In Defence of Housman

It is a pity that Germaine Greer's thoughtful analysis of the nature of poetry is attached to a shoddy and unscrupulous misreading of the work of A E Housman ("Blame it on Housman", Guardian Review, March 1 2003).

To a normal reader of "On Wenlock Edge", the heaving "forest fleece" is a metaphor of a live animal in torment, not "a bookie at the Uttoxeter races". Her suggestion that the poem is guilty of "a feminine rhyme that hangs off the body of the meter like a limp wrist" is the first of a series of nudge-nudge implications that devalue Housman's poetry because of his homosexuality. Her comment on the innocent if unoriginal phrase "rose-lipt maiden" is that "you may know Housman's maidens by the colour of their orifices". Anyone who hasn't already read the review will be able to guess by now what she makes of "By brooks too broad for leaping / The lightfoot lads are laid."

Greer, a feminist, treats the idea that two-syllable rhyming is effeminate and therefore unserious as a rule so absolute that any transgression becomes a suitable case for treatment. Housman, she asserts, "must have known that feminine rhymes in English suggest levity, but he suppresses the awareness in what is ostensibly an elegiac poem". She then quotes the dirge from Cymbeline as being the real stuff of which Housman is a pale imitator, but apparently fails to notice that Shakespeare's poem also uses feminine rhyme.

All this is part of a wider project of attacking Housman's theories of poetry. Even if her dismissal of these is conclusive (which I don't think it is) her admiration of Yeats and Pound should have reminded her that good poetry can co-exist with cranky if not downright reprehensible beliefs. Still, why let literary scruples get in the way of the serious job of destroying someone's reputation?

An edited version of this was published in the Guardian Review, March 8 2003

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