When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Talk not of wasted affection; affection never was wasted,” he expressed a romantic ideal ever-present in nineteenth century poetry: the ideal that naive romantic love should be valued above all else. This ideal has persisted to the present, , presenting itself in innumerable pop songs and romantic comedies; working itself so deeply into the psychology of Western culture that those unaffected may consider it a cult. In the nineteenth century, this romanticising of young love was often imbued with a languid, yearning quality; and this quality was often invoked by combining these ideals with another popular theme in Victorian poetry: the mystery and romance surrounding death. In nineteenth century romantic poetry. young love was such a serious, all-consuming quality that sometimes suicide was an acceptable, or nearly acceptable, way of dealing with the ensuing heartbreak. While A.E Housman’s poem 1896 poem “ When I was One-And-Twenty” does not glorify -or even discuss- suicide, it fits perfectly into this romantic tradition; weighing itself down with the seriousness of youthful heartbreak. In this poem, a twenty-two year old man remembers advice he was given by an old man when he was twenty-one regarding the perils of love, and mourns the ensuing heartbreak that came from not heeding this advice. Housman, who was in his late thirties when he composed this poem (neither elderly nor especially elderly), is celebrating the tragic beauty and rawness associated with losing one’s first love, imbuing the situation with an elegance and languor which admiring readers can happily relate to their own experiences. In doing so, however, he is opening himself up to the criticisms of objective and seasoned observers who – although they probably remember going through these experiences themselves – are experienced enough to know that heartbreak is neither the most distressing nor disabling part of human experience. Consequently, Housman’s work has inspired many parodies. Hugh Kingsmill’s “ What, Still Alive At Twenty-two?”, written shortly after the first world war, was so good that Housman himself pronounced it the best parody of his work. This poem -which eschews the romanticism of late Victorian poetry for a more grizzled, earthy take on young love- warps Housman’s themes, form and linguistic structures to create a more hardened, but also more democratic and realistic viewpoint; a viewpoint which happily captures the socio-political changes in postwar Britain.
As Housman’s theme of the perils of youthful heartbreak is replaced by Kingsmill’s mockery and warning about the perils of taking oneself and one’s romantic problems too seriously, there are a number of other thematic differences between the two poems. First of all, in Kingsmill’s parody the love interest is female and the subject is male, making the poem about a socially condoned, heterosexual relationship. Housman does not specify the gender of the love interest and, given that Housman was homosexual, it’s very easy to interpret a secretiveness and awkwardness about discussing the nature of this relationship openly. Given the degree of persecution of homosexuals experienced in Victorian Britain, this theme of hidden, suppressed love adds a heaviness the original poem that would be ill-suited to a parody. Kingsmill’s parody , however, also has a dark theme hidden beneath its glib surface; the idea that brutality and violence is an everyday, familiar occurence that should be understood and accepted, but not made worse through self-destruction or endless mulling over minor personal tragedies. Kingsmill is writing a missive from a world that lies in ruins, for an audience that has witnessed and come to terms with the darker aspects of life. Kingsmill’s new theme is about the power of humour to overcome tragedy, and about how we must not choose not to dwell on personal tragedy. It’s an uplifting and wise theme, but one that came at enormous...
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