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Another review of Archie Burnett’s edition of Housman’s letters has appeared, this time by Paul Johnson in the Literary Review. Johnson is wrong when he says that Last Poems was ‘reluctantly published’. Housman had no desire to publish for decades because he had nothing to publish, but once Last Poems began to present itself to him he surprised his friends and his publisher with the news that he had something. Housman rarely did anything reluctantly. He did it of his own accord or he curtly explained why he would not.
But Johnson does appreciate Housman as an epistolographer, and excerpts this fine specimen for his readers:
When the meaning of a poem is obscure, it is due to one of three causes. Either the author through lack of skill has failed to express his meaning; or he has concealed it intentionally; or he has no meaning either to conceal or express. In none of these cases does he like to be asked about it. In the first case it makes him feel humiliated; in the second it makes him feel embarrassed; in the third it makes him feel found out. The real meaning of a poem is what it means to the reader.
Not bad. But overall there’s nothing new in this review, and nothing that indicates any greater familiarity with the letters than one can get from a good biography (e.g., Housman, the Scholar-Poet by Richard Perceval Graves).
Now Frank Kermode’s review in the London Review of Books (which I can’t seem to access at the moment)–there’s one worth reading.