Sunday, 28 June 2009
Bibliotherapy: what to read when you can’t move on.
As anyone will know who has suffered loss – and in this, most of us share common ground – there is a simple piece of advice that is handed out with irritating regularity. ‘You must move on.’ To which one might feel tempted to reply, ‘Why?’ or, ‘How?’ or even ruder expletives.
It is at times such as these that I find some consolation in A.E Housman’s poetry, where no one is expected to move on, and everything is suffused with heartache and nostalgia for what has gone before. Most satisfyingly mournful of all is ‘A Shropshire Lad’, and its sighing evocation of ‘those blue remembered hills’: ‘That is the land of lost content,/ I see it shining plain,/ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again.’
But if Housman’s poetry is an epitome of melancholic longing, the truth of his life (if such a thing can be said to exist) was rather more complicated. Certainly, he displayed a steadfast refusal to let go of the past, but it was a past that never quite existed. Housman was not a Shropshire lad – he came from Worcestershire, studied at Oxford, and settled in Cambridge – and unlike the protagonists of his narrative, who spend their time fighting, drinking, courting and killing, the poet was a reticent Classics professor. True, he suffered the pains of unrequited love – for Moses Jackson, previously an Oxford contemporary, who subsequently married and moved to India – and appears never to have shifted his affections elsewhere. Forty years after their separation, when Jackson was dying of cancer, Housman wrote to him to say, ‘I am an eminent bloke; though I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.’
Globetrotting, however, seems not to have been a pursuit that Housman wished to follow. After Oxford, he and Jackson shared lodgings in London; thereafter, when Jackson moved on, Housman moved into academia (‘those minute and pedantic studies in which I am fitted to excel’). His meticulous scholarship forms a measured counterpoint to his haunting outbursts of poetry; though it is the latter that acts as a surprisingly effective antidote to prolonged bouts of regret. For it seems to me easier to relinquish the past – that luxuriant, imaginary, shape-shifting landscape -- after retreating and returning from those blue remembered hills.