In his great essay “Inside the Whale,” George Orwell set out to make a case for the freshness of a writer named Henry Miller, in whom Orwell found a “friendly American voice, with no humbug about it, nor moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike.” The essay is in three parts, the first and last devoted to praising Miller; the middle (and most interesting) section consists of nineteen closely packed pages about English writers and their political and social attitudes in the 1930s. Though W. H. Auden looms large among them, Orwell begins with a poet very unlike the “committed” 1930s poets, and a long way indeed from Henry Miller: A. E. Housman.
In the years prior to and following World War I, Orwell writes, Housman had an influence, especially on adolescents like himself, that was as enormous as it was difficult to understand. In his own early manhood Orwell knew most of A Shropshire Lad by heart, as did many of his friends, and he cites, by way of explanation, the appeal of its “country” setting (those “blue remembered hills”), its pessimism, its cynicism about God, and its message that life is short and mainly not sweet.
Orwell seems uncomfortable about his romance with the poet, citing one of Housman’s most available poems—
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a roselipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The roselipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade
—then commenting that “It just tinkles. But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920.” Later he quotes a quatrain from another poem, notes its “exquisite self-pity,” then exclaims, in the most slangy English way, “Hard cheese, old chap!”
Evidently my own instructors in college and graduate school heard little more in Housman than that pleasant tinkle, and the modern poets I was introduced to—Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Stevens—manifested a subtler, deeper range of feeling and music. It was thus rather late in the game when I began to value the author of A Shropshire Lad, both as poet and as trenchant, mischievous essayist and letter writer.
These thoughts about Orwell’s placing of Housman and my own slow awakening to him were prompted by an excellent, wholly attractive presentation of his life and work by Peter Parker, a veteran literary man (biographies of Christopher Isherwood and J. R. Ackerley) who writes about his subject in such a way that suggests he is a good candidate for Housman’s ideal reader. In its combination of biographical and literary criticism, historical acuity, and finely tuned response to the “landscape” of Housman’s achievement, Parker provides an introduction to the poet that goes deep “into the heart of England,” as his subtitle has it. Seven chapters that constitute a first-rate short biography are followed by ones on English landscape, English music, and English soldiers, all part of Parker’s effort to explore the historical and cultural impact of the small but startlingly original body of poems—just three small collections—Housman gave us. (Parker includes the Shropshire Lad poems as a bonus.)