Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1264
During his lifetime, A. E. Housman was the foremost classicist of Great Britain. He was a professor of Latin, first at the University of London and then at Cambridge University, until his death. During his tenure, he prepared celebrated scholarly editions of Manilius, Juvenal, and Lucan. He achieved these academic...
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- Critical Essays
During his lifetime, A. E. Housman was the foremost classicist of Great Britain. He was a professor of Latin, first at the University of London and then at Cambridge University, until his death. During his tenure, he prepared celebrated scholarly editions of Manilius, Juvenal, and Lucan. He achieved these academic posts through his singular perseverance while working in the civil service, for he had failed his honors examinations at Oxford University. Normally, this failure would have disqualified him for an academic career. Some Housman biographers assert that the unrequited homosexual love he had for a fellow student caused a depression that had resulted in Housman’s disappointing performance.
After his death, Housman’s fame came to rest on two slim collections of poems, A Shropshire Lad and Last Poems (1922). Both collections deal with life’s brevity and the indifference of nature and history to human tragedy. The Boer War (1899) and two world wars, as well as clues left by Housman’s continual revisions of his poems, have encouraged an anti-imperial political reading of the poet’s work, likely to a far greater degree than Housman himself intended when he wrote.
Housman’s general pessimism and disillusionment locates his style closer to that of his contemporaries Thomas Hardy and Matthew Arnold than to Rudyard Kipling, and he is miles apart from the optimism of William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Within Housman’s poetic domain—comprising themes of youth cut short by war, of love disallowed by history, and of peaceful landscapes threatened by turmoil—no poet can compete. The distinctive feature that underpins all of Housman’s poetry is the resigned dispassion, quite distinct from cynicism, with which his narrator portrays his reaction to the human situation.
A Shropshire Lad comprises sixty-three poems. The introductory poem, “1887,” is named for the fiftieth anniversary of Victoria’s accession to the monarchy and introduces the political irony that critics have often assigned to the whole collection. Read superficially, it celebrates God’s preservation of the queen, but it borrows its dominant image, that of the beacons that illuminate the landscape of the empire, from a Greek tragedy: Aeschylus’s Agamemnn (458 b.c.e.; Agamemnon, 1777). In that play, a series of signal fires extends across the Aegean from Troy to Argos to announce Troy’s fall and Agamemnon’s return. Paradoxically, the beacons parallel the flames of the hecatomb that Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra offers to achieve success in her plan to murder him. Housman’s narrator observes that when the flames go out “we” will remember “friends of ours/ who shared the work with God” of saving the queen. Proof of these friends’ contributions exists on the tombstones of Asia and Africa that bear “Shropshire names.”
“Loveliest of Trees” notes the cherry blossoms that appear at Easter. Humanity has a mere seventy years to witness this annual resurrection of life, and the narrator notes that twenty of his have already gone. The cherry is a medieval symbol of feminine love, and the narrator determines that since “fifty springs are little room” he must go about the woodlands immediately “to see the cherry hung with snow.”
“The Recruit” describes a young soldier’s departure from home. When he returns to Ludlow, whether on Sunday or on Monday, the chimes of its churches play “the conquering hero comes.” This allusion to the coronation anthem George Frideric Handel wrote in 1727 for England’s George II is rendered the more ironic when the narrator considers the possibility that the recruit might “come not home at all.”
The untitled Poem XIII dispassionately continues the themes of youth and unrequited love. When the narrator was twenty-one, a wise man counseled him to pay any amount of material riches for love but never to give away his heart. At the age of twenty-two, having done just what the wise man advised against, the youth can only ruefully muse “’tis true, ’tis true.”
The myth of Narcissus, the youth cursed to love his own reflection who dies as a result, is the primary allusion in Poem XV. The narrator advises his beloved not to look into his eyes: The beloved would see reflected in those eye a face he or she would love absolutely and would be as lost as the narrator himself. This poem, like Poem XIII, implies that total love ends with either self-absorption or the obliteration of death.
Housman frequently employs the language of sport in his most tragic poems. In “To an Athlete Dying Young,” he parallels the victory celebration of an athlete carried on the shoulders of those celebrating to the funeral procession bearing that same athlete’s coffin after he dies prematurely. The consolation, a combination of classical allusion and the influence of John Keats, is that the victor’s laurel (the crown worn by victorious Greek and Roman athletes) “withers quicker than the rose,” the symbol of love. The youth thus maintains his youth forever, like the lovers portrayed in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820).
In Poem XXIII, young men come to Ludlow for a fair, seeking girls or drink. They derive from walks of life as diverse as Shropshire allows. Many, however, will adopt the life of a soldier, and some of these will not return from battle, nor “carry their looks or their truth to the grave.” The narrator wishes there were “tokens to tell” those who will meet their end from those who will not. Then, at least, he could “wish them farewell/ and watch them depart on the way that they will not return.” The consolation, such as it is, is that they will “carry back to the coiner the mintage of man” and another generation of handsome young men will arise.
Poem XXVII ironically merges the language of sport with that of the farm. The result approaches the bawdy, and it is from this humor that Housman derives the poem’s irony. In the incrementally repetitive style of a folk ballad, the deceased narrator naively asks whether his team is plowing, then whether football is playing, then whether his girl is happy, and finally whether his friend is hearty. Following each stanza, the friend replies that his team still plows, that football goes on, that his girl is happy, and that the friend himself is quite well. One learns by the poem’s end that the friend is cheering the dead man’s sweetheart. The “team” refers variously to the dead narrator’s friend and his girl, to his football chums, and to his field animals, and plowing assumes a sexual implication.
Poem XXXV describes a still, summer, Shropshire landscape. Though “sleepy with the flow of streams,” the narrator hears the “steady drummer” and “soldiers marching, all to die.” The bugles call, the fife replies, the scarlet files follow, and—as surely as he was born of woman—the narrator too will rise from his sleepy hill and follow.
Poem LIV marks the narrator’s regret for his departed good friends, both “many a rose-lipt maiden/ and many a lightfoot lad.” The boys lie where brooks are “too broad for leaping.” The girls sleep in fields of faded roses.
In Poem LXII, Housman addresses himself as “Terence,” after the Roman comic playwright Publius Terentius Afer. Both poets treat the human comedy, and in this poem the narrator counsels that, just as a bit of poison taken daily brings immunity, so the lessons of serious poems, rather than drunken insensibility, do the soul good. Mithridates took his daily dose of poison and died old. So can readers profit from A Shropshire Lad.