2017-06-27

sovay: (I Claudius)
I enjoyed this review of a new biography of A.E. Housman, but I got to the last paragraph and disagreed so violently that I spent my shower fuming about it:

But that sweetness, verging on sentimentality, is also Housman's limitation: the lads and lasses slumbering under the grass, never growing old or sick or worrying about how to find a job. Sadness in Housman is a one-size-fits-all emotion, not one rooted in particulars. It puddles up automatically. And reading "A Shropshire Lad" you can find yourself becoming narcotized against feelings that are deeper and more complicated. That may be the real secret of the book's enduring popularity, the way it substitutes for a feeling of genuine loss the almost pleasant pain of nostalgia.

The reviewer claims earlier that "one reason 'A Shropshire Lad' has been so successful is that readers find there what they want to find," so perhaps I am merely following this well-worn tack, but I don't see how you can read Housman and miss the irony, the wryness, the sometimes bitterness and often ambiguity that never prevents the pleasure of a line that turns perfectly on itself. Some of his best poems seem to take themselves apart as they go. Some of them are hair-raising. Some of them are really funny. (It is impossible for me to take "When I was one-and-twenty" as a serious lament. In the same vein, it wasn't until tonight in the shower that I finally noticed that "Is my team ploughing" owes a cynical debt to "The Twa Corbies.") That is much more complicated than a haze of romantic angst and the vague sweet pain of lost content, especially seeing how much of Housman's language is vividly, specifically physical for all its doomed youth and fleeting time, not dreamy at all. Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale. I am not sure why the reviewer knocks Housman's Shropshire for not being "particular," either. Of course it's not actual Shropshire, where the poet himself acknowledged he never even spent much time. It's Housman's Arcadia, et ego and all. I finished the review and found myself thinking of Catullus—again, I had to have my hair full of soap before I realized why. I don't understand why anyone looks for the undiluted Housman in A Shropshire Lad any more than the Lesbia poems should be assumed to contain the authentic Catullus. Pieces of both of them, sure. But my grandmother didn't need the identity of the addressee of "Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all's over" pinned down in order to copy out the poem and save it after a college relationship broke up badly. (I thought it was hers for years.) Who cares if its second person was Moses Jackson or fictional? It spoke to a real loss. I don't think there is anything anesthetizing in that. I doubt Housman would have wanted the particulars known, anyway. I have to figure out a way to stop fuming and start being asleep.
sovay: (Psholtii: in a bad mood)
I have had an absolutely rotten day, in which I think I can safely say that the best thing that happened to me was getting rated a "Yiddish flirting expert" by YIVO in an online quiz. (I mean, I don't know about that, but I can certainly read Yiddish well enough to translate those pick-up lines. I'd love to know where they came from.) I am also entertained to learn that the Massachusetts Historical Society has been tracking John Quincy Adams across the sea thanks to his daily habit of recording latitude and longitude on transatlantic voyages. Other than that, I wish it had been logistically possible for me to spend the day in bed.

[edit] After watching Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953), I actually feel better. I love when that works. The "Girl Hunt Ballet" is even funnier if you have spent the last year and change immersed in pulp fiction and still bounced off Mickey Spillane.
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