Much as I have always admired George Orwell’s lucid prose, I have the feeling that he didn’t really ‘get’ poetry. There is evidence for this in his novel ‘Keep The Aspidistra Flying’, where he tries to get inside the head of his poet character Gordon Comstock (unlike the more prudent P.D.James who, as far as I recall, never made any attempt to demonstrate her detective poet Adam Dalgliesh’s prowess in his alternative occupation). It is clear that Orwell thought of poetry as some trick of thinking rather than a way of being – definitely a case of ‘Don’t give up the day job, Gordon’.
Orwell was, it seems to me, particularly wrong-headed about A.E.Housman in one of his essays in ‘Inside The Whale’. To quote: ‘In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the Shropshire Lad by heart. I wonder how much impression the Shropshire Lad makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind? No doubt he has heard of it and even glanced into it; it might strike him as cheaply clever — probably that would be about all…. It just tinkles’.
Well, I was about seventeen in 1961 when I first read that essay, and also about seventeen when I first read Housman, and it struck me even at the time that it was a pity Orwell couldn’t have asked me – did he really think that seventeen year olds, as least those uncorrupted by any literary ideology, differed so much from generation to generation? No, it didn’t just tinkle then, and it doesn’t now, and I am pleased to observe that Housman has continued to occupy a high place in the regard not only of the public but also of many of my fellow-poets, so sucks to you, Orwell.
All of which is a preamble to presenting one of his best-loved lyrics, a perfect distillation of that emotion which the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’, a little more than mere nostalgia, an intense love and longing for a lost place, a lost culture, a lost past.
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Well done David for your defence of Housman, and well done Housman for these perennially fresh lines!