When I was courting my future wife, I sometimes recited or read poetry to her. Really. Honest. I did.
Some of it had been written by the respected Cambridge University classical scholar and textual critic A. E. Housman (d. 1936), who, an agnostic as regards religious belief, was also well-known for his cycle of pessimistic, death-obsessed poems entitled A Shropshire Lad. I like these poems very much, and I’ve even paid my respects at Housman’s tomb in St. Lawrence’s Church, Ludlow, Shropshire.
Here, though, is another of my favorites. I think I found it in a collection of Housman’s letters to his brother, or some such place. It, um, often fails to be included in anthologies of his serious verse:
When Adam day by day
Woke up in paradise,
He always used to say
“Oh, this is very nice.”
But Eve from scenes of bliss
Transported him for life.
The more I think of this
The more I beat my wife.
My enthusiastic recitation of those lines has remained in my wife’s memory all these many years. I can’t imagine why. (She still married me, though — which, come to think of it, is far more mysterious.)
The trouble is, of course, that, in our day, spousal abuse is far too public an issue for any decent male to feel very comfortable making a joke about it. And that’s good, obviously. (But what, I wonder, is this entry saying about me?) Real wife-beating is a serious matter, and a crime before God as well as under the law. Which means that I’m running something of a risk by publicly failing to be solemnly indignant about A. E. Housman’s doggerel. But I hate to see a funny little poem forgotten, all the same. I’m not inclined to grant abusive husbands even that little triumph.
An analogous problem taints a hilarious story by the Edwardian satirist Saki (H. H. Munro, killed in 1916, near Beaumont-Hamel, France, by a German sniper), whose short stories I admire greatly. It’s called “The Unrest Cure.” Hitler’s Holocaust has made enjoyment of the story a bit awkward, I’m afraid. (Which is putting things mildly.) But I still heartily recommend it. Don’t let Hitler win a victory. Just don’t take the story seriously. It was never meant to be taken seriously.