Mr. Housman’s Message

This week on Sweettenorbull, Ezra Pound nails English poet, A.E. Housman.

About this time last year I posted a couple of blogs on the beautiful, lyrical, fateful poetry of A.E. Housman – most famous for his collection ‘A Shropshire Lad’. They’re short, and worth repeating, so here is my personal favourite:

With rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had.

For many a rose-lipt maiden,

And many a lightfoot lad.

 

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot lads are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

Everything in Housman’s vision of rural Shropshire seems to be touched by a sense of loss, of something irrecoverable – let’s call a spade a spade, shall we – of death.The acerbic modernist poet Ezra Pound noticed this pronounced lack of thematic and tonal variety in Housman’s poetry, distilling Housman’s vision into this pastiche:

 

Mr. Housman’s Message

 

O woe, woe,

People are born and die

We also shall be dead pretty soon

Therefore let us act as if we were dead already.

 

The bird sits on the hawthorn tree

But he dies also, presently.

Some lad’s get hung, and some get shot.

Woeful is the human lot.

                                Woe! Woe, etcetera…

 

London is a woeful place,

Shropshire is much pleasanter.

Then let us smile a little space

Upon fond nature’s morbid grace.

                                Oh, Woe, woe, woe, etcetera…

 

Ezra Pound

(Taken from the Faber book of Epigrams and Epitaphs, 1977 – the date of the poem’s composition was not given)

 

Mean old Ezra Pound has made these lines deliberately clumsy and unmeasured, which is a little unfair really, because if there is one thing that Housman wasn’t it was clumsy. But I suppose the comic effect comes in great part through the placement of familiar Housman-esque themes and images in a graceless, repetitive piece of doggerel. Pound, whose slogan was ‘make it new’, is as much irked by Housman’s  conservative approach with technique, as by his limited thematic range.

In the end, Pound was quite as harsh a critic of his own poetry. His final verdict on his Cantos, the magnum opus that was meant to stand beside Ulysses and The Wasteland as one of the greatest works of the 20th Century, was ‘a botched job’. Mind you, he thought the same thing of Western civilisation…Oh Woe, woe, woe etcetera…

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