The Name and Nature of Poetry
The Housman Lecture, delivered at the Hay Festival 1st June 2011
At the beginning of Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love, A.E. Housman has just died. His shade asks Charon why they are hanging round on the bank of the Styx. “Are we waiting for someone?”
Someone else is coming, says Charon. He has two fares today, “A poet and a scholar, I was told.”
“I think that must be me,” says Housman.
“Both of them?” “I’m afraid so.”
“It sounded like two different people.” “I know,” says our man.
I’d like to thank the Housman Society very warmly for inviting me to give this lecture, not only for the honour but for the opportunity to explore what it means to relate the poet to the classical scholar in a single self. I want to talk about two aspects of one self, aspects so different that they sound like two different people. I have spent the last twenty years trying to fuse the classical scholar and the poet in my work but the very title of Housman’s famous lecture speaks of twoness. “Name and Nature” reminds us that how a thing or person is seen from the outside may differ from its essence.
I’d like to suggest that a sense of twoness, and an interest in making sure that these two stay different, not only powers Housman’s lecture but also says something important about his poetry. More widely I’d like to ask, what does a desire to keep these things apart say about the ways in which this thing called “poetry” sits in all of us, poets, critics, scholars and readers?
A reader is what Housman claims to be in his lecture. He denies being a literary critic. He reads, he says, for pleasure and his lecture mere personal opinions. These include some claims about poetry with which many of us would agree, but also some pretty far-out ones. Poetry is so entwined with who you are that your opinions about it say as much about you as they do about ars poetica.
Many poets today when asked to talk about “poetry” tend to wriggle: they would rather talk about poems. Maybe there are many different ways of experiencing this thing we call “poetry,” and few of us experience them all. I once had supper on a table with a bunch of strongly-scented freesias in the middle. There were nine of us, and we discovered that though we all smelt them, we smelt different flowers. Four could only smell the white and purple ones, five only smelt the yellow, red and orange ones. We all experienced the scent as overpowering but couldn’t smell half the flowers.
Maybe there are people who smell all freesias but they weren’t at the table that night, and we might take the different colours those flowers can be as an image for the different roles poetry can play in one person’s psyche and life. The name is the same. But what you think the nature of poetry is will depend on your nature.
Housman starts out by saying that “the function of poetry is to transfuse emotion not to transmit thought”. Robert Frost, fifteen years younger but still a twentieth-century poet with his feet in nineteenth-century Romanticism, said a poem “begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness.” I think most poets would agree with Frost when he says that a poem “is never a thought to begin with” and “The freshness of a poem belongs to its not having been thought out.” You write a poem to discover thought, not to explain it. Why write a poem if you already know what you want to say?
Philip Larkin, born in 1922, sixty years after Housman, also puts emotion first. “Poetry should begin with emotion in the poet,” he says, “and end with the same emotion in the reader. The poem is simply the instrument of transference.”
Trans is “across”. What with “transfuse”, “transmit” and “transference”, these poets all feel that something is coming across some space between poem and reader. The question is, what?
This is where Larkin brings in the intellect. “A poem isn’t only emotion,” he says. “You’ve got the emotion side, let’s call it the fork side, and you cross it with the knife side, the side that wants to sort it out, chop it up, arrange it and either say thank you for it or sod the universe for it.”
Fork and knife, emotion and thought, are two different things working together. But Housman, who in his scholarship is master of the knife, wants to keep it out of poetry. No sharp thought or chopped-up arranging: he wants poetry to “set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer”. Poetry written with the intelligence alone he calls sham.
There was a lot of sham poetry aboutiin the eighteenth century, he says, when “Man ceased to live from the depths of his nature; lighted the candles and drew down the blind to shut out that patroness of poets, the moon.” This shutting out resulted, he says, in “pseudo-poetic diction” - solidly flashy ornament, which readers came to identify as “poetic” but was actually both “pompous and poverty-stricken”: “a thick, stiff, unaccommodating medium interposed between the writer and his work. A deadening of language which deadened perception.”
Against this deadness and stiffness he pits metaphors of flow and fluidity which he identifies with true poetry. But we might contrast his sense of flow with the dryness of his scholarly work; and might even remember that classics itself has an inbuilt twoness.
Classical scholars tend to divide into Hellenists and Latinists. I spent twenty years writing a PhD and two books on Greek poetry but that’s nothing to Housman’s lifetime on Latin. Housman was superb at Greek too. But these two related languages operate rather differently and the language in which Western philosophy and science, as well as drama and lyric, began, was Greek.
In keeping things apart, Greek has a unique facility. It makes you alert to oppositional thought, and prepares the reader for contrast by two tiny words. The first word men - whose clumsy English translation is “on the one hand” - signals a coming comparison. It always follows a keyword, and looks forward to the even smaller word de, “on the other hand,” which follows the contrasting word. This contrast can be implicit rather than overt. A famous fragment of Sappho translated by many poets including Housman himself (in More Poems, 1936) and Lawrence Durrell, runs in Greek:
Deduke men ha selana
Kai Pleiades; mesai de
Nuktes; para d’erchet’ ora –
Ego de mona kateudo.
Translated literally, this is -
“It has set (on the one hand) the moon;
and the Pleiades. Midnight;
the watch (or the hour) goes by.
I (on the other hand) lie alone.
The men and the de point the contrast between “I” and the happily “set” (or sunken) moon; between an outside world which “goes by” in its own calm normality and an “I” stuck in sleeplessness. Anyone failing to sleep in the middle of the night knows this contrast is total. But what the words compare with “I” is the verb “it has set”. It is subtle, not spelt out.
The ways you can use men and de, is one of the great linguistic resources of Greek. But Latin is the great condenser. It is just as subtle (no one can be subtler than Virgil) but in a totally different way. Latin goes for conomy and terseness. It has no articles, no the or a. From a Hellenist’s perspective, Latin feels closed while Greek feels open.
I don’t want to over-stress this, but maybe it is not coincidence that Latin is the language Housman chose to work in. When Yeats caricatures scholars who cough in the ink on the page while they work on the philology of a love poet, it is Latin scholars he goes for, who
Edit and annotate the linesThat young men, tossing on their beds,Rhymed out in love's despairTo flatter beauty's ignorant ear. Lord, says, Yeats, - what would they sayDid their Catullus walk their way?
The kind of scholarship Housman did was not even editing and annotating but something drier still: working out the correct readings of an original text through identifying the different families of manuscripts copied and recopied over centuries. Textual transmission, not emotional. He began by working on the manuscripts of Propertius, a love poet in the Catullan tradition, but switched to Manilius, a Roman poet who wrote five books about astronomy, which was what we call astrology; Manilius was the first to record the use of astrological “houses” and Housman did not think much of Manilius as a writer. He told the poet Robert Bridges not to waste his time on Manilius. “He writes on astronomy and astrology without knowing either.” What he cared about was the textual rescension and he published his edition over twenty-seven years, from 1903 to 1930. He did it in five volumes and in the preface to one, he pours scorn on editors who dismiss a reading which does not fit their theory of the dating of the manuscript and suggests it may be later than they’d like.
“An editor of no judgment, perpetually confronted with a couple of MSS to choose from, cannot but feel in every fibre of his being that he is a donkey between two bundles of hay. What shall he do? Leave criticism to critics, you may say, and betake himself to any honest trade for which he is less unfit. But he prefers a more flattering solution: he confusedly imagines that if one bundle of hay is removed he will cease to be a donkey.”
All this sounds dry as dust - diamond, abrasive dust. But this life labour had a dedicatee which suggests the opposite of dryness: Moses Jackson, the totally straight friend who disengaged himself from Housman when he realized the intensity of Housman’s feelings towards him, who married and went abroad to live and die in another country, and who is behind much of the A Shropshire Lad. Housman knew Jackson would never read it. He would have identified with Yeats’s image of love’s despair, rhyming “to flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.” He would thoroughly have enjoyed Catullus walking his way and in later years he fell in love with a Venetian gondolier.
Housman thinks good poetry needs two things. One is truth of emotion. Most of today’s practicing poets would agree. If you are not absolutely clear that you are being true to your own feeling, and your own imagination, the poem won’t work. The second is natural diction – and we would agree with that too. So would Frost, who made his poems out of everyday speech rhythms and plain language.
But at some point a poet of today will start to pull away from Housman’s claims – maybe when he says that poems have “other things” in them as well as poetry. Readers believe, he says, that they are admiring poetry when in fact they are admiring something “they like better.” Wordsworth’s fine insights “are distinct from his poetry. Most readers react to his ideas rather than his “thrilling utterance which pierces the heart and brings tears to the eyes,” and ideas, he says, are not poetry. “No truth is too profound or exalted to be expressed in prose.” All prose writers would agree with that. “If what you want to do is state an idea,” he says, “do it in prose!” Poets would agree – for a poem with an overt message lets poetry down, as well as letting its message down. As Keats said, no one likes a poem that seems to have designs on you. However important what you are saying, it has got to be good as a poem first. “Poetry is its own reality,” says Seamus Heaney. Whatever the outside pressures, political or moral, your “ultimate fidelity must be to the artistic event.”
So we are with Housman on all these truths - but where he is going with them?
Some ideas, he says, “lend themselves more kindly to poetical expression” than others, But what happens is that they “receive from ‘poetry’ an enhancement which glorifies and transfigures them.” So unless you wield the knife and do some sharp critical analysis, you don’t realize they are actually separate from the poetry which is transfiguring them. “Poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it; not the sentiment but the words in which the idea is clothed”.
He praises Blake’s “pure” poetry which does not say anything intellectually clear or important. Blake, he says, is “poetry neat, or adulterated with so little meaning that nothing except poetic emotion is perceived and matters”
This is where I part company with him. Housman says that poetry combines language and intellectual content but it is better not to “draw the meaning out”. He also quotes Coleridge: “Poetry gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood.”
But I don’t believe a good poem can ever be “perfectly” understood. I think understanding belongs to the reader, that readers are different and that with a good poem each reader can always go further. The fact that no one will ever reach the end of understanding it is part of the pleasure it offers. I think Housman’s claim that it is “better” not to draw the meaning out (as if “meaning” were an inflammation, and when you poultice the wound you can get rid of this painful inconvenient thing called thought, leaving behind pure poetry) is both untrue and says something important about him - and what poetry was for him.
I stick up for sense as well as sound; for meaning and ideas as well as words and music. I think they are all in the mix of what we call poetry. The name “poetry” comes from the Greek verb poieo, “I make”, equivalent to French faire. A poietes is a “maker” and makers work with many fabrics not just pure clay. The art lies, as we all know, in the putting together, the combining.
Let’s see how this works with a poem which was published two years after Housman’s lecture in 1935 - Snow, by another classical scholar, LouisMacneice.
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
There are endless meanings here, and we can never draw all of them, as Housman asks us, out. Meanings to do with Irishness and relations to Yeats. Political meanings, about the gathering darkness of the 1930s. Intra- poetry meanings, about the challenge which modernism - and particularly in Britain TS Eliot - posed to lyric form. Is formal patterning still up to a 1930s world? Or, faced with the open waste land of experience, personal, social, political and linguistic in a post-Freud, post-Marx world, where fascism is rising, should we (this poem asks) be dealing newly with the rage for order expressed through the traditional lyric forms?
In the years Housman was incubating this lecture, MacNeice was intensely concerned with how poetry could tackle flux and multiplicities through lyric pattern and structure. A war had happened, a war was coming. Modernism had brought the street into poetry: MacNeice wanted to net the street in lyric form. “When we were young,” said Larkin in his obituary of MacNeice, “his poetry was the poetry of our everyday life, of shop-windows, traffic policemen, ice-cream soda, lawn-mowers and an uneasy awareness of what the newsboys were shouting.”
There is a parallel here with Housman in 1896. The war of A Shropshire Lad was the Boer war, in which Housman’s brother died. But as Robert Lowell said, it was as if Housman had foreseen the Somme and by the time the first world war began A Shropshire Lad was in everybody’s pocket. here is one of these pocket copies, five inches long, slim as a cigarette case, fit to slip into the breast pocket of a tweed jacket, and inscribed as a birthday gift to my father in May 1933, the very month Housman gave his lecture.
MacNeice in that decade, faced with a new war, still felt with Yeats and Housman that the lyric poem as a dramatic structure was up to the job. e Most English writers, says Edna Longley in her essay, “The Room where Macneice wrote Snow,” were following the chaotic fragmentariness of The Waste Land. But like Auden, MacNiece was looking for new ways to let the mesh of lyric form encompass those fragments which in Eclogue for Christmas - published in the year of this lecture, 1933 - he calls “Broken facets”:
I who was Harlequin in the childhood of the century,
Posed by Picasso beside an endless opaque sea,
Have seen myself sifted and splintered in broken facets,
Tentative pencillings, endless liabilities, no assets. . . .
His rhyme facets / assets meets the challenge of Picasso’s (and Eliot’s) fragmentariness. In Snow, despite modernism’s splintering of the nineteenth-century lyric mirror, MacNeice has found a lyric to express the bittiness and commerialism of the new zeitgeist. “World is crazier and more of it than we think. Incorrigibly plural” is his answer to Eliot. The bay-window itself “spawns” snow as if the window (the ‘wind’s eye’, eye of the house, between the inside and outside but really part of the house, is itself creating this stuff outside.
MacNeice taught Greek at Birmingham University; he too was a classical scholar, and knew Plato’s imagery of the eye as window to the soul. “Between” at the end of the poem (between the snow and the roses”) is ambiguous. As Longley points out, it points to distance but also keeps the two things in a relationship. It is as if the betweenness, the mediating thing, our perceptions of world, itself generates meaning.
His words about the two things being kept apart, snow and roses are collateral and incompatible, and their partner in the second verse is incorrigibly plural. The second stanza takes the idea of their apartness and multiplies it, like snowflakes, into an infinite number of things. MacNeice poses the problem about our relation to the world outside, and resolves
it by the “more than glass” between the snow and the roses. He does this both by what he says and also by how he says it. By meaning, thought, idea and musical utterance, all at once.
There are endless interpretations of this poem. Paul Muldoon’s poem History, is itself partly about the multiple understandings of history in Ireland, and how you can never reach an end of them. It ends with a memory: the poet and a girlfriend climbing, “long ago”,
through the bay window
And into the room where MacNeice wrote Snow,
Or into the room where they say he wrote Snow.
MacNeice is supposed to have written that poem in his father’s house in Belfast, 77 Malone Road, but here’s another understanding, or misunderstanding, of history: I was told by E R Dodds, MacNeice’s friend and editor and long afterwards my PhD tutor and friend, that MacNeice wrote it about Dodds’ wife’s roses in their house in Birmingham. Like poetry, history is open-ended and, as MacNeice says, various.
Ezra Pound said there are “no ideas but in things” and Housman’s notion that the words are “clothes” for the idea implies you can take them off. I don’t believe you can. For me, poetry is the poem in all its meanings and resonances. As when you hear G on a violin you also hear other enharmonic notes which become part of the sound, so there are more than multiple meanings in Snow: there are multiple resonances. This is the way I smell the freesias: for me, poetry is the inter-meshing of ideas and language. All the meanings, sense, ideas, sound, music, feelings, connexions and implications of the way the words behave with each other.
I’ll stand up for understanding too, as well as ideas. Housman goes on to say, “Perfect understanding will sometimes extinguish pleasure,” he says. “It is better to swim in the sensations evoked,” rather than understand.
I’d say no: you can just swim in a poem, nothing wrong with that, poetry is “for” enjoying and you’ll never reach that “perfect understanding” of , say, Snow. But understanding doesn’t extinguish! It can enhance the pleasure.
So what does it say about where poetry sits in Housman (and what poetry can do for anyone with Housman’s range of reactions) that he is afraid the pleasure might be snuffed out by understanding?
He says the mysterious grandeur of some of Blake’s poems would lose their grandeur if they were less mysterious. The ideas in it are only embryos, he says, “not condensed into thought.”
I find mysterious grandeur quite suspect; I associated it with my own definitions of sham poetry. I can’t define poetry as something it’s better not to look at the meaning of. If there’s mystery in your poem, and I hope there is, I want to feel there’s a point to it, a real secret to the sphinx. Everyone is entitled to their own take on the freesias, and we all “use” poetry in many different ways. But I think one way Housman uses it is not to mean too clearly.
Of course we have to think here what Housman had to hide, his homosexuality and his love for someone unattainable, but I think it’s more than that. Housman was appointed to his Cambridge Chair a hundred years ago this year, in 1911, the year an American student drafted in his college notebook a poem he came to call ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Profrock’. I think one thing Housman used poetry for, was to explore aspects both of himself and of his feelings about what was happening in the world outside, which he would not allow himself to engage with elsewhere. I think he turned to poetry as a safe precinct, an inner chamber.
Nothing wrong with that. Poetry is a structuring of emotion people turn to when the rest of the world falls apart. After 9/11, thousands of people in New York attended a poetry reading set up by the Poetry Society of America. But this image of poetry, as safe and sacred form, is what Eliot was challenging in the stanza-free forms of Prufrock or The Waste Land as well as in what he was saying.
Housman’s wish for poetry not to mean too precisely explains his famous conclusion that poetry is a physical not intellectual thing. He speaks of tears, of hairs that bristle so he cannot shave, the shiver down the spine and a constricted throat. He invokes Keats who says that when he thinks of Fanny Brawne, “something goes through me like a spear”.
These are the exactly sensations of falling in love as described in one of the most famous fragments of lyric poetry, another Sappho poem, Fragment 31, translated by Catullus and many after. Here is Ann Carson’s translation.
When I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am dead — or almost
We know this poem because the ancient critic Longinus quotes it in his treatise On the Sublime as a supreme example of poetic intensity:
“Are you not amazed, how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, terrified and nearly dead, so we observe in her not a single emotion but a whole concourse? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sappho’s supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole.”
For MacNeice, who as a classical scholar knew both the poem and Longinus, this bears closely on his concerns in the early 30s: the challenge of the Waste Land, the multiplicity of experience verses the mesh of form and the precinct of the poem. Housman worked differently. When the love of his life retreated from him, he turned to scholarship and also to poetry. But he needed to keep these two precincts separate.
I often find it helpful, in teaching, to compare two different stages of writing a poem to two different ways of making a sculpture. One is to gather it everything in while the fabric is molten like wax or clay. Then comes the chipping away, freeing the image in the stone. Not all poets work like this. Many work slowly on a line, building it up. Some start with the rhythm. Every poet and every poem is different. It is common for poets to talk of the poem’s demands: it feels easier to think of it like that, as if it does not come exactly or entirely from yourself. Housman himself spoke of the first stage of writing a poem as a passive stage. I think the next stage - the chipping stage, when you use Larkin’s knife, the active stage – is when you take the responsibility for the poem. In one sense, Housman slid away from responsibility for the thought (though notthe language) of his. He refused to take royalties for his poems just as he never showed his poetry side to his students. “He used to walk to the desk,” said one, “open his manuscript and begin to read. At the end of the hour he folded his papers and left the room. He never looked either at us or at the rows of dons in the front.” But the mask could and did slip. One morning in May 1914, when the Cambridge trees were in full blossom, he was lecturing on the seventh Ode in Horace’s Fourth Book, Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis, ‘The snows have fled, now grains come back to the fields’. Housman dissected this, remembered a student, textually and grammatically, “with the usual display of wit, brilliance and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us and in quite a different voice said, ‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion first in Latin, then in an English translation of his own.
Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
Then back to winter-tide, when nothing stirs.
Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.
Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Peirithous in his chain
The love of comrades cannot take away.
‘That,’ he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, ‘I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature.’ And he walked away quickly, out of the room.”
Housman’s translation of Diffugere nives turns this ode into a poem about lost love: about how you cannot bring back your dead comrade. He makes it his own, and reeves it into the cherry-blossom arena of The Shropshire Lad. As another student said who remembered the occasion, “I felt most uncomfortable. I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.”
In his lecture, Housman quotes Wordsworth’s saying that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. He writes poems, he says, after drinking beer, which is “a sedative to the brain.” When he then went for a walk, “there would flow into my mind, with sudden and unaccountable emotion, a line or two of verse, or a whole stanza.” then a while afterwards, “perhaps the spring would bubble up again.”
He describes his own first “passive” stage of writing a poem as involuntary. Like a secretion, he says: like turpentine in the fir or pearl in the oyster. If the brain had to take over, the poem didn’t work, and cost a lot of trouble. For him, poetry is a place where emotionally you only wield the fork. Knives he reserved for the rest of his intellectual life. Poetry was a way, perhaps, of not thinking about what he felt.
Deliberately, says Auden in his elegy for Housman, he chose the dry-as-dust:
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer …
In savage footnotes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led.
Housman’s take on poetry is a take also on distance: an idealizing of distance. This is not bad. we are back to the purple and white versus the red and yellow. Blue remembered hills fulfil a strong need for many people. Housman grew up in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, where I was lucky enough to be invited to read a couple of years ago and which is wonderfully evoked in Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns. But what turned him on was what he saw on the edge of it. “I had a sentimental feeling for Shropshire,” he said, “because its hills were our distant horizon.” The distant place in childhood becomes an image for emotional distance.
Tennyson said he always felt drawn to the words “far far away” and I think for many people poetry is linked to a sense of distance between two things, or between yourself and something else. It may be the distance of memory, between you and childhood, Or an emotional distance, between you and your beloved. MacNeice sees “more than glass” between the snow and the roses.
Which brings us back the possibility of distance between “name” and “nature.” We might call it the outside and the inside, both of poetry and of a person. Housman liked distance – he lived by it, he kept things apart, there is meaning in his poems but he’s not going to face it and he’d rather you didn’t draw it out. I myself prefer the other end of the spectrum for the freesias we have taken, today, to stand for poetry. I opt for fusion, understanding, clarity of emotion and thought. But poetry is a mansion with many chambers and Housman created something extraordinary out of his yen for distance. Shropshire is not where he lived: he went there to gather names, like Wenlock and Hughley church, for colour. Stoppard makes Housman say that though his body was buried in Shropshire, it was “a county where I have never lived and seldom set foot.” His Shropshire is shorthand, perhaps, for how Housman uses poetry, as many people do, to access the unattainable. Shropshire is keeping things separate. Shropshire is connecting through beautiful language with what you refuse to spell out in thought - and perhaps will never grasp in life.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.