Straight to Thel’

Here’s an old essay of mine from the 1990s. It was deliberately written in a pompous and convoluted academic style, but I decided it was a bit too pompous and convoluted, and have toned it down accordingly. The subtitle is a reference to both Athanasius contra Mundum, “Athanasius against the world”, and “Sebastian contra mundum”, a section of Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited.


Total Waugh: Contra Immundum

Quoniam dicebant: Spiritum immundum habet.

   Evangelium secundum Marcum, III, xxx.

Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.

   Gospel According to Mark, 3:30.

A little over three decades ago Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) died on the lavatory from the cumulative effects of excessive drinking and drug-taking. If he is at this moment peering exophthalmicly down on the earth from the traditional Roman Catholic heaven he espoused in his lifetime, he would not be pleased by any comparison with the death of a rather more famous American: and yes, such a comparison would be most unjust. Waugh’s excesses were in “bromide and chloral and crème de menthe”;1 he did not eat hamburgers, nor did he wear satin jump-suits, nor was he a cretin who happened to have a pleasant negro-effect singing voice; and his point of departure for the hereafter was a country house in Somerset called Combe Florey. But his death was, like Elvis Presley’s, an undignified and more than faintly ludicrous one.

Death and the Mortician

And perhaps also a just one. Death in Evelyn Waugh’s novels very often takes undignified and ludicrous forms: in Decline and Fall, a prison chaplain is butchered with woodworking tools; in Black Mischief, the daughter of an English diplomat is served up to an ex-lover at a cannibal feast; in A Handful of Dust, an English lord of the manor finds a living death imprisoned by a jungle patriarch with a taste for readings from Dickens; in The Loved One, a semi-literate American mortuary cosmetician commits suicide by injecting herself with poison, and is disposed of in an animal crematorium. Waugh was a cruel man, a bully and a snob, and what happens to his characters very often reflects his character. Just as the works of the Marquis de Sade are partly wish-fulfilment fantasies of gross sexual power, so the works of Evelyn Waugh are partly wish-fulfilment fantasies of gross social power.

They are, for example, full of ironies and barbs and sniggers at social upstarts or outsiders. Trimmer, Beaver, and Atwater, the great triumvirate of Waughian Untermenschen,2 are detestable because they are not gentlemen and do not know how to behave when they try to be. Nor, of course, would the working classes: they however are not detestable, merely ludicrous, because they at least know their place.

Given that Waugh was a snob and a bully, that he was also a reactionary Roman Catholic is perhaps not surprising. Given that he was a very intelligent man, with an acute sense of the ridiculous, perhaps this is surprising. Waugh took very little seriously. He disliked and distrusted (temporal) authority and those who exercised it:

[M]any of the motives which make us sacrifice to toil the innocent enjoyment of leisure … are amongst the most ignoble — pride, avarice, emulation, vainglory and the appetite for power over others.3

and satirized it and them (he was certainly a conservative, but more in an aesthetic and economic sense than in a political). He disliked and distrusted modernism and modernists:

His strongest tastes were negative. He disliked plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz — everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.4

and satirized it and them with gusto. Perhaps he also disliked and distrusted himself, for he took himself as little seriously as he took almost everything else, and satirized himself mercilessly in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. He seemed to take only two things seriously: the English language, and the Roman Catholic Church.

Condemning Catholicism

I can understand, and am very grateful for, his attitude to the former; his attitude to the latter once puzzled me. The Roman Catholic Church is not now, and never has been, a humane or intellectually respectable institution. I would call it and many of the things it teaches at best grotesque and at worst evil. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, for example, one of its chief propaganda weapons, was perhaps in herself a worthy, even a saintly person. She believed, however, that it is infinitely preferable for human beings to be born and starve to death than for them to be aborted or prevented by contraception.

Perhaps this sort of thinking came easily to a mind trained, as young Roman Catholic minds were before the Second Vatican Council, in the doctrine that eternal damnation can be yours for the price of a small mortal sin. The death-camps of the Nazis, overseen by a hierarchy of which a startlingly high proportion were brought up as Roman Catholics,5 endured some dozen years; Hell, the death-camp of the Roman Catholic God, endures for ever. The Roman Catholic Church still teaches this doctrine of infinite punishment for finite transgression with other uncouth absurdities; many, in some countries most, of its professed adherents no longer apply its teachings in everyday life; in time it will succumb to the decadence that is already rooted in it (and that is now in full, glorious flower in the Church of England).

Orwell explains

But it was not decadent for most of Waugh’s life, and Waugh seemed to accept all of its traditional doctrines fully. He converted in 1930; in 1935, he wrote a biography of the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion6 in which one learns a great deal about the cruelties practised by the youthful Church of England on those who refused to renounce Roman Catholicism, the age-old faith of these islands. During the period covered by the book, the St. Bartholomew’s massacre took place in Paris.7 This is noted in passing

He [William Cecil, chief adviser to Elizabeth I] had not foreseen the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, which had broken the supremacy of the Huguenots …8

The supremacy of the Huguenots was “broken” by the murder, with great savagery, of thousands of men, women, and children. On hearing the news, the deeply pious King of Spain, Philip II, was seen to smile for the first time in years, and the Pope, Pius V, ordered a medal struck in celebratory commemoration.9 Waugh mentions none of this, and none of the semi-genocidal activities of the Spanish army in the Netherlands over the period.

The concept of double-think is perhaps useful in explaining these omissions. In 1984, Orwell wrote

“It [the Newspeak word “blackwhite”] means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white … This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought … known in Newspeak as doublethink“.10

A further example of doublethink would perhaps be to believe that the persecution of Roman Catholics by Protestants proves that Protestantism is wrong, while the persecution of Protestants by Roman Catholics proves that Roman Catholicism is right. Orwell, who recognized the Roman Catholic Church for what it was, almost certainly drew on the psychology of the religious as well as the political believer in formulating the concept. It is not, however, the only or even a necessary means of explaining Waugh’s apparently irrational religious beliefs. It may not be, as I shall try to demonstrate, the true means.

Preposterously short

The first step I made towards discovering what possibly were Waugh’s true motives for becoming a Roman Catholic was not a literal one. On holiday in the Seychelles last year, I was re-reading his collected journalism and came upon a passage, a notice from the Oxford university paper Isis, that had not caught my attention before:

LOST, LOST, O LOST: Mr Evelyn Waugh regrets to announce he has lost a walking-stick made of oak, preposterously short with a metal band around it. It is a thing of no possible value to anyone but himself; for him it is an incalculable loss. If it should fall into the hands of any kindly or honest man or woman, will he or she bring it to the Isis office, and what so poor man as Mr Waugh is can do, shall not be lacking.11

For some reason, on this occasion, my attention was caught — and held. I read the passage through several times, not quite sure why I did so. I was conscious of only one strong impression, which was that in spite of its jocular air the notice seemed to indicate a very strong desire on Waugh’s part to be re-united with his stick. The stick is mentioned again in Anthony Powell’s Oxford memoirs, The Infants of Spring:

Evelyn Waugh … was excluded from [the Hypocrites’ Club12 at this period for having smashed up a good deal of the Club’s furniture with the heavy stick he always carried [London, 1976, pg. 154; my emphasis]

Why was a stick heavy enough to smash pre-war furniture “always carried” by its owner? Unless he was joking about his own lack of height, why should Waugh describe a stick that was “preposterously short” as a walking-stick? And what was the significance of the metal band?

One possible, absurd answer is that the stick was a magic wand or talisman. The term immediately conjures up laughable Tinkerbellesque or Enid-Blytonian associations. If one tries to purge one’s mind of these and take the term in an austere, occultic sense, it has to be admitted that the equation “stick = magic wand” answers all the questions raised by the Isis notice and extract from Anthony Powell’s autobiography. Nonetheless, it remains absurd. What possible connexion could there have been between Evelyn Waugh and the Black (or even the White) Arts? None, surely? A passage from his part-autobiography, A Little Learning (1964), proves that this is not so. Waugh is describing his life immediately after Oxford:

I also wrote some pages of a novel I had begun … it was named The Temple At Thatch and concerned an undergraduate who inherited a property of which nothing was left except an eighteenth-century classical folly where he set up house and, I think, practised black magic.13

This slight doubt about the plot is not found in a letter he wrote in 1925, shortly before beginning the novel:

I am going to write a little novel … “The Temple At Thatch” … about madness and magic.14

Waugh did what he had written he would. He sent the manuscript for comment to Harold Acton (1904-94), a friend whose aesthetic judgment he trusted. Acton was not enthusiastic and Waugh “took the exercise book in which the chapters were written and consigned it to the furnace of the school boiler.”15 The school was in north Wales, at Llanddulas, where Waugh was working as an assistant master and where, from his own words, his first attempt at a novel seems to have been drawing on the experience of his days at Oxford. A great deal has been written, by Waugh himself, by his contemporaries, by his later commentators, about those days, but some important evidence is gone for ever. Waugh kept a diary during his time at Oxford, but part of it is no longer available to us:

I have been living very intensely the last three weeks. For the past fortnight I have been nearly insane … My diary for the period is destroyed … I may perhaps one day … tell you of some of the things that have happened. It will make strange reading in the biography.16

Christopher Sykes’s biography of Waugh describes his going through an “extreme homosexual phase [at Oxford] … unrestrained, emotionally and physically”.17 Were entries pertaining to this period what prompted Waugh to destroy the diary? Quite probably yes — in part. But there may have been something more, something that would later provide material for his first novel: some kind of involvement in the occult.

Wild honey in the wilderness

That the extremity of this period may have taken in more than homosexuality is suggested by another letter Waugh wrote at the time to Dudley Carew, an old friend from Lancing, in which he said

St. John has been eating wild honey in the wilderness. I do not yet know how things are going to end. They are nearing some sort of finality. One day I will tell you things to surprise you and sell an edition of the biography if faithfully recorded.

St. John’s “eating wild honey” is a playful reference to Waugh’s less well-known second Christian name and to John the Baptist, of whom the New Testament says this: “John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4; see also Mark 1:6). It is also, very likely, a reference to homosexual activity. However, the remaining lines are not so easy to interpret as references to this. How can sexual indulgence be regarded as “nearing some kind of finality”? On the assumption that St. John’s “wild honey” refers to the pleasures of non-penetrative activities like fellatio and mutual masturbation, these words may refer to an impending decision as to whether or not to indulge in full homosexual intercourse, and yet they seem rather hyperbolic to bear this interpretation — particularly in the light of what follows. Why should Dudley Carew, a contemporary and great admirer of Waugh at Lancing, be surprised by Waugh’s participation in homosexual activity? Because Waugh had not, like so many others, indulged in it at Lancing?

If so, why should the circumstances of Waugh’s participation at Oxford help to sell the biography Carew had long intended to write? That many young men were homosexually active for a period was taken for granted by those of Waugh’s or Carew’s public-school background; that those same young men should make public admission of this fact in later life was certainly not. Homosexual practice was illegal at the time, and would remain so for decades; by the vast majority of those forming the market for Waugh’s putative biography, it would have been regarded as sordid and shameful, as Waugh himself must surely have recognized.

Mass appeal madness

Yet the strains evident in the interpretation of these words as references to homosexuality disappear when one assumes that they refer instead to participation in the occult. Among the book-reading public of the day, and of many days to come, the occult was very popular: the novelist Dennis Wheatley enjoyed enormous success with books like The Devil Rides Out (1934), in which a black mass is celebrated near Stonehenge and there is a euphemistic but unambiguous description of black magicians pissing into a chalice containing pieces of holy wafer.

Such things were sordid, certainly, but also fascinating, and one could easily imagine a biography containing details of Waugh’s undergraduate dabbling in the occult provoking great interest. The dabbling need not be taken seriously, nor would it be an admission of participation in anything illegal: it would seem perversely sophisticated, rather than simply perverse. Given the hedonistic cynicism he was cultivating, if Waugh was aware of and being invited to join in occult practice at Oxford, he might very well have expressed himself in the words given above.

The assumption that he did see some participation in the occult bears exegetic fruit not only here, then, but also in the plot of The Temple At Thatch, in his destruction of his diary, and even in his concern at the loss of a heavy stick. It may also be usefully applied to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, which can now be seen as a reaction to, or even a flight from, memories of his involvement, which may have been a far more frightening or intense experience than he had anticipated. That he chose to enter the Roman Catholic church rather than resume the practice of Anglicanism, in which he was born and brought up, adds weight to this reading. A reaction against a mildly affecting involvement in the occult might send one into a mild faith but defecting Satanists, like defecting communists, seem more naturally to become Roman Catholics than to become Anglicans. It must be remembered, of course, particularly in the case of an imaginative and aesthetically sensitive person like Waugh, that to be affected by an experience is not necessarily to have been a direct participant in it.

Straight to Thel’

Evidence for Waugh’s involvement in the occult nonetheless remains. More can be added to what has already been presented: the most direct (and least known) available to date is perhaps best approached through a more famous work. In Brideshead Revisited, the flamboyant, stuttering, homosexual aesthete Anthony Blanche is described as having “practised black art in Cefalù”.18 Cefalù, a small town in Sicily, is a shorthand for Aleister Crowley’s infamous Abbey of Thelema, which was based nearby. Later in the novel, the narrator’s lover Sebastian Flyte signs off a letter with the phrase “Love or what you will”, which is a hidden reference to two famous dicta of Crowley’s — as we shall shortly see.

Elsewhere, Waugh referred to Crowley directly. In A Little Learning he speaks of his election as secretary to the Hypocrites’ Club12 and continues:

My predecessor in the office, Loveday, had left the university suddenly to study black magic. He died in mysterious circumstances in Alistair [sic] Crowley’s community and his widow, naming herself “Tiger Woman”, figured for some time in the popular press, where she made “disclosures” of the goings-on at Cefalu [sic].”19

Later he speaks of the hostess of many of the parties he attended in London after leaving Oxford:

There was Mary Butts, a genial, voluptuous lady of the avant-garde who wrote short stories and at the time consorted with a man who had been in Alistair Crowley’s black-magical circle at Cefalu.19

It is possible that his acquaintance with Crowley was not entirely third-hand, as we can see from examination of a short story called “A Step Off The Map” that he wrote in 1933. Waugh’s short stories are not particularly good, for the most part, and “Out of Depth”, as “A Step Off…” was later renamed, does not stand out even amongst them for its literary merit. It is however of extraordinary interest from the point of view of this article, for it describes a dinner party encounter had by a lapsed American Catholic with a man called Jagger (later renamed Kakophilos, Greek for “lover of evil”)20 who is unmistakably based on Crowley: “an elderly, large man, quite bald, with a vast white face that spread down and out far beyond the normal limits … a little crimson smirking mouth”. The American, who is named Rip after Rip van Winkle, is introduced to the bald man, who quotes the two most famous dicta of Crowley’s new religion of Thelema (Greek θέλημα, meaning “will”):

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law,” said Dr Kakophilos, in a thin Cockney voice.

“Eh?”

“There is no need to reply. If you wish to, it is correct to say, Love is the Law, Love under will.'”

“I see.”

Rip does not take Kakophilos or his dicta seriously, but finds himself unable to resist the force of his personality and becomes involved in an occult experiment that projects him five hundred years into the future, to a London in which “[g]reat flats of mud, submerged at high water, stretched to his feet over the Strand”. Europe has reverted to barbarism; Rip is treated almost as a pet by the savages inhabiting the ruins of London, and is eventually presented to a party of black African anthropologists for study at a coastal military base. He finds only one sane and familiar thing in this new world: a Roman Catholic mass conducted in Latin by a black priest at the base. Somehow he returns to the Twentieth Century. The story ends with him speaking with another Roman Catholic priest in most curious fashion, considering that his involvement in the time-hop had been quite involuntary:

“Father,” said Rip, “I want to make a confession… I have experimented in black art…”21

The story is not well-known. According to Martin Stannard’s study of Waugh’s life to 1939,22 it is now out of print. It was substantially revised for inclusion in Waugh’s short story collection Mr Loveday’s Little Outing and Other Sad Stories (Chapman and Hall, 1936) and “Waugh did not include it in Penguin Books’ Work Suspended and Other Stories (Harmondsworth, 1947)”.23 Did its autobiographical elements become embarrassing to him as time passed? Margot Metroland and Alastair Trumpington, characters from his early romans à clef, appear in the story, and though Rip is named from the time-travelling Rip Van Winkle, is it entirely fanciful to see a resemblance between this harsh and somewhat violent monosyllable and that of Waugh’s own surname?

Missing from the collection

Perhaps not. But on more prosaic grounds his neglect of the story is not inexplicable: it is not very good, and seems to have been written partly as emotional catharsis following the break-up of his first marriage — “a period of considerable anxiety”.23 However, this latter fact may point again towards autobiography. Perhaps Waugh found this period of anxiety bringing to mind a similar one at Oxford, and perhaps the story drew on relevant memories.

The link between Oxford and Crowley has already been presented in the extract from Brideshead Revisited. The exegesis of this extract is, however, incomplete. Anthony Blanche was based, by Waugh’s own admission, on Harold Acton,24 to whom, as has already been described, Waugh sent his first novel for comment. We are now in a position to see rather more in this fact. Was Waugh interested merely in Acton’s aesthetic judgment, or also, and perhaps more importantly, in Acton’s occult expertise? Was Waugh’s introduction to the “black art” made through Acton? Was Acton’s unenthusiastic response to The Temple At Thatch based less on the book’s artistic demerits than on the fact that it revealed too much, was too indiscreet?

An obvious way of trying to answer such a question would be to consult the letter in which Acton passed judgment on The Temple at Thatch. Part of this read: “Too English for my exotic taste. Too much nid-nodding over port. It should be printed in a few elegant copies for the friends who love you.” Or so Waugh gave the world to believe. The letter itself cannot contradict him, for it seems to be no longer extant. Christopher Sykes, discussing it in his biography of Waugh, suggests that Acton’s judgment was “a hard blow and it may be significant that, though Evelyn kept all his letters from Harold Acton, this particular letter is missing from the collection.”25 Significant certainly, but precisely how? Is it likely that Acton had participated with Waugh in occultic practice, and so should be consulted by Waugh on a literary fruit of this? Evidence that strengthens the case for the participation of them both is found in Humphrey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation, a polybiography that presents a far more detailed picture of the Oxford of Waugh’s day than any book devoted specifically to Waugh:

Emlyn Williams [an Oxford contemporary of Waugh’s] … records that lurid gossip was circulating about the Hypocrites, such as ‘they’re supposed to eat new-born babies cooked in wine.’26

Acton was the leading light of the Hypocrites, Waugh a prominent acolyte. Yet there is, I feel, no need to assume that this gossip is literally true, for it is typical of the hyperbole associated with such aspects of the occult as worship of the devil, whether serious or pretended. It is in fact reminiscent of the gossip that circulated two hundred years before about Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club, another group of hedonistic, dissolute, and aristocratic young men.

Imputing the occult

In those days, however, when non-attendance at church, let alone religious heterodoxy, was regarded as shocking and devilish, the gossip was likely to be have been excited by rather less than its equivalent in Waugh’s day. The Hypocrites would have had to do rather more to excite the gossip of their day, and so it was likely to contain more truth, without, of course, necessarily being entirely true. One may dabble in the occult without worshipping the devil, and one may worship the devil without eating new-born babies cooked in wine. But if one is rumoured to have done the last in a period in which the occult was attracting increasing participation, the likelihood of one’s having done the first is not negligible.

I believe that I have by now established that the imputation of some involvement in the occult to the reactionary Roman Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh is not so ludicrous as it might at first have appeared. This involvement nonetheless remains speculatory, and that it may have extended to the point of participation in satanic ritual or devil-worship can only be more so. And yet if it is, for the sake of argument, taken as a donnée of Waugh’s experience, much light is cast on aspects of his adult character, and certain remarks made both by him and by his acquaintances assume new significance.

As his brother-in-law Auberon Herbert recognised and said, Evelyn Waugh could be “an awful shit”. Waugh recognised this himself, and would claim, on being taxed with the gulf between his behaviour and the demands of his religion, that if he had not been a Roman Catholic he would have been far worse. The phrase he chose was “scarcely human”. Roman Catholicism was for him a defence against the malevolence he knew to be within himself. Cyril Connolly had made a similar observation. In an article he prepared on Waugh but never published, he said that

Waugh’s Catholicism was a force that saved him from … this “demon of destructiveness” … “which might otherwise have destroyed him”.27

The metaphor chosen here need not be seen as of particular significance, and yet it occurs elsewhere in reaction to Waugh’s behaviour. At one period, Waugh made strenuous efforts to persuade John Betjeman to become a Catholic, warning him again and again of the literal damnation that awaited him if he remained extra Ecclesiam, or “outside” the One True Church. Betjeman’s wife Penelope told Waugh that his propagandizing had affected her husband badly: “[he] thinks you are the devil and wakes up in the middle of the night and raves”.28 Again a jocular comment, but again it uses a diabolic metaphor. Such metaphors are not exhausted. There is a curious passage in Christopher Sykes’ biography describing how

Evelyn had long been an admirer of Hilaire Belloc [and] asked Duff [Cooper, husband of Diana] if he would introduce him to the great man … When the appointed day came around, Evelyn arrived neatly dressed, in a state of perfect sobriety, and on his best behaviour … [After the lunch was over and Waugh had left for an urgent appointment,] Duff asked Belloc what he thought of his brilliant young friend.

‘He is possessed,’ replied Belloc.

How, Duff often asked, how, except by supernatural means, did Belloc know?29

On its own, any of these references might be unimportant: together I believe they offer good support for the claims of this article, not least for what some will call the most extravagant of these. Involvement in certain forms of the occult is known to be dangerous, and whether one accepts a literal or a psychological interpretation of them, the realities of demonic possession cannot be dismissed. Evelyn Waugh may have participated in satanic ritual at Oxford and been possessed by a “demon” in one or another sense for the rest of his life. The supernaturalism he espoused as a Roman Catholic may have pre-dated his conversion and been based on terrifyingly personal experience.

He described possession once in his novels, in Helena (1950), a literary treatment of the story of St Helena, the discoverer of the true cross. The novel is set between the third and fourth centuries A.D. and makes use of “certain wilful, obvious anachronisms which are introduced as a literary device”.30 They do not, it has to be said, meet this end very successfully, either in such passages as

“What a spread!” said Princess Helena, when she had guzzled. “What a blow-out!”31

or in an extremely interesting scene in which Waugh describes the Emperor Constantine and his wife Fausta witnessing a prophecy made by a young African witch who has been possessed by a devil:

Music, unheard to the watchers, was sounding in the girl’s heart, drumming from beyond the pyramids, wailing in the bistro where the jazz disc spun. She had stepped off the causeway of time and place into trackless swamp. [She begins to speak:] “Zivio! Viva! Arriba! Heil!” … 32

Writing in 1950 of a ceremony taking place in the Fourth Century AD, Waugh draws on imagery from the 1920s and ’30s. He re-uses themes — blacks, travel in time, swamp — that, as we have seen, he had first used in 1933 in “Out of Depth”. Is the link between such incongruencies, the ultra-modern and the ultra-primitive, to be found in the occult, encountered by Waugh both in England and in Africa during his extensive travels there in the early 1930s?

Darkness and the macabre

Anyone answering this question in the negative must still, surely, see the need for an explanation of the way such things occurred not once in Waugh’s work but twice, separated by more than a decade and a World War, and of the way they find echoes not only in the remainder of his fiction but also in his correspondence, his life, and the reaction of his friends and acquaintances to his personality. Waugh has long been recognised as a complex and tormented man whose work is full of darkness and the macabre. I would suggest that the true extent of his complexity and torment and the true roots of his obsessions have never been recognised. Does Waugh deserve a place among the greatest writers in English in this or any other century? Undoubtedly. What were the obsessions and influences that prompted him to that place? This is a question that I have tried to answer fully for the first time here. Time may never tell, but I believe that at the very least I have shown that the full truth about Waugh’s life and religious beliefs may still wait to be confirmed. Waugh as occult practitioner. Waugh as worshipper of the devil. Waugh possessed. Implausible things? Impossible things? Or, as Waugh himself may have predicted, no more than “things to surprise”?



NOTES

1. Evelyn Waugh, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, ch. 2

2. In Men at Arms, A Handful of Dust, and Work Suspended respectively. If Hooper and Mulcaster from Brideshead Revisited and Corker from Scoop are added to the list, the ergative suffix “-er” can be seen to be of great importance in Waugh’s nomenclature of contempt. The first person narrator of Brideshead, Charles Ryder, is perhaps shielded by his patrician “y”, perhaps reflects Waugh’s anxieties about his own social status: he was once described to his face by Duff Cooper, the husband of Waugh’s longest-lasting and most aristocratic correspondent Diana Cooper, as a “common little man … who happens to have written one or two moderately amusing novels” (Philip Zeigler, Diana Cooper, Hamish Hamilton, 1980, pg. 266).

3. Evelyn Waugh, “Sloth” in The Seven Deadly Sins, ed. Raymond Mortimer, London, 1962. Reprinted in The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Donat Gallagher, London, 1983 (pg. 572).

4. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, ch. 1., “A Portrait of the Artist in Middle Age”

5. Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Himmler (who based the organization of the S.S. on that of the Jesuits), Heydrich and Eichmann, inter alios. This over-representation of Catholics was found also among the smaller cogs of the Nazi machine. It is true that Catholics tended not to vote for the Nazis in elections but then communists tended not to vote for the Nazis either: I don’t think anyone could regard this latter fact as rehabilitating Stalinism.

6. Edmund Campion: Scholar, Priest, Hero, and Martyr, re-published by Oxford University Press, 1980.

7. Campion was born in 1540 and executed in 1581: the massacre took place on the 24th of August, 1572.

8. op. cit., pg. 96

9. Pius V was canonized in 1712. Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes, himself a Catholic, commented of one passage in Waugh’s treatment of Pius: “This is to evade by rhetoric the fact that Pius V was a persecutor who went to extremes considered shocking even by the standards of his time, and that he never seems to have scrupled to support his principles by the use of atrocity.” (Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, Penguin, London, 1977, pg. 208.)

10. Taken from the appendix to 1984. In formulating the concept of doublethink, Orwell was perhaps thinking of precept 13 in Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises (1548): “That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.” Loyola founded the Jesuits, the “intellectual shock-troops” of the Roman Catholic church.

11. The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh, pg. 18

12. The Hypocrites’ Club was “notorious not only for drunkenness but for flamboyance of dress and manner which was in some cases patently homosexual”. Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning, W.J. Mackay & Co., Chatham, Kent, 1964, pg. 179.

13. ibid., pg. 223. Waugh’s eldest son Auberon Augustus would later write in his memoirs (Will This Do?, Century, London, 1991) of a schoolfellow called “Brenninkmeyer who shopped me for trying to hold a Black Mass in the chemistry laboratory” (ch. 4, pg. 69).

14. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, pg. 87

15. A Little Learning, pg. 228

16. The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Mark Amory, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980, pg. 12

17. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, pg. 78

18. Brideshead Revisited, ch. 2, pg. 47 of the 1984 Penguin paperback. The extract is taken from a description of Anthony Blanche’s travels and experiences that falls in a section called ET IN ARCADIA EGO. The occult associations of this Latin tag are well-documented: see, for example, Baignet, Leigh and Lincoln, The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail, Jonathon Cape, 1982.

19. pg. 180; pg. 211

20. From κακός, “evil”, + ϕίλος, “loving”.

21. The extracts are taken from the revised version of the story, which was re-printed in The Fifth Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories, ed. Michael Parry, Mayflower, 1976.

22. Evelyn Waugh: The Early Years, 1903-1939, JM Dent & Sons, London, 1986.

23. Both references to pg. 345 of The Early Years.

24. “There is an aesthetic bugger [= homosexual] who sometimes turns up in my novels under various names… 2/3 Brian [Howard] 1/3 Harold Acton”, Waugh wrote in a letter of 14 March, 1958 to the Earl Baldwin (The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, pg. 506). In his discussion of Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, Christopher Sykes argues convincingly that the proportions are reversed in this particular character. Brian Howard (1905-58) was a flamboyantly homosexual Old Etonian poet whom Waugh had first known at Oxford.

25. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography, pg. 99

26. The Brideshead Generation, pg. 79

27. ibid., pg. 377

28. idid., pg. 395

29. op. cit., pg. 181

30. Introduction, pg. x

31. op. cit., ch. 1, pg. 18

32. ch. viii, pg. 187

Nor Severn Shore

The Poems of A.E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett (Clarendon Press 1997)

“I hate posterity — it’s so fond of having the last word.” So said Saki’s hero Reginald in “Reginald on the Academy” (1904). In The Poems of A.E. Housman, the academy is trying to have the last word on A.E. Housman (1859-1936). But Housman wouldn’t have minded. Horace boasted that his verse would prove monumentum aere perennius – “a monument more lasting than bronze” (Odes, III 30). Housman had humbler ambitions for his:

They say my verse is sad: No wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Rue for eternity, and sorrow:
Not mine, but man’s.

This is for all ill-treated fellows
Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read
When they’re in trouble
And I am not.

In the commentary, Archie Burnett quotes a letter of “AEH to Witter Bynner, 3 June 1903: ‘My chief object in publishing my verses was to give pleasure to a few young men here and there’” (pg. 417). And Housman wasn’t in trouble when those lines were published, because he was dead. They open the posthumous More Poems (1936), which was edited by his brother Laurence.

In this case, I think there is more pleasure in the variant phrase “Tears of eternity”, included in the scholarly apparatus beneath the poem (pg. 113). Posterity seems to agree, because “Tears of eternity” appears in The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman, published as a popular edition in 1994 by Wordsworth. And it echoes Virgil’s lacrimae rerum, “the tears of things” (Aeneid, i. 462). Classical influences are not obvious in Housman, but they are there beneath the surface. The simplicity of his verse is deceptive:

Passages are adduced for consideration with no indication of their status or significance: that is a matter for literary criticism, and I have endeavoured only to provide a foundation for such criticism. I hope, however, to have rectified the anomaly whereby a wide range of intertextual reference is expected in, say, Milton or T.S. Eliot, but not in Housman; and to have promoted regard for Housman as one of the true scholar-poets. (“Introduction”, pg. lx)

Burnett’s hopes are realized. The best of Housman’s poems are like butterflies: small, delicate, enchanting. And Burnett sometimes seems to be breaking butterflies on the wheel. The commentary for a poem can be much longer than the poem itself. First it’s fixed by a long pin: “1st draft, Dec. 1895 – 24 Feb. 1900; 2nd draft 30 Mar. – 10 Apr. 1922” transfixes the lines given above, for example. Then there’s a description of the manuscripts: “ink, with corrections and uncancelled variants in pencil”. Then Burnett commences what Aldous Huxley called “the learned foolery of research into what, for scholars, is the all-important question: Who influenced whom to say what when?” (The Doors of Perception, 1954).

But the learned foolery is interesting and enlightening. You’ll understand and appreciate Housman better by reading this book. All readers will know that the lad of A Shropshire Lad (1896) is imaginary. But so, in part, is the Shropshire:

The vane on Hughley steeple
Veers bright, a far-known sign,
And there lie Hughley people
And there lie friends of mine.

Tall in their midst the tower
Divides the shade and sun,
And the clock strikes the hour
And tells the time to none. (ASL, LXI)

Burnett notes that there is “no steeple as such” on the church of St John Baptist at Hughley (pg. 365). Housman was “Worcestershire by birth” and Shropshire was his “horizon”, not his home (pg. 317). He wrote about the village of Hughley before he had even seen it:

I ascertained by looking down from Wenlock Edge that Hughley Church could not have much of a steeple. But as I had already composed the poem and could not invent another name that sounded so nice, I could only deplore that the church at Hughley should follow the bad example of the church at Brou, which persists in standing on a plain after Matthew Arnold has said it stands among mountains. I thought of putting a note to say that Hughley was only a name, but then I thought that would merely disturb the reader. I did not apprehend that the faithful would be making pilgrimages to these holy places. (Letter to Laurence Housman, 5th October 1896)

But what more appropriate for the faithful than to travel in hope and arrive in vain? A non-existent steeple is far more Housmanesque than an actual. His Shropshire is part of myth, not of mundanity. It’s a horizon, not a home, and no-one can ever go there. But if horizons are Housmanesque, so is humour. It’s not obvious from A Shropshire Lad that the author was one of the greatest classical scholars who ever lived. Nor is it obvious that the author could see the lighter side of life.

But he could. His letters prove that and so does some of his verse:

I knew a gentleman of culture
Whose aunt was eaten by a vulture.
He said “Though carrion may be scanty,
That bird should not have eaten auntie.” (?1917)

When I was born to a world of sin,
God be praised, it was raining gin,
Gin on the houses, gin on the walls,
Gin on the bunworks and copybook-stalls. (?1911)

He also joked about the Academy:

First Don O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird,
Or but a wandering voice?
Second Don State the alternative preferred,
With reasons for your choice. (date unknown)

Fragment of a Greek tragedy

Alcmaeon. Chorus.

Cho. O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity? (Fragment…, 1883)

The lines above are from the section called “Light Verse and Juvenilia”. Some of Housman’s nonsense verse is excellent. Some of it is also eerie: “Aunts and Nieces, or, Time and Space” (?1929) reminded me of M.R. James or Saki, with its “astoundingly absurd/Yet dangerous cockyoly-bird”:

In the middle of next week
There will be heard a piercing shriek,
And looking pale and weak and thin
Eliza will come flying in. (“Aunts and Nieces”)

Who would guess that the same man wrote A Shropshire Lad? But that also applies to “Iona”, Housman’s attempt to win the Newdigate Prize for English Verse at Oxford in 1879. As Burnett notes, the “subject and the metre (English heroic verse) were not of his choosing” (pg. 529). Unsurprisingly, the poem didn’t win the prize. It would make a good challenge for a literary scholar today. If you didn’t know who had written it, would you be able to guess?

And far in all the wide world’s peopled ways
Became a marvel and a wild amaze.
Became a wonder and a world’s desire
And fill’d high heaven and all men’s eyes with fire,
And wheresoever it smote, such power it had,
The reaper stay’d his reaping and was glad,
The ploughman left his plough and follow’d far,
The shepherd reck’d no more of folding-star,
The fisher thither turned his toiling oar
Harrowing the peopled main with nets no more.
The deep-sea diver left the watery whirl
And sought no more the shark-beleaguer’d pearl,
And far away the light on all men’s eyes
Struck blind the magian wisdom of the wise:
Then each man deemed his riches last and least
And came and worshipp’d out of west and east
At faith’s far altar raining gems like tears
And all the garner’d usury of years;
Brought jewell’d gold and treasure passing price
And ransack’d cities piled for sacrifice
And incense strange in marvellous woofs unfurl’d
For these had seen her star in all the world.
Had seen her star, and clothed in gladness trod
And walked on earth with a many a present god, […]

(“Iona”, ll. 85-108 – a “folding-star” is a star seen at nightfall, when sheep are gathered into the fold)

I think most literary scholars would conclude that those lines had been written by a forgotten Victorian poetaster influenced by Swinburne. But Burnett notes one link to Housman at his laconic best, for a reaper also appears in this poem:

Breathe, my lute, beneath my fingers
One regretful breath,
One lament for life that lingers
Round the doors of death.

For the frost has killed the rose,
And our summer dies in snows,
And our morning once for all
Gathers to the evenfall.

Hush, my lute, return to sleeping,
Sing no songs again.
For the reaper stays his reaping
On the darkened plain;

And the day has drained its cup,
And the twilight cometh up;
Song and sorrow all that are
Slumber at the even-star.

When I first came across that on the internet, I thought it was a late poem. It actually pre-dates “Iona” and was written in 1877 as a “song for Lady Jane Grey awaiting death in captivity”, part of a play, The Tragedy of Lady Jane Grey, that would have been published in a “Family Magazine”. But Housman left home to attend Oxford before he finished editing and transcribing the magazine.

Le Supplice de Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche (1833)

Le Supplice de Jane Grey, Paul Delaroche (1833)

Only a “fragment” of it was left and that is how the poem survived. What else has been lost? Nothing better than that, I would guess – and hope. But in a way this book retrieves lost poems. In the commentary to Poem XXV of Last Poems (1922), Burnett parallels Housman’s “sea-wet rock” with Philip Bourke Marston’s “sea-wet shining sand”. Marston was a blind poet whose collection Song-Tide (1888) was a “volume in Housman’s library”. He deserves to be better-remembered.

The German poet Heine, on the other hand, has the modern fame he deserves: a lot. His influence on Housman was considerable and he often appears in the commentary. Take Poem LVII in A Shropshire Lad:

You smile upon your friend to-day,
To-day his ills are over;
You hearken to the lover’s say,
And happy is the lover.

’Tis late to hearken, late to smile,
But better late than never;
I shall have lived a little while
Before I die for ever. (ASL, LVII)

The commentary notes a parallel with these verses by Heine:

Es kommt zu spät, was du mir lächelst,
Was du mir seufzest, kommt zu spät!
Längst sind gestorben die Gefühle,
Die du so grausam einst verschmäht.

Zu spät kommt deine Gegenliebe!
Es fallen aus mein Herz herab
All deine heissen Liebesblicke
Wie Sonnenstrahlen auf ein Grab.

Then it quotes the stilted Victorian translation Housman was familiar with: “It comes too late, thy present smiling, | It comes too late, thy present sigh! | The feelings all long since have perish’d | That thou didst spurn so cruelly. || Too late has come thy love responsive, | My heart thou vainly seek’st to stir | With burning looks of love, all falling | Like sunbeams on a sepulchre.” That’s by Edgar Alfred Bowring. Housman captures the simplicity and spirit of Heine much better in A Shropshire Lad.

But “Breathe, my lute” proves that Housman was Housmanesque before Heine, whose influence is “later than 1889” (“Introduction”, lx). Shakespeare and the Bible influenced him from the beginning, as the commentary proves again and again. He was also influenced by English and French folk-ballads, by Tennyson, Christina Rosetti, Swinburne and Stevenson, and by classical authors like Horace, Lucretius, Juvenal and Propertius. Burnett quotes the original languages, noting the Greek πολυφαρμακος behind “many-venomed” in Poem LXII of A Shropshire Lad and expanding Poem XLIII of More Poems with a resounding phrase from Lucretius: moles et machina mundi, “the mass and fabric of the world” (pg. 455).

And Propertius might have been writing Housman’s epitaph here:

Qui nunc iacet horrida pulvis,
Unius hic quoniam servus amoris erat. (Elegies II. XiiiA. 35-6)

Those lines were noted as a parallel to Poem XI of A Shropshire Lad by the Japanese scholar Tatsuzo Hijakata in the Housman Society Journal (9, 1983). Again the translation given here is stilted: “He that now lies naught but unlovely dust, once served one love and one love only”. Housman captured the spirit and simplicity of Propertius far better:

On your midnight pallet lying,
Listen, and undo the door:
Lads that waste the light in sighing
In the dark should sigh no more;
Night should ease a lover’s sorrow;
Therefore, since I go to-morrow,
Pity me before. (ASL, XI)

The classical influence could be more indirect: “the bluebells of the listless plain” in XXVIII of More Poems are explained by the parallel between the flower’s scientific name, Campanula, “little bell”, and campania, “level plain” (pg. 444). And so the spirit of Housman, “amateur botanist and professional Latinist” (ibid.), lingers amid the “learned foolery”, which cannot explain why his poetry is so good, but can illuminate his sources and allow people who knew him to reveal some of his contradictions and complexities:

One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture… “Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.” This ode [Horace, IV 7] he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and said in quite a different voice: “I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.” Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own. “That,” he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, “I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,” and walked quickly out of the room. A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us. “I felt quite uncomfortable,” he said. “I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.” (Commentary on More Poems, Poem V, pg. 427, quoting Mrs T.W. Pym in The Times, 5th May 1936, 5, from Grant Richards, Housman 1897-1936 (revised edition 1942), pg. 289)

But one of those who knew Housman was Housman himself. In More Poems XLIV, he writes of “Venice under sea”. And here, in a letter to his sister Katharine in 1926, is his last word on his love for the city:

I was surprised to find what pleasure it gave me to be in Venice again. It was like coming home, when sounds and smells which one had forgotten stole upon one’s senses; and certainly there is no place like it in the world: everything there is better in reality than in memory. I first saw it on a romantic evening after sunset inn 1900, and I left it on a sunshiny morning, and I shall not go there again. (Commentary to MP, XLIV, pp. 456-7)

Housman’s life, like his verse, combined contradictions: the bitter with the sweet. Sometimes he felt that everything had been futile:

When the bells justle in the tower
The hollow night amid,
Then on my tongue the taste is sour
Of all I ever did. (Additional Poems (1939), IX)

But that is actually “A Fragment preserved by oral tradition and said to have been composed by A.E. Housman in a dream” (pg. 469). Housman himself said that he did “not know” it or had “forgotten” it. So he forgot what he dreamt. He remembered what he had lived and could mingle the sweetness of memory with the bitterness of loss:

’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
Should charge the land with snow.

Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time
Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
The hedgerows heaped with may.

Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
That will not shower on me. (ASL, XXXIX)


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Poetry and Putridity — A.E.H. vs C.A.S.

Poetry and Putridity

Poetry and Putridity: Interrogating Issues of Narrativistic Necrocentricity in A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith

Thanatic fanatic. Say it. Savour it, if you’re that way inclined. I certainly am: I am obsessed with words. The sound of them, the shape of them, their history, meaning and flavours. If I were a Guardianista, I’d say I was “passionate about” words. But it’s partly because I’m obsessed with words that I’m not a Guardianista. The Guardian and its readers use them badly. I like people who use them well: A.E. Housman and Clark Ashton Smith, for example. AEH (1859-1936) was an English classicist, CAS (1893-1961) a Californian jack-of-all-trades. But they were both masters of the English language.

They were also thanatic fanatics: obsessed with death. But in different ways. You could say that Housman was more death-as-dying, Smith more death-as-decaying. Not that Smith didn’t deal in dying too: he wrote powerfully and disturbingly about our departure from life, not just about what happens to us beyond it. But Housman didn’t dabble in decomposition and decay. In A Shropshire Lad (1896), the death is fresh, not foetid: necks break, throats are slit, athletes die young, men muse on drowning, fiancées arrive at church in coffins, not coaches. Sometimes the effect, and affect, are ludicrous. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes it’s hard to decide:

On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
  The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
  Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
  The flocks by moonlight there,*
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
  The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
  The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
  To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
  Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
  Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
  The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
  Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
  And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
  As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
  To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
  And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
  As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
  A hundred years ago.

*Hanging in chains was called keeping sheep by moonlight.

A Shropshire Lad, IX.

That poem mingles beauty and bathos as it contemplates death. Other poems have more or less of one or the other, but for Housman death is metaphor and metaphysics, not morbidity and mephitis. He uses it as a symbol of loss and despair and those are his real concerns. There is no literal death here:

’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town
  The golden broom should blow;
The hawthorn sprinkled up and down
  Should charge the land with snow.

Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time
  Who keeps so long away;
So others wear the broom and climb
  The hedgerows heaped with may.

Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
  Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
  That will not shower on me.

A Shropshire Lad, XXXIX.

That is an example of multum in parvo: “much in little”. Using simple words and simple metre, Housman creates great beauty and can conjure overwhelming emotion. He was one of the greatest classicists in history, an expert in the rich and complex literature of the ancient world, a profound scholar of Latin and Greek. But his poetry is remarkable for its lack of classical vocabulary. There is no Latin or Greek in the poem above and only two words of French. Clark Ashton Smith was quite different:

“Look well,” said the necromancer, “on the empire that was yours, but shall be yours no longer.” Then, with arms outstretched toward the sunset, he called aloud the twelve names that were perdition to utter, and after them the tremendous invocation: Gna padambis devompra thungis furidor avoragomon.

Instantly, it seemed that great ebon clouds of thunder beetled against the sun. Lining the horizon, the clouds took the form of colossal monsters with heads and members somewhat resembling those of stallions. Rearing terribly, they trod down the sun like an extinguished ember; and racing as if in some hippodrome of Titans, they rose higher and vaster, coming towards Ummaos. Deep, calamitous rumblings preceded them, and the earth shook visibly, till Zotulla saw that these were not immaterial clouds, but actual living forms that had come forth to tread the world in macrocosmic vastness. Throwing their shadows for many leagues before them, the coursers charged as if devil-ridden into Xylac, and their feet descended like falling mountain crags upon far oases and towns of the outer wastes.

Like a many-turreted storm they came, and it seemed that the world shrank gulfward, tilting beneath the weight. Still as a man enchanted into marble, Zotulla stood and beheld the ruining that was wrought on his empire. And closer drew the gigantic stallions, racing with inconceivable speed, and louder was the thundering of their footfalls, that now began to blot the green fields and fruited orchards lying for many miles to the west of Ummaos. And the shadow of the stallions climbed like an evil gloom of eclipse, till it covered Ummaos; and looking up, the emperor saw their eyes halfway between earth and zenith, like baleful suns that glare down from soaring cumuli.

“The Dark Eidolon” (1935).

Smith’s logomania could not be satisfied beyond the bounds of English, in Latin, Greek and French: he stepped outside history altogether and created his own languages to weave word-spells with. If you didn’t know CAS or AEH or their writing, who would seem more like the world-famous classicist? Based on what I have quoted so far, it would perhaps be Smith. But that is part of what is astonishing about his writing: he wasn’t merely a Beethoven of prose, creating gigantic melodies with rich and rolling words, he was a poorly educated Beethoven. Here is another contrast with his fellow thanatic fanatic. Housman was not poorly educated and was given a chance Smith never had: to attend and adorn one of the world’s greatest universities. The chance was dropped. Housman attended, but he didn’t adorn:

After showing himself, as an undergraduate [at Oxford], to be a brilliant – even arrogantly brilliant – student of Latin and Greek, apparently set for a lifetime of scholarship, he produced a performance in his final examination that astonished all who knew him. He handed in a series of blank, or nearly blank, papers and was failed outright. Retrieving the situation as best he could, he completed the requirements for a pass degree, got through the Civil Service examination, and secured a post at the Patent Office. (The Collected Poems of A.E. Housman, Wordsworth, 2005, Michael Irwin’s Introduction, pg. 8)

Housman would end his life, laden with honours, as a Professor of Latin at Cambridge, but that isn’t surprising. The fiasco at Oxford certainly was. Why did it happen? A nervous breakdown or failure to work, perhaps, because of his unrequited love for a fellow student: Moses Jackson, who was healthy, heterosexual, and had no time for classical scholarship. In later life, travelling to cities like Paris and Venice, Housman would indulge much more than his gastronomic and aesthetic appetites. But he seems to have believed that sex without love is like food without flavour. And he never ceased loving Jackson. When he completed volume one of his magnum opus, a definitive edition of the Roman poet Manilius (fl. 1st century A.D.), he dedicated it to Jackson in Latin, dubbing him harum litterarum contemptor, “a scorner of these writings”. That was in 1903, when Jackson was married and living in India. Jackson would later move to Canada, where he died of anaemia in 1923. His death was anticipated by this cri du cœur from Housman:

The half-moon westers low, my love,
  And the wind brings up the rain;
And wide apart lie we, my love,
  And seas between the twain.

I know not if it rains, my love,
  In the land where you do lie;
And oh, so sound you sleep, my love,
  You know no more than I.

Last Poems (1922), XXVI.

But cri du cœur is not the mot juste: it is a very simple poem with only a single foreign word. That is, if “apart” can be called foreign, after centuries on the tongues and lips of English-speakers. Almost everything else has been there millennia and that is part of Housman’s word-magic. His poems are really about depth, not distance. One of the most famous says, in the same simple vocabulary, that far away is close at hand:

On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
  His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
  When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
  But then it threshed another wood.

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
  At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
  The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
  Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
  Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
  It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
  Are ashes under Uricon.

A Shropshire Lad, XXXI.

Death for Housman, as it was for Swinburne, is “a sleep”: when the body is ashes, the brain is troubled no more. Death does not necessarily sleep in Clark Ashton Smith:

Natanasna (chanting):

Muntbauut, maspratha butu, [Mumbavut, lewd and evil spirit,]
Varvas runu, vha rancutu. [Wheresoever thou roamest, hear me.]
Incubus, my cousin, come,
Drawn from out the night you haunt,
From the hollow mist and murk
Where discarnate larvae lurk,
By the word of masterdom.
Hell will keep its covenant,
You shall have the long-lost thing
That you howl and hunger for.
Borne on sable, sightless wing,
Leave the void that you abhor,
Enter in this new-made grave,
You that would a body have:
Clothed with the dead man’s flesh,
Rising through the riven earth
In a jubilant rebirth,
Wend your ancient ways afresh,
By the mantra laid on you
Do the deed I bid you do.
Vora votha Thasaidona [By (or through) Thasaidon’s power]
Sorgha nagrakronitlhona. [Arise from the death-time-dominion.]

(After a pause)

Vachat pantari vora nagraban [The spell (or mantra) is finished by the necromancer.]

Kalguth: Za, mozadrim: vachama vongh razan. [Yes, master: the vongh (corpse animated by a demon) will do the rest. (These words are from Umlengha, an ancient language of Zothique, used by scholars and wizards.)]

(The turf heaves and divides, and the incubus-driven Lich of Galeor rises from the grave. The grime of interment is on its face, hands, and clothing. It shambles forward and presses close to the outer circle, in a menacing attitude. Natanasna raises the staff, and Kalguth the arthame, used to control rebellious sprits. The Lich shrinks back.)

The Lich (in a thick, unhuman voice): You have summoned me,
And I must minister
To your desire.

Natanasna: Heed closely these instructions:
By alleys palled and posterns long disused,
Well-hidden from the moon and from men’s eyes,
You shall find ingress to the palace. There,
Through stairways only known to mummied kings
And halls forgotten save by ghosts, you must
Seek out the chamber of the queen Somelis,
And woo her lover-wise till that be done
Which incubi and lovers burn to do.

That is from Smith’s The Dead Will Cuckold You (1951), “A Drama in Six Scenes”. It is also a drama with a sex-scene, by implication, at least. The re-animated corpse follows its instructions, seeks out the palace and enters the “chamber of the queen Somelis”, who addresses it thus as her husband, King Smaragd, beats on the locked door:

Poor Galeor, the grave has left you cold:
I’ll warm you in my bed and in my arms
For those short moments ere the falling sword
Shatter the fragile bolts of mystery
And open what’s beyond. (Op. cit., Scene IV)

I read the play daunted by its erudition, delighted by its epeolatry, and disturbed by its emetic extremity. Some of Smith’s work is about something other than death. This play is about nothing but death. Compare it with Smith’s short-story “The Isle of Torturers” (1933), which contains both poetry and putridity. It’s part richness, part retching. There is poetry like this:

Creaming with a winy foam, full of strange murmurous voices and vague tales of exotic things, the halcyon sea was about the voyagers now beneath the high-lifting summer sun. But the sea’s enchanted voices and its long languorous, immeasurable cradling could not soothe the sorrow of Fulbra; and in his heart a despair abided, black as the gem that was set in the red ring of Vemdeez.

Howbeit, he held the great helm of the ebon barge, and steered as straightly as he could by the sun toward Cyntrom. The amber sail was taut with the favoring wind; and the barge sped onward all that day, cleaving the amaranth waters with its dark prow that reared in the carven form of an ebony goddess. And when the night came with familiar austral stars, Fulbra was able to correct such errors as he had made in reckoning the course.

“The Isle of Torturers” (1933).

There is also putridity like this:

Anon the drowned and dripping corpses went away; and Fulbra was stripped by the Torturers and was laid supine on the palace floor, with iron rings that bound him closely to the flags at knee and wrist, at elbow and ankle. Then they brought in the disinterred body of a woman, nearly eaten, in which a myriad maggots swarmed on the uncovered bones and tatters of dark corruption; and this body they placed on the right hand of Fulbra. And also they fetched the carrion of a black goat that was newly touched with beginning decay; and they laid it down beside him on the left hand. Then, across Fulbra, from right to left, the hungry maggots crawled in a long and undulant wave…

In The Dead Will Cuckold You, the poetry never escapes the putridity. After reading it, you will understand why L. Sprague de Camp remarked this of Smith: “Nobody since Poe has so loved a well-rotted corpse” (Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: the Makers of Heroic Fantasy, Arkham House 1976, pg. 206). Nor has anyone since Poe so loved an ingenious torture: in Scene V of the play, King Smaragd threatens his guards with a “douche” of “boiling camel-stale”. There’s humour in Smith’s morbidity, but I think that he dwelt too long on unhealthy themes. It shows both in his stories and in his popularity: the Weird Tales Big Three, H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), Robert E. Howard (1906-36), and Clark Ashton Smith, are rather like the three stars in the belt of Orion. Lovecraft and Howard are bright Alnilam and Mintaka, Smith is dimmer Alnitak. His luxuriant lexicon explains part of this, but his necrocentric narratives must repel people too.

Housman wrote about death more delicately and distantly. His work doesn’t so much narrativize the necrotic as thematicize the thanatic. It talks about dying, not decaying, and it doesn’t relish the repellent as Smith’s work often did. This helps explain why Housman is a bigger name in English literature than Smith, though I don’t think he was a greater writer. Housman is a minor poet with a major name. I think he deserves it for the beauty and simplicity of his verse. He’s a word-magician who can conjure tears. Smith is a word-magician who can conjure titans. He did more with English and deserves some of Housman’s fame. With his poetry, he might have won it; with his putridity, he lost his chance.