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‘A Shropshire Lad’: A Contextual Review of the Anthology of Poems by A. E. Housman

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Glenis studied for a B.A (Hons) in English Literature after retirement. She was awarded a degree at the age of 67.

A Shropshire Lad. Named by the grower, David Austen, himself fom Shropshire, in honour of A. E. Housman's cycle of poems.

A Shropshire Lad. Named by the grower, David Austen, himself fom Shropshire, in honour of A. E. Housman's cycle of poems.

A. E. Housman, Poet and Academic

A Shropshire Lad, an anthology of poems by A. E. Housman, is one of the few books of verse whose titles are widely recognised.

Despite being regarded as a minor poet who published only 175 poems (Housman’s principal occupation was that of a professional classical scholar, with positions at University College, London and at Cambridge), Housman’s reputation for his poetry has endured the test of time.

Adaptations of the original collection of poems included in A Shropshire Lad have been produced in music and the visual arts.

Housman's Preoccupation With Death

In March 1871, Housman had been sent to live with family friends because his mother was ill. On his 12th birthday, he received a letter from his father telling him that his mother had died. His siblings, still at home, had been taken in to see her corpse and the older ones attended her funeral. But Housman never saw his mother again. Deeply affected by her loss, he developed a lifelong preoccupation with death.

A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896. Prominent themes in the collection are the Military, war, and dying at a young age. It has been suggested that the cycle of poems was triggered by the death in 1892 of Housman's close friend Adalbert Jackson. Furthermore, Housman's father, Edward, died at the age of 63 in 1894. Housman himself attributed the burst of creativity to a sore throat that lasted for five months.

'A Shropshire Lad 2. Loveliest of trees, the cherry now'

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Explanation of 'Loveliest of trees, the cherry now'

Like much of Housman's poetry, these verses are deceptively simple. The subject is the beauty of a cherry tree in bloom. But the theme is death. The voice in the poem calculates that his allotted life span is seventy years. He is now twenty years old so has only another fifty years in which to enjoy cherry blossoms in springtime.

A. E. Houseman's Anti-War Poetry

Although Housman never served in the military armed action formed a back drop to his life. The soldiers who fought in the Crimean War (1854-1856) are memorialized in A Shropshire Lad, which reflects upon both heroism and the futility of war.

In later years, Houseman wrote one of the most moving of WWI poems, 'Here Dead We Lie'.

Anti-War Content in A Shropshire Lad

Poem Number I, for example, suggested obliquely that dying in the service to Queen and Country was perhaps not all that it was cracked up to be.

The verses in poem Number I record the beacons lit throughout the United Kingdom to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Queen Victoria. The tone of the poem might be interpreted as wry: the lines allude to the British National Anthem and obliquely suggests that the patriotism and bravery of young soldiers are an equal reason for celebration. The last two lines hint that young men should not follow a military path but rather continue to follow the occupation of their fathers, and so live to produce sons; leaving it to God to Save the Queen.

'A Shropshire Lad, Poem Number I, 1887'


From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.

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Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because 'tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we'll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn's dead.

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

"God Save the Queen" we living sing,
From height to height 'tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you've been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will Save the Queen.

Note of explanation: God Save the Queen in poem Number 1 is an allusion to the words of the British National Anthem. The origins of the words of the anthem are obscure but the were first documented in the mid-18th century.

Publisher Rejects the Book Due to Controversial Content

The first publisher to whom the anthology A Shropshire Lad was offered had refused to publish it on the grounds that it was too controversial.

Underlying many of the lines in the poems is Housman’s carefully concealed and repressed homosexuality. In addition to the homosexual undertones, the controversy was perhaps related to some extent to those poems which focus on the tragedy of the useless waste of young lives during war.

Soldiers in First World War uniform

Soldiers in First World War uniform

A Book of Poems to Stop a Bullet

A Shropshire Lad was eventually published in 1896 by Kegan Paul, at the poet's expense. The collection became immediately popular and sold out. Two years later, Housman changed his publisher, moving to Grant Richards, and two further editions were published at intervals of two years.

Housman was insistent that the price of the collection should be kept down so that it was accessible to a large audience, declining royalty payments. With this in mind, he encouraged the production of cheap pocket editions. The popularity of the collection grew during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and increased further during the First and Second World Wars. In World War I, many young men carried the book in their breast pockets as they went to the trenches. It has been reported that Housman stated that he hoped that his book would stop a bullet.

By the 50th anniversary of the first publication, around 100 editions had been printed. In the centenary year of the end of WW1 (2018) general interest in the collection is growing again. The collection has been published in a new and aesthetically pleasing hardcover Penguin Classics edition. A slim volume, small enough to fit into a pocket.

The Impact of the 1895 Trial of Oscar Wilde on A. E. Housman

During Housman’s lifetime, homosexual activity was a criminal offence. It came to the forefront of public attention with the trial of Oscar Wilde, who was convicted of indecent activity with two men and sentenced to two years of hard labour in 1895. The impact upon men like Houseman must have been both devastating and frightening.

The trials coincided with Housman’s burst of creativity and, though a direct link cannot be claimed, Housman’s biographer, Norman Page, has written that both Wilde and Housman used art to release a truthfulness that was impossible for the author in real life. What is certain is that Housman sent a copy of A Shropshire Lad to Wilde when he was released from prison—presumably a gesture of support and solidarity.

A. E. Housman in 1910

A. E. Housman in 1910

A Deeply Secretive Character

A. E. Housman was a deeply secretive character who kept his life strictly compartmentalized—to the extent that he disliked to talk about his poetry.

The biographer Norman Page has published an extensive in-depth and intriguing picture of his somewhat sad life. I recommend it to anyone who would like to know more about this complex and enigmatic figure: A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Glen Rix


Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on August 31, 2018:

Housman wrote such simple but beautiful poetry with the underlying theme of death, and I foud ths article fascinating. I wan not famliar with his work, and I am glad that I read your article. English literature is fascinating. Thanks fo sharing the work of A. E. Housman.

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