A. E. Housman: Poems

Housman in other art forms

Music and art song

Housman's poetry, especially A Shropshire Lad, was set to music by many British, and in particular English, composers in the first half of the 20th century.[2] The national, pastoral and traditional elements of his style resonated with similar trends in English music. In 1904 the cycle A Shropshire Lad was set by Arthur Somervell, who had begun to develop the concept of the English song-cycle in his version of Tennyson's Maud a little previously. Ralph Vaughan Williams produced his most famous settings of six songs, the cycle On Wenlock Edge, for string quartet, tenor and piano (dedicated to Gervase Elwes) in 1909,[27] and it became very popular after Elwes recorded it with the London String Quartet and Frederick B. Kiddle in 1917. Between 1909 and 1911 George Butterworth produced settings in two collections or cycles, as Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, and Bredon Hill and Other Songs. He also wrote an orchestral tone poem on A Shropshire Lad, first performed at Leeds Festival under Arthur Nikisch in 1912.[28]

Butterworth's death on the Somme in 1916 was considered a great loss to English music; Ivor Gurney, another most important setter of Housman (Ludlow and Teme, a work for voice and string quartet, and a song-cycle on Housman works, both of which won the Carnegie Award)[29] experienced emotional breakdowns which were popularly (but wrongly) believed to have originated from shell-shock. The fatalism of the poems and their earlier settings foreshadowed responses to the universal bereavement of the First World War and became assimilated into them. This was reinforced when their foremost interpreter and performer, Gervase Elwes (who had initiated the music festivals at Brigg in Lincolnshire at which Percy Grainger and others had developed their collections of country music[30]) died in a horrific accident in 1921. Elwes had worked hard to maintain morale during the war, having given six benefit performances of The Dream of Gerontius on consecutive nights in 1916, and many concerts in France in 1917 for British soldiers.[31]

Among other composers who set Housman songs were John Ireland (song cycle, The Land of Lost Content (1920–21)), Michael Head (e.g. 'Ludlow Fair'), Graham Peel (a famous version of 'In Summertime on Bredon'), Ian Venables (Songs of Eternity and Sorrow), and the American Samuel Barber (e.g. 'With rue my heart is laden'). Gerald Finzi began several settings, but never finished them. Even composers not directly associated with the 'pastoral' tradition, such as Arnold Bax, Lennox Berkeley and Arthur Bliss, were attracted to Housman's poetry. A 1976 catalogue listed 400 musical settings of Housman's poems.[32] Housman's poetry influenced British music in a way comparable to that of Walt Whitman in the music of Delius, Vaughan Williams and others: Housman's works provided song texts, Whitman's the texts for larger choral works. The contemporary New Zealand composer David Downes includes a setting of "March" on his CD The Rusted Wheel of Things.

Works titled after Housman

Housman is the main character in the 1997 Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love.[33] Many titles for novels and films have been drawn from Housman's poetry. The line "There's this to say for blood and breath,/ they give a man a taste for death" supplies the title for Peter O'Donnell's 1969 Modesty Blaise thriller, A Taste for Death, also the inspiration for P. D. James' 1986 crime novel, A Taste for Death, the seventh in her Adam Dalgliesh series. The title of Nicholas Blake's 1949 detective novel Head of a Traveller is a quotation from Housman's parody Fragment of a Greek Tragedy. The last words of the poem "On Wenlock Edge" are used by Audrey R. Langer for the title of the 1989 novel Ashes Under Uricon. The Nobel Prize winning novelist Patrick White named his 1955 novel The Tree of Man after another line in "On Wenlock Edge" and Arthur C. Clarke's first novel, Against the Fall of Night, is taken from "XLV" in Housman's More Poems. The 2009 novel Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy takes its title from Housman's poem "Reveille",[34] and a line from Housman's poem XVI "How Clear, How Lovely Bright", was used for the title of the last Inspector Morse book The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter. Blue Remembered Hills, a television play by Dennis Potter, takes its title from "Into My Heart an Air That Kills" from A Shropshire Lad,[35] and the cycle provides the name for the James Bond film Die Another Day: "But since the man that runs away / Lives to die another day". The title of T.H.White's The Queen of Air and Darkness comes from Housman's Last Poems III 'Her strong enchantments failing'. The title of Ursula Le Guin's short story collection 'The Wind's Twelve Quarters' is taken from Housman's 'From Far, From Eve And Morning.' [36] In the 1985 film "Out of Africa" Karen "Tanja" Blixen, played by Meryl Streep, cites poems by A.E. Housman twice. In one key scene, when she is finally invited by the male members of the country club, she gives a toast quoting from “With rue my heart is laden”. In another scene, when she gives the eulogy at Denys Finch Hatton's funeral, she recites an abbreviated version of “To an athlete dying young”. "Nothing but the night" a film referenced in Wikipedia based on the novel by John Blackburn. The 1938 English translation by Stuart Gilbert of the 1887 French novel Les lauriers sont coupés by Édouard Dujardin is titled We'll to the Woods No More, the first line of the prefatory poem in Last Poems.


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