Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”

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 entire section is 507 words.)