In 1896, the high point of what has been variously called “the yellow ’nineties” and “the Beardsley period,” Victorian poetry was at a low ebb. Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning were both dead; Algernon Charles Swinburne had long since retired to Putney. The Pre-Raphaelite movement had subsided. Thomas Hardy was still known only as a novelist. The minor poets seemed stereotyped into two groups: those who, like Oscar Wilde, produced “Swinburne and water” and those who wrote frail imitations of the French of Paul Verlaine. The only new and original talent was that of Rudyard Kipling, who had already published his two most famous volumes. Yet despite Kipling’s vigor, the spirit of the age was best represented by The Yellow Book and Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712). It was in this atmosphere of “purple patches and fine phrases” that there appeared A Shropshire Lad, a slender volume containing sixty-three short poems—some only eight lines long—written by the Professor of Latin at University College, London.
Twenty-six years later, in a short preface to his second volume, Last Poems, Housman gave some hint of the circumstances attending the composition of A Shropshire Lad. He said that most of the poems had been written “in the early months of 1895” and under a “continuous excitement.” Exactly what he meant by this last phrase has never been quite clear; indeed, his biography, apparently so uneventful, presents some little mystery. Oddly enough for a man who was to become one of the greatest Latinists in the English-speaking world, he did not take honors in his final examinations at Oxford, and as a result he apparently went through a period of depression. The cause of the “continuous excitement” that resulted in A Shropshire Lad remains to be satisfactorily explained.
The reader coming upon the poetry of Housman for the first time will be immediately aware of its extremely narrow range. The poet limited himself to but one theme: the brevity and tragedy of life and the inevitability of death. Spring and youth are beautiful, but they pass quickly, just as the blossoms “stream from the hawthorn on the wind away.” People must expect neither happiness nor justice during the brief span allotted to them; life is cruel and filled with injustice. Misfortunes are, however, the common lot of humankind, for, as he wrote in Last Poems,
The troubles of our proud and angry dust,
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
Humans have no one but themselves to depend on; their own strength must see them through their troubles. They do not have even the hope of immortality, as Horace said in the ode that Housman translated, “pulvis et umbra sumus—we are dust and dreams.” Yet the grave, when finally won, brings peace: “Turn safe to rest, no dreams, no waking.”
The influence of Housman’s classical studies on his own poetry is difficult to measure, and yet it is apparent. Years devoted to the careful editing of texts gave him, if nothing else, a...
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