Housman’s Razor

Robert Graves -- "A. E. Housman's test of a true poem was simple and practical; does it make the hairs at one's chin bristle if one repeats it silently while shaving."

According to Graves, "The reason why the hairs stand on end, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine when one writes or reads a true poem is that a true poem is necessarily an invocation of the White Goddess, or Muse, the Mother of All Living, the ancient power of fright or lust -- the female spider of the queen-bee whose embrace is death." I wouldn't want to go all the way with Graves on this one, but it interests me that certain poems induce horripilation and related physiological effects.

Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is the classic example. If the following lines cross my mind while I'm following a road across a moor in the dark, my pace reliably accelerates --

"Like one, that on a lonely road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn'd round, walks on
And turns no more his head:
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread."

The generations of poets immediately rebelling against Housman also give me goosebumps sometimes. Eliot does it --

"There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust."

So does Auden --

"'O where are you going?' said reader to rider,
That valley is fatal where furnaces burn,
Yonder's the midden whose odours will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return."

But I think not many poets in the last half-century have aimed for this kind of effect. For late-twentieth-century examples, one might have to look not to poetry but to the lyrics of rock songs?

3 thoughts on “Housman’s Razor”

  1. What Housman actually said — “Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.”

    Have improvements in shaving technology rendered this effect obsolete? Housman probably used a straight razor or whatever…

  2. Contemporary English-language poetry started to make some sense to me only after I heard "An American Prayer" by (sort of) The Doors :))

  3. You can read Housman's Leslie Stephen lecture "The Name and Nature of Poetry" here — http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~martinh/poems/name-nature.html — the part about shaving is the most-quoted part.

    Olga, are you saying that "An American Prayer" is only sort of by the Doors or that contemporary English-language poetry only sort of makes sense?! But seriously, thanks for mentioning "An American Prayer" — http://www.allthelyrics.com/lyrics/doors/an_american_prayer-lyrics-1054159.html– — the lyrics read like a very rough draft of what, a few hundred drafts later, might develop into a poem somewhat derivative of "The Wasteland." But of course Jim Morrison had no need to redraft it — he could rely on music to convey the requisite emotion. The words are just for extra flavor.

    Patti Smith does that kind of thing with rather more focus.

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