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A.E. Housman's 1933 lecture


Thought I had told this story, discovering I haven't. At least, I don't think so. Story has play and replay in my brain.

On FB I posted something folks here have heard me say before. 'Poetry is not comment, complaint, or consolation. It is a shiver and a seizure.' A poet living in South Africa, I think he must be a kind of gentleman poet, took the comment up, posted it to his wall. My reaction was mixed. Glad to think somebody else might think the same way about poetry. Flattered naturally to be quoted. But also a little conscience stricken, knowing from whose example I kind of took. This is the story to make things right, at least in my sense of reckonings.

The British poet, A.E. Housman, 1859-1936, had a first, popular success with his collection, "A Shropshire Lad." First published in 1896. I think Housman was in convalescence from a serious illness when he wrote the poetry. It was read widely well into the WW1 years. Pretty sure it's safe to say it incited the Georgian poets of Eddie Marsh's group. Bucolic, pastoral, poignant and speaking to the loss of youth. Said again, a collection quite popular during the war years in Britain. Mentioned as a throw-away aside, it has always struck me that the Germans too had a favorite poem in those years, a poem not so dissimilar. Young Rilke's "The Tale of the Love and Death of the Cornet Christopher Rilke." Young poetry, pathetic poetry, as archly Romantic and as fatalistic. Historians of those years would do well to read both poets to get a sense of the trauma brought about by decadent nationalism.

I figure Housman was a retiring kind of guy, not much taken up by attention. He did not publish poetry again until 1922. Instead, he worked as a Classicist at Cambridge. Working in Latin, his focus on Latin poetry starting in 1911. Truth is, I can understand the retreat he made, found, cultivated. It tends to amount to a defense mechanism.

9 May, 1933. Housman, aged 78 and with 3 more years to live. By invitation he delivered a lecture at Cambridge called "The Name And Nature Of Poetry." Everybody who was anybody in the London literary scene came up for it, for this old man whose sense of poetics had long since been superceded by the Modernists. Stay with that for a moment. A tectonic shift had occurred in poetic language since Housman's early success and still the need to know what the old man thought. In the Cambridge lecture hall it was an SRO audience. This at a time when London was a lit. capitol.

The lecture is boring, circumspect, Augustan. Dryden or Pope could have been up there at the podium spilling and spelling out the rules. Then, in what might have been the lecture's last 10 minutes, Housman drops his little petard.

"Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual. A year or two ago, in the company of others, I received from America, a request that I would define poetry. I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms in which it provokes in us. One of those symptoms was described in connection with another object by Eliphaz the Temanite: 'A spirit passed before my face: the hair of my flesh stood up.' Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act. This particular sympton is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keat's last letters, where he says, speaking of Fanny Brawne, 'everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.' The seat of this sensation is the pit of my stomach."

So that is my precedent. An old man's reckonings. My story has a coda. Some years later, a little before WW2, Dylan Thomas's first publisher said to him something like: I can't tell if what you're doing is poetry, but it passes the Housman test.

Tere

(next day) While working a bee yard, today, I realized my story has a little langiappe to it. Something also I've mentioned before, but something that bears repeating in the context of the Cambridge scene that day.

So after having addressed certain symptoms, in his next paragraph Housman decides to go after the thing of poetry itself, the thing-in-itself, which is an ontological matter, just not as big worded. He says: "Wordsworth for instance says that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and Burns has left us this confession, 'I have two or three times in my life composed from the wish rather than the impulse, but I never succeeded to any purpose.' In short I think that the production of poetry, in its first stage, is less an active than a passive and involuntary process; and if I were obliged, not to define poetry, but to name the class of things to which it belongs, I should call it a secretion; whether a natural secretion, like turpentine in the fir, or a morbid secretion, like the pearl in the oyster. I think that my own case, though I may not deal with the material so cleverly as an oyster does, is the latter; because I have seldom written poetry unless I was rather out of health, and the experience, though pleasurable, was generally agitating and exhausting."

Two paragraphs later Housman begs off, apologizes for his "incursion into the foreign territory of literary criticism", asks he be allowed to go back to his proper job. It has been 30 years since I was first made aware of the lecture. It has saved me from so many cul de sacs involving both over-intellectualized and flat-line poetry.

Tere

Last edited by Terreson, Aug/22/2013, 7:20 pm
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Christine98 Profile
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Re: A.E. Housman's 1933 lecture


Wonderful, Tere! Thanks,

Chris
Aug/22/2013, 11:24 am Link to this post Send Email to Christine98   Send PM to Christine98
 


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