Friday Night Songs: Housman! Herrick! Springsteen!

By the time he finally died in 1936, the English poet A.E. Housman was forty years past his first and best book (1896’s chilling A Shropshire Lad), a dinosaur in the view of most living writers. The Waste Land, which helped create that thing college teachers tell you to call Modernism, came out in 1922, but in comparison to Housman’s language of experience, it might as well have been 2022. Housman hails from a late-Victorian England that knew it was vanishing, and which, in his case, largely took the form of a partially ironic pastoral language of tetrameter stanzas, waistcoats, pipes, elaborate mustaches, mossy pastures, bachelors, afternoon tea, diligent Latin (apparently some of Housman’s translations are still revered), and quiet middle-class homosexuality. Yet here it is 2014, and homeboy’s work is still in print for a damn good reason, which is that it is existentially timeless and metrically elegant, a hit song in poem’s clothing. Right now, the pears and cherries are blooming in California’s damp Mediterranean winter. This is the second poem from A Shropshire Lad:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It leaves me only fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

But not all the modern hotshots had dismissed or forgotten him. In 1936 W.H. Auden’s gift was blooming, and this entailed his lifelong embrace of forms (like ballad meter) that many of his avant-garde contemporaries found simple-minded and archaic; Philip Larkin, whose genius emerged in poems that rhyme and scan, followed Auden’s lead. Both men were Housman fanboys. If one were looking for the opposite of Ezra Pound’s tedious poetics, this line of English prosody would be it.

Housman, of course, is only possible because of who wrote before him. His work points back to Renaissance lyricists like Robert Herrick, John Skelton, Shakespeare (even if you left out the sonnets), and Ben Jonson.

Were any of these men suckers for slightly disheveled beauty, for women whose physical presences aren’t entirely, elaborately assembled, for scarves thrown on at the last minute and light makeup and holes in black leggings? At least Herrick (1591-1674) was! By the time he wrote—about a generation after Shakespeare—English was more or less modern, close enough for you, dear reader, to follow along. When this kinda-sonnet (it has fourteen lines but none have five beats) cruised into the world, you know panties were dropping all over London:

A sweet disorder in the dresse
Kindles in cloathes a wantonnesse:
A Lawne about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction:
An erring Lace, which here and there
Enthralls the Crimson Stomacher:
A Cuffe neglectfull, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly:
A winning wave (deserving Note)
In the tempestuous petticote:
A carelesse shooe-string, in whose tye
I see a wilde civility:
Doe more bewitch me, then when Art
Is too precise in every part.

Other routinely anthologized poems from Herrick are “The silken Snake,” “Her Bed,” and “Upon Julia’s haire fill’d with Dew.” I’m citing from this Penguin collection, which you should own and can probably find cheap if you look around; failing that, you could just drop the piddling $25 for a new copy. What, you needed those three Jameson shots?

More songs! Let’s pivot to an American artist. My residual graduate training still objects that this sort of ahistorical, trans-Atlantic, slipshod move is not a research convention that English PhDs get jobs by pulling, but luckily, especially for me, I’m not an academic literary scholar anymore. I took what I needed. Turns out that on the General Reader, you can link Shropshire to the Rust Belt.

Bruce Springsteen’s hollow-eyed tape-deck masterpiece Nebraska (1982) might best be listened to on hand-me-down vinyl on a Goodwill turntable on a scarred desk in a rented room in, like, Iowa. Maybe you need to be drinking bourbon out of a Dale Earnhardt glass to truly savor this record and its gorgeous cover, maybe you’re wearing old jeans the winter sun can shine through, maybe it’s sleeting and you’re heartbroken . . . We don’t know! Your humble critic has found at least a dozen emotions in this thing. Like much of Springsteen’s best work (all of it pre-1990), like most lyrics that compel you to remember them, the rhythm and the rhymes are based on careful repetition spliced with metrical variation: whatever chaos or melancholy the songs are dealing with, the language is organized. Sometimes it is even catchy. I don’t want to be a total bummer, and I shouldn’t always link to trashy rap videos, so here is “Atlantic City.”

Second track on the album, about as buoyant as the scene gets. Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty. Stay safe out there.

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