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The Etymology of Lads

 

Housman Country: Into the Heart of England
by Peter Parker
Farrar Straus & Giroux
539 pages, $30.

 

The Invention of Love
by Tom Stoppard
Grove Press. 112 pages, $14.

 

 

IF EVER there were a book that cried out for photographs, it’s Peter Parker’s new study of the poet A. E. Housman and the influence of A Shropshire Lad; but, alas, there are none. If you want to see a photo of Moses Jackson, the athlete with whom Housman fell in love when they were students at Oxford, you’ll have to Google him. Jackson was a handsome, irredeemably straight college oarsman and science major. Housman was a bookish homosexual translator of Latin and Greek literature. They met during their first year at university, but it was not until they roomed together after graduation in London that Housman probably declared his love to Jackson, and Jackson assured him that he had no interest in that sort of thing. (The poem goes: “Because I liked you better/ Than suits a man to say,/ It irked you, and I promised/ To throw the thought away.”)

When Jackson left to run a school in India, Housman recorded his slow progress and the increasing distance between them in his diary, with entries like “arrives at Bombay this morning,” and “He gets to Karachi at ‘8 o’clock.’” Thirty years later Jackson lost his post in India and emigrated to Canada to become a farmer, and that was where he died at the age of 63. By then Housman was a lauded poet, the author of A Shropshire Lad and Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge University. Yet, so great was his love that he confessed in a letter to the dying Jackson: “I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.”

That last line gives you a sense of it. It wasn’t just that Housman was in love with Jackson; he felt in some profound way that Jackson was a better man than he. Part of this had to do with Jackson being heterosexual and Housman not. Ten years after Jackson went to India, Oscar Wilde was put on trial on charges of “gross indecency.” Housman was living on Hampstead Heath at the time, and it was there on his long walks that he composed almost all of the poems that make up A Shropshire Lad.

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