Housman and Poem 25
Who is Rose Harland?
I read Housman's Shropshire Lad first as an undergraduate Classics student, found the little book of poems entrancing and kept it with me through life as something to come back to for a fresh breath of pure poetic air. Imitating no special models in his themes and turns of phrase, Housman on the other side left little room for casual imitators, and in a sense stands unique in English verse.
Many of the poems confront life with death, a nuance found in some of the Odes of Horace. We know from a letter in late life that Housman felt himself influenced by Shakespeare, Heine and the Ballad poetry of England, but drew nothing from his intensive classical background. As an undergrad student at Oxford he devoted himself so heavily to problems in classical text criticism, that he missed an honors status and even a mere pass. In later life he avoided literary criticism of the classical authors, no doubt thinking of his early bad experiences, and confined confined himself solely to text-criticism. His work on Propertius, Juvenal, Lucan and the astronomer Manilius earned him a solid place in classical scholarship, as he desired, both as master of text problems and as a serious wielder of odium philologicum.
But the another side of his talent is found in his poetry, and soon after private publication of the Shropshire Lad in l896, his poetry became popular and continued to grow in reputation through the century. His next books of verse over the years, More Poems, Late Poems and Additional Poems, showed that he had not completely buried his poetical sense when he accepted a scholarly Professorship at Cambridge, but they lack some of the edge and fire of the early Shropshire work.
As a Professor of Classics for many years, I found students who were reading Horace in Latin were getting little sense of the finish and the polish of his Latin, and since there were real parallels between a poem like Horace's Ode "Eheu Postume Postume/ labuntur anni nec pietas moram...." praising life but pointing eventually to death, as cojparable to Housman 25 beside others with the same sad turn, I found reading Housman aloud to a class was the best way tog et an idea of Horace's style.
Let me give you the Housman poem here.
This time of year a twelvemonth past,
I would read this poem to my students stressing the exactness of the wording where no syllable could be moved without destroying the immaculate finish. I maintain that this was the best introduction to Horace, despite Housman statement about what had influenced him most. Horace and Housman are masters of the exact word, the polished phrase, worked into a panoply of unreal friends, unlikely girls and death somewhere at the end of the road.
I had always prized the wording of the last stanza (above) with that countryside expression drawn from an elderly family member who stays in the house ''all kinds of weather'' as he ages. That wording gives a wonderful touch of local reality to the poem, which itself is as local in setting as anyone could write. I always noted in passing how good it was to use the full name of an imaginary Rose Harland, but it now surprises me to see that I never thought further about her name. Now after all these years I began to figure she might be a real person, suspecting that might change the tenor of the poem somewhat.
A brief search of the Internet shows one repeated line-entry about Rose Harland the female boxer performing in NYC in l876, and one longer note as below. Boxing had been extremely proper in England since the early 18th century when the Duke of Albemarle's butler fought his butcher, and it was later in that century formal rules for Pugilists were established. Here are some of the pertinent references to a real Rose Harland:
Actually, female boxing and wrestling history in America starts in 1877 when the editor of the New York magazine "The National Police Gazette" Richard Fox began seriously covering sports a significant percentage of the athletes featured by Fox were female professionals who made their living by giving exhibitions of the "masculine" sports of boxing, wrestling and weightlifting in the saloons and vaudeville houses of the late nineteen century.
Note that Housman was born in l859 was an impressionable seventeen living in England when this fight took place in New York:
The women "lit into each other, usually with their bare hands scratching, pummeling and tearing each otheršs clothes." On these occasions, a ring of spectators quickly gathered. It was not long before entrepreneurs realized that gawkers might as well be mulcted for the sight of female pugilism as for the oddities exhibited in the "Barnum American Museum". On March 16, 1876, an excited crowd assembled to watch Nell Saunders outbox Rose Harland at Hillšs Theater in New York (a well-known pugilistic venue). Saunders won a silver butter dish. (online low left picture : Saunders gets the prize as a silver bowl, while knocked-out Rose Harland is still unconscious. ).
Poem 25 is clearly a boxing-poem. "We needs must jangle. . . . we fought and I was beat". If I once thought that the name Rose Harland was there as an anonymous touch of local color, I now see she was a real pugilist, and must belong in that poem one way or other. Of course there are problems: How did young Housman know of the NYC fight? Well the boxing fraternity is in essence an international operation and England must have published an account of the l876 fight or Housman would never have heard Rose's name. We look for a missing link here, but must supply a likely connection from NYC in l876 to young Housman in England in that year, from vanished newspaper reports on boxing. Still the fact remains that she fought in NY and he has her name in England.
Now the story thickens. The fight between the two men does not end here, and a dead Fred keeps the house all kind of weather, which is not unlike the Sanskrit prayer "Let me not go now to the little house of clay" as the funerary jar. n Here it is the grave : "And clay's the house he keeps". The wording of this last stanza is accompanied by a curiously evil smile, as the losing boxer jubilates in being alive and having his will, as against Fred deep down underground.
We might have thought of Rose as a naive country girl who would go along with Fred when alive, but equally well now the girlfriend of the loser of the bout when Fred was dead. Sweet and soft and pliable she might seem, but we know her also as a female boxer, so the question arises: What is she doing in this poem?
From early years Housman was aware of his homosexual inclinations. Here at the formative age of seventeen he becomes fascinated by a report of a female pugilist and files her name in his library of memorabilia as a woman and on the other side as a fighter in a very masculine setting. If Housman's "lad" in the story gets into a fight with a better fighter Fred, and is soundly defeated losing his prize, what does he do to remedy the situation? Just wait and wait. Yes Fred dies soon, and when summer comes he claims the prize who turns out to be boxer, whom he can claim as his girlish ''boyfriend'' in conveniently masked woman's dress.
But there are problems.
Question I: Is the pronoun "I / we" in Poem 25 an anonymous country fellow telling a tale of hill and charming country vale? Or is it in this strange poem a mask very thinly covering the identity of poet A.E. Housman. It seems unlikely that a closet gay man would be engaging in a fist fight with another man for possession of a girl, unless as a scene from the life that he thinks other people normally live. Might this scene be a program for "how it should or might be"?
Question II: If Fred is Jackson with whom Housman roomed later, with whom he is deeply in love when dying years later in Canada, still unrequited. . . . then the fight could be about sexuality. Who is the stronger, and who wins a prize for winning the fight? Our lad loses but wins in the end, emphasizing the fact that "A lad that lives and has his will is worth a dozen dead". Patiently and passively waiting, can one can still live and be a sexual person in his own right?
Question III: Who is Rose Harland and what does she mean? She is a woman, but one who can fight like a man, a good masculine girlfriend for a man with sexual mis-identity. With Fred out of the picture, she fills the third place in this curious psychological triad, as the ideal girl boy-friend to go out walking with on Sunday afternoons.
Question IV: It seems hard to believe that Rose Harland is just a coincidental name, especially since we find her here in a fist fight setting. Then could it be that Housman is slyly pulling our literary leg, and giving us the sweet sounding flowered name of a local lass, while noting to himself that the public would never know who this Rose of the Ring actually was? Her identity would never surface later, he was thinking to himself. And that almost happened, were it not for the factual twist of pugilist fans who record everything down through the years pertaining to "The Manly Art of Self Defense".
In closing, I note that the poem I once read with enthusiasm when a young student myself, may have more shades of variant layers than I had ever thought. Should I be surprised at gay poet writing country-style lyrics while preparing himself for the driest lifelong pursuit of Latin text corrections, always living alone but with a hidden flame in his heart, a poet who would be again and again set to music, a Victorian poet read everywhere even in high school curriculum of the American schools a century or more later . . . . . should we surprised at all this? No, not at all, because poetry is built on variable words and on experiences from intermingled layers of living, all compacted together like the layers of an onion which you can investigate one by one if you wish. A poem is exactly like that.
But when you are done, remember that when you have done your complicated literary analysis, something that Housman himself detested, you have destroyed the onion.
Note: If anyone has more on this unknown Rose Harland, please reach me as below.