One day, more years ago than I like to number, I rode my bicycle to the branch library located in the Plaza Shopping Center in Lorain, Ohio. There, from a bottom shelf, I plucked out a slender volume titled “A Shropshire Lad” by A.E. Housman. I carried it to a table and read for an hour, finally checking the book out for the usual two weeks. When it was due, I checked it out again.
I remember this so well because I’d never before been interested in a single-author poetry collection. But earlier that summer — I must have been 14 — I’d bought a paperback called “Immortal Poems of the English Language ,” mainly because I had casually flipped it open and happened upon two of Housman’s most famous lyrics: “When I was one-and-twenty” and “With rue my heart is laden.” Being the kind of kid I was, I reveled in their wistfulness:
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.
I mention all this because Peter Parker’s beautifully written “Housman Country” is about how “A Shropshire Lad” (1896) similarly affected young people, especially young men, during the first part of the 20th century. While partly biographical, it’s mainly a cultural history of a certain sort of romantic, nostalgic Englishness. Parker, author of earlier books on Christopher Isherwood and J.R. Ackerley, devotes chapters to the rural landscape of Shropshire, the Eton-educated soldiers who died at the Somme with “A Shropshire Lad” in their kits, the many English composers, including Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney, who set the poems to music, and even tourism focused on “Housman country.”
Born in 1859, Alfred Edward Housman came from a talented family. Today he looms as its most famous member, but his brother Laurence was both an accomplished artist (see his eerie illustrations for Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market”) and the author of fairy tale-like fantasies, as well as a hit play (“Victoria Regina”). His sister Clemence’s novella, “The Were-Wolf ,” is one of the most powerful stories ever written about lycanthropy. In his younger days, Alfred himself produced some exceptionally funny parodies and nonsense verse. “Unkind to Unicorns” — a phrase taken from one of his effusions — collects this cheerful work.
As an Oxford undergraduate, Housman quickly established himself as a formidable student of Latin and Greek. But, to everyone’s surprise and dismay, he completely botched his final exams. Even now, we’re not sure why this happened, though it seems likely that his unrequited love for a classmate, the resolutely heterosexual Moses Jackson, played its part.
In disgrace, Alfred took a clerical job in the Patent Office, where he worked for the next decade. But — and this I find inspiring — he spent his evenings doing research at the British Museum, gradually producing 25 important articles on classical subjects. When a professorship of Latin at University College London opened up, the meagerly paid government clerk and Oxford flunkout applied for the job. And got it. Accompanying his application were testimonials and recommendations from 17 of the world’s most-distinguished Latin and Greek scholars. Later, Housman would move to Cambridge University and by the time of his death in 1936 be regarded as one of the greatest classicists of all time, noted for his meticulous textual scholarship and notorious for his vituperative wit as a reviewer.
But to the world at large A.E. Housman was always the author of “A Shropshire Lad.” (Only in 1922 did he publish a second collection, “Last Poems.”) As simple in diction and melodious as William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” or the hymns of Isaac Watts, they address themes that go back to the old English ballads: mortality, the evanescence of youth, betrayal and lost love, the beauties of nature and landscape, the glamour of the military life, crimes of passion. Today — I felt otherwise at 14 — I’d judge the result major minor poetry. But how potent it can be!
As Parker shows, for many young men — especially gay young men — “A Shropshire Lad” became a secret Bible. That telling code-word “lad” appears 68 times in its 63 poems. Significantly, Housman began work on them in the late 1880s — around the time Moses Jackson left London for distinguished obscurity in the Indian Civil Service — and essentially stopped after a final creative burst in 1895. Once published, readers fell in love with their combination of sentimentality and cynicism. Hunkered down in muddy trenches, the doomed scions of aristocratic families would take out their pocket editions of Housman and pine for the idealized, vanishing England they were fighting for. Seeking to establish a distinctly English musical tradition, composers would regularly create song-cycles out of this rueful poetry of “lightfoot boys” and “rose-lipt maidens.” Because Parker discusses their music at length, I wish his book had included a CD sampler.
A.E. Housman maintained that poetry should aim “to harmonize the sadness of the universe” and that its power wasn’t intellectual but emotional. Nevertheless, the most moving passage in this highly recommended book appears not in a poem but in a letter that Housman wrote to the dying Moses Jackson. They were both then in their 60s. After pointing out that he has become quite an “eminent bloke,” the solitary and reserved Housman finally drops the mask and confesses the truth: “I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots.”
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursday for Style.
By Peter Parker
Farrar Straus Giroux. 530 pp. $30