I drove down to Shropshire a week or so ago for a friend’s wedding, and took my copy of A.E. Housman’s volume with me. It could be the only chance I’d have to read ‘A Shropshire Lad’ in Shropshire. And so I did, bits of it anyway. Truth be told, I had never paid it much mind. I bought it a few years ago, a Dover Thrift edition, out of curiosity more than anything, and had hardly picked it up since. When I did, I thought: conventional pastoral poems in a jaunty ballad meter, small and perfectly formed, but a bit impersonal, rather formal – and I’d return to my Edward Thomas or John Clare. Perhaps, I thought, amidst the red rocks of Bridgnorth, or walking through Much Wenlock, with the mist-wreath Wrekin on the horizon, I’d appreciate it more.
As my wife was getting ready for the wedding, I picked the book up and started reading out a few of them. This wasn’t particularly appreciated by my wife, who felt I’d make myself much more useful peeling the hard-boiled eggs we’d brought to eat before the wedding, anticipating a long wait for food. So I peeled the eggs. But ‘A Shropshire Lad’ had put a hook in me, and I’ve been dipping into it the week and a bit since.
I’d been right, of course: the poems are conventional and they are impersonal. But they are excellent poems. Their theme is a timeless one: death. Every poem in the collection touches on death – or rather, it feels like death touches every poem in the collection, that is, death, beauty, the shortness of life, the inevitability of fate. This is the one I’ve chosen to start the blog with:
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had.
For many a rose-lipt maiden,
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot lads are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.