Tuesday 21 January 2020

Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: Perfectionist who caught imagination

AE Housman
AE Housman

Ulick O'Connor

In the first half of the 20th Century, the best-read English poet was AE Housman (right).

He had managed to catch the popular imagination in a way no other poet had done at the time. He had joined with TS Eliot and others in a literary adventure dubiously called 'The Modern Movement'.

His most famous book, The Shropshire Lad, had never been out of print. The first time I heard his work presented in public was, believe it or not, by Brendan Behan's mother, Kathleen, who was a great fan. She put music to some of his poems and used to sing them herself to quite an audience in pubs. Housman cast a cold eye on most modern poets, accusing them of "nursing complacent airs and who pass complacently to insolence".

The interesting thing about Housman was that he would pursue a rhythm or image over hills and mountains for months of rewriting and reciting before even getting a few lines down on the page.

When Housman's poem was finished, it may have appeared at first to be slight. But there was a ferocious energy beneath the lines from the poet, who himself hated the battlefield but rejoiced in his power to bring it up before the mind's eye.


I did not lose my heart in summer's even,

When roses to the moonrise burst apart:

When plumes were under heel and lead was flying,

In blood and smoke and flame I lost my heart.

I lost it to a soldier and a foeman,

A chap that did not kill me, but he tried;

Tha took the sabre straight and took it striking

And laughed and kissed his hand to me and died.

AE Housman 1859-1936

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