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A.E. Housman's slog across gray English countryside

Today is the anniversary of A.E. Housman's birth in Worcestershire in 1859.
He wasn't known for that saucy area though, because of his poetry collection

A Shropshire Lad

which George Orwell pointed out was memorized and carried around by everyone who was a teenager around 1910-25 because "its adolescent themes of murder, suicide, unhappy love, and early death; and its “bitter, defiant paganism, a conviction that life is short and the gods are against you, which exactly fitted the prevailing mood of the young.”

Reading up on Housman has me thinking again about the English countryside and how it was romanticized by a certain class of urbanite who could afford to travel, and who would end up in a Latin class at Cambridge under Prof. Housman's tutelage:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/a-e-housman?

The article quotes both Edmund Wilson (a personal fave of mine) and Cyril Connolly on why Housman doesn't rank with the highest poets even though he was so popular there for a while, which seems extra poignant since neither of them gets much attention nowadays:

"As Edmund Wilson said, “H[ousman's] world has no opening horizons; it is a prison that one can only endure. One can only come the same painful cropper over and over again and draw from it the same bitter moral.” But few writers have expressed this dark if limited vision with more poignancy and clarity than Housman."

Housman died in 1936 in Cambridge. He always cared more about his work as a Latin scholar than as a romantic poet.

Posted by
46 posts

Thanks for sharing this! I'm married to a classicist and poet and am a fan of Housman. I always laugh at the line in "A Room with a View" ..."A Shropshire Lad". Never heard of it...

Posted by
3091 posts

Thanks for posting this ! I am a Housman lover , and keep a copy of " A Shropshire Lad " on my desk , in close reach . On our last trip to England , I traced some of his steps through Shropshire , from Ludlow up by Wenlock Edge . This biography is a wonderful overview of the poet , his work and the effect on other artists , writers , and composers who felt his influence . Relative to your other post concerning history , keep up the work . I am am one of those for whom travel and history are inextricably connected . This wonderful book is a must for Housman aficionados - https://www.amazon.com/Housman-Country-Into-Heart-England/dp/0374173044

Posted by
571 posts

I understand that Housman wrote many of his poems before actually visiting Shropshire, and was perhaps inspired by the beauty and romance of the place names. Is there any evidence that he actually went to Clunton, Clungbury, Clungunford and Clun and knew that they were the "quietest places under the sun". He was almost certainly wrong about Knighton being quieter than Clun.

Housman's poetry is eaasily parodied, with such examples as "Loveliest of pies, the cherry now" and "What, still alive at twenty-two, a fine upstanding lad like you!".

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3091 posts

Bob , the parodies are indeed funny , but only if you are familiar with the poems ! This one always gave me a good laugh .

" What still alive at twenty-two,
A clean, upstanding chap like you?
Sure, if your throat 'tis hard to slit,
Slit your girl's, and swing for it.

Like enough, you won't be glad,
When they come to hang you, lad:
But bacon's not the only thing
That's cured by hanging from a string.

So, when the spilt ink of the night
Spreads o'er the blotting-pad of light,
Lads whose job is still to do
Shall whet their knives, and think of you "

Posted by
1617 posts

'swing for it'

inspired me to revisit Elvis Costello's song Let Him Dangle,
which is about the case of Derek Bentley being executed by hanging
and how Costello said in interviews that the song was, to him, just a Woody Guthrie-style
story with a moral, in this case anti-capital punishment,
but things are rarely so straightforward with Costello, so now I'm wondering if there's a bit
of an homage to AE Housman in that song...

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710 posts

Ralph Vaughan Williams set some of ‘A Shropshire Lad’ to music in his ‘On Wenlock Edge’ which either boosted or cashed in on (not sure which) Houseman’s fame. Of course Houseman wasn’t thrilled with the piece, criticising RVW’s omission of verses three and four from ‘Is My Team Still Ploughing?’ RVW responded by merely showing Houseman his artistic licence! But you have to love a man, who at the end of a performance of one of his symphonies, which he’d conducted I believe, reportedly said something along the lines of “well, if that’s modern music, I don’t care much for it” (RVW scholars may feel free to correct me!).

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3091 posts

George Butterworth also made a number of settings of Housman's poems . Here is one - https://youtu.be/zGUKV58f3ms . Sadly , Butterworth's untimely death in the Somme in 1916 , deprived the world of a brilliant composer at the age of 31 . This , arguably , his best known work , is worth a listen ( and, thanks to the poster , beautiful photos of The Peak District ) https://youtu.be/AUsisFkLCxo