In Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, a 41-year-old Oscar Wilde is smoking a cigarette, drinking brandy, and reading aloud of a young man’s suicide in a poem he doesn’t much care for. Before him stands the poet, A.E. Housman, now forced to defend one of the more morbid pieces of verse in his collection A Shropshire Lad on the grounds of verisimilitude. The suicide, Housman tells Wilde, was based on a real Woolwich cadet who blew his brains out rather than bring shame to his family, and whose inquest was written up in The Evening Standard. But that’s precisely the problem, Wilde replies—the poem’s fidelity to mere fact, which must never be mistaken for truth. “Still, if he hadn’t shot himself before reading your poem,” the Irish aesthete says, “he would have shot himself after.”
Wilde then proceeds to a larger disquisition about the true purpose of art, which is to deal in exceptions to facts, and the true purpose of the artist, which is to make his life as close an approximation to those exceptions as possible. Housman, the repressed and curmudgeonly classicist, stands accused of having confused poetry with journalism. Channeling Wilde’s tendency for lyric self-aggrandizement, Stoppard imagines the following exchange between these two eminent Victorians:
Wilde: But the artist is the secret criminal in our midst. He is the agent of progress against authority. You are right to be a scholar. A scholar is all scruple, an artist is none. The artist must lie, cheat, deceive, be untrue to nature and contemptuous of history. I made my life into my art and it was an unqualified success. . . . I had genius, brilliancy, daring, I took charge of my own myth. I dipped my staff into the comb of wild honey. I tasted forbidden sweetness and drank the stolen waters. I lived at the turning point of the world where everything was waking up new—the New Drama, the New Novel, New Journalism, New Hedonism, New Paganism, even the New Woman. Where were you when all this was happening?
AEH: At home.
Thus Wilde, the Decadent ironist who delighted bourgeois audiences only to become a martyr to the very vices he satirized in them, meets the pedantic Professor of Latin, who was too busy fussing over mistranslations of Horace to even bother to go outside.
Up until this scene Wilde has maintained a strictly off-stage presence, mentioned (as he’d no doubt have preferred) solely by reputation, first as the witty and flamboyant dandy of Oxford, which he attended at the same time as Housman; then as the toast of the London theatre and salon; and then as the fallen idol. The scene takes place in 1897, a year after A Shropshire Lad’s publication, when Housman was 37 and Wilde was just out of Reading Gaol, living in exile in the south of France. Theirs is an imagined encounter, a weighing-up of lived experience and philosophy conjured by the shade of the now-dead Housman. Wilde himself hasn’t got long to live, and we soon see him being ferried down the River Styx by Charon—entering eternity reciting his most well-remembered epigrams, characteristically making even his afterlife into his art.
The Invention of Love is about Housman’s unrequited desire for Moses Jackson, his lifelong friend, sometime roommate, and indefatigably heterosexual muse. But it is also a case study in what might be called the creative dividends of social distancing. If it is necessary for the artist to burn with a gem-like flame, standing foursquare at the center of his age the better to speed progress, then what to make of those of quieter sensibilities who capture the way we live now by steering clear of other people and retreating inward?
Wilde lost his fame, fortune, and family by keeping bad company. Housman became the unlikely bard of Englishness—an ethos we might define as proud, pained, and provincial—by not seeking any of the above and by failing to keep the company of the only person he ever loved. The first has been credited with inventing the future: modernism, sexual emancipation, camp, celebrity culture, even glam rock. But it was the second who conjured the present by invoking the past, a feat made more impressive by his refusal to idealize either.
Loneliness and disconnectedness are Housman’s emotional comfort zones, and his geography is the countryside, where every prospect pleases and only man is vile. Perhaps it’s the constant reading about how will never be the same again, combined with the gloomier aspects of A Shropshire Lad, which explains why I’ve lately been drawn back into this poet’s melancholic world. But there’s also how and when I was first introduced to Housman.
The Invention of Love had a brief run on Broadway in the spring of 2001, when the world seemed to be living more on the Wilde side of the ledger. A contentious American election had led to demonstrations in the streets, but those had soon evaporated, giving way to a woozy political hangover. The new President promised prosperity and security at home, rather than nation-building abroad. Recently concluded wars in Europe and the Middle East felt more like the aftershocks of a seismic century coming to an end than augurs of a new one. History still seemed to be pulling into the station, at least if our frivolous headlines had anything to say about it. What did Gary Condit do to his intern? What would Monica and Chandler’s wedding be like? Was that a snake wrapped around Britney? The Onion zeroed in on this zeitgeist more ably than the press it lampooned ever could: “A Shattered Nation Longs To Care About Stupid Bullshit Again.” That was two weeks after 9/11, when everyone was asking if it wasn’t “too soon” to be joking about any of this.
It’s strange now to recall the mood of that period, stranger still to realize that many Americans wearing surgical masks in the street today weren’t even in nurseries back then. Irony was pronounced dead and eulogized in literal-minded fashion. We were all huddled close around television screens, surveying the dust of the Financial District and the rubble of the received wisdom. Was it safe to fly on airplanes or travel abroad or even leave the house? Why were we so hated by people we’d never met in faraway lands? Suddenly there appeared a writer who seemed to speak to our collective consciousness, a mostly unknown novelist from flyover country who shot to literary stardom and then shot right back down for the crime of insulting a daytime television talk show host, becoming part of the very cycle of bullshit we’d now agreed was the indulgence of a bygone era.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published just ten days before the Twin Towers were struck. The book was heralded instantly as having anticipated the mass anxiety and alienation that followed. I can’t remember the plot almost 20 years on, but I can remember that its author was said to have written the novel in a pitch-black room, wearing a blindfold and earplugs. How was that for suffering for one’s art? (Franzen’s follow-up collection of essays was no less gregarious: How to Be Alone, it was called.) A reclusive and prickly snob, it was decided, not only explained the here and now but also prefigured coming tragedy. A Shropshire Lad did the same thing, but left a more lasting mark.
The book consists of 63 short poems set to the rhythms and registers of the English countryside, as experienced by a young man growing up there or reminiscing about it as a much older man in a state of unhappy exile in London.
A Shropshire Lad is a sort of anti-pastoral in which the beauty of the landscape contends with the violent misfortunes of its inhabitants, most of whom wind up jilted or dead or both. Yet rather than wallow in their misfortunes, they are resigned to them. There are fratricides, doomed and slain soldiers, bleached-white corpses, unrequited or unconsummated loves, duplicitous lovers, hangmen, and the condemned swinging from their nooses. And there is self-slaughter—so many suicides, in fact, in one poem that we seem to be in Jonestown, not Shropshire.
Housman’s contrast between the promise and melancholy of nature is best expressed by lines that have implanted themselves in the language as firmly as anything out of Shakespeare or Donne. “Blue remembered hills” is one, but also “into my heart an air that kills” and “blood’s a rover.” Even if you haven’t read these in the original, you’ve still likely come across them as inheritances from popular culture, especially music. England’s Musical Renaissance in the early 20th century is simply unimaginable without A Shropshire Lad, which was set by nearly every major composer of that period, from George Butterworth to Vaughan Williams to Arthur Somervell.
Housman’s text has traveled well, too, even into my own scruffy burg of Forest Hills, New York. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Leaves That Are Green,” which likens the decay of foliage to the love of a girl who “faded in the night / Like a poem I meant to write” opens with a couplet that echoes Housman’s “When I was one-and-twenty.” The British socialist folk singer Billy Bragg subsequently borrowed from “Leaves That Are Green” verbatim for the beginning of his song “A New England.” Pretty much all of Morrissey’s discography can be in one way or another traced back to the Shropshire gestalt, as the Pope of Mope concedes in his autobiography. “It’s easy for me to imagine Housman,” he writes, “sitting in a favorite chair by a barely flickering gas fire, the brain grinding long and hard, wanting to explain things in his own way, monumental loneliness on top of him, but with no one to tell.” Mon semblable, mon frère.
The allusions in literature are even more plentiful and revealing. Kingsley Amis ranked Housman as a poet close to Matthew Arnold and much favored his solid, conventional form over what he felt were the pretentious experiments of Eliot or Pound. Amis even hilariously repurposed a strophe of Housman’s later verse as a curative for premature ejaculation in his novel One Fat Englishman, forcing his eponymous protagonist Roger Micheldene to literally lie back and think of England. Amis’s friend Philip Larkin once referred to Housman’s “temperamental sunlessness” and certainly seemed to model his own oeuvre after it. Larkin wrote the novelist Barbara Pym that he thought of himself as “A.E. Housman without the talent, or the scholarship, or the soft job, or the curious private life.” Actually, Larkin only lacked the scholarship and it’s easy to read “Vers de Société,” in which he weighs RSVPing to a party invitation against the benefits of staying home with his tormented thoughts, as a tribute to the Housman condition. Note, too, Larkin’s violent lunar metaphor, which strikes me as a nod to Housman’s favored symbolism:
Funny how hard it is to be alone.
I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,
Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted
Over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who’s read nothing but Which;
Just think of all the spare time that has flown
Straight into nothingness by being filled
With forks and faces, rather than repaid
Under a lamp, hearing the noise of wind,
And looking out to see the moon thinned
To an air-sharpened blade.
For W.H. Auden, no other English poet of his generation “seemed so perfectly to express the sensibility of a male adolescent.” Leaving aside Auden’s much-disliked sonnet about Housman (“Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust, / Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer”), I think I can detect the cadences of “The True Lover” in “Lullaby,” one of Auden’s more famous poems from the thirties. Both are about two unevenly matched lovers embracing in the middle of the night in a hopeless race against the dawn and its severing and denaturing effects. “But in my arms till break of day / Let the living creature lie,” runs the Auden, very similarly to Housman’s “So take me in your arms a space / Before the east is grey.” Both poems also refer to hearts that “knock,” or, in Housman’s version, “knocked,” because his lad—the one being embraced—has slit his own throat and is bleeding all over the poor woman doing the embracing.
Such hardboiled schoolboy noir has been amply parodied, not least by Housman himself in the penultimate poem of A Shropshire Lad. There, all the foregoing stanzas are ridiculed by a listener as stomach-churning, and the poetic persona “Terence,” now the older Salopian living in London, proffers beer as a better palliative than verse for those looking for happy endings. The “essential business of poetry, as it has been said,” Housman wrote, “is to harmonise the sadness of the universe.” Well, that’s one way to put it. “I never read such a book for telling you you’re better off dead,” the journalist and editor Frank Harris says in The Invention of Love. That’s another way.
Roughly half of A Shropshire Lad was written over a five-month period of intense productivity in 1895 when Housman was badly missing Jackson, then stationed in India as a civil servant with his wife and rapidly expanding brood (Housman would later become godfather to one of Jackson’s sons). Jackson never returned permanently to England; he died in Canada as a failed farmer in 1923. Housman was also in something of a transitional professional mode. He had flunked out of Oxford in 1879 mainly because he’d shown absolutely no interest in the ideas or philosophies of the ancients and refused to comment on these in his final exam in his second year. When queried about Plato’s Republic, he focused exclusively on the accuracy—or better say inaccuracies—of the prevailing translations. From such philological niggles sprang a brilliant career.
Like Einstein, Housman made his reputation after hours while working as a patent clerk; like Marx, he became a fixture of the British Museum’s reading room, poring over esoteric texts and fashioning original commentaries on them. His essays were published in specialist journals and eventually the failed classics student was appointed Chair of Latin at the University College London in 1892; then ultimately Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge in 1911.
He must have occasionally left the house, too, because he dreamt up most of A Shropshire Lad on long, solitary rambles through Hampstead Heath. Housman later claimed he’d also been ailing from what he called “a relaxed sore throat,” and the psychological linkage between his yearning for Jackson and a persistent illness— what Freud would later identify as the competition between Eros and Thanataos—is perhaps hinted at in poem “30”:
More than I, if truth were told,
Have stood and sweated hot and cold,
And through their reins in ice and fire
Fear contended with desire.
Housman liked to describe himself as a pejorist rather than a pessimist, someone who believes that the world is only getting worse. Implicit in this notion is a stoicism which holds that there’s nothing you can do to stop the decline and so you’d better get on with it. Sadness may be the universal norm, but despair is pointless because it only denies the natural order of things. The cynicism here, as Peter Parker observes in his superb book Housman Country, is really a disappointed romanticism. Nonetheless, the evanescence of youth and beauty has its upside: Clocking out early means not sticking around to see everything go to hell or the love of your life slip through your fingers or your accomplishments bettered. “To an Athlete Dying Young,” for instance, celebrates the demise of a race runner who dies before he can see his record broken. Byron would have appreciated the sentiment, lamenting only that that the runner, like so many of Housman’s lads, never managed to get laid before giving up the ghost.
As to any alleged devotion to fact or conflation of verse with journalism, the irony, for once, was at Wilde’s expense. To begin with, Housman never lived in Shropshire and he barely even visited it, which lay westward from his childhood birthplace of Worcestershire. Inhabitants of Shropshire and Housman acolytes, including Willa Cather and E.M. Forster, both of whom made pilgrimages to this immortalized landscape, soon realized just how badly he botched the topography and architecture. Hughley Church doesn’t have a steeple and couldn’t be considered a “far-known sign” because it was situated in a valley. Nor was the north side of the church a shadow-bathed resting place for a mass of suicide cases. Housman’s brother Laurence made a tour of Shropshire not long after the book came out and reported back anti-climactically that this was a burial ground of “respectable churchwardens and wives of Vicars, all in neatly tended graves.”
For all the inconsistencies, the evocative place-names can easily be swapped for those of other rustic areas, as can allusions to remote conflicts. Soldiers from all over the British Empire marched off to the Somme or Gallipoli with cheaply produced editions of A Shropshire Lad tucked away in their jacket pockets because of lines such as these:
To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save
It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.
Come you home a hero,
Or come not home at all,
The lads you leave will mind you
Till Ludlow tower shall fall.
And you will list the bugle
That blows in lands of morn,
And make the foes of England
Be sorry you were born.
Housman’s reference point in 1895 would have been Britain’s wars in South Africa, but these stanzas rang just as true to servicemen in 1914 as they did to those in 1939, to say nothing of 2001, 2004, or 2014. Parker makes a strong case that even though Housman was by no means a war poet and never saw a battlefield, he can be counted as a forerunner of the genre.
Wilfred Owen, who actually was from Shropshire, worshipped him. So did Owen’s mentor Siegfried Sassoon and so did Robert Graves, who had all of A Shropshire Lad committed to memory when he shipped off to the trenches and wasn’t shy about demonstrating his familiarity with it when he published Fairies and Fusiliers, his second volume of poems, in 1917.
Writing in 1940, at the start of the Second World War, George Orwell recalled that at 17 he, too, likely knew all 63 poems of Housman’s book by heart, as did most of his contemporaries who recited them “in a kind of ecstasy, just as earlier generations had recited Meredith’s ‘Love in a Valley,’ Swinburne’s ‘Garden of Proserpine.’” What was it about Housmania, which Orwell dated precisely from 1910 to 1925? Partly it was the snobbishness of the British middle classes reared within sight of a farm and now confined to the town or city and nostalgic for what they assumed to be a more authentic, close-to-the-soil experience. Orwell also realized, however, that the rustic element was mere background music. A Shropshire Lad spoke at once to two bitterly divided generations for different reasons:
What was left of the war generation had crept out of the massacre to find their elders still bellowing the slogans of 1914, and a slightly younger generation of boys were writhing under dirty-minded celibate schoolmasters. It was to these that Housman appealed, with his implied sexual revolt and his personal grievance against God. He was patriotic, it was true, but in a harmless old-fashioned way, to the tune of red coats and ‘God save the Queen’ rather than steel helmets and ‘Hang the Kaiser.’
The implicit contrast here with Kipling is even more noteworthy for how Housman was used as propaganda to try to lure the United States into joining Britain’s war against fascism. Julius Harrison’s musical composition Bredon Hill, set to A Shropshire Lad, was broadcast in America in September 1941 on the BBC’s Empire Service, just months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and a year after Orwell’s essay “Inside the Whale” closed the window on a supposedly outmoded obsession with Housman.
Parker also tells the story of another Salopian who fought in the Pacific and was taken prisoner by the Japanese, then put to work on the Burmese railway. Like Orwell and Graves, this POW had all of Housman’s book committed to memory and took minor comfort during bouts of stone-breaking for Hirohito’s army by translating the poems into Latin. Anthony Chenevix-Trench later became headmaster of Eton. One of his fellow internees during the war, Geoffrey Ipgrave, was asked to forfeit his copy of A Shropshire Lad so that its pages could be used as rolling papers for cigarettes. Ipgrave declined and sacrificed a Bible instead. That would have amused Housman, but it’d have delighted Orwell, whose book-wallah in Burmese Days declines to sell the sahib’s much-proffered “black book” because he assumes it contains “Some evil, undoubtedly.”
Any volume that offers such solace to those in grim states of confinement or hard labor can be said to have contributed something worthwhile to humanity. Which brings me back to Oscar Wilde.
Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending,
’Twas best to take it to the grave.
Oh you had forethought, you could reason,
And saw your road and where it led,
And early wise and brave in season
Put the pistol to your head.
The Woolwich cadet who inspired Housman was named Henry Clarkson Maclean; he killed himself in the Charing Cross Hotel on August 6, 1895. The timing of the suicide, in addition to the hints contained in the letter he addressed to his coroner (“I am not what is commonly called ‘temporarily insane,’” and “I have not morally injured—or ‘offended,’ as it is called in the Bible— any one else”) go some distance in explaining the reason Maclean took his own life. Three months earlier, Wilde had been convicted and sentenced to two years’ incarceration for homosexuality at the Old Bailey, following disclosures from his disastrous libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry. The judgment and penalty prompted what was thought to be a mass exodus of gay men from Britain. Where were you standing? runs the popular refrain for major events in history. “At home,” answered Housman, who sublimated his own fear and loathing into his art.
They never met in real life, Wilde and Housman, not even at Oxford, where they were at separate colleges. But we do know that Housman was greatly exercised by the shaming and pillorying of the playwright because he composed a poem (unpublished until after his death) about a handcuffed prisoner being carted off “for the colour of his hair”—as euphemistic a portrayal of the “love that dare not speak its name” as Housman was ever capable. We also know that Wilde was familiar with A Shropshire Lad because his friend, executor, and sometime lover Robbie Ross memorized several of the poems and recited them to him on a visit to Reading Gaol. Housman also dispatched a copy of the book to Wilde upon his release from prison and Wilde later wrote Housman’s brother Laurence to say that A Shropshire Lad, along with Laurence’s own recently published volume, a collection of Christian fantasy stories, had given him “a few moments of that rare thing called happiness.”
Wilde likely wasn’t being sardonic or paradoxical in his usual way here, crediting poems for which sadness was the unifying theme as a source for happiness. A profound transformation had taken place in him during his years of confinement, as he relayed to the principal actor responsible for his misfortunes, Lord Alfred Douglas.
De Profundis, Wilde’s lengthy prison letter to Bosie, which only dribbled out into print over the course of 60 years after Wilde’s death in 1900, is many things at once. It is a confession, not of immorality but of the suffering he brought upon himself and his family by failing to sever ties with an accident waiting to happen. It is a furious indictment of a spoiled brat’s narcissism and callowness commingled with an almost Dickensian attention to the details of accountancy: Wilde can recall to the very penny what he pissed away on an ungrateful Bosie, who also consumed his precious time and energy at the expense of his literary output. It is a love letter, which seeks reconciliation with its rotten addressee even while chastising him for the worst vices. But it is also a re-evaluation of artistic philosophy. Sorrow, not pleasure, Wilde now realizes, is “the supreme emotion of which man is capable,” and “at once the type and test of all great Art.” While he can’t quite bring himself to regret a life lived for hedonism, he recognizes that his past was always incomplete. Stoppard obviously had the high-flown rhetoric of De Profundis in mind when he gave his Wilde that hectoring speech to deliver, but I can only wonder at how Housman’s poems may have influenced the real Wilde who wrote this:
My only mistake was that I confined myself so exclusively to the trees of what seemed to me the sun-gilt side of the garden, and shunned the other side for its shadow and its gloom. . . . There was no pleasure I did not experience. I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb. But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting. I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also.
It was the other half of the garden that Housman cultivated. Lucky for us.