One of the reasons Housman might seem harsh or impersonal to a modern audience is what seems like a strict, unforgiving morality. Sin leads to death, a brave death is better than a coward’s life, what’s done cannot be undone. There’s a Biblical tone to it – but perhaps it is not a morality at all, more a fatefulness – the sense that certain actions lead inexorably to certain outcomes.
Being a reactionary sort of fella, when I’m in the mood, I like this. And I like this poem, Housman’s gloss on Matthew 18:9:
If it chance your eye offend you,
Pluck it out, lad, and be sound:
‘Twill hurt, but here are salves to friend you,
And many a balsam grows on ground.
And if your hand or foot offend you,
Cut it off, lad, and be whole;
But play the man, stand up and end you,
When the sickness be your soul.
It’s hard to know just what a late Victorian gentleman meant by sickness of soul, but I don’t think he’s talking about melancholy, or what we moderns would call depression. This isn’t a call for the unhappy to commit suicide! I think he is talking about evil. There’s no idea of reform here – that which is evil must be severed to save that which is good; that which is irredeemably evil should be destroyed.
Fate is not a member of the Liberal Democrats or the Prison Reform League!