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Book Review: Housman Country | Finzi Friends

Some may be surprised to find a review of Peter Parker’s Housman Country on this site. Finzi devotees will correctly assert that there are no extant settings of Housman by Finzi. I am grateful to Jim Page for passing on the results of Stephen Banfield’s work here, which identified 10 fragments (some very small) of beginnings of Housman settings, yet none of these came to fruition, as this book mentions. Indeed, there are but three references to Finzi in the index to Housman Country, compared with over 30 for Vaughan Williams and, as might be anticipated, slightly more for Butterworth. Jim also points out that, when Church Farm was built at Ashmansworth, and the Finzis placed a sealed glass bottle containing poetry, the selection included poetry by Housman.

Yet this book is far more than a book just about Housman or, indeed, just about A Shropshire Lad. It is a compendium of the hinterland, foreground and distant horizons of Housman country. In this, it resounds with ideas and information that any Finzi lover will devour eagerly as the highways and byways of twentieth-century Englishness intertwine.

Peter Parker’s outstanding achievement is in taking such a broad view without losing its core focus. Very occasionally the book does tread some byways upon which a nervous reader might pause to ask ‘What are we doing here?’ Gertrude Jekyll’s garden, and a perhaps over-lengthy exploration of the English folk song revival in ‘The Tunes of England’, as a preface to consideration of Butterworth, might serve as examples. Yet Peter Parker’s byways are always fascinating in themselves and, crucially, the writer’s immense knowledge across a variety of cultural genres is never presented in such a way that could prompt the charge of ‘showing off’. He is a writer who is bursting to share the latest paradox, bon mot and, often touching piece of information uncovered in relation to Housman. In this respect, Parker triumphs particularly in a field where many others come unstuck. He writes about music with a sure footing which never slips. Where technical points are appropriate, he eschews an overly academic approach but the points he makes are relevant and accurate. At the same time, his musical sensitivity is always apparent and his awareness of developments in musical taste, acute. It is pleasing to see Somervell’s initial contribution to setting Housman fairly recognised and, by taking his survey of musical settings to the present day, including via YouTube, Parker brings an immediacy to the later pages.

It is not for this writer to make a detailed critique of the literary criticism within the book. Suffice to say that commentary on the poems themselves is both detailed and stimulating for the non-specialist. My own reaction, as someone who has set Housman, to the chapter on the poems, was to vow to return to read that section again with detailed attention to each reference, to see what I may have missed.  The literary references are many and fascinating. The comparison of Arthur Symons’ London-inspired Silhouettes with A Shropshire Lad is another avenue to be followed up as a potentially inspiring stimulus to musical ideas.

Perhaps two overarching themes typify the success of the book. Firstly, the convincing explanation of how, because of the way the myriad, diverse threads shown in the book became intricately and dynamically intertwined, a work focused initially on the Boer War became so indelibly associated with World War 1. Secondly, and importantly, the exposition of Englishness that is at the heart of the book. Maybe aided by the author’s impish reminders that Housman Country was not really in a sense the poet’s own (and maybe that physical detachment keeps mawkishness at bay), but primarily because of the author’s integrity, the book celebrates Englishness without a hint of crass nationalism. The book’s cast of literary, musical, political and artistic figures are mostly linked by exploration, in their own way, of Englishness, which Peter Parker plausibly proposes as established deep in, and characterised by, Housman country.