The author of A Shropshire Lad was in fact born in Worcestershire, on 26 March 1859. He was brought up as a devout Christian, but the death of his mother on his twelfth birthday would eventually lead him to reject religion altogether. He read classics at St John’s College, Oxford, where he met and fell unrequitedly in love with a fellow-student called Moses Jackson. Having unexpectedly failed his finals, he became a clerk in the Patent Office in London, where Jackson was also employed. The two men shared lodgings for a period, but parted after some kind of quarrel, perhaps because Housman had explained his feelings: several posthumously published poems seem to suggest this. Housman was meanwhile spending his spare time working on classical texts, and the articles he contributed to scholarly magazines gained him such a reputation that in 1892 he was appointed to the Chair of Latin at University College, London. Jackson, meanwhile, had joined the Indian Civil Service, married, and was living in Karachi.
Housman had written poetry since childhood, mostly light verse, but in the late 1880s he began writing the poems that would be published in 1896 as A Shropshire Lad – the majority of them in a sudden burst of creativity in 1895. ‘My chief object in publishing my verses was to give pleasure to a few young men here and there,’ he once said, and although the poems were at first slow to sell, their prevailing mood of romantic melancholy, their depiction of thwarted or unrequited love, and their railing against the injustices of life soon gained him readers, and the book has never once been out of print. Shropshire had been the western horizon of Housman’s childhood, becoming in his adult imagination a ‘land of lost content’, and A Shropshire Lad is suffused with love, loss and longing, alongside affection for the quiet places of the English countryside and for the young men who lived there and all too often would ‘die in their glory and never be old’. This phrase comes from ‘The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair’, one of the poems that prompted Robert Lowell to write: ‘One feels that Housman foresaw the Somme’. Housman indeed wrote most of the poems some twenty years before the outbreak of the First World War and is, if anything, a poet of the Boer War (in which his youngest brother was killed); but poems about ‘soldiers marching all to die’ while bystanders ‘watch them depart on the way that they will not return’ would have a particular resonance for the generation of 1914.
By 1911 A Shropshire Lad was selling an astonishing 13,500 copies a year. The poems were further popularized during this period by English composers such as Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Somervell and Gurney, who in search of an English equivalent of the German Lieder tradition, began setting Housman’s words. According to the poet Robert Nichols, by 1914 A Shropshire Lad was ‘in every pocket’, and there are many stories of young men – Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney and Patrick Shaw-Stewart among them – taking their copies of the book to war with them. Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley and Wilfred Owen also admired and were influenced by the poems, and those about doomed lads, ‘handsome of face and [. . .] handsome of heart’, served as models for many war poets’ elegies for dead friends. The only poem Housman wrote directly about the conflict, ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’, was published in The Times on 31 October 1917 and described by Kipling as ‘the finest lines of poetry written during the war’.
Housman seemed reluctant to produce a second volume of poems, concentrating instead on scholarly publications. He had been appointed Kennedy Professor of Latin at the University of Cambridge in 1911, remaining there as a Fellow of Trinity College until his death. In 1922, however, he got news that Moses Jackson was dying in hospital. ‘You are largely responsible for my writing poetry,’ he had told his friend, and another burst of creativity led to the publication of Last Poems in October of that year. After Housman died on 30 April 1936, his brother Laurence made a selection of More Poems (1936), and an additional eighteen poems appeared in Laurence’s memoir A.E.H. (1937). Housman’s Collected Poems were published in 1939.
Peter Parker, September 2017
A.E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems, ed. Archie Burnett (Penguin, 2010)
Norman Page, A.E. Housman: A Critical Biography (Macmillan, 1983)
Peter Parker, Housman Country (Little, Brown, 2016)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34013
The Housman Society: http://www.housman-society.co.uk/