Saturday, 9 July 2011

A. E. Housman: 'I did not lose my heart in summer's even'

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.


  1. What are the "plumes under heel"? I'm seeing a cavalry action, and the plumes belonging to fallen horses, though wondering if horses in action would be wearing plumes. And they're still using sabres as well as guns. It must be very hard to assign AH's poems to a particular war sometimes, I suppose this might as easily be the Boer as the Great War.

    1. If it were me I would think plumes of blood from fallen soldiers. That they walked or rode over.

  2. You're right, Sheenagh. The plumes could be adorning horses or soldiers' helmets. The battlescene sounds Victorian. It looks like Housman wrote more surviving poems about the Boer War than the Great War, but even here, Burnett urges caution: 'Here dead lie we' and 'Now forms the lines and faces' have previously been claimed as Boer War poems, but Burnett will only concede that they were written between December 1895 and February 1900.

    'Astronomy' MUST be a Boer War poem...

  3. Perhaps for your anthology you might consider A. E. Housman's LP XXIX. According to Jeremy Bourne's "Soldier, I wish you well", Housman's Last Poems XXIX (see below) was written in September 1917 with a possible draft in 1900. Unfortunately, I don't have Burnett's book currently to hand to verify the dating.

    With respect to Housman's 'Astronomy', this poem, in its original form, was first drafted in December 1895 under the title, 'The Use of the Globes'. Sometime after October 1901, Housman redrafted and renamed it 'Astronomy' having heard that his youngest brother, Herbert, had been killed in the Anglo-Boer War.

    Last poems XXIX

    Wake not for the world-heard thunder
    Nor the chime that earthquakes toll.
    Star may plot in heaven with planet,
    Lightning rive the rock of granite,
    Tempest tread the oakwood under:
    Fear not you for flesh nor soul.
    Marching, fighting, victory past,
    Stretch your limbs in peace at last.

    Stir not for the soldiers drilling
    Nor the fever nothing cures:
    Throb of drum and timbal's rattle
    Call but man alive to battle,
    And the fife with death-notes filling
    Screams for blood but not for yours.
    Times enough you bled your best;
    Sleep on now, and take your rest.

    Sleep, my lad; the French are landed,
    London's burning, Windsor's down;
    Clasp your cloak of earth about you,
    We must man the ditch without you,
    March unled and fight short-handed,
    Charge to fall and swim to drown.
    Duty, friendship, bravery o'er,
    Sleep away, lad; wake no more.

  4. Thanks, Rob. LP XXIX gets a similar treatment from Archie Burnett: '1st draft, c.1900-Sept. 1917, possibly c.1900-5, but not Oct. 1910-Oct. 1912; second draft and fair copy dated '30 March 1922...

    The French invasion of the final stanza is extraordinary. Makes me think that this isn't a WW1 poem --- why would our allies invade us? There must be memories of the Napoleonic campaigns.

  5. Thanks, Tim, for clarifying the dating of LP XXIX. And yes, the French invasion in the final stanza is in some ways strange. I am currently completing a bachelor thesis on Housman and war poetry at the VU university in Amsterdam. One observation I have made is that Housman’s war poems do not resonate with the late Victorian period in which they were written (unlike Kipling, for instance) but rather with much earlier times or conversely, with the Great War which had yet to happen (see below). I have argued – and I hope, convincingly – that it is partly for this reason that drove the popularity of A Shropshire Lad amongst soldiers on the Western Front from 1914 onwards. I have also argued that Housman’s influence on war poetry has been underestimated and as a consequence, deserves further study.

    I think the following poem, “XXIII” from A Shropshire Lad is a good example of why a Housman poem would have resonated with a soldier during World War One. Any soldier that had been inspired by Lord Kitchener to join the army, and particularly one recruited from a rural area and familiar with the pre-mechanised countryside, would have surely seen this poem reflecting his own circumstances even though it had been composed twenty years earlier.

    The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
    There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
    The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
    And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

    There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
    And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
    And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
    And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

    I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
    The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
    And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
    And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

    But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
    And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
    They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
    The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.