Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read A. E. Housman’s “XL,” from A Shropshire Lad, click below:
There is a play by Tom Stoppard called The Invention of Love. An interesting title, because it is about a man who never once felt a reciprocated love.
Stoppard’s play begins with a joke: Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, is at the River Styx, and poet A. E. Housman is waiting to cross. Charon is kept waiting because he is expecting “a poet and a scholar.” When Housman realizes the confusion, he confesses that he is both.
Later, Stoppard ingeniously arranges a conversation between the old Housman and his younger self. The younger Housman is madly in love with his fellow student, Moses Jackson, and doesn’t realize that he is speaking with his older self. But when the matter of love comes up, the older Housman has no advice to give. Across his whole long life he has learned nothing of the matter, only of holding true to the one passion of his life—a passion that was never returned. At one point, amid the shades, the older Housman spots Jackson in the distance and says: “I would have died for you, but I never had the luck!”
The line rings painfully true. Not least because men dying young is a regular Housman theme. His poetry is shot through with praise for those who go back to their maker unsullied, “the lads that will die in their glory and never be old.” At its worst, this can be cloying; at its best, it is, in the truest sense, awesome. Consider this posthumously published poem (from More Poems):