear Sir,
You seem to admire my poems even more than I admire them myself, which is very noble of you, but will most likely be difficult to keep up for any great length of time.

… As to your inquiries: I wrote the book when I was thirty-five, and I expect to write another when I am seventy, by which time your enthusiasm will have had time to cool. My trade is that of professor of Latin in this college: I suppose that my classical training has been of some use to me in furnishing good models, and making me fastidious, and telling me what to leave out. …

Housman rarely demanded money for the rights to publish his work,5 but he did want would be publishers to ask first (and he was adamant about printing his poems exactly as he wrote them). He could be a tad brusque in dealing with those who abused this principle.

… The Duchess of Sutherland is under the impression that I not only gave her my consent to print some verses of mine in a novel of hers, but also wrote her a kind letter about it; neither of which things did I ever do. I have no doubt you [Grant Richards Housman’s publisher] gave her my consent, as you have given it to other people; and I have no particular objection: but when it comes to writing kind letters to Duchesses I think it is time to protest.

Mr Thomas thanks me for “a poem”, and prints two: which is the one he doesn’t thank me for?

And sometimes, he just funny, as in this response to a correspondent asking in which set of rooms Byron resided during his stay at Trinity College:

I know a man who has occupied both sets [of possible rooms], and I have asked him which would be the most convenient for keeping a bear in; and he says the former.

  1. Excerpts are from The Letters Of A. E. Housman, Volume One, 1872–1928, Volume Two, 1929–1936, Edited by Archie Burnett.  Oxford:Clarendon Press. 2007. []
  2. Laurence Housman’s Spikenard, 1898 []
  3. Mrs Thicknesse had sent him a copy of her husband’s Suffragist pamphlet, The Rights and Wrongs of Women. []
  4. American poet and playwright at this time poetry editor of McClure’s Magazine, in which he printed thirteen poems from A Shropshire Lad in the next five years. []
  5. He also wrote that “Vanity, not avarice, is my ruling passion; and so long as young men write to me from America saying that they would rather part with their hair than with their copy of my book, I do not feel the need of food and drink.” []

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