Theatre: Housman: a very private lad

Tom Stoppard's new play pries deep into the life of AE Housman, secretive author of A Shropshire Lad. It could be the making of the poet's reputation, writes Michael Glover

In his new play, The Invention of Love, Tom Stoppard shines an intense spotlight on the public and private lives of a poet for whom the very idea of being subject to such intrusive public scrutiny would have left him spitting with rage.

The poet is AE Housman, author of A Shropshire Lad, a collection of lyrics first published at Housman's own expense in 1896, that became enormously popular by the early years of this century, and remained so for at least 20 years.

Housman's reputation as a poet has been torn and restored in the past 100 years. To the modernists, Pound in particular, he was, in part, a figure of fun, but lately the simplicities and technical strength of his verse have found new favour. A collection of the poetry and prose edited by Christopher Ricks in 1988 accelerated the rehabilitation and Oxford University Press is currently preparing a definitive new edition of Housman's work.

The life of Housman might sound arcane and archaic matter for a play. Not so. In scrutinising him, Stoppard embraces themes that are as timely as they could possibly be: the hypocrisies and strange instances of double- think that were practised in Oxford during that so called "Golden Age" of the later decades of the 19th century, the era of Ruskin, Jowett and Pater, when the ideal of a classical education seemed to many university academics the most fitting and noble way to equip young men for the travails and challenges of later life - as long as the importance of buggery to the Ancient Greeks was kept out of the official picture; and the human predicament of the Divided Self that was Housman himself: a shy and essentially solitary closet gay who lived an entirely divided life, one part of him the vulnerable and intensely private lyric poet, the other the brilliant professor of classics who was most reluctant to discuss his poetry in public.

In the 1970s, WH Auden hazarded a bold, if not reckless, guess at Housman's sexual tastes in the course of reviewing a selection of his letters: "I am pretty sure that he was an anal passive," he wrote with a marvellous assurance. But evidence suggests that, after Housman's rejection by Moses Jackson, the fellow Oxford undergraduate whom he loved all his life, the greater part of his energies was poured into his editions of the classic authors, with their many venomous and witty criticisms levelled at fellow textual scholars.

Did he admire the works of the authors he edited? Not necessarily. His greatest labour of love was the five-volume edition of Manilius, an author known only to the most devoted Latin scholar. Was he worth studying? asked his friend, the poet laureate Robert Bridges. Housman gave him a perfectly frank answer: "I adjure you not to waste your time on Manilius. He writes on astronomy and astrology without knowing either. My interest in him is entirely technical."

It is quite difficult for us now to enter into the ways of thinking of the textual scholar for whom such matters were seemingly life or death struggles. Here is a quite awe-inspiringly dry-as-dust snatch from one of the letters: "With optandum you require something like quicquam, which Estaco obtained by writing dicere quid. With optandum of course you can supply uitam from uita; but yet the MS reading is optandus. Because Catullus once elides que at the end of a verse it cannot be safely inferred that he would elide anything else. I have seen nothing better than Munro's magis aeuom optandum hac uita, though it is not all the heart could desire..."

In spite of the fact that Housman is praising Munro in this letter, the rival scholar gets short shrift in the play during a discussion between the younger Housman and the older.

The most extraordinary fact about Housman's life is the absolute division that seemed to exist between the scholar, a man of such ferocious scrupulousness, and the seemingly accessible poet of enormous popular appeal. How did the poems get written at all?

Housman left Oxford without taking a degree, and went to live in Highgate, north London, from where he commuted to the Patent Office every day. The assessment and registration of patents, as the play makes clear, could be comical and congenial work (could the emblem of a giraffe be used to trademark both neck-ties and sore throat lozenges?) which left him time enough to work on his abiding passion: editions of the classic authors, and articles on textual cruces which he contributed to the likes of the Journal of Philology. And then, in the middle 1890s, he began to write poetry of his own. Some of the poems that went to make up A Shropshire Lad were written in 1894; the majority appeared, willy-nilly, during a period of ill health in the first few months of 1895. A friend later asked him whether he knew, at the time of writing, that they were good. Yes, replied Housman, because they were so unlike anything else that had ever come to him. An exactingly scrupulous lack of humility, you might say. They were published by a reputable publishing house, Kegan Paul, but Housman was obliged to pay for their publication.

Housman himself was born in Bromsgrove in Worcestershire. The poems are set in the adjacent county of Shropshire, as Housman once explained in a letter: "Shropshire was our western horizon, which made me romantic about it. I do not know the county well, except in parts, and some of my details are wrong and imaginary." He was later taken to task for these errors: that church, for example, which he described, quite erroneously, as having a steeple... The whole thing, to a man of such a pernickety disposition, must have been quite an embarrassment. But this is not quite the point. Not all of the point anyway.

The Shropshire evoked in A Shropshire Lad is not a place that actually existed at all, not quite. It was a country of the mind, whose existence was willed into being by Housman himself. And the poems themselves belong to the pastoral traditions of both English and classical poetries. The strong-thewed lads and lasses, occasionally blithe, more often melancholic, are products of the imagination, too - and products of a sexually repressed imagination at that. The common soldiery who die in these poems are sexually alluring. Is there any evidence to suggest that Housman, who spent the last quarter-century of his life as a professor of classics at Cambridge, found sexual satisfaction in arms other than those of Moses Jackson during these years? According to his biographers, Housman, like EM Forster and other buttoned-up English writers of this class and generation, only let rip when abroad - in Italy, in particular. In fact, there was said to be one very special Venetian gondolier, though the details remain hazy, and Stoppard does not refer to their meeting. In fact, Stoppard, in the scenes between Housman and Moses Jackson, seems to have a touchingly old- fashioned belief that Jackson may have been the one and only.

There is certainly evidence to suggest that Housman never fell out of love with the man. In 1922, for example, Housman sent a volume of his Last Poems to Jackson, who was seriously ill in British Columbia, together with a letter which spoke of the book's having being sent by "a fellow who thinks more of you than anything in the world..." and then, a warm, though sardonic, twist: "you are largely responsible for my writing poetry and you ought to take the consequences..." Jackson died in 1923. Housman outlived him by 13 years.

The poems, though written right at the century's end, are in mood and metrics very much a product of the late-Victorian era, and, by 1911, Ezra Pound, that fervent propagandist for all things modern, had written a famously dismissive parody of Housman's cast of mind, one that was to be followed by many others because Housman's metrics and vocabulary were ripe for parody.

Mr Housman's Message

0 woe, woe,

People are born and die,

We also shall be dead pretty soon

Therefore let us act as if we were dead already...

And so it goes on. In some respects, this parody hits the mark - Housman's yearning for easeful death as a painless alternative to the miseries of man's earthly lot is an ever-present in the poems. On the other hand, Housman would have expressed nothing but contempt for Pound's technical slovenliness, and quite rightly so.

George Orwell, too, had little time for Housman. Writing in the 1940s, Orwell spoke of the "tinkling" quality of Housman's poetry, and of how Housman, in common with many other poets of his era, had shared a common snobbery about a countryside in which rustics, imagined to be more earthily passionate than the townsfolk who were reading them, come unstuck in the end after all that heroic and life-long addiction to beer-swilling, cockfighting and skittles. Hard cheese, old chaps! says Orwell. It's all the stuff of adolescence.

Orwell has an interesting point here, and it has to do with Housman's development as a poet, technically and emotionally. The technical shape of the early poems does not differ much from the technical shape of the later work. Nor does the subject matter. It is as if Housman became frozen into his vision of life as a poet very early on and never, for whatever reason, allowed it to age. In part, this must be to do with the freeze that the times imposed upon his sexual life. He was not permitted - or he did not permit himself - to grow into a fully realised emotional being. There was a serious disjunction between head and heart.

And so it is with the other Oxford intellectual grandees who put in their appearances in the first act of Stoppard's play: though intellectually acute and always verbally dazzling, the likes of Jowett, Ruskin and Pater are emotional pygmies who strut, preen, talk a great deal of fantastical nonsense, and, at heart, know much less than they think they know.

Later poets have often been kinder to Housman than Orwell: there is much to learn from the technical mastery of Housman's verses, said WH Auden, and the beat of his poems has a power to move us by the sheer, adroit manipulation of simple words fastidiously ordered.

That is certainly true of the best of them. And simplicity was a virtue that the great modernists ignored to their detriment

`The Invention of Love' opens at the National Theatre, London SE1 (0171- 928 2252) on 1 October

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