Monday, March 26, 2007

Terence Hearsay; or, the Benefits of a Friend's Discerning Eye

When at St. John's College, Oxford, in the 1870s, A. E. Housman became friends with Alfred W. Pollard and eventually, in their fourth year, shared five rooms with another student in an old house near the College. Their friendship continued though they both went their separate and successful ways. Pollard went on to become a well-known bibliographer and scholar, employee of the British Museum, and editor of the journal The Library for many years. While Housman eventually found his place with a slim volume of verse and a position as a scholar. That slim volume of verse that A. E. Housman had prepared for publication was initially entitled The Poems of Terence Hearsay. Alfred W. Pollard modestly recalled the event for a publication of reminiscences of Housman published in 1937:

Housman knew that books of mine had been published by Messrs. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., who had gained rather a special reputation for bringing out prettily printed volumes of verse, and asked me to arrange with them for its publication at his expense. Of course there was no difficulty as to this (I think Housman put down 30 pounds and got it back with a small profit), but my being entrusted with the manuscript led me to suggest that Terence was not an attractive title, and that in the phrase "A Shropshire Lad," which he had used in the poem, he had much a better one. He agreed at once, and I think the change helped.
Pollard was correct in seeing Terence as a tentative title, a pretense on the part of the poet, and thankfully provided that necessary discerning viewpoint for for his friend when it was most needed. The Shropshire Lad was indeed published in 1896, the same year as the photograph of Housman (above) was taken in London. The print run was 500 copies, of which 150 were shipped to the United States. Only 381 copies were sold by the end of the first year. A. E. Housman's brother, Laurence, author and playwright, recalled how he purchased the remaining 6 copies of the first edition two and a half years after publication, and then thirty years later, when he started Housmans Bookshop, he began to sell them at 12, 20, 30 and then 70 pounds for a signed copy. Checking values in today's market, it seems a signed copy of A Shropshire Lad is somewhere in the $25,000.00 + range.
The Housman brothers were on occasion mistaken for each other; The Dean of Westminister mistook A. E. for Laurence, and once the Headmaster of Westminister mistook Laurence for A. E. In the year before A. E. Housman's death, his brother told him of another occasion:
I had been giving a lecture--not on poetry; at the end a man came up to me and asked if I was the author of A Shropshire Lad. I said, "No." "Any relation?" "Yes, I am his brother." "Ah, well," was the kind reply, "that's something to be proud of. I, too, have a brother who is the better man."
A. E. Housman was born on this date, March 26, 1859.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

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