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A Shropshire Lad (1896)

by A. E. Housman

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,2011311,215 (4.12)68
Published at the author's own expense in 1896, after rejection from publishers, the collection contains a cycle of 63 poems. Despite exploring themes of lost love, obsession, pessimism and death, the poems touched English readers and became a bestseller during the Second Boer War and World War I. The collection, set in a half-imagined pastoral Shropshire, includes the well-known poems When I Was One-and-Twenty, To an Athlete Dying Young and Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now.… (more)



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At school many years ago we compared Herrick’s “Fair Daffodils” and Housman’s “Loveliest of Trees”. I don’t think it’s possible to say which is “best”: they are both perfect. I remember my mother quoting or reading “On Wenlock Edge” when I was only about 7 or 8, and young enough to be a bit frightened at the Roman who was ashes under Uricon, even though I had no real idea of death. The ruins at Viroconium or Wroxeter are surprisingly big, pillars standing in a field as I recall once seeing. Housman gave us the phrases “the coloured counties” and “blue remembered hills”. Favourites: “Loveliest of Trees” and “On Wenlock Edge”. My copy is a tiny hardback still in its yellow and black dustjacket.
  PollyMoore3 | May 14, 2020 |
My expectations for this poem cycle were confounded. I'd got it into my head that A Shropshire Lad was a rural idyll about bucolic farm boys, milk maids and nostalgic reveries about "blue remembered hills". As there is practically none of that ("blue remembered hills" notwithstanding), I'd obviously constructed this false image myself based on nothing more than the title of the collection.

Now, that's a bit of a shame as I was in the mood for (had a need for, in fact) a bit of idylic escapism to lift my mood. What Housman serves up instead is a series of poems of which the majority deal with death, sometimes by way of poetical allusion (autumnal trees shedding leaves, that sort of thing), thigh often directly stated. War is present in some poems, but mostly death simply stalks the countryside, or the city-bound country boy pining for his home fields. A few of the poems pay with the idea of the dead visiting the living, only to find their sweetheart in the arms of their best friend. These melancholy musings are not without their charm, though not exactly what I had in mind as a tonic (fortunately, Keats's remedy of getting out into nature was available to me). However, Housman goes rather further in a couple of poems, encouraging his 'lad' to die by suicide, and in one poem worthy of Poe, his 'lad' (there must be several of them, and presumably Shropshire must have been rather depopulated of young men if Housman is to be taken literally) actually cuts his own throat while on a date with his girlfriend.

Some of the poems remind me of Khayyám-FitzGerald's preoccupation with mortality and the transience of life, and with the consolations of alcohol. The are some quatrains in Housman's collection but, as far as my amateur reading can tell, no deliberate imitation of the Rubáiyát.

First published in 1896, I wonder whether the late Victorian morbid (from a modern perspective) relationship with death, and their often melodramatic sentimentality feeds into Housman's rather dark vision of life's ephemeral nature. How much was England and the Empire overshadowed by the growing inevitability of the death of the Old Queen? The impending death of the seemingly ever-present and eternal Victoria signalling the decease of a way of life, a break in cultural continuity, the end of days?

Overall, an uneven (but enjoyable) collection, I think, though highly praised by J.R.R. Tolkien, who's probably a better judge than I. I'll read the poems again when I'm in a brighter mood and see whether the poems which aren't about death and shagging your dead mate's girlfriend make more of an impression on me. ( )
1 vote Michael.Rimmer | Jul 31, 2017 |
Authoritative edition of one of the enduring classics of English poetry. Housman probes, with poignant beauty, the nature of friendship, the passing of youth, the vanity of dreams, other themes.
1 vote | BlessedHopeAcademy | Jul 27, 2013 |
I was first introduced to the exquisite poetry of A.E. Housman in my grade ten English class (where we covered British literature from Beowulf to the early 20th century). I started to appreciate Housman then, but I really, really started to love his poetry when I listened to George Butterworth's lovely and evocative song-cycle rendition of A Shropshire Lad and realisesd that Housman's poems are not just meant to be read, but really and truly are meant to be sung, to be listened to as musical offerings (offerings showing joy, simplicity, but also the anguish of lost love, of growing up, and of destructive, manipulative war, that has the horrific power to destroy whole bastions of young men). ( )
2 vote gundulabaehre | May 11, 2013 |
8/2012 I come to Housman when I'm hollow, when I'm lost, when I'm confused. I come here when I need to come here, and he takes me in, he comforts me with snark, with acute observation, with hilarity and bottomless woe. There's nobody, nobody at all like Housman. I have entire swaths of this by heart, and generally read a poem or two at need. Today I read it cover to cover and was, once again, entirely blown away.

2010: What's to say of Housman? His words are like strange wine that changes one utterly once imbibed.

"...that grace, that manhood gone..." ( )
2 vote satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (84 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
A. E. Housmanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Blaisdell, ElinoreIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hyde, WilliamIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mozley, CharlesIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Parker, Agnes MillerIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sindel, JonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, Edward ArthurIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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From Clee to heaven the beacon burns, / The shires have seen it plain, / From north to south the sign returns / And beacons burn again.
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 XIII)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Haiku summary
Ploughboys, scenery —
Oh, to be one-and-twenty,
Standing on Long Mynd!

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