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A Shropshire Lad

THE POEMS • Quotes

A Shropshire Lad original coverFirst edition
By A.E. Housman
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First publication

Literary form
Poetry collection

Writing language

Author's country

Sixty-three poems, 8,420 words

Poems of the empire to die for

A Shropshire Lad hasn't much to do with Shropshire. A.E. Housman famously had little personal acquaintance with that part of the English countryside, and his local references in his "Shropshire" poems are either generically applicable to most rural landscapes or outright mistaken. Small matter to readers who have taken this poetry to heart.

Nor, it can be added, does A Shropshire Lad have much to do with any particular "lad". Apparently, Housman's original conception was of poems from the perspective of a young writer, the "lad" of the title, identified as Terence in two of the sixty-three poems.

Most characters in the poems are young men passing from the innocence and promise of youth into the harsh realities of adulthood, war and mortality.

Or to put a finer point on it: A Shropshire Lad is about death. Compulsively so.

Housman writes here as if he's part of a generation lost to war, despite creating these poems in the mid-1890s, a period of relative peace for his country. (Though, to be sure, the British Empire was never entirely at peace. Rebellions were always stirring up in England's African, Indian and Asian colonies, and soldiers were continually shipped abroad to hash them out).

For Queen and country

Although Housman personally held conservative views, A Shropshire Lad is not so much celebrating the greatness of an ever-expanding British Empire, like the works of some earlier writers, but rather shoring up the empire as cracks were appearing in its world-dominating delusions. The focus on death and sacrifice, rather than on triumph and reward is telling. An ambivalence runs the poems, regardless of what the poet thought he was conveying.

The poems' preoccupation with the death of young Anglo males didn't immediately resonate with the public still imbued with the imperial ideals. But they gained wider popularity during the major conflicts to come, including the Boer War (1899–1902) and the Great War (1914–1919), shaking the British self-image. This was especially so during the latter, the bloodiest conflict so far, which produced the traumatized former soldiers and post-war writers actually designated the Lost Generation in the 1920s.

But it could also be argued Housman in A Shropshire Lad is helping romanticize war and premature death.

The first poem in the collection is titled "1887", referring to the year of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee after fifty years on England's throne. The verses acknowledge the spilling of blood in defence of the monarch, but call on the living to fire up beacons for the occasion. The "Lads of the Fifty-Third" infantry regiment are urged to sing the national anthem for the queen:

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you've been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will Save the Queen.

About as patriotic as you could get, it seems. Or is it purposely over the top? Is there a critical note here, an undercurrent of irony? Alas, not to the writer's own awareness. Housman later denied any such satiric intent and stressed his unshaken English patriotism.

The same debate could continue as, with a few digressions for purely pastoral appreciations, subsequent poems call for recruits, urge soldiers into action and glorify the young, dead martyrs.

A sentimentally tragic view

Not all the death-dealing poems of The Shropshire Lad concern the military. The verses leave the parade grounds and battlefields to present the civilian side of young men's lives, though service continues to intrude. The best-known of these poems is "To an Athlete Dying Young". Lamenting the passing of a local sports hero, without specifying the circumstances of the death (though we could guess), the poet calls the deceased lucky for going before his youthful glory could fade.

Bringing up death to contrast with youthful enthusiasms is a trick done over and over in A Shropshire Lad. As the poems progress, blind patriotism gives way to a sentimentally tragic view of life in general. Young men are laid in their graves as a result of both military and non-military events: sibling rivalry, criminality or unspecified causes.

Housman was a scholar of classical literature and the style of A Shropshire Lad is often said to be inspired by the Greek and Roman poets. This emulation may explain some of the simplicity of his writing and his glib paradoxes of life and death. You may also wonder whether the "elegance" of his versification, his return to ancient style, demonstrates a poet of that day ignoring contemporary decadence, or whether a reactionary longing for an illusory past.

But the poems also show strains of William Shakespeare's verse, especially in its iambic metre (though with shorter lines) and of Robert Burns's balladry. Reminiscent too of Burns and of other writers working in folk styles is Housman's scattered use of common voices and vernacular expression.

The main voice, of course, is that of the purported poet-narrator, the "Shropshire lad" supposedly named Terence. You could argue whether this is really Housman's voice or that of a character adopted by Housman. But in some of the book's liveliest verses the poet is presented as reporting the words spoken to him by a local farmer or villager, undercutting the high seriousness of Terence/Housman. One such piece chastises the poet for his melancholic moping:

"Terence, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can't be much amiss, 'tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache...."

So Housman has a sense of humour after all, an unexpectedly self-deprecating one at that. This may lead you to seek out other instances of the poet expressing any misgivings. And it may lead you to find the darkness of his vision of life springs from a darkness—of a least a struggle between light and darkness—within:

If in the breathless night I too
Shiver now, 'tis nothing new....

More than I, if truth were told,
Have stood and sweated hot and cold,
And through their reins in ice and fire
Fear contended with desire....

But from my grave across my brow
Plays no wind of healing now,
And fire and ice within me fight
Beneath the suffocating night.

Granted, he seems to be adopting the voice of the recent dead here but the sense of identification with the first-person account is clear.

Despite Housman's adopted journalistic detachment at times, and despite his confidently declared jingoism at other times, the personality of an unsettled soul is still evident.

— Eric


THE POEMS • Quotes