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.

12 comments:

kairu said...

A Shropshire Lad always reminds me of that funny moment in A Room With a View (but then nearly everything reminds me of A Room With a View) where Mr. Beebe and Freddy Honeychurch visit the Emersons. While waiting for their host to come downstairs, Mr. Beebe flips through various books, none of which he is familiar with.

It is a terrible thing, the kindness of well-meaning people. Speaking from the other side, the pain we feel at being unable to ease someone else's suffering must be magnified a thousand times for the very person we seek to comfort.

Justine Picardie said...

What does Mr Beebe find?

enid said...

To those who say move on say move off !!!!
Could you please give me a list of some of your favourite reads as I am in a reading slump. Thanks Enid

Keren David said...

'You must move on' is horrible bullying really. It means 'Move on because I can't bear your pain anymore.' Sometimes the loss is all you have. Moving on happens eventually, but that's a loss in itself.

Justine Picardie said...

Very true. It also sounds like the sort of thing a policeman might say in the 1950s to a loitering tramp. And there is nothing more annoying than being told what to do; it induces an immediate and stubborn instinct to bloody well stay put.

kairu said...

Twelfth Chapter, A Room with a View. Vintage International, October 1989, p143.

The passage was blocked by a wardrobe, which the removal men had failed to carry up the stairs. Mr. Beebe edged around it with difficulty. The sitting-room itself was blocked with books.

"Are these people great readers?" Freddy whispered. "Are they that sort?"

"I fancy they know how to read - a rare accomplishment. What have they got? Byron. Exactly. A Shropshire Lad. Never heard of it. The Way of All Flesh. Never heard of it. Gibbon. Hullo! dear George reads German. Um - um - Schoepenhauer, Nietzsche, and so we go on. Well, I suppose your generation knows its own business, Honeychurch."

Justine Picardie said...

That is the best quote I've read for ages. Thank you very much -- you've provided an excellent start to my day.

kairu said...

It is even funnier in the movie, with Simon Callow's perfectly deadpan delivery, accompanied by Rupert Graves' wide-eyed stare and floppy bangs. Followed immediately by the skinny-dipping pond scene.

Imogen said...

I couldn't agree more with your original post comment on being told to "move on", and with all the others in reply. Mourning and grief are different for each one of us, just as love is, and everyone has the right to grieve in their own particular way and at their own particular pace.

Loss is horrible and hellish enough without one also having to deal with well-meant but useless prescriptions for action, and with the uffish hurt feelings one's response of "sorry, I'm not ready to do that yet" can evoke.

If you love Housman, try the Butterworth settings of "A Shropshire Lad" - Bryn Terfel has recorded them, beautifully.

Justine Picardie said...

Imogen, thank you so much. Will look out for those recordings.

JaneGS said...

>His meticulous scholarship forms a measured counterpoint to his haunting outbursts of poetry

Nicely put--I read A Shropshire Lad earlier this year...mostly because it was one of my dad's favorite books.

kevinhil123 said...

absolutely right. moving on decreases all the tensions and gives motivation for a new beginning

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