by Mark English
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 symptom is accompanied by a shiver down the spine; there is another which consists in a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water in the eyes; and there is a third which I can only describe by borrowing a phrase from one of Keats’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 the stomach.
A.E. Housman, the author of these lines, was a classical scholar by profession, a religious skeptic and a popular and respected poet. The first poem of his I ever encountered was ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’. As a child, I didn’t fully understand it, but I knew that a powerful mind was at work and that something was going on here.
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
Housman saw himself primarily as a scholar. He was scathing about sloppy thinking and what he saw as pseudo-intellectual activities. He shared with many others of his time – amongst them scientists and philosophers sympathetic to empiricism – a distaste for a priori theorizing.
In his youth, academic philosophy was generally religiously-oriented and heavily theologized. Various forms of Hegelian metaphysics dominated the universities until well into the 20th century. He hated this. Nor was he much interested in historical narratives. To the detriment of his early academic career, his scholastic focus was almost entirely on Latin and Greek and the close analysis of ancient literary texts.
Significantly, Housman rarely spoke about his poetry or about his general views of the nature of poetry or the creative process. One of the very few times he did so was when he gave the Leslie Stephen Lecture in Cambridge in 1933. The passage with which I opened this piece is from that lecture.
Housman was 74 at the time. The lecture was titled ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’. He is very careful not to claim expertise as a critic, but it is clear that he personally has little time for intellectualizing poetry (or art more generally). His emphasis is on the physical and emotional side of things rather than the intellectual.
“Poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it… [T]he combination of language with its intellectual content, its meaning, is as close a union as can well be imagined… [But even] when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out. ‘Poetry gives most pleasure,’ said Coleridge, ‘when only generally and not perfectly understood’; and perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.”
I will not try here to locate Housman within the theoretical landscape of the time, to attempt to discuss how his views relate to various contemporary schools of aesthetics or literary criticism (like the Russian formalists, for example) beyond noting that Housman’s main claim – that poetry is all about emotion – was explicitly rejected by Roman Jakobson.
Given his emphasis in the lecture on emotion, it may seem paradoxical that Housman (like Jakobson) was committed to a scientific approach to language and scholarship. Both saw themselves as men of science (in the broad, European sense of the word). In fact, Housman is palpably uneasy about his chosen theme, and obviously feels uncomfortable playing the man of letters.
“By this time,” he says at the conclusion of his lecture, “you must be sated with anatomy, pathology, and autobiography, and willing to let me retire from my incursion into the foreign territory of literary criticism. Farewell for ever… I shall go back with relief and thankfulness to my proper job.”
He had explained earlier in the lecture that he had originally planned to speak on something more technical than the nature of poetry.
There is indeed one literary subject on which I think I could discourse with profit, because it is also scientific, so that a man of science can handle it without presumption, and indeed is fitter for the task than most men of letters. The Artifice of Versification, which I first thought of taking for my theme to-day, has underlying it a set of facts which are unknown to most of those who practise it; and their success, when they succeed, is owing to instinctive tact and a natural goodness of ear. This latent base, comprising natural laws by which all versification is conditioned, and the secret springs of the pleasure which good versification can give, is little explored by critics…
But this topic would not “make a good lecture”, mainly because of its “dryness”; and also because it would be difficult for listeners to follow. Moreover, what he had to say on the topic would be more easily communicated in writing rather than via the spoken word.
“For these reasons I renounced my first intention, and chose instead a subject much less precise… When one begins to discuss the nature of poetry, the first impediment in the way is the inherent vagueness of the name, and the number of its legitimate senses. It is not bad English to speak of ‘prose and poetry’ in the sense of ‘prose and verse’. But it is wasteful; it squanders a valuable word…”
Maybe so. But one has the sense that Housman is not merely saying that the word may be used in different ways, some more useful or precise than others. He seems at times almost to be assuming the existence of something like a poetic essence. Clearly certain poetry moves him deeply, however, and it is this experience – or phenomenon, if you like – which is the real subject of his lecture.
To a point, I share Housman’s ambivalence about talking about (and intellectualizing) these matters. It’s all too easy to go off on self-indulgent intellectual tangents. But, frankly, Housman’s own approach could be seen as self-indulgent. The topics he broaches in the lecture are certainly worthy of serious discussion; and they are clearly amenable to a greater degree of intellectual rigor than he deploys here.
But, despite my reservations about Housman’s approach, and especially about his way of talking about poetry as if it had an essence, I share his interest in the underlying technicalities of language and expression as well as his view that art is more about emotion than intellect. Successful art elicits certain kinds of emotion; and (for me, as for Housman) its value lies in this.
My personal focus has shifted (much as Martin Heidegger’s did in later life) away from poetry, and literature more generally, to language itself. What fascinates me are the subtleties of meaning and emotion which are built into ordinary words and phrases, even when they are used in very ordinary ways. A culture has its own deep poetry.
But cultures change, and art forms rise and fall. The kind of poetry Housman wrote is dated, partly because of the way our language has changed. Ezra Pound and others of that era tried to remake English-language poetry, to modernize it. And they had some success. But irrevocably poetry – and verse more generally – has drifted out of the artistic spotlight. Even in its supposedly modern forms, it seems of the past.
Other art forms have meant more to me than poetry. But I find Housman’s analysis useful in helping me to articulate how I feel about these forms also. It’s all about emotion; it’s all about that feeling in the pit of one’s stomach. It’s more physical than intellectual.
Marcel Proust wrote witty satire and was a keen observer of social and cultural trends, but what stays with me from Remembrance of Things Past is the emotion associated with certain personal relationships: between Swann and Odette; between Marcel and his mother; between Marcel and Gilberte; between Marcel and Albertine.
Another favorite author of mine is Thomas Mann. More so than Proust, he was an intellectual but, again, what I value in books like The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus and Death in Venice is the raw emotion. Mann was obsessed with disease and the emotion in his work is strangely tied to his view of the organic vulnerabilities of the human body. When I finished reading Doctor Faustus I felt emotionally drained, almost as if I had been punched in the stomach.
The other art form which means a lot to me is film. I will mention just two examples. They illustrate my personal taste but, more than that, they exemplify the sort of art which focusses unashamedly (and without sentimentality) on the emotional rather than the intellectual side of things.
The movies in question were both directed by Yasujirō Ozu and featured the actress Setsuko Hara. She retired when Ozu died in 1963 and lived, unmarried and in complete seclusion, refusing interviews etc. – but loved and revered by the Japanese public – until her death in 2015 at the age of 95.
The films are Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953). I don’t want to say much about them here, other than to note their human simplicity, their straightforwardness, their at times mystical but honest, almost documentary, style. Late Spring, about the relationship between a father and his 27-year-old daughter, is my favorite.
Both films are slow-moving. They will not be to everybody’s taste. Their simplicity and spareness does not entertain, but it allows the human and emotional elements of the stories to slowly build up. They are probably the two most perfect and affecting movies I have ever seen.
Emotion is beyond language, of course, and beyond non-linguistic forms also (like music, or the syntax of cinema). But human emotion – unlike what other animals feel – is inextricably bound up with symbolic forms of one kind or another.
Wilfred Owen said that “the poetry is in the pity”. His statement relates specifically to his attempts to communicate his feelings about the Great War, but it can also be taken in a much more general sense.