Thursday 9 May 2013

'He became a land.'

Among my bedside reading is a small book on A.E. Housman and A Shropshire Lad (which Housman originally titled The Poems of Terence Hearsay - good thing he was persuaded to change that). Reading the biographical chapter (a Wiki life will give you all the facts) led me back to W.H. Auden's luminous biographical sonnet. This gives you - or seems to - not the facts but the soul of Housman...

No one, not even Cambridge, was to blame
(Blame if you like the human situation):
Heart-injured in North London, he became
The Latin Scholar of his generation.

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer;
Food was his public love, his private lust
Something to do with violence and the poor.

In savage foot-notes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led,
And put the money of his feelings on

The uncritical relations of the dead,
Where only geographical divisions
Parted the coarse hanged soldier from the don.

Auden pulled off the same brilliant trick with his elegiac sonnet on Edward Lear, another case of thwarted love and obsessive displacement...

Left by his friend to breakfast alone on the white
Italian shore, his Terrible Demon arose
Over his shoulder; he wept to himself in the night,
A dirty landscape-painter who hated his nose.

The legions of cruel inquisitive They
Were so many and big like dogs: he was upset
By Germans and boats; affection was miles away:
But guided by tears he successfully reached his Regret.

How prodigious the welcome was. Flowers took his hat
And bore him off to introduce him to the tongs;
The demon's false nose made the table laugh; a cat

Soon had him waltzing madly, let him squeeze her hand;
Words pushed him to the piano to sing comic songs;
And children swarmed to him like settlers. He became a land.

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