Tolkien and Housman had more in common than meets the eye
Similarities between JRR Tolkien and AE Housman are not hard to spot. Both were Oxbridge dons. Both were experts in ancient languages. And both were hugely popular writers whose creative work took them far beyond their academic audiences and whose fame has lasted beyond their own lifetimes.
And the similarities do not end there. Housman’s birthplace and childhood home was Fockbury in Worcestershire. Tolkien spent formative years just 11 miles away in the hamlet of Sarehole. After Tolkien’s family moved to the centre of Birmingham, he attended King Edward’s School, where Housman had studied before him.
On the other hand, while WH Auden, for one, managed to be a staunch admirer of both writers, I am doubtful about any great overlap in their readerships, given the obvious differences in style and temperament. Housman’s masterpiece is a slim volume of short poems; Tolkien’s a huge three-part prose fantasy.
Housman’s style was measured and fastidious, compared with the great outpouring of language (and languages) found in Tolkien. Housman was an atheist, Tolkien a devout Catholic.
The biographies of the two men also diverged greatly in certain important respects. Tolkien saw service on the Western Front, whereas Housman was already in his 50s when the Great War broke out. Tolkien married his childhood sweetheart Edith and they had four children together. The great (and unrequited) love of Housman’s life was another man, Moses Jackson.
Still, this is a comparison worth persisting with. After all, both writers raised a rural shire – Shropshire in Housman’s case, the Shire in Tolkien’s – to an unassailable place in English literature. The lure of the most western counties was immense for both: the horizon of Housman’s boyhood was formed by the hills of Shropshire, “the land of lost content”, the “western brooklands” yearned for in London exile; while, in his scholarly work, Tolkien (according to Professor Tom Shippey) used a series of philological clues to develop a picture of a post-Conquest “far-West shire, cut off from and undisturbed by foreigners, adhering to English traditions elsewhere in ruins”. This academic epiphany, Shippey suggests, helped to set Tolkien’s imagination on the road to The Shire and Middle-earth.
Both men loved trees, pubs and country walks, all of which feature heavily in The Lord of the Rings. Walking, indeed, dominates the whole book. The four Hobbits leaving the Shire walk towards mortal danger (something Tolkien knew only too well: his own band of four friends, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, formed at King Edward’s, went off to fight in 1914; only two survived.) But the Hobbits are also walking towards delight: the wider world contains not only Mordor, but also Lothlórien and Rivendell.
Perhaps there were things in Tolkien’s make-up – the excitement he felt about languages like Finnish and Welsh and Icelandic; his earliest years in South Africa; memories of trekking in the Alps as a 19-year-old “after a poor boy’s childhood”; and indeed his Catholicism – that helped him to conceive a world beyond his (imaginary) England that could be enticing as well as threatening.
Walking is also an important trope in A Shropshire Lad. Housman, too, knew the pleasing impulse of the wanderer: “ ’Tis spring; come out to ramble / The hilly brakes around”; “Once in the wind of morning / I ranged the thymy world”; “Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover”; and so on. But when his native lads strike out beyond the confines of Shropshire, they are destined for unhappy urban exile or, worse, they are marching towards their deaths. The great sites of the British Empire are places merely for reading their tombstones.
Tolkien and Housman, then, are like two roads that intersect, diverge and intersect again, over and over. Stoicism, perhaps unsurprisingly, plays a large part in the work of both men. The stoicism found in The Lord of the Rings (epitomised by Gandalf’s view that, even in evil times, great deeds could turn out to be “not wholly vain”) might be said to hold the place for Christian hope, which had yet to come into the world.
In Housman, though, Christian hope has been and gone, leaving behind its spires and bells to lend further elegiac enchantment to his “blue remembered hills”. There is, of course, solace to be found in nature, in seeing “the cherry hung with snow”. But nature is, above all, an impassive backdrop to human grief. Stoicism frequently lapses into outright fatalism: the speaker in poem XLIV addresses a young lad who has committed suicide, praising this “son of sorrow” who died “as fits a man”.
Death suffuses the poems of A Shropshire Lad. It is also the dominant theme of The Lord of the Rings; as Tolkien found when he read it back. But then, as Tolkien noted, “most of human art and thought is similarly preoccupied”.
Michael Duggan is a freelance writer