Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507

The essential truth revealed in A Shropshire Lad is the discovery that the human condition is subject to mutability and death. Nothing escapes the ravages of time, which claim youth, love, and, finally, life. That is precisely why Terence’s unnamed companion objects to the poet’s gloomy verse. He wonders why a poet would want to subject the reader to a treatise so morbid as to suggest mental instability (“moping melancholy mad”) and a world that apparently does not allow for redemption. Similarly, he wonders about the point of such “tunes as killed the cow.”

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Housman’s poetic persona addresses the question from several perspectives; for example, he grants that poetry in general is not the place to turn for frivolity. If escape is sought, he suggests ale. The problem with hiding in alcohol is that it is temporary and deceptive—“Heigho, the tale was all a lie.”

Unlike Milton, Terence’s verse makes no attempt to “justify God’s ways to man.” Yet Housman was as acutely aware as Milton of the painful consequences of humanity’s fall from grace. For Milton’s age, untouched by the intellectual consequences of the scientific revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was comfort in the hope of eternal salvation. This “vale of tears” would surely be exchanged for eternal bliss. By the end of the nineteenth century, the foundations of faith had been eroded by scientific discovery. The fruit of the tree of knowledge had been too completely consumed to sustain the simple religious faith of the preceding age. In the Shropshire where Terence lives, corpses decay and flowers fade. For Housman’s generation, “Paradise” had been irredeemably lost. The question arises as to the sort of reconciliation that can be made between so bleak a prospect and the worth of human existence. Housman’s response is clear. Self-deception is temporary at best. The truth of life will show itself regardless of whether one chooses to acknowledge it. If humanity must live with pain and loss, they must be faced, for in the last analysis avoidance is not possible. In acknowledging the hard circumstances of life, one is better prepared to face the “embittered hour” and “the dark and cloudy” days that are a part of the human condition.

The tale of Mithridates with which Housman closes the poem serves as a parable. The poisons consumed by Mithridates fortify him against catastrophe. He survives where others would perish, exactly as the reader will survive the awaiting catastrophes of life having taken an antidote in the form of Terence’s painful verse, which may produce “belly-ache” but will “do good to heart and head/ When your soul is in my soul’s stead.”

That, then, is not only the purpose of Housman’s verse but also the essence of literature itself: to prepare one for the inevitable sorrows of human existence, to face tragedy with dignity, to prevail against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as long as one is sustained by the breath of life.

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