A Shropshire Lad

From Academic Kids

A Shropshire Lad is a cycle of 63 poems by English poet Alfred Edward Housman.

It was published in 1896 at Housman's own expense after several publishers had turned it down, much to the surprise of his colleagues and students. At first the book sold slowly, but during the second Boer War, Housman's nostalgic depiction of brave English soldiers stroke a chord with English readers and his poems became a lasting success. Later, World War I had a further increasing effect on their popularity. Several composers, Arthur Somervell first, found inspiration in the seeming folksong-like simplicity of the poems. The most famous musical settings are by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams, with others by Ivor Gurney, John Ireland and Ernest John Moeran.

Housman was surprised by the success of A Shropshire Lad because it, like all his poetry, is imbued with a deep pessimism and an obsession with all-pervasive death, with no place for the consolations of religion. Set in a half-imaginative pastoral Shropshire, "the land of lost content" (in fact Housman wrote most of the poems before ever visiting the place), the poems explore themes of fleetingness of love and decay of youth in a spare, uncomplicated style which many critics of the time found out-of-date as compared to the exuberance of some Romantic poets. 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.

The main theme of A Shropshire Lad is facing mortality, and so living life to its fullest, since death can strike at any time. For example, number IV, titled "Reveille," urges an unnamed "lad" to stop sleeping in the daylight, for "When the journey's over/There'll be time enough to sleep." There is definitely a melancholia in the collection's overall tone, but there is also a love of life than can be inspiring for the reader.

One of Housman's most familiar poems is number XIII from A Shropshire Lad, unitled but often anthologized under a title taken from its first line. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes no less than fourteen of its sixteen lines:

When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
"The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue."
And I am two-and-twenty
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.

Poem XVII, "Is my team ploughing?," is a dialog between a dead youth and a friend who has survived him. The dead youth asks "Is my girl happy/That I thought hard to leave/And is she tired of weeping/As she lies down to eve?" The living replies "Ay, she lies down lightly/She lies not down to weep/Your girl is well contented/Be still, my lad, and sleep." As the reader has begun to suspect, two stanzas later the living man acknowledges "I cheer a dead man's sweetheart/Never ask me whose."

Poem LXII, "Terence, this is stupid stuff," (source (http://sources.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terence%2C_this_is_stupid_stuff)) is a dialog in which the poet, asked for "a tune to dance to" instead of his usual "moping melancholy" verse, offers (perhaps ironically) the respite of drunkenness as a way to inure oneself to the pain of existence -- "Malt does more than Milton can/To justify God's ways to man" -- and then pessimism as a longer-lasting immunization:

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

The uniform style and tone of A Shropshire Lad make it an easy target for parody, as in this example by Humbert Wolfe:

When lads have done with labor
in Shropshire, one will cry
"Let's go and kill a neighbor,"
and t'other answers "Aye!"
So this one kills his cousins,
and that one kills his dad;
and, as they hang by dozens
at Ludlow, lad by lad,
each of them one-and-twenty,
all of them murderers,
the hangman mutters: "Plenty
even for Housman's verse."
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