(Poetry Criticism)

A Shropshire Lad A. E. Housman

This entry represents criticism of Housman's A Shropshire Lad. For more information on Housman's life and career, see PC, Volume 2.

Housman's reputation as a poet rests primarily on A Shropshire Lad (1896), a collection of short lyrical ballads set in rural England and focused on the adolescent passions and loss of innocence of a young yeoman. Housman uses the pastoral setting of A Shropshire Lad to explore themes of death, lost love, and the passing of youth in a merciless universe devoid of divine grace or mercy.

Plot and Major Characters

A Shropshire Lad contains sixty-three poems, most of them a page or less in length. As few of the poems were titled by Housman, critics tend to refer to individual poems within the volume by number of the order in which they appear or by the first line, phrase, or word of any given poem. The central character of this verse collection is the Shropshire lad, Terence Hearsay, a young yeoman of Shropshire, England. A Shropshire Lad is pastoral, evoking a strong sense of place in the setting of rural England, peopled by farm laborers, artisans, and country lasses, as well as soldiers who come from such settings. Housman's poetry makes use of colloquial English diction in lyrical verse of traditional form, meter, and rhyme. He frequently uses the four-line ballad stanza, with an alternating rhyme scheme of abab. Also characteristic of Housman's verse are pithy one- to three-line epigrams, as well as dramatic monologues.

Major Themes

Many of the major themes of A Shropshire Lad have been characterized as essentially adolescent. Among Housman's central themes are youthful passions, the loss of innocence, and the passing of youth. Other major themes include the inevitability of death and the destructive nature of time. Time and the passage of time are treated by Housman as agents of loss and death. Time is thus the enemy of youth, friendship, and love. Throughout the volume, Housman expresses a preoccupation with life's transience. The theme of death is expressed through instances of suicide, premature death, and murder. His focus on mortality is presented pessimistically and as inevitable in a harsh, uncaring universe abandoned by God. John W. Stevenson observed that the Shropshire lad symbolizes “man's search for identity in a world he never made.” Youth, though treated by Housman with a degree of sentimentality, is also represented as a bitter period of unrequited love, lost love, and passing beauty. Stevenson commented that the Shropshire lad further symbolizes “the precarious yet certain progress of man from youth to maturity in which always inheres the nostalgic yearning for the simplicity of the past.” Housman's setting of rural Shropshire and his strong sense of place serve to characterize A Shropshire Lad as pastoral. While some critics regard Housman's pastoralism in the tradition of the Romantic poets, others suggest that it is not idealized but rather a setting in which the harsh realities of nature are played out. In light of such pessimism, Housman expresses a sense of urgency by which youth are encouraged to seize the day and experience what life has to offer before it ends.

Critical Reception

Housman is widely recognized as a minor English poet. His enduring literary reputation has been characterized by the contrast of continuing popularity with the reading public and general neglect by critics and scholars. Several critics have tried to account for this strong discrepancy between readers and critics in regard to Housman, which spurred the critic J. B. Priestley to describe A Shropshire Lad as a volume of verse that has been “courted in private and shunned in public.” Critics generally agree that what makes Housman a minor poet is his limited range in tone, theme, and subject matter and his uninventive use of traditional verse forms. Many have observed that Housman's verse never developed beyond the adolescent sensibilities of his earliest work. A number of critics have commented that the poems of A Shropshire Lad are so simple and direct as to preclude the necessity for extensive analysis. B. J. Leggett observed in 1970 that, “No opinion was so predominant among Housman's early commentators as that which asserted that his verses are marked by an essential simplicity of form and thought, and this view is still in evidence today.” Some critics, however, refer to Housman's verse as deceptively simple. Leggett, for example, argued that “Housman's poetry is more subtle and more complex than has been acknowledged by his commentators,” adding, “But only rarely have critics looked beneath the smooth surface of his poems to glimpse the perplexities of his themes and structures.” Others have contended that A Shropshire Lad is in fact transparently simple, with little hidden complexity beneath its surface level simplicity. Many critics agree that Housman, for all his limited range, demonstrates skilled craftsmanship in the creation of traditional verse ballads. However, others, such as A. R. Coulthard, argue that even in the realm of craftsmanship Housman is largely flawed. Coulthard asserted that A Shropshire Lad is rife with awkward diction, odd syntax, lapses in taste, and clichés. According to Coulthard, “Despite Housman's reputation as a craftsman, much of his poetry gives the impression of casual, formulaic composition.”

The popularity of A Shropshire Lad was slow in building. The first edition was published in only five hundred copies, at Housman's own expense. It took two years for this limited edition to sell out. With several subsequent editions, however, the volume gained a broader readership. In the first few years of the twentieth century the popularity of A Shropshire Lad increased dramatically, and the volume eventually became one of the all-time best-selling books of English verse. Early posthumous critical response to Housman was largely negative, as his simple, traditional, romantic themes were at odds with the modernist sensibilities of the 1930s and 1940s. More positive critical attention was often concerned with tracing the autobiographical elements of A Shropshire Lad, based on Housman's own personal experiences. Some critics were particularly interested in the expression of Housman's homosexuality through his verse. Leggett has commented that Housman “has suffered, like Byron, from the fact that his personality is of more interest to many readers than his poetry, and that for some scholars the poetry is valuable only as a key to the personality.” Stevenson concurred, “The history of Housman criticism is almost wholly a history of finding the mystery of the man in his poetry as if it were a key to the private world of the creator of A Shropshire Lad.” Critical discussion of A Shropshire Lad today tends to focus on the phenomenon of its enduring popularity, despite Housman's undisputed status as a minor poet. Various critics have tried to account for both Housman's continuing appeal to readers and persistent neglect by critics. Stevenson, writing in 1986, asserted that Housman's enduring popularity can be accounted for in part because “The Shropshire voice spoke to some far longing in the soul of modern man.” Commentators continue to discuss the specific strengths and weaknesses of A Shropshire Lad, some maintaining that Housman is a more skilled poet than critics give him credit for, and others asserting that his verse is even more seriously flawed than his reputation suggests.