Poetry - Ulick O'Connor: Perfectionist who caught imagination
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 LOST MY HEART SUMMER'S EVEN
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