Robert Frost once stated that his object in life was to unite his avocation and his vocation. Most literary scholars have entered the profession with exactly that ambition, although a small but growing number---pithily described by Harold Bloom as 'the School of Resentment'---seem not to enjoy literature very much. I have learnt most from those scholars who are also appreciators, combining the professional's depth of expertise with the passion of the hobbyist.
Archie Burnett's edition of The Poems of A. E. Housman has, in all the positive senses, something of a philatelist's enthusiasm. It lists its ambitions as follows: 'to print all of A. E. Housman's verse; to elucidate and correct the text of the verse published posthumously; to record textual variants from manuscript and printed sources; and to provide a commentary on each poem.' That sounds dryasdust, but the book is a marvel of editorial tact. It tells readers everything they may reasonably want to know, but only if they want to know it. The apparatus knows itself to be secondary to Housman's poems, which are loved and trusted enough to speak for themselves. Frost wrote that poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom. This edition brings delight and wisdom together.
I never need an excuse to read Housman, but lately I have been studying Burnett's scholarship for two reasons: it provides an exemplar for the three-volume edition of Ivor Gurney's writings which I am co-editing with Philip Lancaster; and I have been trying to determine which of Housman's poems can properly be included in an anthology of Great War poetry which I am compiling. About 'Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries' there can be no doubt: Housman claims to have written it in September 1917, and it was published in The Times on the last day of October that year. 'Here dead lie we', on the other hand, is an imposter. Brian Gardner includes it in Up the Line to Death, but wrongly: Burnett's detective work has shown that the poem dates from the mid- to late-1890s. 'Here dead lie we' also provides an instructive example of why scholarly editions are needed now more than ever. Google 'Here dead we lie' and 'Here dead lie we', and see which one produces the most results.
I had been hoping for more luck with 'I did not lose my heart in summer's even' (below), first published posthumously in More Poems (1936). It does not rank among Housman's best, but deserves attention as another of a small group of poems about killing. Like Sassoon's 'The Kiss', it recognises a homoerotic impulse in the physical act of penetrating the enemy body. Each man loves the thing he kills. But is it a First World War poem? Even Burnett's scrutiny cannot provide an unambiguous answer: 'Draft, c.1900-Sept. 1917, possibly c.1900-5, but not Oct. 1910-Oct. 1912; fair copy, after Jan. 1925.' Unfortunately, in the absence of new evidence, the poem does not belong in an anthology of Great War poetry.
I did not lose my heart in summer's even,
When roses to the moonrise burst apart:
When plumes were under heel and lead was flying,
In blood and smoke and flame I lost my heart.
I lost it to a soldier and a foeman,
A chap that did not kill me, but he tried;
That took the sabre straight and took it striking
And laughed and kissed his hand to me and died.