A. E. Housman

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A. E. Housman World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2059

Housman’s poems all seem to be motivated by one of several emotions: grief and sadness over loss, unrequited love, and a strong sense of fate or destiny. Within this narrow focus, however, Housman created many memorable poems, several of near classic standing, and all imbued with a sense that life, after all, is something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Housman is frequently termed a minor poet. This classification results in large part from Housman’s refusal, or inability, perhaps, to move beyond a handful of themes and to his limiting himself to the lyrical ballad for much of his poetry. Furthermore, the entire corpus of Housman’s published poems consists of 178 short works, far fewer in number than most career poets. It must be noted, however, that the bulk of Housman’s poetry was produced within the ten-year period from 1892 to 1903, and that Housman perhaps preferred praise for his scholarly studies of the Roman poet Manilius.

Despite Housman’s status as a minor poet, however, A Shropshire Lad is among the most popular books of poems in the English language. In this short collection of sixty-three poems is found the essential Housman: the superb lyric form, the precise, unornamented language, the extraordinary simplicity in style and tone, and the hauntingly poignant mood that characterizes nearly every poem.

A Shropshire Lad is certainly no haphazardly arranged collection of poems; indeed, it is a consciously arranged selection, both chosen and numbered to reflect and emphasize several recurrent themes, among them, praise and celebration of rural life, the constancy of death, especially the death of the young, love lost or unreturned, the special qualities of the soldier, and suicide. These themes are also addressed in Last Poems, as well as those poems collected and published posthumously by Housman’s younger brother, Laurence Housman.

A typical Housman poem, then, may have a fixation on death, on lost love, or on the unbearableness of human life. Furthermore, Housman’s persona of Terence Hearsay figures importantly in many of the poems as one who understands the pulse of Shropshire society and who feels compelled to articulate its feelings, concerns, and general way of life. Terence Hearsay, name symbolism included, gives the poems authority, authenticity, and objectivity.

From a technical standpoint, Housman’s poems are quite often miniatures wrought to perfection. The lines are short, even, and to the point; furthermore, the language is clear and direct. Yet for all the simplicity of form, language, and theme, there is a formal elegance to Housman’s poetry, from the regularity of the meter to the precision of the rhyme. Note, for example, in the opening poem of A Shropshire Lad, the following stanza:

From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,The shires have seen it plain,From north and south the sign returnsAnd beacons burn again.

The iambic pattern alternates between tetrameter and trimeter lines; alternate lines rhyme as well, giving the poem a lyrical impression; and the combination of these features, then, gives the very high degree of formality to the poems. This first poem repeats the stanzaic form above in seven additional stanzas, and many of the poems throughout the collection repeat the pattern, or a similar one, as well.

Housman did not venture or experiment beyond the miniature poems in his first collection. In subsequent collections, rather than showing any broad growth as a poet, Housman only varied the themes and forms that had established his reputation as a poet many years earlier. These later poems perhaps provided more depth to the examination of these themes. Further, Housman’s body of work seems intent on advancing the idea that limitation and concentration make for excellent poetry. In the final analysis, these characteristics are what readers remember and appreciate about Housman.

“1887”

First published: 1896 (collected in A Shropshire Lad, 1896)

Type of work: Poem

On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria, the poet muses about the condition of England.

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 notBe 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.

“Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now”

First published: 1896 (collected in A Shropshire Lad, 1896)

Type of work: Poem

In springtime, a young man muses over the brevity of life.

“Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now” is one of the finest examples of Housman’s lyrical poems. The rural setting of the Shropshire woodlands in springtime is a beautiful sight, to behold, with the cherry tree—the loveliest of trees—in full white bloom to celebrate the time of rebirth and rejuvenation associated with Easter. Yet the beauty strikes a chord of melancholy in the speaker, who realizes that life is indeed short; and even if he lives to his full life expectancy, that, too, will be too short a time to behold such splendor as these trees in bloom.

While there is present the popular carpe diem theme in “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” Housman adds to it a somber sense of impending doom as the speaker resolves to view the beauty of the world while he is yet alive. The attitude and the mood that it creates is typically Housman, in that even in the face of immense beauty, there is always the discomfort of knowing that life has no real permanence, that death and doom are, without question, imminent.

“To an Athlete Dying Young”

First published: 1896 (collected in A Shropshire Lad, 1896)

Type of work: Poem

Upon the death of a young runner, the poet celebrates his life and premature death.

“To an Athlete Dying Young” is one of Housman’s most often anthologized poems. Its quiet, melancholy tone, its theme of the comfort of death, and its simplicity of form and style combine to make the poem a classic celebration of release from the difficulties of life.

In this short elegy, written upon the death of a young, celebrated athlete, Housman advances the idea that it is far better to die in one’s prime, while one can be remembered for his or her youthful accomplishments, than to become infirm, forgotten, ignored, or replaced in the memories and hearts of one’s townspeople. With the typical detached, observant tone often employed by Housman, the speaker hails the dead youth as a

Smart lad, to slip betimes awayFrom fields where glory does not stay

who will not suffer the fate of many other

Runners whom renown outranAnd the name died before the man.

Technically speaking, “To an Athlete Dying Young” is indicative of Housman’s gift of poetic craft. The even meter and the taut rhyme add to the deliberate, somber, reflective mood established from the first stanza onward. In addition, contrasting symbols and images—the victory parade and the funeral cortege, the laurel and the rose—add complexity to a deceptively simple poem.

The poem concludes with the projection of what the speaker perceives as victory for the dead young athlete, now a “Townsman of a stiller town”:

And round that early laureled headWill flock to gaze the strengthless deadAnd find unwithered on its curlsThe garland briefer than a girl’s.

Thus, Housman insists that death, especially for youth, is a victory over the impending difficulties, tragedies, and heartbreak that accompany life.

“Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff”

First published: 1896 (collected in A Shropshire Lad, 1896)

Type of work: Poem

A friend chides Terence, the poet figure, about his melancholy poetry, and Terence responds.

“Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff,” poem LXII of A Shropshire Lad, is commonly considered Housman’s apologia. In this next-to-last poem in A Shropshire Lad, Housman moves toward the conclusion of his presentation of his many themes and offers justification for the melancholy tone of his poetry.

The poem is structured as a dialogue between Terence, the poet figure, and one of Terence’s friends, who initially chides Terence for writing poetry that is somber and thought provoking rather than uplifting and celebratory. The friend warns Terence, jestingly, that he is driving his friends “Moping melancholy mad” with his serious poetry, and that they would prefer something happier, “a tune to dance to.”

Terence responds that the purpose of his poetry is not to entertain but to strengthen and instruct. In fact, Terence suggests that if all that his friends want to do is to have a good time, then there is dancing and drinking for them in which to participate, but that these are hardly answers for life’s many problems. Terence claims to know that from personal experience. Therefore, Terence explains, because life is full of uncertainties, heartbreak, and pain, people should prepare themselves accordingly. His poetry, then, is written to prepare each person for “the dark and cloudy day” that each one will surely face.

Terence concludes his response to his friend’s complaint by relating the ancient tale of King Mithridates, who, anticipating that rivals would attempt to poison him, took small amounts of arsenic and strychnine and developed an immunity to them. Thus, when the attempted assassination occurred, Mithridates was prepared to ward off the ill effects of the poison. Likewise, Terence insists that the poetry will help immunize his readers against “the embittered hour” when they come face to face with adversity.

In “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff,” Housman reemphasizes his theme of stoicism and suggests, once again, that life is made bearable by concentrating on its tragedies, and by doing so, one learns to live in the face of adversity.

“Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”

First published: 1922 (collected in Last Poems, 1922)

Type of work: Poem

The poet celebrates heroism.

“Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” is a short, occasional poem of eight lines, one of the many poems that Housman wrote to celebrate the extraordinary bravery of soldiers in the face of great odds. In this poem, the poet honors the British mercenaries, professional soldiers who performed with great valor and heroism at the battles of Ypres during the early stages of England’s entry into World War I.

In short, Housman says that these soldiers, although paid for their work, saved a world that was fast crumbling; further, had it not been for these hired soldiers, much, if not all, would have been lost. Unfortunately, despite being paid for their services, many of the soldiers were killed in battle; those who were not were often victims of the harshest criticism. Housman both laments their predicament and celebrates their most important contributions.

Housman’s antireligious sentiments are also revealed in this poem. These sentiments were no secret and had been expressed in many of the poems in A Shropshire Lad. In “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries,” however, the poet, in the process of applauding the soldiers’ defense, is bitterly critical of a God who would abandon the world, let the heavens fall, and allow the foundations of the world to crumble.

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A. E. Housman Poetry: British Analysis