A Shropshire Lad Essay - Critical Essays

A Shropshire Lad, A. E. Housman

Introduction

A Shropshire Lad A. E. Housman

This entry represents criticism of Housman's A Shropshire Lad. For more information on Housman's life and career, see PC, Volume 2.

Housman's reputation as a poet rests primarily on A Shropshire Lad (1896), a collection of short lyrical ballads set in rural England and focused on the adolescent passions and loss of innocence of a young yeoman. Housman uses the pastoral setting of A Shropshire Lad to explore themes of death, lost love, and the passing of youth in a merciless universe devoid of divine grace or mercy.

Plot and Major Characters

A Shropshire Lad contains sixty-three poems, most of them a page or less in length. As few of the poems were titled by Housman, critics tend to refer to individual poems within the volume by number of the order in which they appear or by the first line, phrase, or word of any given poem. The central character of this verse collection is the Shropshire lad, Terence Hearsay, a young yeoman of Shropshire, England. A Shropshire Lad is pastoral, evoking a strong sense of place in the setting of rural England, peopled by farm laborers, artisans, and country lasses, as well as soldiers who come from such settings. Housman's poetry makes use of colloquial English diction in lyrical verse of traditional form, meter, and rhyme. He frequently uses the four-line ballad stanza, with an alternating rhyme scheme of abab. Also characteristic of Housman's verse are pithy one- to three-line epigrams, as well as dramatic monologues.

Major Themes

Many of the major themes of A Shropshire Lad have been characterized as essentially adolescent. Among Housman's central themes are youthful passions, the loss of innocence, and the passing of youth. Other major themes include the inevitability of death and the destructive nature of time. Time and the passage of time are treated by Housman as agents of loss and death. Time is thus the enemy of youth, friendship, and love. Throughout the volume, Housman expresses a preoccupation with life's transience. The theme of death is expressed through instances of suicide, premature death, and murder. His focus on mortality is presented pessimistically and as inevitable in a harsh, uncaring universe abandoned by God. John W. Stevenson observed that the Shropshire lad symbolizes “man's search for identity in a world he never made.” Youth, though treated by Housman with a degree of sentimentality, is also represented as a bitter period of unrequited love, lost love, and passing beauty. Stevenson commented that the Shropshire lad further symbolizes “the precarious yet certain progress of man from youth to maturity in which always inheres the nostalgic yearning for the simplicity of the past.” Housman's setting of rural Shropshire and his strong sense of place serve to characterize A Shropshire Lad as pastoral. While some critics regard Housman's pastoralism in the tradition of the Romantic poets, others suggest that it is not idealized but rather a setting in which the harsh realities of nature are played out. In light of such pessimism, Housman expresses a sense of urgency by which youth are encouraged to seize the day and experience what life has to offer before it ends.

Critical Reception

Housman is widely recognized as a minor English poet. His enduring literary reputation has been characterized by the contrast of continuing popularity with the reading public and general neglect by critics and scholars. Several critics have tried to account for this strong discrepancy between readers and critics in regard to Housman, which spurred the critic J. B. Priestley to describe A Shropshire Lad as a volume of verse that has been “courted in private and shunned in public.” Critics generally agree that what makes Housman a minor poet is his limited range in tone, theme, and subject matter and his uninventive use of traditional verse forms. Many have observed that Housman's verse never developed beyond the adolescent sensibilities of his earliest work. A number of critics have commented that the poems of A Shropshire Lad are so simple and direct as to preclude the necessity for extensive analysis. B. J. Leggett observed in 1970 that, “No opinion was so predominant among Housman's early commentators as that which asserted that his verses are marked by an essential simplicity of form and thought, and this view is still in evidence today.” Some critics, however, refer to Housman's verse as deceptively simple. Leggett, for example, argued that “Housman's poetry is more subtle and more complex than has been acknowledged by his commentators,” adding, “But only rarely have critics looked beneath the smooth surface of his poems to glimpse the perplexities of his themes and structures.” Others have contended that A Shropshire Lad is in fact transparently simple, with little hidden complexity beneath its surface level simplicity. Many critics agree that Housman, for all his limited range, demonstrates skilled craftsmanship in the creation of traditional verse ballads. However, others, such as A. R. Coulthard, argue that even in the realm of craftsmanship Housman is largely flawed. Coulthard asserted that A Shropshire Lad is rife with awkward diction, odd syntax, lapses in taste, and clichés. According to Coulthard, “Despite Housman's reputation as a craftsman, much of his poetry gives the impression of casual, formulaic composition.”

The popularity of A Shropshire Lad was slow in building. The first edition was published in only five hundred copies, at Housman's own expense. It took two years for this limited edition to sell out. With several subsequent editions, however, the volume gained a broader readership. In the first few years of the twentieth century the popularity of A Shropshire Lad increased dramatically, and the volume eventually became one of the all-time best-selling books of English verse. Early posthumous critical response to Housman was largely negative, as his simple, traditional, romantic themes were at odds with the modernist sensibilities of the 1930s and 1940s. More positive critical attention was often concerned with tracing the autobiographical elements of A Shropshire Lad, based on Housman's own personal experiences. Some critics were particularly interested in the expression of Housman's homosexuality through his verse. Leggett has commented that Housman “has suffered, like Byron, from the fact that his personality is of more interest to many readers than his poetry, and that for some scholars the poetry is valuable only as a key to the personality.” Stevenson concurred, “The history of Housman criticism is almost wholly a history of finding the mystery of the man in his poetry as if it were a key to the private world of the creator of A Shropshire Lad.” Critical discussion of A Shropshire Lad today tends to focus on the phenomenon of its enduring popularity, despite Housman's undisputed status as a minor poet. Various critics have tried to account for both Housman's continuing appeal to readers and persistent neglect by critics. Stevenson, writing in 1986, asserted that Housman's enduring popularity can be accounted for in part because “The Shropshire voice spoke to some far longing in the soul of modern man.” Commentators continue to discuss the specific strengths and weaknesses of A Shropshire Lad, some maintaining that Housman is a more skilled poet than critics give him credit for, and others asserting that his verse is even more seriously flawed than his reputation suggests.

Principal Works

A Shropshire Lad 1896

Last Poems 1922

More Poems [edited by Laurence Housman] 1936

Additional Poems 1937

The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman [edited by John Carter] 1939

The Manuscript Poems of A. E. Housman [edited by Tom Burns Haber] 1955

The Complete Poems of A. E. Housman [Centennial Edition; edited by Tom Burns Haber] 1959

The Making of A Shropshire Lad: A Manuscript Varorium [edited by Tom Burns Haber] 1966

Poetry and Prose: A Selection [edited by F. C. Horwood] 1971

A. E. Housman: Collected poems and Selected Prose [edited by Christopher Ricks] 1988

The Poems of A. E. Housman [edited by Archie Burnett] 1997

The Name and Nature of Poetry (essays) 1933

Thirty Housman Letters to Witter Bynner [edited by Tom Burns Haber] (letters) 1957

A. E. Housman to Joseph Ishill: Five Unpublished Letters [edited by William White] (letters) 1959

A. E. Housman: Selected Prose [edited by John Carter] (prose) 1961

The Letters of A. E. Housman [edited by Henry Mass] (letters) 1970

The Classical Papers of A. E. Housman. 3 vols. [edited by J. Diggle and F. R. D. Goodyear] (essays) 1972

Sir James G. Grazer and A. E. Housman: A Relationship through Letters (letters) 1974

Fifteen Letters to Walter Ashburner (letters) 1976

Criticism

J. B. Priestley (essay date December 1922)

SOURCE: Priestley, J. B. “The Poetry of A. E. Housman.” London Mercury 7, no. 38 (December 1922): 171-84.

[In the following essay, Priestley suggests some reasons why critics have tended to ignore Housman's poetry in discussions of serious literature. He praises both A Shropshire Lad and Last Poems for their unity of mood.]

Mr. A. E. Housman is easily our most surprising poet. His first surprise was A Shropshire Lad itself, one of the most astonishing volumes in a very astonishing literature. It came to us practically a full-grown masterpiece, and the production of what used to be regarded as a lyric poet's maturity. He gave us no interesting...

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John W. Stevenson (essay date October 1956)

SOURCE: Stevenson, John W. “The Pastoral Setting in the Poetry of A. E. Housman.” South Atlantic Quarterly 55, no. 4 (October 1956): 487-500.

[In the following essay, Stevenson examines the element of pastoralism in A Shropshire Lad and concludes that Housman's brand of pastoral is realistic rather than artificial and idyllic.]

An obvious comment on Housman is that he wrote in a pastoral vein; it is more difficult to define the nature of his pastoralism and its contribution to the peculiar and singular achievement of his poetry. Critics have found it hard to explain the quality and texture of his verse, praising him rather for his classical smoothness and...

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John W. Stevenson (essay date winter 1958)

SOURCE: Stevenson, John W. “The Martyr as Innocent: Housman's Lonely Lad.” South Atlantic Quarterly 57, no. 1 (winter 1958): 69-85.

[In the following essay, Stevenson discusses the function and meaning of the main character, as well as the narrative point of view, in A Shropshire Lad. He concludes that the Shropshire lad symbolizes the loss of innocence and man's search for identity.]

It is strange that no one has thought to define the nature and attitude of Housman's characters: his soldiers, his lovers, his rustics. Such people as Ned and Dick turn out to be merely names of the only character of the poems, the Shropshire lad. Unlike names that are usually...

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B. J. Leggett (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Leggett, B. J. Introduction to Housman's Land of Lost Content: A Critical Study of “A Shropshire Lad,” pp. 3-11. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970.

[In the following excerpt, Leggett provides an overview of the critical reception—or lack of critical attention—of Housman's poetry.]

Any assessment of A. E. Housman's present stature as a poet must begin with the well-known but curious fact that his poetry, while it has become widely read and even highly regarded in some circles, has failed to give rise to a significant body of criticism. In an age of close reading and analysis, no systematic study of Housman's poetry has been attempted. The...

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Peter E. Firchow (essay date winter 1980)

SOURCE: Firchow, Peter E. “The Land of Lost Content: Housman's Shropshire.” Mosaic 13, no. 2 (winter 1980): 103-21.

[In the following essay, Firchow discusses the significance of Housman's representations of nature in the pastoral setting of A Shropshire Lad.]

“In 1920, when I was about seventeen,” George Orwell recalled in “Inside the Whale” (1940), “I probably knew the whole of the Shropshire Lad by heart. I wonder how much impression the Shropshire Lad makes at this moment on a boy of the same age and more or less the same cast of mind?” Very little, Orwell hastens to conclude, and goes on to puzzle out what it might have been that...

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Eddy Dow (essay date fall 1982)

SOURCE: Dow, Eddy. “Self-Validation in Housman's A Shropshire Lad LXII (‘Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff’).” Victorian Newsletter (fall 1982): 30-31.

[In the following essay, Dow discusses the style and thematic significance “Terence” (poem LXII) in A Shropshire Lad.]

The first speaker in this poem [A Shropshire Lad] begins his criticism of his friend Terence's poetry with these words:

“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.”

(ll. 1-4)

Thirty-eight lines later, Terence defends his work in...

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Brian Rosebury (essay date autumn 1983)

SOURCE: Rosebury, Brian. “The Three Disciplines of A. E. Housman's Poetry.” Victorian Poetry 21, no. 3 (autumn 1983): 217-28.

[In the following essay, Rosebury describes Housman as a poet of “heartfelt emotion” whose poetry is best when his craftsmanship is suited to its expression. He observes that Housman's poetry is most successful when he avoids argumentation or metaphysical content and instead maintains a consistently serious tone, with visual imagery suited to the mood of the poem.]

The last five years have seen the publication of two important books about A. E. Housman: a thorough and sympathetic biography by Richard Perceval Graves1 and a...

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Robert K. Martin (essay date fall 1984)

SOURCE: Martin, Robert K. “A. E. Housman's Two Strategies: A Shropshire Lad and Last Poems.Victorian Newsletter no. 66 (fall 1984): 14-17.

[In the following essay, Martin observes that Housman employs two different strategies in his poetry for “responding to the situation of the homosexual through the means of his art”; he maintains that Housman expresses a “strategy of survival” in his earlier poetry, and a “strategy of revolt” in his later poetry.]

This essay addresses itself to what I have called Housman's two “strategies”—two ways of responding to the situation of the homosexual through the means of his art. I identify one of...

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John E. Gorecki (essay date May-June 1985)

SOURCE: Gorecki, John E. “An Echo of Herrick in Housman's A Shropshire Lad LXII.” American Notes and Queries 23, nos. 9-10 (May-June 1985): 142-43.

[In the following essay, Gorecki points out that in the poem “Terence” in A Shropshire Lad, Housman makes reference to the poetry of Robert Herrick.]

A. E. Housman's open reference to Milton in A Shropshire Lad LXII, “Terence, this is stupid stuff,” contains an unnoticed echo of “His farewell to Sack” by Robert Herrick. In reply to one critical of his verse, Housman's Terence says that if he wants to feel happy he should take up drinking and that opportunities for it are close at hand:...

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John W. Stevenson (essay date fall 1986)

SOURCE: Stevenson, John W. “The Durability of Housman's Poetry.” Sewanee Review 94, no. 4 (fall 1986): 613-19.

[In the following essay, Stevenson observes that, while considered a minor poet, Housman has enjoyed a broad readership and steady reputation. He attributes the enduring appeal to Housman's poetry to his creation of a character (the Shropshire lad) who speaks to the longings of modern man.]

Establishing hierarchies for writers can be a shifting game, little different from establishing the canon to study literature. If, for example, you cite Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Yeats as major writers, and then list Herrick, Marvell, Christina...

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Terence Allan Hoagwood (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Hoagwood, Terence Allan. “Classical Skepticism in the Poetry of A. E. Housman.” Housman Society Journal 14 (1988): 19-28.

[In the following essay, Hoagwood examines the influence of classical skepticism on the philosophical outlook of Housman's poetry.]

A. E. Housman's poems are so impressively anchored in the emotional and physical life, so colloquial in style and so evidently simple in subject, that a philosophical reading of these poems may at first glance seem paradoxical or impertinent. Beyond the evidence of the poems, Housman's remarks sometimes openly deprecate formal philosophy: ‘Plato's doctrine of Forms or Universals is useless as a way of...

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A. R. Coulthard (essay date fall 1993)

SOURCE: Coulthard, A. R. “The Flawed Craft of A. E. Housman.” Victorian Newsletter, no. 84 (fall 1993): 29-31.

[In the following essay, Coulthard asserts that while many critics have assessed Housman a superb craftsman, his poetry often demonstrates flawed craftsmanship. According to Coulthard, Housman's poetry is rife with awkward diction, odd syntax, lapses in taste, and clichés.]

Most textbooks acknowledge the limited tonal and thematic range of Housman's verse, a deficiency Housman defended in the prefatory piece to More Poems, published the year before his death:

They say my verse is sad: no wonder;
          Its narrow measure spans...

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John W. Stevenson (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: Stevenson, John W. “The State of Letters: A Shropshire Lad Reappraised.” Sewanee Review 105, no. 2 (spring 1997): 244-50.

[In the following essay, Stevenson assesses the enduring popularity of A Shropshire Lad, despite its general neglect by scholars. He observes that the appeal of Housman's poetry lies in his strong sense of place, original main character, and use of traditional rhyme and meter.]

The year 1896, not unlike our own late 1990s, was a time of looking ahead to a new century, as it was a time of looking backward. What was the promise of the coming twentieth century, and what of the nineteenth would be preserved? In England's...

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Alexander David Kurke (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Kurke, Alexander David. “Immortality for a Textual Critic.” Classical and Modern Literature 18, no. 3 (spring 1998): 189-202.

[In the following essay, Kurke offers an interpretation of poem LXIII of A Shropshire Lad, discussing the work in relation to Housman's career as a classics scholar.]

In recognition of Arthur Platt, his former colleague at University College, London, A. E. Housman observed:

A scholar who means to build himself a monument must spend much of his life in acquiring knowledge which for its own sake is not worth having and in reading books which do not in themselves deserve to be...

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Janice Lore (essay date spring 1998)

SOURCE: Lore, Janice. “Housman's ‘Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff …’” Explicator 56, no. 3 (spring 1998): 140-42.

[In the following essay, Lore argues that the Terence in Housman's poem “Terence” of A Shropshire Lad may be a reference to the Roman playwright of that name.]

According to Grant Richards, A. E. Housman's publisher, and Laurence Housman, his brother, A. E. originally intended to call his first volume of verse The Poems of Terence Hearsay. A. W. Pollard, Housman's friend and roommate at Oxford, is credited with talking him out of it and suggesting A Shropshire Lad (L. Housman 71; Richards 13-14). This is the one explanation...

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Elsa Nettels (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Nettels, Elsa. “Youth and Age in the Old and New Worlds: Willa Cather and A. E. Housman.” In Cather Studies, Vol. 4, edited by Robert Thacker and Michael A. Peterman, pp. 284-93. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Nettels discusses the influence of Housman's poetry on the novels of Willa Cather.]

Of all Willa Cather's characters, Godfrey St. Peter, the protagonist of The Professor's House, draws most often on literary sources to express his feelings and perceptions. Embedded in his mind are passages from plays and poems and fictional characters and scenes from novels and short stories brought to the surface of...

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