Today in fiction
On Feb. 28, Abel runs at dawn.
-- "House Made of Dawn" (1968)
by N. Scott Momaday
From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1910, Cambridge Latin scholar and sometime poet A. E. Housman sent Witter Bynner, American poet and editor, this unencouraging response to a request for more poems:
"The other day I had the curiosity to reckon up the complete pieces, printed and unprinted, which I have written since 1896, and they only come to 300 lines, so the next volume appears to be some way off. In barrenness, at any rate, I hold a high place among English poets, excelling even Gray."
Though Housman's 1896 collection, "A Shropshire Lad," was his first and only, it had made him one of the most popular poets of the period -- George Orwell said that at 17 he knew all the poems by heart; W. H. Auden said, "to my generation no other English poet seemed so perfectly to express the sensibility of the male adolescent." Today it would be hard to find a 20th century anthology without Housman represented (often "To an Athlete Dying Young" or "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now" or "Is My Team Ploughing ... "), but that sensibility has also been the target of parody, perhaps most famously in Hugh Kingsmill's sendup of "When I Was One-and-Twenty." Also, the debate continues over the depth to be found beneath Housman's hallmark simplicity -- in "Stars, I Have Seen Them Fall," for example:
Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea,
And still the sea is salt.
In recent decades, much has been made of the homoerotic tone in Housman's poems -- the idea being that themes of loss and longing, and the restrained style, do not come from Housman the classical scholar so much as from Housman the repressed homosexual. Or from a time that compelled repression: Oscar Wilde, to whom Housman sent an autographed copy of "A Shropshire Lad," was still in prison the year that it was published. Housman did eventually publish one more collection in his lifetime, though Bynner and the world had to wait until 1922 for it. Its title -- "Last Poems" -- gave notice, though other poems were published after Housman's death in 1936.
-- Steve King
To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.