Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Is my team ploughing? A E Housman's inner world

Courtesy of EMI, Ralph Vaughan Williams's setting of AE Housman's Is My Team Ploughing. Bernard Haitink conducts the LSO, Ian Bostridge is the soloist. It's 1999, don't they all look young?  Even though Bostridge's diction isn't as precise as it is now, he's expressing the spooky ambiguity in the song on a much eerier level than most. The dialogue is between the dead man and his living male friend. Interestingly, the dead man asks first about his animals, then about football. The girlfriend comes last. Vaughan Williams leaves out the football stanza, while Gurney and Butterworth leave it in. "Aye, the ball is flying, the lads play heart and soul. The goal stands up, the keeper stands up to keep the goal". Vaughan Williams setting is superb, but the stanza does count, since it's a coded reference to what's happening in the dead man's sweetheart's bed.

Throughout Housman's work runs a thread of young men dying while in their prime unable to develop relationships with women. Men glance at one another, meaningfully, without articulating their feelings. A young shepherd is condemned to hang: Housman muses on "a neck God made for other use than strangling on a string". In an era when homosexuality meant death, or at least condemnation, Housman never denied his orientation, quietly supporting dignity. The love of his life was Moses Jackson, who was straight, married and moved abroad, remaining forever young in Housman's memory. Hence, perhaps, the images of athletes and soldiers, doomed  young men, beds, graves, sleep, death and curiously inert women who inhabit Housman's poetry. Even 1887 (set by C W Orr) isn't so much an antiwar protest as a lament for the loss of healthy young bloodstock. See also my post on The Lads in Their Hundreds.

Housman's De Amaticia refers to Moses Jackson. It wasn't published until 30 years after Housman's death.

 Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say
 It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
Goodbye, said you, forget me.
I will, no fear, said I

If here, where clover whitens
The dead man's knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word

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