A Book of Answers XXI: W.H. Auden And A.E. Housman

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Auden is very much my contemporary, having been born in the same year, and I think he is without doubt the outstanding poet of my generation. I have only one grievance to hold against him, and that is the sonnet on A.E. Housman which appeared in New Writing (1939) and was republished in Another Time the following year. It was at once patronizing, priggish, and rather offensive, and Auden had the grace to withdraw it from later collections in the face of some very forth-right protests from friends and admirers of Housman, who had died only three years before the first publication. I should have let the matter rest but for the fact that Auden had simply bowed to convention and had had no change of heart. In the New Statesman of 18 May 1957 he resumed the attack, this time in prose:

The inner life of the neurotic is always projecting itself into external symptoms which are symbolic but decipherable confessions. The savagery of Housman’s scholarly polemics, which included the composition of annihilating rebukes before he had found the occasion and victim to deserve them, his obsession with punctuation beyond the call of duty, are as revealing as if he had written pornographic verse.

Auden was surely enough aware of the spirit of controversy in the field of classical scholarship in Housman’s day to consider the stock-piling of a few insults in advance as indicating no more than a grim sense of fun on Housman’s part. As for “punctuation beyond the call of duty”, one can only reflect what prigs psycho-analysis made of so many of us in those days. But Wystan surely led the van.

As he suppressed the sonnet, I have not quoted it against the answer, but the phrase “Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer” must be recalled. The events in Housman’s private life about which he was understandably sensitive are now common knowledge, but this still does not excuse the sneer in Auden’s poem, which is the worse because the verses themselves are brilliant. But I can imagine Housman not taking them too seriously and enjoying a retort to which Auden had, in his innocent presumption, laid himself only too open.

Unfortunately for me—and I suppose too for him—Auden died just as I had concocted the supposed retort, so that to print it would seem to leave me open to the same reproach. But the case is different, since mine does not refer to his private life, of which I know nothing.

Professor A.E. Housman On Mr W.H. Auden

Time was, no man restored an
Old carcass to the sun;
But W.H. Auden,
He dug me up for fun.
A young ill-mannered poet,
He tore me from my shroud
And tossed my skull to show it
A-grinning to the crowd.

When he was three and thirty
And I dead less than four,
He kept my heart like dirty
Postcards in his drawer.
He never wept, not Wystan;
His eye was sharp and dry;
They say he never missed an
Opening to pry.

But now his cruel winters
Drag to three score and ten
Does he not feel the splinters
Of time like other men?
Has he no grief or canker,
Heartache or damaged pride
No man alive would hanker
To publish far and wide?

Then may he not have readers
Like him who lie in wait
When ghouls and carrion feeders
Come jostling at his gate;
And may he hear no rabble
Of younger poets come
With graceless wit to scrabble
And wrench him from his tomb.

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