A. E. Housman: Poems


A Shropshire Lad

A Shropshire Lad II: 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.

“ ” from A Shropshire Lad (1896) [19]

During his years in London, A. E. Housman completed A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of 63 poems.[6] After several publishers had turned it down, he published it at his own expense in 1896. The emotion and vulnerability revealed in the book surprised both his colleagues and his students.[6] At first selling slowly, it rapidly became a lasting success. Its appeal to English musicians had helped to make it widely known before World War I, when its themes struck a powerful chord with English readers.[6] A Shropshire Lad has been in print continuously since May 1896.[14]

The poems are marked by deep pessimism and preoccupation with death, without religious consolation.[6] Housman wrote most of them while living in Highgate, London, before ever visiting that part of Shropshire (about thirty miles from his boyhood home), which he presented in an idealised pastoral light, as his 'land of lost content'.[20] Housman himself acknowledged the influence of the songs of William Shakespeare, the Scottish Border ballads and Heinrich Heine, but specifically denied any influence of Greek and Latin classics in his poetry.

Later collections

Housman began writing a new set of poems after the First World War. He was an influence on many British poets who became famous by their writing about the war, and wrote several poems as occasional verse to commemorate the war dead. This included his Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries, honouring the British Expeditionary Force, a small force of professional soldiers sent to Belgium at the start of the war. Fighting a well-equipped and larger German army, they suffered heavy losses.

In the early 1920s, when Moses Jackson was dying in Canada, Housman wanted to assemble his best unpublished poems so that Jackson could read them before his death.[6] These later poems, mostly written before 1910, show a greater variety of subject and form than those in A Shropshire Lad but lack the consistency of his previously published work. He published them as Last Poems (1922), feeling that his inspiration was exhausted and that he should not publish more in his lifetime. After his death Housman's brother, Laurence, published further poems in More Poems (1936), A. E .H.: Some Poems, Some Letters and a Personal Memoir by his Brother (1937), and Collected Poems (1939). A. E. H. includes humorous verse such as a parody of Longfellow's poem Excelsior. Housman also wrote a parodic Fragment of a Greek Tragedy, in English, published posthumously with humorous poems under the title Unkind to Unicorns.[21]

John Sparrow quoted a letter written late in Housman's life that described the genesis of his poems:

Poetry was for him ...'a morbid secretion', as the pearl is for the oyster. The desire, or the need, did not come upon him often, and it came usually when he was feeling ill or depressed; then whole lines and stanzas would present themselves to him without any effort, or any consciousness of composition on his part. Sometimes they wanted a little alteration, sometimes none; sometimes the lines needed in order to make a complete poem would come later, spontaneously or with 'a little coaxing'; sometimes he had to sit down and finish the poem with his head. That... was a long and laborious process.[22]

Sparrow himself adds, "How difficult it is to achieve a satisfactory analysis may be judged by considering the last poem in A Shropshire Lad. Of its four stanzas, Housman tells us that two were 'given' him ready made; one was coaxed forth from his subconsciousness an hour or two later; the remaining one took months of conscious composition. No one can tell for certain which was which."[22]

De Amicitia (Of Friendship)

In 1942 Laurence Housman also deposited an essay entitled "A. E. Housman's 'De Amicitia'" in the British Library, with the proviso that it was not to be published for 25 years. The essay discussed A. E. Housman's homosexuality and his love for Moses Jackson.[23] Despite the conservative nature of the times and his own caution in public life, Housman was quite open in his poetry, and especially in A Shropshire Lad, about his deeper sympathies. Poem XXX of that sequence, for instance, speaks of how "Fear contended with desire": "Others, I am not the first, / Have willed more mischief than they durst". In More Poems, he buries his love for Moses Jackson in the very act of commemorating it, as his feelings of love are not reciprocated and must be carried unfulfilled to the grave:[24]

Because I liked you better Than suits a man to say It irked you, and I promised To throw the thought away. To put the world between us We parted, stiff and dry; Goodbye, said you, forget me. I will, no fear, said I If here, where clover whitens The dead man's knoll, you pass, And no tall flower to meet you Starts in the trefoiled grass, Halt by the headstone naming The heart no longer stirred, And say the lad that loved you Was one that kept his word.[25]

His poem, "Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?", written after the trial of Oscar Wilde, addressed more general injustice towards homosexuals.[26] In the poem the prisoner is suffering "for the colour of his hair", a natural quality that, in a coded reference to homosexuality, is reviled as "nameless and abominable" (recalling the legal phrase peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum, "the sin so horrible, not to be named amongst Christians").

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