Nostalgia, poetry and the spirit of England

August 20 2016 / Financial Times

AE Housman has been dismissed as a minor poet and he is not currently on the school curriculum, but to read A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of 63 short interlinked poems, for the first time is, I think, to encounter one of the strangest, saddest and most affecting works in English literature. In this poetry of fond remembrance and painful loss, young men — “lads”, Housman called them — invariably die prematurely or are betrayed in love. The setting is rural Shropshire, in deepest, faraway England, but “heartless, witless” nature does not console or redeem, even as it beguiles and tantalises. For this is a godless pastoral and the only constant in these poems, for all the pleasures of their lyric intensity and ironic refinement, is death.

The biographer and critic Peter Parker’s elegant and absorbing Housman Country is less a formal biography than a book about legacy and about how one writer’s work, specifically A Shropshire Lad, has resonated or “vibrated” through the decades, acquiring new meaning and relevance for each subsequent generation. It is also a book about England and Englishness and, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, one of deep interest and relevance.

A Shropshire Lad was published, after what Housman described as a period of “continuous excitement”, in 1896, when the author was a 36-year-old classics professor at University College London. Parker’s contention is that, even if you haven’t read the book, you are probably already familiar with it. You might well have heard some of the poems set to music by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams, two composers who were fundamental to the revival of English classical music and did so much to preserve English folk songs.

You are likely to be familiar too with some of the most celebrated phrases from the poems, such as “blue remembered hills” and “the land of lost content”. These and others have entered the language and inspired any number of literary and popular writers and musicians, from Morrissey to Dennis Potter and Colin Dexter, the creator of the mournful Inspector Morse.

“It is the paradox of his life,” GK Chesterton wrote in a biographical study of William Cobbett, “that he loved the past, and he alone really lived in the future.” Something similar could be said of Housman, the austere classical scholar whose outward reserve and forbidding personality disguised hurt and vulnerability that found expression only in his poetry — a poetry that was future-harrowed and death-haunted just as his studies were backward-looking and past-fixated.

After reading A Shropshire Lad, the American poet Robert Lowell said that Housman “foresaw the Somme”. How else to account for the morbid preoccupation with doomed youth? During the first world war it was said that Housman’s book was in “every pocket”, as if the young men volunteering for or sent to the western front saw something of themselves in Housman’s lost lads.

In “On the idle hill of summer”, Housman writes, for instance, of “Soldiers marching, all to die”. He continues: “East and west of fields forgotten/Bleach the bones of comrades slain,/Lovely lads and dead and rotten;/None that go return again.” Housman was, says Parker, “the supreme elegist of and for his age”, which is why his poetry continues to mean so much to so many.

But it’s not just the prescience of the poems that’s so striking. It’s something more than this, something to do with their unity of place and time and evocation of the rhythms of rural life. It is as if for Housman the true spirit of England resides in the countryside.

This is surely why his work appealed so deeply to poets Edward Thomas and Rupert Brooke, both young patriotic volunteers killed during the first world war and both romantically concerned with what Parker calls “dreams of England”. Fortunately, while exploring these dreams, Parker resists making too many generalisations about national identity, though he lapses when suggesting “emotional self-denial [is] thought characteristic of the English race”. He evidently hasn’t spent much time in Newcastle city centre on a Saturday night.

Alfred Edward Housman was born in 1859 in Worcestershire, the eldest of seven children of a country solicitor. His mother died when Housman was only 12 and, though he grew up in a religious family, he claimed to have lost his faith at Oxford. Housman was a brilliant student and would become the outstanding classical scholar of his generation, first at University College London, and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, and yet he failed his finals.

There were suggestions that he was brought down by intellectual arrogance and was bored by the rituals of examinations, but my sense is that his failure is also likely to have been the result of emotional distress. As an undergraduate he fell desperately in love with Moses Jackson, a fellow student and champion sportsman, who was heterosexual. The experience dislocated him and destroyed his peace of mind. Many years later, in 1933, Housman delivered a public lecture at Cambridge in which, uncharacteristically, he offered some insight into his own creative process. Writing poetry was “generally agitating and exhausting”. He discussed the effect some lines of poetry had on him and quoted from one of Keats’s last letters in which he said of his beloved Fanny Brawne, from whom he was soon to be eternally separated by death, “everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear”. Was Housman thinking of Moses Jackson as he wrote this?

Unrequited love is of course one of the perennial themes of lyric poetry and a sense of love thwarted or love lost gives Housman’s poetry much of its emotional charge. Philip Larkin called him “the poet of unhappiness”. Certainly Housman’s poetry, with its homoerotic subtext, is fatalistic about love: it’s as if sex and death are, for him, inextricable. Or, at least, there can be no true love without suffering.

We know very little about Housman’s sex life: Parker is restrained on the subject. What we do know is that long after Jackson had married and emigrated with his wife first to India and then Canada, the two men continued to correspond and Housman would send him poems.

“I suppose many a man has stood at his window above a London square in April hearing a message from the lanes of England,” wrote HV Morton in a book titled In Search of England cited by Parker. The narrator of A Shropshire Lad has heard this calling or something like it and, from his exile in London, never ceases yearning for the “happy highways” of his rural childhood to which he can never return, just as Housman never ceased yearning for Moses Jackson.

Housman is a notable absence from Ferdinand Mount’s English Voices, a selection of literary and political review-essays published over the past 30 years. In his introduction Mount attempts to impose a semblance of thematic unity (the English are an “amphibious mob” and so on) on what is, in effect, a work of miscellany. The English, Mount says, are proud of their “mongrel heredity”. And his English voices include WG Sebald, a German who lived in East Anglia and wrote in German; Germaine Greer, a raucous Australian who is a long-time resident of the Essex hinterland; and VS Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian heritage who has the mannerisms of a haughty lord of the manor and is the author of some of the most distinguished books published since the war.

Mount’s natural idiom is Oxbridge high table. He has an easy, unforced familiarity with the great books. He knows the history of these islands well enough. He uses the first person singular, but unostentatiously, so that he is never more than a bashful presence in these pieces. His own English voice is learned, wry, insouciant, a touch superior. He is unafraid of emotion, telling us which writers move him to tears (Keats, Wilfred Owen), and he is good on the lives of politicians — especially William Gladstone, Robert Peel, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher, for whom he worked.

Mount is a baronet, a cousin of David Cameron, and belletrist. He has laboured at the rock face of Parnassus without ascending its peaks. But he is no mere well-heeled dilettante — because, as an essayist, memoirist, novelist and polemicist (The New Few, his 2012 counterblast against oligarchy and runaway globalisation, was widely noticed), he is serious about the writing life. He deserves greater recognition, and these essays, best read in batches rather than in one concentrated period as I did, offer a good introduction to an urbane, if essentially old-fashioned, writer.

JD Taylor, who is 27 and has “no Oxbridge credentials and well-connected kin”, has written an account of the four months last summer he spent exploring Britain. Island Story is informed by the spirit of Cobbett’s 1830 Rural Rides, that great work of social criticism. On his travels Taylor rides his bike, camps or stays at hostels, listens hard to those he meets and takes notes. He travels erratically but reads astutely. He is leftwing but not too preachy.

He is a good companion because he has an original mind. But he knows too that he is travelling around a country that might soon cease to exist, at least as a single polity.

Great Britain, the most successful multinational state in history, has never seemed more fragile, destabilised by its disunities. The House of Lords is not fit for purpose. The Scots are outraged that they are about to be dragged out of the European Union against the will of the majority. The English are increasingly restive, especially beyond the metropolis. England and Britain were once interchangeable. No more. “If independence means a rejection of greedy and dishonest Westminster politicians … ” Taylor writes, “then it is hard to see which regions beyond southern England might vote to remain part of the UK.”

For Taylor, “disappointment” defines the British experience. He says it is “the prevailing feeling I encountered in others”. For Ferdinand Mount the dominant tone of English discourse is not disappointment but “one of regret, of nostalgia rather than self-congratulation”. For Peter Parker, “melancholy and nostalgia are present from the very beginnings of English literature”.

This is persuasive. Orson Welles, discussing his film Chimes at Midnight, said: “There has always been an England, an older England, which was sweeter, purer … You feel a nostalgia for it in Chaucer, and you feel it all through Shakespeare.”

You feel this nostalgia for an older, lost England all through Housman as well. It is part of his enduring appeal, and no matter how many times you read him you cannot help but surrender to the plangent sounds of his sad music.