Golden friends 

In times of loss, a sentimental poem retains its power.

With rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

Decades ago, making fun of poetry that seemed too sentimental to us tough guys and gals, we’d often quote from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad — lines like “And I am two-and-twenty, / And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.” We were cool.

Now our temperatures have risen, and we’ve written ridiculous lines ourselves; and so, some months ago, after pulling out my yellowing 35¢ Bard & Avon paperback of A Shropshire Lad, I found tears welling up as I read through Housman’s poems of loss and longing. I was just looking for something about athletes for a piece on Joe Paterno, but it’s a slim book and I read the whole thing, smiling at favorite lines like “And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s ways to man.”

Housman came to mind again last week as I sat at my scarred old desk and began writing out this year’s Christmas cards (with Jeanne’s lonely sailboat on it), struck with the names in our address book that I haven’t had the heart to scratch out. The number of departed friends has been growing so fast that Jeanne’s started a list that she calls The Honor Roll. On some melancholy evenings, we pull it out and stare at it, like visitors in front of the Vietnam Wall.

One of the most golden was Gertrud Detweiler, who grew up in Nazi Germany, and saw her Gypsy father dragged from the house by the Gestapo. She never saw him again. Despite the insanity of those war years, Gertrud grew up to be a brave, funny and loyal American citizen. Lately the papers have been full of the insanity at Newtown: 20 children executed in cold blood, reminding me of a story Gertrud told me. When she was 8 years old, she was chased down a street in Hamburg by an American fighter pilot, his machine guns blazing. He may have been strafing the street, but she believed he was aiming directly at her, intent on killing a German, any German. “Insanity” is the right word to use in these situations — but we should remember Christian Germans elected Hitler, and Christian Americans, despite decades of these senseless slaughters, elected the legislators that support our merciless gun laws.

Housman’s young men mostly fought and died, like his brother Herbert, in the first Anglo-Boer War (1890-91), but it wasn’t until World War I and its immense senseless slaughter — whole battalions mowed down by the newly invented machine guns — that A Shropshire Lad became a best-seller. Former American Poet Laureate Maxine Kumin wrote that “as a moody adolescent” she memorized large patches of Housman’s “mortality-obsessed” book, and thought “With Rue My Heart is Laden” was “the saddest poem in the English language.”

When I think of Gertrud and the “golden friends” we’ve recently lost, I feel the same way.

Housman was familiar with Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Cymbeline, best remembered for a lovely song with the lines “Golden lads and girls all must, / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” This doleful tune is about a supposedly dead boy (Fidele) who’s really a girl (Imogen) disguised as a boy, further complicated by the fact that in Shakespeare’s day, Imogen’s part would have been played by a young man — giving us a young man playing the part of a young woman pretending to be a young man. Housman would have both felt the anguish and seen the wit of Shakespeare’s song.

Housman’s repressed homosexuality was common in those days, and understandable. Shortly after A Shropshire Lad was published, Oscar Wilde was accused by his young lover Alfred Douglas of being a “somdomite” [sic]; Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor, wrecking his career and his health.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter if Housman was thinking of fallen soldiers, or his own loneliness, or the senseless death of any young person: all that matters is that the poem still speaks to uncounted readers, each one with his or her own sad and distinct story, and brings recognition and relief.

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

—Both quotes from A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

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