Housman and I
I read Loveliest of trees, the cherry now when I was a child. It was present in my battered copy of Wren and Martin, somewhere in the chapters on understanding and appreciating poetry, the chapters we never touched in school. I later learnt that newer editions of the grammar book didn’t have the poem. I had only just learnt that a dozen was twelve and a score twenty, so the poem seemed to be particularly exciting to me – with this, to a precocious child like me, rare reference.
“Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.”
I don’t think I appreciated the ephemeral nature of time then, although I’d realised what the poem was talking about referred to the fleeting moments we let pass us by so very swiftly. The nature of being young is that old age seems a millennia away. All my regrets then seemed to be silly things I’d done, like hiding a poor maths test score from my parents (which led to my dad calling me up from another country, telling me how disappointed he was that I lied to him because he’d explicitly asked me about the test). It seems silly now, and I doubt either of them remember it anymore. Of course, I remember every second of it, even though I feel nothing about the test any longer. I just feel a strange hurt at the memory disappointment in my father’s voice. I’ve always disappointed my mother, it has never bothered me.
My regrets now are an abysmal collection of roads not taken, a treasure chest of choices I didn’t make. I regret hurting someone deliberately a while ago, but it’s the only one of my actions that I feel any remorse for. I’d never been purposefully cruel, except for that one mad moment, a hot rush of blood to the head, sparked by my own insecurities and failures. It was the last time I’d been anyone’s first choice in a moment of importance, and it’s partly by design. Cuiusvis hominis est errare, nullius nisi insipientis in errore perseverare.
Because I liked you better is one of those heart-wrenching poems that you don’t see coming. You don’t expect poems on love to affect you when you can’t remember what it was like to be in love. I feel nothing watching romantic films now, they all seem predictable, artificial, a source of comfort to those unwilling to acknowledge how banal and utopic most depictions of love are. The alternative does exist in the screaming matches of Malcolm and Marie or Marriage Story, but as the internet meme says, if I wanted to see straight people engage in a bout of verbal wrestling, I’d have just had dinner with the extended family. There will be at least one couple doing that.
“Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.”
Housman’s love for Moses Jackson inspired his opera omnia, and the love that dare not speak its name shines through in every word I read. It is in Because I liked you better that Housman is so very explicit about his affections, and perhaps that is why it rings heartbreakingly true, the hopeless endeavour for the kind of love he desired.
There’s a general relatability to unrequited love. We’ve all liked someone who didn’t like us back in the manner we’d have liked them to. While not a pleasant experience, by all accounts, it’s universal so we find comfort in the words and works of others, in their stories, for they have often found someone somewhere who did reciprocate as they wanted. If you know Housman, you know he died alone, surrounded by his beloved rigour of academia, but without the romantic partnership with the man he’d desired.
A Shropshire Lad X is the seasonal poem that I’ve been returning to now. Indeed, it’s titled March, that month of changing seasons, when the longer days bring warmth and daffodils and sweat and anxiety. Autumn is quick on summer’s heels, we’re obligated to enjoy the short summer, and one can only change their lives in autumm.
“In farm and field through all the shire
The eye beholds the heart’s desire;
Ah, let not only mine be vain,
For lovers should be loved again.”
I’ve always read the “for lovers should be loved again” in the seasonal implication of it, that March invokes a thawing of the cold, a new opportunity for warmth and comfort. Of course, natura non constristatur, ergo all such comparisons are merely in my head. But it seems to be the poetic thing to do, to match the events in my life to the world outside the window. It’s the emptiness outside my room that led to the vacuum in my life over the past few years. If I ever let colour seep into my life again, I’ll peek out the windows and see the cherry tree hung with snow. And meanwhile, as it reads in the Aeneid, forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
I’ve since learnt that the demons in my head rear in the heads of those I care for, the friends I thought lived their lives with a great deal more cheer than I. It’s a difficult realisation, because I have been so deeply entrenched in my own loneliness that I’ve turned into an island, and everyone else seems that little bit foreign. Has my presence in their lives corrupted their happy bubbles? Do I cast a long shadow with my short stature, one that darkens the silver linings of others’ lives? This line of thought is rarely helpful and mostly inaccurate in its insufferable arrogance, the belief that my presence in someone’s life can be so incredibly overwhelming that it casts a pall on things for them is the height of hubris. The Greeks talked of hubris as conceit and defiance against the gods, and there is just retribution to those guilty – they face nemesis.
It’s in How clear, how lovely bright that I find a balance between the glimmer of optimism and the inescapable trenches that are dug in Housman’s poetry. You start off appreciating the glory of now – today – and you’re forced to take a step back and make up your mind, I’ll do better from now onwards, “shall squander life no more”. But it ends, like all days do, hopeless and in failure, the waning of yet another delightful day into a remorseful one.
“Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.”