Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last

A E Housman, the scholarly poet of A Shropshire Lad, personified a stereotype especially dear to the British. To borrow a waggish critic's description of the protagonist of the film Only Two Can Play (played by Peter Sellers), he was "a wan don who dreamt of being a Don Juan". Since, all his life, his homosexuality had to be publicly repressed - if privately indulged, usually abroad - he was also the kind of homosexual this country has always preferred: stoically buttoned-up and consumed by guilt.

That was hardly his fault - not everyone can be, or would wish to be, Oscar Wilde - but it means that, for the modern reader, his poetry, encoded with frustrated homoerotic desire, regularly verges on the risible. Nor is Housman's fogeyishness uniquely a question of outmoded attitudes. Published just over a hundred years ago - at a time when, across the Channel, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme and Verlaine were revolutionising French prosody - the dessicated verse forms of A Shropshire Lad have not worn well. Though popularity never deserves to be damned for its own sake, its immense success throughout the first half of the 20th century can surely be attributed to the ease with which it yields up its paltry stock of meanings and emotions.

What has truly done for Housman, however, was that this century was also to be, among so much else, the age of parody. Much of A Shropshire Lad consists of elegies to beautiful young soldiers destined to become cannon-fodder or rustic hunks ripe for the scaffold (premature death seems to have been, for Housman, inseparable from sex appeal) and its erotic necrophilia was skewered once and for all in a superb lampoon by the parodist Henry Reed. Ironically, Reed's best-known couplet - "What? Still alive at twenty-two,/ A fine, upstanding lad like you?" - is probably now more often quoted than any of Housman's own lacklustre lines.

Parody really can do lasting harm. The most brilliant of English parodists was unquestionably Max Beerbohm, whose collection, A Christmas Garland, has nevertheless been dismissed as unreadable because too many of his victims have long since ceased to be familiar names. Yet it might be worth asking if the reason for their disappearance from the literary pantheon is as much the flawlessness of Beerbohm's mimicry as the inadequacies of their own prose.

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