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This review is taken from PN Review 97, Volume 20 Number 5, May - June 1994.

BRISTLES JOHN BAYLEY: Housman's Poems (Clarendon Press, Oxford) £25

This is abewildering book. Relaxed to thepoint of narcolepsy, Bayleysaunters through an obstacle course of pitfalls with apparent unconcern. He has a habit of adopting certain irritating mannerisms which one would hesitate to allow inastudent essay. Theuse of phrases like'must have' and 'might well have' in reference to Housman's feelings reminds me of sensationalist paperback accounts of 'real life' crimes, in which invention is substituted for fully researched insight into motivation. In literary criticism such speculation overlooks or ignores some very thorny issues concerning intentionality.

Bayley also adopts the lofty 'we' (or, in the singular,'the reader')when he means T-astrategy with which critics have traditionally glossed over the problem of addressing readers who may not share their own assumptions and values, or who may simply disagree. A case in point is the moment when he claims that 'we do not feel, any more than we do with Larkin, that Housman's is a limited and arrested kind of poetry'. But that is precisely what various critics have felt about both poets. Moreover, the argument against limitation is what one assumes to be the central point of Bayley's book. As such, it ought not to be taken for granted.

Perhaps the key problem here is that Bayley sticks too closely to an agenda set by Housman himself. Despite often conveying the feeling that he would rather be writing about more recent poets like Larkin and Paul Celan (on whom, indeed, there is a whole chapter, one of the ...


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