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This article is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.

Lilac Time Dick Davis

Housman was born in the year of the first edition of Fitzgerald's versions of Khayyam (1859), and his poetry, besides sharing the Rubaiyat's resounding popularity and critical opprobrium, has much of the atmosphere and trappings of that idiosyncratic translation. In the work of both poets exhortations to stoicism alternate with equally forceful exhortations to 'leap the guarded pale' (the opposition, endemic in Persian poetry, of religious ascetic and bibulous poet, chiming fortuitously with the Victorian opposition of middle-class Philistine and poète maudit, the formula being given a self-consciously sexual twist in Housman's verse): in both the rejection of the 'laws of God and man' in favour of an undefined (but more 'natural') paganism is combined with the melancholy understanding that law, apostrophised as a remote 'fate', is after all ineluctable - a notion that is as much social as metaphysical, involving the immediate death of the spirit as much as the ultimate death of the flesh. And the way in which we perceive the reality of this 'law' is the same in both Housman's and Fitzgerald's verse - it is made real to us through the unrelenting precision of the metre that continues through stanza after stanza of passionate complaint with hardly an inversion or metrical substitution to vary the monotony. The monotony is the message. The combination of vague passion and precise metre, of the rigorously defined and wilfully undefined, is what gives The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and A Shropshire Lad their shared and distinctive accent.

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