Housman and Kipling

I’ve recently been reading, with great pleasure, Housman Country by Peter Parker. It is a commentary on A Shropshire Lad, but not the usual kind of critical work. It looks at the book’s origins and influence, with plenty of interesting diversions, many of which are about the poems’ role in the twentieth-century definition of ‘Englishness’, by other poets, by composers, by soldiers, politicians and others. Highly recommended.

When I read the book, my head was fairly full of Kipling, and I started to think about the relation between the two poets. Both came to prominence in the 1890s, but neither fits the stereotype of that decade. Peter Parker reminds us that when Housman was asked to allow his poems to be reprinted in an anthology of Nineties poetry, he replied:

‘Tell him that to include me in an anthology of the Nineties would be just as technically correct, and just as essentially inappropriate, as to include Lot in a book on Sodomites; in saying which I am not saying a word against sodomy, nor implying that intoxication and incest are in any way preferable.’

When Barrack-Room Ballads was published in 1892, Housman sent a copy to his brother Herbert, serving as a soldier in Burma. Herbert wrote to his mother:

The book Alfred has sent me has been a delight to myself & comrades ever since I got it. There never was a man, & I think never will be again, who understands ‘Tommy Atkins’ in the rough as he does.’

Peter Parker points out that poem XXXIV of A Shropshire Lad (‘The New Mistress’) uses the metre and rhyme-pattern of Kipling’s ‘Tommy’. In fact, it’s more or less a Kipling pastiche:

‘Oh, sick I am to see you, will you never let me be?
You may be good for something but you are not good for me.
Oh, go where you are wanted, for you are not wanted here.’
And that was all the farewell when I parted from my dear.

‘I will go where I am wanted, to a lady born and bred
Who will dress me free for nothing in a uniform of red;
She will not be sick to see me if I only keep it clean:
I will go where I am wanted for a soldier of the Queen.

‘I will go where I am wanted, for the sergeant does not mind;
He may be sick to see me but he treats me very kind:
He gives me beer and breakfast and a ribbon for my cap,
And I never knew a sweetheart spend her money on a chap.

‘I will go where I am wanted, where there’s room for one or two,
And the men are none too many for the work there is to do;
Where the standing line wears thinner and the dropping dead lie thick;
And the enemies of England they shall see me and be sick.’

Kipling admired Housman’s poetry, too, and described his tribute to the regulars who fought at Mons, ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ as ‘the finest lines of poetry written during the war’:

These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

But my real purpose in writing this blog post is to suggest another Kipling/Housman link. In Kipling’s 1927 story, ‘Fairy-Kist’, the war-damaged soldier, Wollin, makes it his mission to plant flowers on the verges of roads, to give pleasure to passers-by. When I wrote about Kipling’s shell-shock stories a while ago, I suggested that there might be an element of self-portrait in Kipling’s depiction of Wollin:

By 1927 Kipling felt increasingly isolated and out of touch with an age that had by and large rejected many of his political ideals. Yet he kept on writing stories, and publishing them, often in magazines where they sit rather oddly with the rest of the contents, despite complaints that they were becoming too obscure, in the hope that they would give pleasure and consolation to others. One of these tales is “Fairy-Kist”, with Wollin, who is impelled to motor-cycle obsessively around the countryside, for reasons he only partly understands, planting flowers in the hedgerows with the hope of making the world a better place for others; who has been damaged and disturbed by the war, but who when he busily “cuts around the Home Counties planting his stuff” and is utterly absorbed in this work, becomes “as happy as – Oh my soul! What wouldn’t I give to be even one fraction as happy as he is!” If we take flowers as an equivalent of stories, isn’t this perhaps a portrait of the artist?

What had not occurred to me when I wrote this was that when he wrote this story, Kipling might possibly have been thinking not only of Mrs Ewing’s charming story, Mary’s meadow. He might also have been remembering Housman’s poem (LXIII in A Shropshire Lad), in which the poet imagines himself sowing ‘unheeded’ flowers here and there for posterity to find when he is ‘dead and gone’:

I hoed and trenched and weeded,
And took the flowers to fair:
I brought them home unheeded;
The hue was not the wear.

So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.

Some seed the birds devour,
And some the season mars,
But here and there will flower,
The solitary stars,

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

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