Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In “1887,” the first poem in A Shropshire Lad, Housman establishes the main themes, the main technique, the chief setting, and the main mood that would characterize the remainder of the sixty-three short poems that constitute the collection. For this reason, “1887” is often referred to as a “frame poem,” along with poems LXII and LXIII, for a very deliberately arranged collection.
During the otherwise festive occasion of the eve of Queen Victoria’s Golden Anniversary, when others are poised for, or already engaged in, celebration, the persona in Housman’s poem adds a strong sense of melancholy as he recalls the past and ponders the future. In short, there is considerable lament over the fact that many friends have made the transition from life to death, many by the horrors of war. The speaker fully understands that the soldiers have performed their duty as “saviours” of the queen and England proper, but he interjects a tone of bitterness that on this happiest of occasions they could not join in the celebration because “themselves they could not save.”
Despite the gloominess of the poem, however, the speaker pledges continued love and allegiance to England, the queen, and God, seemingly fully realizing that death is a natural part of life and that life, despite its many travails, must be endured. Thus, the poem ends with a grave admonition that
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.
Indeed, England’s continued success and the queen’s protection are dependent upon the strength of the Shropshire lads and their many counterparts.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Allison, A. E “The Poetry of A. E. Housman.” Review of English Studies 19 (1943): 276-284.
Bishop, John Peale. “The Poetry of A. E. Housman.” Poetry 56 (June, 1940): 144-153.
Bloom, Harold, ed. A. E. Housman. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Braithwaite, William Stanley. Introduction to A Shropshire Lad. Boston: International Pocket Library, 1919.
Brooks, Cleanth. “The Whole of Housman.” Kenyon Review 3 (1941): 105-109.
Efrati, Carol. The Road of Danger, Guilt, and Shame: The Lonely Way of A. E. Housman. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.
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Holden, Alan W., and J. Roy Birch, eds. A. E. Housman: A Reassessment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Page, Norman. A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography. New York: Schocken Books, 1983.
Spender, Stephen. “The Essential Housman.” Horizon 1 (1940): 245-301.