HOUSMAN, ALFRED EDWARD (1859-1936)
AUTOGRAPH DRAFTS OF HIS POEMS 'EPITAPH ON AN ARMY OF MERCENARIES' AND 'OH WERE HE AND I TOGETHER', both written and revised in pencil, the text of the second partly faint, 2 pages, octavo, in a modern dark blue full-morocco leather folding box, lettered in gilt, not dated [but c. 1917]
THESE ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT POETICAL MANUSCRIPTS BY HOUSMAN TO HAVE COME ON THE MARKET IN THE LAST FORTY YEARS AT LEAST. Such complete manuscripts as have been sold are mostly fair copies of his humorous and light verse. The manuscripts of 'Astronomy', 'The Sloe was last in flower' and 'Her strong enchantments failing', sold in Sothebys New York in 1976, were of works far less profound or personal than the present ones and were all fair copies, not drafts.
NO OTHER DRAFTS OF POEMS BY HOUSMAN HAVE BEEN AVAILABLE TO COLLECTORS. Peter Croft explained the dearth of manuscripts: 'While the poet himself ensured the preservation of the final manuscripts of his two published volumes of poetry...he adopted a very different attitude to his working drafts: in his will he directed his brother Lawrence, after selecting should he wish such poems and fragments of verse as might be worthy of preservation, "to destroy all other poems and fragment's of verse". As a result of his brother's interpretation of this delicate responsibility, somewhat less than half of the contents of the four notebooks which Housman used for the composition of his poetry survives today: those leaves and portions of leaves, their variant and cancelled readings more or less obscured by erasure etc., are preserved in the Library of Congress.' NO OTHER LEAVES OF POEMS FROM THE NOTEBOOKS HAVE BEEN SOLD AT AUCTION.
The present manuscripts are the only known drafts of these two poems, written on either side of a single leaf that once formed pages 92-93 in one of Housman's working notebooks, designated as 'Notebook C' by his brother Lawrence and Tom Burns Haber. Lawrence Housman records the draft in his analysis of the contents of his brother's notebooks in A.E.H.: Some Poems, but until the re-emergence of this manuscript in the collection of Brett-Smith in 2004 (after which it has exchanged hands three times) its whereabouts was unknown. The texts printed below are from Collected Poems.
(i) 'EPITAPH ON AN ARMY OF MERCENARIES', title and 8 lines in two four-line stanzas, with numerous revisions and deletions preserving reconsidered readings, with three further rather faintly written lines in pencil at the foot of the page, headed [page] '93'
These, in the day 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 earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
It is generally accepted that the 'The Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries' has its origin in a German taunt aimed at the 'Old Contemptibles' of 1914. It was first published in The Times on 31 October 1927 in conjunction with an article in remembrance of the British Expeditionary soldiers killed at Ypres in October 1914. There are fair copies of the poem at Cheltenham College and Eton School. It was selected by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney for inclusion in their anthology The Rattle Bag (1982).
(ii) 'OH WERE HE AND I TOGETHER', 12 lines in three four-line stanzas, with revisions and deletions preserving reconsidered readings, faint and difficult to read without a back-lit magnifying glass and perhaps partly erased by Laurence Housman according to his brother's instructions, with revisions and deletions especially in the second (and clearest) stanza,
Oh were he and I together
Shipmates on the fleeted main,
Sailing through the summer weather
To the spoil of France or Spain.
Oh were he and I together,
Locking hands and taking leave,
Low upon the trampled heather
In the battle lost at eve.
Now are he and I asunder
And asunder to remain;
Kingdoms are for others' plunder,
And content for other slain.
Scholars are divided in their identification of the subject of this poem. Some think it is about Housman's dead brother, Sergeant Herbert Housman; others that it is an expression of Housman's unrequited love for Moses Jackson, the person to whom he wrote: 'I am an eminent bloke; though I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.' No fair copy of the poem exists and the present draft is the only authority for text, which suggests, that Laurence Housman' might have drawn on the revised draft on leaf 93' (Breen). Since there is no reason for thinking that the manuscript has faded or been casually rubbed, the lack of legibility of this second poem is surely the result of conscious erasure, once begun perhaps regretted. Fortunately the text is recoverable
Most of Housman's manuscripts are in America: Library of Congress, Bryn Mawr College, Lilly Library, Texas at Austin, Houghton Library at Harvard and Columbia University. Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Fitzwilliam Museum also have holdings. See introduction 'Why Poetical Manuscripts?'.
PROVENANCE: Laurence Housman; R.B. Brett-Smith; Albin Schram; James Jaffe LLC. NY.
REFERENCES: Lawrence Housman and Tom Burns Haber, The Manuscript Poems of A.E. Housman, 1955; Lawrence Housman, A.E.H.: Some Poems, Some Letters and a Personal Memoir, 1937; Jennifer Breen, 'And Asunder to Remain', Times Literary Supplement, 4 February 2005; R.P. Graves, A.E. Housman, 1979; Norman Page, A.E. Housman: A Critical Biography, 1983; Tom Stoppard, 'The Lad that Loves You True', The Guardian, 3 June 2006; A.E.H.: A Classical Friendship, 2006; A.E. Housman: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, edited by Christopher Ricks, 1988; Grant Richards, Housman 1897-1936, 1941; The Letters of A.E. Housman, edited by Henry Maas, 1971; A.E. Housman, Selected Prose, edited by John Carter, 1962; Location Register of Twentieth-Century Literary Manuscripts and Letters, 2 volumes, 1988.