A Shropshire Lad (Masterplots, Revised Second Edition)
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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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Shropshire. The sheep farming county of Shropshire provides the backdrop for Housman’s poems and functions as the nurturing mother country of the personas depicted in his verses. While bucolic and peaceful in many respects, the harsher aspects of farm life, which include theft and fratricide, are also evoked. Many natural features of the landscape, which include rivers such as the Severn, Teme, and Clun, and mountains such as Bredon Hill, Wenlock Edge, and Titterstone Clee, are woven into the poems. These natural elements contribute to a feeling of homesickness and the longing for friends and youth, which permeate Housman’s work.
*Ludlow. Small Shropshire town. Ludlow, and to a lesser extent Shrewsbury, provide urban touches to Housman’s poems; but these were very small towns in 1896, when the collection was first published. Ludlow, a market town, is the site of fairs and taverns where Housman’s lads can drink beer and socialize with one another, thereby providing the congenial memories looked back on with fondness in the poetry.
*London. Great Britain’s capital city is depicted as a bustling metropolis with values different from those in the country. Here country lads may get lost, sometimes never returning to the solace of Shropshire.
Remote foreign lands
Remote foreign lands. Exotic places such as the Nile River, where Shropshire soldiers are serving the British Empire, are occasionally used to evoke homesickness for Shropshire.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Graves, Richard Perceval. A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980. An outstanding critical biography, which connects Housman’s work as a Latin scholar and teacher with his poetry, most particularly with A Shropshire Lad.
Leggett, B. J. Housman’s Land of Lost Content. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970. A good overview of A Shropshire Lad with close readings of individual poems. Considers carefully the themes of change, loss, and the quest for permanence in Housman’s poetry. Includes an excellent bibliography.
Leggett, B. J. The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman: Theory and Practice. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978. A reevaluation of Housman’s place in the canon of modern poetry. A Shropshire Lad is the core work discussed in evaluating Housman’s relationship to modern critics such as C. Day Lewis and T. S. Eliot. Housman’s own works of criticism are considered in the light of his poetry.
Marlow, Norman. A. E. Housman, Scholar and Poet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958. Considers influences on Housman’s poetry and focuses in particular on A Shropshire Lad. Examines the influence of Greek and Latin poetry, Shakespeare, the Bible, John Milton, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Heinrich Heine, Rudyard Kipling, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Andrew Lang, as well as folk influences such as border ballads and folk songs.
Page, Norman. A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography. New York: Schocken Books, 1983. Discusses Housman’s poetry, especially A Shropshire Lad, as a special strain divorced from everyday life although influenced by it. Shows that Housman’s poetry was written and revised over long periods and therefore difficult to correlate with his life.