Confessions of a Worcestershire lad

This month marks the centenary of the publication of Housman's `A Shropshire Lad'. Here, Peter Parker re-evaluates its stoical creator
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The Independent Culture
One hundred years ago this month a small volume of poems was published by Kegan Paul in an edition of 500 copies at half-a-crown each. The author, a 37-year-old professor of Latin at University College London called Alfred Edward Housman, had been obliged to pay pounds 30 towards the cost of publication. A small, slow trickle of reviews was led by the Times, which, in a round- up of "Books of the Week" on 27 March, noted that: "Mr Housman has a true sense of the sweetness of country life and of its tragedies too, and his gift of melodious expression is genuine."

Other reviewers were less faint in their praise, but there is little in their pronouncements to suggest that A Shropshire Lad would become, and remain, one of the best-loved volumes of poetry in the language. By the end of the year its combined sales in Britain and the US amounted to only 381 copies. The first edition did not sell out until two years later, and only then because Housman's brother Laurence (also a poet) bought up the remaining copies.

"So Alfred has a heart after all," a member of his family remarked after reading the book. Indeed he had, and he lost it to a man called Moses Jackson, with whom he had been at Oxford and later shared rooms in London. The majority of Housman's poems most directly concerned with this one- sided love affair were published in later volumes, but A Shropshire Lad is suffused with barely repressed longing for "lads" who (like Jackson) were more interested in "lasses" than in Latinists. This submerged background to the book may have been recognised by sympathetic homosexual readers, but it would hardly commend the poems to the general public, or explain why they became part of the fabric of the twentieth century.

The growth in popularity of the book was most marked during the early years of the century: in 1905 it sold 886 copies; by 1911 the average yearly sale was 13,500 copies. Sales were undoubtedly boosted by the large number of composers who made settings from Housman's poems during this period, which had seen a renaissance in British music and a rediscovery of traditional folksong. Housman deplored these settings, but never actually prevented them; indeed, his refusal to accept payment may have actively encouraged composers. Among the settings, either individually or as song cycles, are ones by Arthur Somervell (1904), Balfour Gardiner (1906), Ivor Gurney (1908), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1909), George Peel (1910) and George Butterworth (1911 and 1912). Later songs include those by John Ireland (1917), E.J. Moran (1920), Arnold Bax (1920) and C.W. Orr (1934). Although the poet did his best to avoid hearing any of them, several are very fine indeed and a number of recordings are still in the catalogue.

Few of these composers knew, or were specifically celebrating, Shropshire: Housman's adopted county had become representative of an idealised rural England. The drift away from the countryside towards the industrial towns and cities was such that, by 1911, under 22 per cent of the population lived in rural areas; but for many people, the word "England" still conjured up a vague landscape of the sort depicted in Housman's verse, and in the poetry of the Georgians, which also flourished at this period. For many people, it still does.

In search of Housman's "far country", however, thousands of pilgrims have followed E. M. Forster, who in 1907 went on a Shropshire Lad walking tour, noting landmarks made familiar by the poems: Ludlow, Wenlock Edge, Hughley Steeple, "Severn shore" and the "high vanes" of Shrewsbury. Housman actually wrote the entire volume in Hampstead, and chose most of the place- names for their euphonious qualities.

A Worcestershire lad, he had spent his childhood on the outskirts of Bromsgrove. (The first line of one of his best-loved poems originally ran: ``Tis time, I think, by Stourbridge town...".) "I had a sentimental feeling for Shropshire," he explained, "because its hills were our western horizon." That horizon was immortalised in his most famous poem ("Into my heart an air that kills") as the "blue remembered hills" that mark "the land of lost content", and it is phrases such as these, rather than topographical reference points, that lodge in the mind. The fact that, for instance, the church at Hughley, far from being a "far-known sign", is buried in a valley does not in the end much matter to readers - or to tourist boards who need to entice people to "Housman Country". The poet reached a geographical compromise in death: his ashes were buried in Ludlow, but in leaf-mould imported from his childhood home in Worcestershire.

By 1914 A Shropshire Lad entered the nation's bloodstream, and Housman's vision of "lads that will die in their glory and never be old" was about to be very thoroughly fulfilled. Many of the poems feature doomed youths, and some of them are in uniform, "Soldiers marching, all to die". Discovered in the classroom, these verses provided models for the soldier-poets of the First World War, and we find both Rupert Brooke and C.H.Sorley delivering lectures on the poems to their schools' literary societies. In 1913 Brooke declared Housman as "the only true poet in England", while Sorley's much- anthologised "All the hills and vales along" echoes A Shropshire Lad in its ironically jaunty defiance.

The descendants of Housman's ploughboys-turned-soldiers populate the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, both of whom shared their predecessor's romantic compassion for "lovely lads" soon to be "dead and rotten". A special miniature wartime edition of the book was produced, designed to be slipped into the breast pocket of uniforms, where Housman fondly hoped it might one day deflect one of the bullets which (as Owen put it in a Housmanic phrase) "long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads". There is no record of this happening, although one of the war's most famous poems, Patrick Shaw-Stewart's untitled verses beginning "I saw a man this morning / Who did not wish to die", was first scribbled by the author on the flyleaf of Housman's book. The Times printed some of the poems on a broadsheet to be distributed in the trenches and by 1918 the book itself was selling some 16,000 copies a year, despite the fact that it had doubled in price.

"My chief object in publishing my verses was to give pleasure to a few young men here and there," Housman once said. In this he undoubtedly succeeded, and many of those young men went on to be writers, thus extending Housman's influence well beyond the First World War. "To my generation, no other English poet seemed so perfectly to express the sensibility of the male adolescent," wrote W.H.Auden, several of whose early poems are modelled on Housman's. The volume's mood of romantic melancholy, its railing against the injustices of life, naturally appeals to the young, and it is in adolescence that poetry strikes home most forcefully, even among those who may never read poetry thereafter.

Boys of Auden's generation, who spent hours in the classroom studying Greek and Latin literature, were familiar, as Cyril Connolly put it, with "love and death and the fate of youth and beauty". Furthermore, Housman's language - although occasionally archaic - is straightforward, his rhythms strong, and all this adds up to a poetry of deceptive simplicity, appealing to the senses as much as the intellect. John Betjeman praised (and imitated) its "recitability", and Connolly's fellow-Etonian, George Orwell, claimed to have the entire volume by heart - although, like Connolly, he later grew disenchanted. Others didn't, and Connolly's brutal reassessment in the New Statesman shortly after Housman's death in 1936 caused howls of outrage. Housman continued to haunt later generations: Kingsley Amis's poem "A.E.H." is an affectionate and moving pastiche, while the work of Philip Larkin has obvious affinities of tone.

It was Larkin who observed that "Housman is the poet of unhappiness; no one else has reiterated his single message so plangently. Housman's evocation of loss - the loss of love, of youth, of life - strikes a chord with most people. While the poet's redcoats, ploughboys and "rose-lipt maidens" have long since come to dust, the feelings that animated them remain.

"I think that to transfuse emotion - not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader's sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer - is the peculiar function of poetry," Housman said in a lecture. Even if we do not suffer from unrequited love, we all have our lands of lost content, and you don't need to know Shropshire or know about Moses Jackson to respond to this poetry. Housman's Shropshire was a landscape of the imagination, his book a gazetteer of the heart. Although occasionally clumsy and even absurd, A Shropshire Lad does what good literature should do: it transforms the personal and specific into something universal.