Harold Bloom dedicates a section of How to Read and Why to poetry, because, he says, “Poetry is the crown of imaginative literature.” (How to Read and Why, page 69). I don’t feel Bloom’s insights actually are helping me read poetry, but I’ve decided to read the poets he suggests because it’s a broad introduction to some good poetry (I hope).
I’d never heard of A.E. Housman and in some respects I wish I still hadn’t. While Housman’s poems are easy to read and “lyrical,” the collection A Shropshire Lad (written in 1896) is horribly depressing and seems to me to capture the poet’s deep-rooted depression.
Bloom claims, “How to read a poem can be best introduced by reading Housman, whose concise and economical mode appeals by its apparent simplicity” (page 71). I would have to agree. The poems appear concise. The lyricism is deciving, though, for the underlying messages are ones of lost youth, lost love, lost friendship, and above all, a desire for life to be ended (I kid you not: there are a few suicidal poems in the collection).
Take, for example, the poem that Bloom mentions (in the public domain):
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. (Poem XL)
It’s beautifully written. I love the rhythm of the words. I love to read it aloud. But when I read it closely and realize the message, I am just as depressed as the narrator: his childhood is past. He cannot find that contentment he once had. Life is moving on, and it’s killing him.
A Shropshire Lad, as a whole, captured the inherent difficulty of growing up. It captured the agony of a young man leaving a haven of peace and entering the reality of the world.
If you love the depressing lyricism of the poem above, the collection has plenty more of it: it may be for you. I, personally, say farewell to Housman here.