A E Housman A Shropshire Lad
Housman 1859- 1936
Oh no he wasn’t, you hear me say. I thought he was from Shropshire, in my ignorance, but no, he was born on the outskirts of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire but lived for some time in sight of Wenlock Hills. The title comes from a poem within the book.
Self-published in 1896 and apparently a slow-seller. However, the content touched the heart-strings of families in England as the Boer Wars proceeded and again, strongly, with the duration of the First World War and the years of aftermath.
Housman, a classical scholar, specifically in correction and interpretation of classical text had two other collections published (posthumously) though this volume is the one mostly remembered and regarded. Housman was himself surprised by this success and we see the perchance of a publication being noticed and chiming with the sentiment of the times.
He has been variously reviewed as writing with clarity, simplicity and brevity through which shines a surprising depth of emotion. His classical knowledge and expertise comes to the fore in the poetry and the shades are there for us to follow.
The poems vary in some ways but mostly relate to separation, loss, death and a form of reunion. Interestingly the state of reunion is not as a form of merging but often in the form of companionship, being side-by- side. His was an atheist’s approach to death and disintegration of the body. Acceptance of a state that cannot be changed but despite that statement, of the expectation of love enduring, whatever the circumstance, of one for another. Connections with nature, images and scenery that merit the attention they have received from composers for music and song. Some have allusions to or are directed by Classical themes. The mystery of flowers, Nature and mythology run throughout, a sense of thwarted love, held at arms length that nonetheless stays strong. Bottled emotion, if you like, crystallised in time.
Auden called the poems ‘adolescent’, maybe simply the writing but perhaps he was also suggesting the author was stuck too. Looking back I understand Auden’s comments. (I have not read fully so context not known). Does it undermine or is it statement? Housman does appear to have been a rather distant, tightly buttoned character with no obvious humour anywhere in this poetry. Challenging this idea is the fact that he did write a parody, ‘ Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’ and humorous poems under the title: Unkind to Unicorns. An edition was published twenty years ago, I have not checked availability. So buttoned-up maybe ought to read compartmentalised, like his homosexuality.
One of the few times he spoke about poetry he said that he believed poetry should appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect(Wikipedia) . I certainly have to agree with this. Clearly, his emotions were laid bare in this collection.
Note: The Victorian Web is a site well worth visiting.
For me, this collection was a little disappointing. I have to say I expected something more, never having read other than anthologised poems.
I fully understand how the collection struck the nerves of the population suffering the huge losses of wars in the early Twentieth Century. The writing style is a step away from much Victorian poetry but not dramatically, would have been quite fresh to the Late Victorian and Edwardian readers.
Of course I have to follow with a but: but for me there was no poem that set itself apart, no pyramid to build on. Yes, some poems I like more than others, certain descriptions and usages scattered throughout. Lines to quote and appreciate for their succinct description, some offering additional thought for the reader. Plenty to like but no true satisfaction. It may not have been Housman’s intentional result with this collection but he seems to have located his personal feelings well and truly into it.
Yes, I will dip into this book again, surprisingly, for its elegant sadness and expectation of a sort of peace plus the confidence that life flows on.
some poems from A Shropshire Lad
“Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?”
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
“Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?”
Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.
“Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?”
Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
“Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?”
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
THE WELSH MARCHES
High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
Islanded in Severn stream;
The bridges from the steepled crest
Cross the water east and west.
The flag of morn in conqueror’s state
Enters at the English gate:
The vanquished eve, as night prevails,
Bleeds upon the road to Wales.
Ages since the vanquished bled
Round my mother’s marriage-bed;
There the ravens feasted far
About the open house of war:
When Severn down to Buildwas ran
Coloured with the death of man,
Couched upon her brother’s grave
The Saxon got me on the slave.
The sound of fight is silent long
That began the ancient wrong;
Long the voice of tears is still
That wept of old the endless ill.
In my heart it has not died,
The war that sleeps on Severn side;
They cease not fighting, east and west,
On the marches of my breast.
Here the truceless armies yet
Trample, rolled in blood and sweat;
They kill and kill and never die;
And I think that each is I.
None will part us, none undo
The knot that makes one flesh of two,
Sick with hatred, sick with pain,
Strangling-When shall we be slain?
When shall I be dead and rid
Of the wrong my father did?
How long, how long, till spade and hearse
Put to sleep my mother’s curse?
On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
‘Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
‘Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
Loitering with a vacant eye
Along the Grecian gallery,
And brooding on my heavy ill,
I met a statue standing still.
Still in marble stone stood he,
And stedfastly he looked at me.
“Well met,” I thought the look would say,
“We both were fashioned far away;
We neither knew, when we were young,
These Londoners we live among.”
Still he stood and eyed me hard,
An earnest and a grave regard:
“What, lad, drooping with your lot?
I too would be where I am not.
I too survey that endless line
Of men whose thoughts are not as mine.
Years, ere you stood up from rest,
On my neck the collar prest;
Years, when you lay down your ill,
I shall stand and bear it still.
Courage, lad, ’tis not for long:
Stand, quit you like stone, be strong.”
So I thought his look would say;
And light on me my trouble lay,
And I slept out in flesh and bone
Manful like the man of stone.
THE NEW MISTRESS
“Oh, sick I am to see you, will you never let me be?
You may be good for something, but you are not good for me.
Oh, go where you are wanted, for you are not wanted here.”
And that was all the farewell when I parted from my dear.
“I will go where I am wanted, to a lady born and bred
Who will dress me free for nothing in a uniform of red;
She will not be sick to see me if I only keep it clean:
I will go where I am wanted for a soldier of the Queen.”
“I will go where I am wanted, for the sergeant does not mind;
He may be sick to see me but he treats me very kind:
He gives me beer and breakfast and a ribbon for my cap,
And I never knew a sweetheart spend her money on a chap.”
“I will go where I am wanted, where there’s room for one or two,
And the men are none too many for the work there is to do;
Where the standing line wears thinner and the dropping dead lie thick;
And the enemies of England they shall see me and be sick.”
The vane on Hughley steeple
Veers bright, a far-known sign,
And there lie Hughley people,
And there lie friends of mine.
Tall in their midst the tower
Divides the shade and sun,
And the clock strikes the hour
And tells the time to none.
To south the headstones cluster,
The sunny mounds lie thick;
The dead are more in muster
At Hughley than the quick.
North, for a soon-told number,
Chill graves the sexton delves,
And steeple-shadowed slumber
The slayers of themselves.
To north, to south, lie parted,
With Hughley tower above,
The kind, the single-hearted,
The lads I used to love.
And, south or north, ’tis only
A choice of friends one knows,
And I shall ne’er be lonely
Asleep with these or those.