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.
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...
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