AE HOUSMAN AND THE SHROPSHIRE LADS
What turned a decidedly sluggish seller into the one of the most popular books of poetry ever published?
Originally published in an edition of 500; at the end of two years, the poet’s brother, Laurence Housman, bought up the last few copies. The Times, in a round- up of “Books of the Week” on 27 March, noted: “Mr Housman has a true sense of the sweetness of country life and of its tragedies too, and his gift of melodious expression is genuine.”
There is little in the reviews to suggest that A Shropshire Lad would become, and remain, one of the best-loved volumes of poetry in the language. By year end combined sales in Britain and the United States amounted to 381. Grant Richards published 500 copies in 1897, 1,000 in 1900 and 2,000 in 1902. The Second Boer War (11 October 1899 until 31 May 1902) is believed to have given A Shropshire Lad this first shot in the arm.
The growth in popularity of the book was most marked during the early years of the century: in 1905 it sold 886 by 1911 average yearly sale was 13,500 copies. A special miniature wartime edition of the book was produced, designed to be slipped into the breast pocket of your battledress. In 1918 over 18,000 copies were sold. A Shropshire Lad has never been out of print.
Andrew Maund, Education Advisor of The Housman Society “Housman’s nostalgic depiction of rural life and the premature death of young men resonated with English readers and the book became a bestseller.” Maude M. Hawkins in her book “A.E. Housman: Man behind a Mask” has written of this initial period “After the slow stream of Housman readers from 1896 to 1903, the momentum of popularity increased rapidly.”
POETRY AND WAR
The county’s celebrated First World War poet, Wilfred Owen, wrote a preface to his collection “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. … This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.” Although Housman never served in the forces, his subjects in A Shropshire Lad often include soldiers and the military life. Many bookish young officers – including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen – left for the Western Front with a copy of A Shropshire Lad in their pocket. Housman’s language – although sometimes archaic – is straightforward, the rhythms strong, a poetry of deceptive simplicity, appealing to the senses as much as the intellect. Betjeman praised (and imitated) its “recitability.” Fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, could see beyond the apparent simplicity of the verse “The tone of voice is as natural as ordinary speech, yet it is utterance lit and transfigured from within” (On Poetry 1939). Housman may have had difficulty expressing himself, but thousands of British soldiers took A Shropshire Lad to the Front
AN OVERTURE FROM THE COMPOSERS
The simple melodies of his lyrics have been compared to the traditional English folk songs. They attracted a whole series of composers. The first known setting from A Shropshire Lad was by Arthur Somervell in 1904. On 15 November 1909 Ralph Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge a song cycle with settings of six poems for tenor, piano and string quartet was premiered in the Aeolian Hall, London. In 1911 and 1912, George Butterworth wrote eleven settings of Housman’s poems. “Is My Team Ploughing?” being the most famous. They were eventually published in two sets, Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad and Bredon Hill and Other Songs.
“THE MOST POPULAR WAR IN HISTORY”
No one alive had any experience of the ‘real thing.’ It had been almost a century since the Battle of Waterloo when this country fought its last ‘proper war.’ No wonder the German government struggled to grasp how we might go to war “over a scrap of paper” (the treaty guaranteeing the neutrality of Belgium). We were almost two years into the War before the introduction of conscription. Over two million men had responded to the call to duty, to patriotism, to the ideal of self-sacrifice and to the romantic fantasies of the Boys Own Paper and of Tom Brown’s Schooldays; the idea of the fair fight.
And if your hand or foot offend you,
Cut it off, lad, and be whole;
But play the man, stand up and end you,
When your sickness is your soul.
AE Housman A Shropshire Lad XLV
The Pals Battalions (Imperial War Museum By Matt Brosnan) “Pals battalions were a uniquely British phenomenon. … In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men volunteered … it was realised that local ties could be harnessed for national gain. Many more men would enlist if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates.
On 21 August 1914, the first Pals battalion began to be raised from the stockbrokers of the City of London. … Lord Derby first coined the phrase ‘battalion of pals’ and recruited enough men to form three battalions of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment in only a week. Pals battalions became synonymous with the towns of northern Britain. Men from Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle, Hull, Glasgow and Edinburgh all enlisted in their thousands in 1914 and 1915. But Pals battalions were also raised from Birmingham to Bristol and from Cambridge to Cardiff …
The first Pals battalions began to arrive on the Western Front from mid-1915. However, many first saw major action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme 1 July 1916. Many units sustained heavy casualties, which had a significant impact on their communities. With the introduction of conscription … the close-knit nature of the Pals battalions was never to be replicated.”
The First World War represented the culmination of some 50 years build-up of sacrifice and military glory, it would not be repeated.
“HOUSMAN’S GREATEST CONTRIBUTION”
Housman’s evocation of loss – the loss of love, of youth, of life – strikes a chord with most people. Philip Larkin, who spent three years as a librarian in Wellington, called Housman “the poet of unhappiness; no one else has reiterated his single message so plangently.”
Paul Fussell award-winning author of The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) points the way “Perhaps Housman’s greatest contribution to the war was the word ‘lad’ to which his poems have given the meaning ‘a beautiful brave doomed boy.’ The lads who populate the poems and memoirs of the Great War share the doom of Housman’s lads. Housman frequently deals with the plight of the young soldier. Robert B. Pearsall suggested in a 1967 essay for PMLA (the journal of the Modern Language Association of America) that Housman dealt frequently with soldiers because “the uniform tended to cure isolation and unpopularity, and soldiers characteristically bask in mutual affection.”
William White in his “AE Housman and Music” puts his finger on more than just the appeal to composers with this insight “The simplicity and melody of Housman’s lyrics are their outstanding features – they are difficult to match in modern verse.” George Orwell was also a fan “when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of A Shropshire Lad by heart.”
He highlights the appeal to the ‘lads’ “Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous.” The themes are ‘adolescent’ … murder, suicide, unhappy love, and early death. The prevailing mood amongst the young, we are told, fitted neatly with the message that life is short and the gods are against you. With elegiac pastoral nostalgia Housman writes of the transitoriness of life. The First World War made this longing for simpler and more peaceful days more sharply topical. Tom Paulin “Housman’s distinctive blend of sadness and savagery.”
THE LAND OF LOST CONTENT:
“I had a sentimental feeling for Shropshire”
Housman’s Shropshire was a landscape of the imagination, his book a gazetteer of the heart. A Shropshire Lad does what good literature should do: it transforms the personal and specific into something universal. We all have our lands of lost content, and you don’t need to know Shropshire … to respond to this poetry. “I think that to transfuse emotion – not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer – is the peculiar function of poetry,” Housman said in a lecture.
Challenged by a member of the audience to recite a poem Peter Hitchens on choosing Housman for Question Time “Of course people need these things, and what’s more they’re a profound part of being British. If you don’t know the literature and the poetry and the music of your country, then you aren’t really fully conversant with its history or its character.”
Housman was to write in later years “very little in the book is biographical”, his views were “owing to my observation of the world, not to personal circumstances.” “I was born in Worcestershire, not Shropshire, where I have never spent much time. I had a sentimental feeling for Shropshire, because its hills were our western horizon.” That horizon was immortalised as the “blue remembered hills” that mark “the land of lost content.” Phrases such as these, rather than topographical reference points, have caught the readers’ eyes and stayed in their memory.
Perhaps it is this ignorance of the topographical detail of the county which are the source of the poems’ universal appeal? Housman’s Shropshire is at least half-imagined – it is the nostalgic pastoral images which explain why A Shropshire Lad was more of a popular success than a critical one. Housmanland is peopled by his poetic characters – they are victims of Nature’s blind forces, fail to find divine love in the world. Youth is precious; everywhere there is youthful beauty.
HOUSMAN’S SINGLE FIRST WORLD WAR POEM
Just one poem can be shown to have been written in the course of the War. This eight-line poem was published in The Times in October 1917 in response to German propaganda criticising the British Expeditionary Force for fighting for money, rather than patriotism. ‘Mercenaries’ was a deliberate German insult against the BEF. These were men who fought for money rather than for country or honour. Housman’s counter attack was irony. Our regular soldiers “took their wages, and are dead.” “What God abandoned, these defended,/And saved the sum of things for pay.”
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
THE SOMME AND THE SHROPSHIRE LADS
The Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14–17 July 1916) was part of the Battle of the Somme. The British Fourth Army attacked the Braune Stellung at dawn on 14 July. Dismissed beforehand by a French commander as “an attack organized for amateurs by amateurs,” the attack succeeded.
I am grateful, as ever, to Annette Burgoyne, historian of the KSLI for the following: “The 7th Battalion KSLI was in the first wave. They ran into uncut wire about 600 yards from the German front line. Unable to get through, the survivors took shelter in a sunken road. The Regimental history records 163 killed & 294 wounded, I can only find 145 killed whilst 12 men died of wounds over the following two days. The battalion attacked again from the front, while other battalions bombed in from the flanks, and the trench was taken.”
During the War the 7th suffered more casualties than any other KSLI battalion, with 1,048 killed in action or died during the war, and earned more battle honours than any other KSLI battalion.
We have read that Housman “had a sentimental feeling for Shropshire.” It was one that lasted the whole of his life. His ashes were buried beneath this stone next to the church of St Laurence Ludlow and accompanied by this memorial. He has become an honorary Shropshire Lad.