Monday, February 15, 2010

The Missing Stanza

I have been interested in the poet A. E. Housman for a while. My interest came from music: many of Housman's poems were set to music, most famously by Vaughan Williams. I then learned that, for a day job, Housman was a professor of classics—mostly Latin—at Cambridge. I was told that one of his professional interests was in editing classical texts, and that he is known for the relative liberty with which he made emendations in his editions. He wouldn't publish nonsense just because he found it in an Old Manuscript, so to speak.

In any event, I thought it was nice that Housman did Latin for a living and poetry for life; I was only a little bit sad to find out that, allegedly, he didn't like music. I keep hoping that it was all a misunderstanding. That maybe he said it in a bad moment, or perhaps because he was still annoyed with Vaughan Williams editing his poetry a little bit too freely...

Just the other day, a friend gave me a copy of Housman's The Name and Nature of Poetry, actually the text of a lecture given at Cambridge in May 1933. Almost at the end of the little book, Housman tells about his own "creative process"—the way one specific poem of his came into being:

Two of the stanzas, I do not say which,
came into my head, just as they are printed,
while I was crossing the corner of Hampstead Heath
between the Spaniard's Inn and the footpath to Temple Fortune.

A third stanza came with a little coaxing after tea.
One more was needed, but it did not come:
I had to turn to and compose it myself,
and that was laborious business.

I wrote it thirteen times, and it was
more than a twelvemonth before I got it right.

I hope Housman will forgive me for editing him so freely... Not that I changed a word; but as I was typing the text I thought it might be a nice idea to lay it out as if it were poetry. That's naughty, of course—it really is. But I hope that it also reveals a bit of the beauty of these lines.

Am I imagining this, or is the fragment getting more and more poetic? "One more was needed, but it did not come": the rhythm feels so nice and easy, so perfectly natural! "And that was laborious business." Even better—plus the for a's in a row at the beginning of the line and the softly bumping b's in "laBorious Business." Lovely, isn't it!

Then the final "couplet": the nice contrast between the "thirteen times" and the "twelve months." I like the emphatic "more" at the beginning of the last "line"; and again, the alliterative "More" and "twelveMonth."

And finally, those final words, the "getting it right." It sound so mundane in a way—almost like, getting the translation of a Latin text "right" in class... How can he talk about his art, his high poetic art that way? And yet, of course, for an artist, there's only one way in which the painting looks just right. Or the composition sounds just the way it's supposed to be.

Still, I can't help wondering: is Housman being just a little bit tongue-in-cheek here? At the very end of his lecture—which is, in essence, an essay in literary criticism—he says:

I shall go back with relief and thankfulness
to my proper job.

His proper job—yeah, really. Like what? Teaching classics? Editing? Writing poetry?

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