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From Cather Studies Volume 4

Youth and Age in the Old and New Worlds

Willa Cather and A. E. Housman

Of all Willa Cather's characters, Godfrey St. Peter, the protagonist of The Professor's House, draws most often on literary sources to express his feelings and perceptions. Embedded in his mind are passages from plays and poems and fictional characters and scenes from novels and short stories brought to the surface of consciousness at critical points in the novel. He quotes from Shakespeare's Othello and Antony and Cleopatra and Longfellow's translation of a Norse poem. He refers to the knights of King Arthur, Medea, and Anatole France's Monsieur Bergeret. He recalls a scene from Henry James's novel The American and the ordeal of Poe's narrator in "The Pit and the Pendulum."

In the third and final section of the novel, St. Peter's retrospection suggests yet another literary work that, although not named, may have contributed more to the meaning and feeling of The Professor's House than any other. Alone in his old house, after the family has gone to France for the summer, St. Peter broods on Tom Outland's untimely death in the First World War and wonders how Tom would have lived "once the trap of worldly success had been sprung on him" (260). He imagines Tom forced "to write thousands of useless letters, frame thousands of false excuses" and satisfy the demands of an ever more ambitious and exacting wife. Out of the depths of his own weariness of spirit, St. Peter concludes that Tom's death may have been a blessing, not a tragedy. In dying, he "had escaped all that" (261).

The reader familiar with A. E. Housman's poetry will recall the most famous lyric of A Shropshire Lad, "To an Athlete Dying Young." St. Peter imagines Tom imprisoned by his fame, not forgotten like the athlete who triumphed on "fields where glory does not stay," whose laurels "[wither] quicker than the rose," who, if he lived, would swell the rout Of lads that wore their honours out (41.19) But like the athlete, Tom, in St. Peter's eyes, was fortunate to have died young, one's memory of him unblighted.

Housman's name never appears in The Professor's House and we will never know if Cather had his poetry in mind when she composed St. Peter's reflections on the blessings of early death, but we have abundant evidence of Cather's love of Housman's poetry. In 1897 Cather reviewed A Shropshire Lad, one year after its first publication and long before the book became well known in the United States. In her review Cather hailed Housman as a poet "different from the poets of the time," his poetry unique in its simplicity and musical and lyrical qualities (World and Parish [WP] 1: 358). Three years later, in a review of the second American edition of A Shropshire Lad, she praised the poems in similar terms: "their quality is as unmistakable as it is rare" (WP2: 707). In this short review she identified two characteristics that would become her own dominant concerns as a novelist. She perceived the central paradox of A Shropshire Lad—to recapture in poetry the world of home and childhood was to feel most deeply separated from it. She perceived in the two groups of poems—"songs of Shropshire" and "songs of exile"—a single plot "running through them all, binding them together." For her, the poems were also models of economy: "a mood, a personality, a lifetime" could be contained "in sixteen short lines" (WP 2: 707-08).

When Cather and her friend Isabelle McClung traveled to Europe in 1902 they made a pilgrimage to Shrewsbury to see the country of A Shropshire Lad, which Cather described in loving detail in a travel letter to the Nebraska State Journal (27 July 1902). The visit to Housman in his lodgings at Highgate, however, was too painful to be recounted in a newspaper letter. E. K. Brown and James Woodress have vividly described the disillusioning realities: the dreary suburban London house where the two friends, accompanied by Dorothy Canfield, called on Housman, his mistaking them at first for the Canadian cousins he was expecting, his reluctance to talk of himself and his poetry, his taking refuge in a long dialogue with Canfield about her research on French drama, a conversation in which the others had no part.

This acutely disappointing event did not lessen Cather's worshipful response to Housman's poetry. In a letter to Viola Roseboro' at McClure's, Cather declared herself to have been Housman's bond slave for the past six years, since the first publication of A Shropshire Lad (Woodress 158).[1] As several of her critics have shown, the influence of Housman pervades the poems in her first book, April Twilights, published in 1903.[2] The pastoral landscape of Cather's poems, the Virgilian shepherds who merge into Housman's lads, the laments for the early deaths of young men, the symbolic passage of the seasons in synch with human mortality, the balladlike stanzas with their simple words and repetitions—all speak to the dominant influence of Housman that Mildred Bennett identifies: "From no other source could [Cather] have derived the style and sentiments of some of the poems of April Twilights"(125). Bernice Slote surmised that Cather in revising the collection for a later edition removed the last stanza of "Lament for Marsyas" because it echoed too closely "To an Athlete Dying Young" (xxxiv). The deleted stanza contains these lines on the death of the young singer and shepherd Marsyas: He was wise who did not stay Until hands unworthy bore Prizes that were his before. (April Twilights 27-28) The Professor's House, published 22 years after April Twilights, is in no sense a derivative work. It contains no conclusive marks of Housman's influence, such as fill the poems—no herdsmen with their collies, no girls bound for the fair, no lads and their sweethearts lying In the cleft o' the windy hill ("In Media Vita") Instead, the feeling of Housman's poems is distilled in the atmosphere of the novel, in the "verbal mood" or the "overtone, which is too fine for the printing press and comes through without it" (Cather, Not Under Forty 50,137). But the "verbal mood" that Cather prized so highly is evoked by the substance of the novel, which bears definable resemblances to Housman's first volume, the 63 poems of A Shropshire Lad.

Most fundamental is the central importance in Cather's novel and A Shropshire Lad of two speakers—a youth and an older man. In both works the young man is on the verge of the transforming, even fatal, experiences of an adult life. In one of the Shropshire poems the youth is 20; in another he is 22. Tom Outland was in his 20s when he walked into St. Peter's garden. Pervading both works is the reflective, often elegiac mood of the older man, past the heat and passion of youth, conscious of the transience of human emotion and the waning of his own energies. In A Shropshire Lad the older speaker directly addresses the youth as you although the youth is rarely in his presence and may be away at war or dead. Likewise, in The Professor's House, set years after Outland's death, the young man is a ghostly presence, alive only in St. Peter's memory. Part 2, "Tom Outland's Story," is presented as St. Peter's recollection of Tom's narration, itself a memory of past experience.

Both Outland and the unnamed youth in A Shropshire Lad are protean figures who play many parts and live out destinies the older man will know only through vicarious experience of the younger man's life. Housman's lad is variously a soldier, an athlete, a lover, and a criminal about to be hanged. Tom Outland has even more parts to play: he is a callboy, a cattle herder, an explorer, an excavator, a university student, a storyteller, an inventor, and finally a soldier. He is never a criminal, but he has lived outside the law among tramps and outlaws in the Southwest.

Unlike Housman's speaker, who is a voice, a persona, without an identity, St. Peter, as the protagonist of a novel, is enclosed in his "envelope of circumstances"—to borrow Henry James's phrase. He has his profession, his old and new houses, his attic study, his prize-winning eight-volume history, Spanish Adventurers in North America, his wife and two daughters and their husbands, his students, and his colleagues. But St.Peter's reflections are often remarkably similar to those of Housman's persona.

Like the older speaker in Housman's poetry, who often merges with the youth as with a younger self, St. Peter comes to feel himself divested of his social worldly self, resolved into his most primitive self of childhood,"the original, unmodified Godfrey St. Peter" (The Professor's House 263). At the same time, both Housman's persona and Cather's protagonist cherish visions of places real but idealized, sacred places that longing and nostalgia have transformed into mythic worlds. Housman's poems are filled with place names—London, Ludlow, Knighton, the Thames, the Severn—but "Shropshire" is also a state of mind, timeless but irrecoverable except in memory. Shropshire is "the land of lost content," "the far country" of "blue remembered hills" and the happy highways where I went And cannot come again (64.40) Undoubtedly, Housman's poetry had prepared Cather to feel most deeply the qualities of timeless pastoral in the actual countryside of Shropshire—"the remoteness, the unchangedness and time-defying stillness" (WP 2: 897).

Cather's words describing Shropshire, written more than 25 years before The Professor's House, apply equally well to one of the sacred places in the novel—the city of the Blue Mesa as Tom Outland first sees it: "a little city of stone, a sleep . . . as still as sculpture ... looking down into the canyon with the calmness of eternity" (The Professor's House 201). Tom's words suggest both the "little town" of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," its streets forever empty and silent and the "stiller town" of Housman's poem, where the body of the athlete is borne. Like Housman's "land of lost content," the Blue Mesa exists in the memory of St. Peter and Tom Outland as a world frozen in time, preserved by death from change.

St. Peter's memory holds other sacred places—the blue water of Lake Michigan, remembered as "the inland scene of his childhood" (The Professor's House 29), the Paris of his student years, and the view of the Spanish seacoast and its mountain ranges that inspired the plan of his eight-volume history. In Chicago, when St. Peter and his wife went to the opera, they heard Mignon, with its famous aria, "Connais-tu-le pays," which expresses the gypsy girl's longing for the lost world of her childhood. You know the country where the lemon grows, In deep green leaves the golden orange glows? Soft winds are blowing from the azure sky, The myrtle stands serene, the laurel high— You know it well? O there, o there Would I with you, o my beloved, fare! (Goethe 85) For both Cather and Housman, longing for the sacred places of youth is inseparable from the sense of emptiness and desolation suffered in the loss of a beloved person. St. Peter's thoughts suggest the brooding melancholy of Housman's lyrics most poignantly in the last part of the novel where heclings to memories of Outland but knows they can no longer sustain him, when he feels that "he was solitary and must always be so," when he feels in the sight of the "declining sun" and the soft yellowing maple leaves the portents of his own death and imagines himself in his coffin, earth returned to earth (The Professor's House 265). Before Augusta saves him from death in his gas-filled attic study, he might well have described himself in the words of Housman's speaker, who muses upon himself "idle and alone," set apart from the careless people That call their souls their own Like Housman's speaker, St. Peter knows the despair of one That's lost for everlasting The heart out of his breast (36.14) The persona of Housman's lyrics does not move beyond melancholy longing for the irrecoverable. Nothing enters his world to dissipate the nostalgia that becomes a longing for death. For weeks St. Peter drifts deathward but is saved by the circumstances that almost take his life—the storm, the odor of gas, and his collapse that brings his savior Augusta to his side.

St. Peter's loss of consciousness is like a rite of passage, moving him from one spiritual state to another. In effect, he moves from one poet's world to another, from the land of Shropshire to the pastoral world of Robert Frost. In feeling that "he had let something go . . . something very precious, that he could not consciously have relinquished," in accepting that he must learn "to live without delight" (282), St Peter recognizes the universal question that Frost expressed in "The Oven Bird":

The question that he frames in all but words Is what to make of a diminished thing (150)

—a question well understood by Housman as well.[3]

Cather saw Housman only once, and she never published an account of their meeting. When Mark Twain's nephew, Cyril Clemens, wrote to Cather seeking information about her visit for a biography of Housman, she adamantly refused to give him any details. But the visit had taken on a life of its own in the fertile imagination of Ford Madox Ford. When Cather learned that he had published an account representing her leading members of a Pittsburgh "Shropshire Lad Club" to Cambridge to present a gold wreath to Housman, she wrote again to Clemens to deny every part of the story. In her letter she indicated her intention eventually to write an essay giving the facts of the meeting.[4] Ten years later (17 April 1947) she wrote to Dorothy Canfield Fisher asking her to recall the details of their visit more than 40 years previously. Her friend's reply arrived on 24 April 1947, the day of Cather's death (Robinson 110-11).

Cather's painful memory of her one meeting with Housman undoubtedly destroyed any youthful impulse to identify herself with the poet, separated from her by sex, nationality, culture, and age (Housman was 14 years older than Cather). But in many important ways their lives were similar. Like Housman, Cather never married but invested herself in passionate love of a friend of the same sex. The marriage of Isabelle McClung afflicted Cather with a sense of desolation and ruptured life, such as Housman suffered when Robert Moses married and left England. Cather's study of the classics created another bond with the poet, although unlike him (and St. Peter) she was not a scholar and a university professor.

Both Cather and Housman shunned publicity, refused offers to have their works anthologized, and guarded their privacy with unremitting determination. In the 1930s both writers were attacked by a new generation of critics who charged them with being sentimental escapists seeking refuge in the past from the problems of contemporary life. But the works of both writers continued to sell widely and remained popular with large numbers of readers.[5]

Their affinities as artists are seen in their essays on literature: Housman's "Swinburne" (1910) and "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (1933) and Cather's "The Novel Démeublé" (1922). Both writers defined literary art in terms of the effects upon the reader of intangible, ineffable qualities. In Housman's words, the music of the greatest poets is addressed not to "the external ear" but to "the inner chambers of the sense of hearing" (282). To Cather, the highest values of all literary art inhered in "the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it" (Not Under Forty 50). Housman compared poetry to a "secretion; whether a natural secretion, like turpentine in the fir, or a morbid secretion, like the pearl in the oyster" (370). For Cather, the essence remains intangible, "the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed that, gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself" (Not Under Forty 50). Housman's definition of the function of poetry: "to transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader's sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer" (352) is implicit in Cather's more provocative statement beginning "Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there—that, one might say, is created" (50). Housman connects the vibration in the reader to the writer's feeling; Cather removes the writer, locating the source of evocative power in the absence of words that creates "the inexplicable presence of the thing not named" (50). But for both writers, art achieved its highest effects by suggestion, not statement. The intensity of the vibration or overtone or aura was in proportion to the economy of means, to "the processes of simplification," in Cather's phrase (48-49). Housman looked to classical literature as his model (265), Cather to modern painting (48), both seeking the artistic values that, like their lands of lost content, were timeless.


 1. Letter dated 14 June in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. (Go back.)
 2. See for instance Daiches 176-77; Gerber 43; Kaye 57; Lee 56, 95; Robinson117; Ryder 51-54; Slote xxiv-xxv, xxvii-xxix; Stouck 40; Woodress 166-68.Critics noting Housman's influence on April Twilights most often cite "InMedia Vita," "Poppies on Ludlow Castle," and "Lament for Marsyas." (Go back.)
 3. Other parallels between The Professor's House and Frost's poetry are noted by Susan J. Rosowski (134-35). (Go back.)
 4. The fabrication appears in Ford's Return to Yesterday 330. Cather's letters to Cyril Clemens about her visit to Housman, 11 December 1936 and 30January 1937, are in the Clifton Waller Barrett Collection at the University of Virginia Library. (Go back.)
 5. Among Housman's harshest critics were Cyril Connolly (47-62) and R. P.Blackmur (202-04). Hostile critics of Cather's fiction, especially the later novels, included Clifton Fadiman, Maxwell Geismar, Granville Hicks, Lionel Trilling, and Edmund Wilson. See O'Brien (115-19). (Go back.)


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