In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle celebrates the third and lesser-known collection from A. E. Housman
A. E. Housman wasn’t a prolific poet. His first volume, A Shropshire Lad, was published in 1896 when he was in his late thirties. His second collection, Last Poems, which appeared 26 years later, lived up to its name and was the final volume to appear in his lifetime. When Housman died in 1936, his will ordered his brother, Laurence, to destroy his prose manuscripts, but he left the fate of his remaining unpublished poems up to his brother. Those which Laurence Housman considered worth preserving and publishing – if any at all – A. E. Housman allowed to be published. The result was More Poems, a collection of 48 poems written over a period spanning nearly half a century.
It was More Poems rather than the far more famous A Shropshire Lad which introduced me to A. E. Housman. The final Inspector Morse novel, The Remorseful Day, by Colin Dexter, which came out in 1999, took its title from one of the poems included in this posthumous volume, and the poem – untitled, like the majority of Housman’s poems, but beginning with the words ‘How clear, how lovely bright’ – was included as epigraph to the novel. Or, rather, the final stanza, which, like much of Housman’s work, I still know by heart:
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
The unusual, and unusually bloody, word ‘Ensanguining’; the repetition of ‘How’, with the soft alliteration of ‘How hopeless’ enacting a mini-sigh of regret and resignation; and the triple rhyme delaying that final line, all made the stanza immediately emotive and instantly memorable.
Housman died in 1936, and More Poems appeared before the year was out. I now own two editions of the book published from that year: a jacketless first edition I picked up as an MA student in a charity shop in Loughborough in 2004, and a jacketed copy which I recently acquired from a wonderful second-hand market bookstall. The first cost me 95p, the second £4, which isn’t bad when one allows for 14 years of inflation. Both are second impressions or reprints of the first edition; the second impression was published in October 1936, the same month the first impression had come out. Clearly, people soon wanted more of More Poems. It was a popular volume, perhaps because poetry readers knew that this time, it really was the ‘last poems’ of one of the most popular English poets of the last forty years.
If I had to choose whether to take A Shropshire Lad or More Poems somewhere with me – the theoretical desert island, for instance – I’d opt for the latter. It’s the volume that has, as well as ‘How clear, how lovely bright’, poems of real emotional power, such as ‘Stars, I have seen them fall’, ‘Give me a land of boughs in leaf’, ‘Tarry, delight, so seldom met’, ‘Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over’, ‘Because I liked you better’, ‘Smooth between sea and land’, and this fine poem, which runs in its entirety:
Crossing alone the nighted ferry
With the one coin for fee,
Whom, on the wharf of Lethe waiting,
Count you to find? Not me.
The brisk fond lackey to fetch and carry,
The true, sick-hearted slave,
Expect him not in the just city
And free land of the grave.
Why did Housman choose not to publish these poems during his lifetime? In some cases, perhaps, they were deemed too personal or too revealing: there’s a moving tribute to ‘A. J. J.’, the brother of Moses Jackson, the man Housman loved faithfully for the last six decades of his life; a possible reference to the ‘flowery Maytime’ when Housman flunked his Finals at Oxford and, the poem says, ‘designed to die’; and a poem written for Housman’s own funeral. Others, such as ‘Because I liked you better’, were perhaps too suggestive of Housman’s homosexuality for him to feel comfortable seeing into print. As Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love makes poignantly and brilliantly clear, after the Wilde trials of 1895, gay men in Britain often decided it was better to conceal their nature than risk attracting the same opprobrium, not to mention potential prosecution.
The more recent of my two acquisitions of More Poems contains a cutting from a newspaper, John o’ London’s Weekly, in January 1942: an article discussing the publication of Housman’s poetry. Like many bibliophiles, I love a book that comes with a personal history, and this copy of More Poems is inscribed ‘P. A. W. Collins’ and dated ‘October 1941’ at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Collins, who appears to have been a lecturer at the University of Leicester and a poetry scholar, has made annotations in the book. Although I’m queasy about making annotations in books myself, I like reading what others have underlined, annotated, thought worthy of some piece of marginalia. If P. A. W. Collins is, like Housman, now no longer with us, then his book is in safe hands. And what’s wrong with having two copies of the same book, after all?
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Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.