A Shropshire Lad
As someone educated in the classical tradition, the name of A.E. Houseman has been familiar to me for years but until this Easter I had never read his poetry.
Houseman is an interesting figure. Born in 1859 in Bromsgrove he became one of the great classical scholars of his generation (and that was something in his generation) ending up as Professor of Latin, first at University College London and subsequently at Cambridge. However, it was nearly not to be. After winning a scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford and securing a first in the first set of exams there he completely bombed the second half of the course, leaving the University without a degree. There is no clear rationale for what happened to him but an unrequited passion for his roommate Moses Jackson, appears to have been one factor. After Oxford he secured a job at the Patent Office and had to work his way back into academia through dint of private scholarship of such a quality that in 1892 he was offered the chair at UCL.
Houseman did not make much of himself as poet and yet he has become one of the best loved and evocative English poets of the late 19th and 20th century. His first and most famous book of poems “A Shropshire Lad” had to be published, for the first time, at his own expense but have never been out of print since. He only published only one other book of poems in his own lifetime “Last Poems”, which came out in 1922. Further works were published, by his brother, after his death in 1936.
Despite his background as a classical scholar his poetry has a simple and very accessible quality. Much of it has a melancholy tone and there is a sense which “The Shropshire Lad” foreshadows the writing of the First World War poets. The theme of the soldier leaving for war only to find a grave in a foreign field is a frequent one in Houseman’s poems although, for him, this is part of a wider reflection on the transient nature of life rather than a commentary on a particular conflict.
Like other writers in this period Houseman is deeply interested in the English countryside, in his case that of Shropshire, which forms, in turn, both the setting and subject matter of his poems. I too have been fond of this county, sitting as it does on the route between Birmingham and Wales. Houseman sees the landscape as the holder of perennial truths, an unchanging backdrop to the more ephemeral deeds of the human characters who pass through it. There is a beautiful poem in the Shropshire Lad about the Roman city of Wroxeter. I spent three summers myself working on excavations at the site in the 1980s and was held in awe by the powerful presence of the Wrekin on one side and Wenlock Edge on the other which would have looked little different for the Roman inhabitants of the city. So Houseman describes a gale on Wenlock Edge and the feeling its creates as something shared by Roman and modern visitor alike:
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 it will soon be gone.
Today the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
Another set of poems contrasts the comfort provided by the familiar people and countryside of Shropshire with the soulless metropolis of London. Houseman captures poignantly the deep sense of homesickness which many must have felt who have come from the country to the big cities of the world.
But here in London streets I ken
No such helpmates only men;
And these are not in plight to bear
If they would, another’s care.
He also writes some very moving poems about outsiders and those who, though fate more than anything else, have fallen outside society’s rules. There is a powerful poems identifying with a young man condemned to be hung in Shrewsbury Gaol.
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.
Another poem reflects on those who have taken their own lives:
Dead clay that did me kindness
I can do none to you
But only wear for breastknot
The flower of sinners’ rue.
A final, rather enigmatic poem perhaps alluding to his own sexuality, describes the difficulty of living to other laws than those which society has ordained to be right.
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
A final theme which Houseman describes with great insight is the contrast between the naïve optimism of youth and the more worldly wise but ultimately sadder thoughts of the older man. Houseman is deeply absorbed by the idea of death and the ultimate futility of human labour. He retains however a fondness for the young person’s hope and for the fact that an endearing even if ultimately frustrated sense of hopefulness survives in each generation. So in his poem “The first of May” published as part of his “Last Poems” Houseman describes how it is now a different generation which, just like his, make their way to Ludlow Fair on the 1st of May.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say
Theirs now the laughter
The fair, the first of May.
Ay yonder lads are yet
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.