THEME AND STRUCTURE IN HOUSMAN'S
A SHROPSHIRE LAD
BOBBY JOE LEGGETT
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
A purely critical approach to the study of the poetry of A. E.
Housman is justified by the fact that although much has been written
about him since 1936, the year of his death, very little sound criticism
of his poetry is available and nothing of a comprehensive nature. I have,
therefore, undertaken a critical analysis of the work on which Housman's
reputation as a poet rests, emphasizing primarily its unity of theme and
After discussing in Chapter I the relationship between this ap-
proach to Housman's poetry and other existing critical views, I have in
Chapters II and Iii dealt with the predominant theme of A Shropshire Lad
and one significant variation of that theme. Chapter IV constitutes an
analysis of the structure of the work, and Chapter V states the conclu-
sions to be drawn from this examination.
Some repetition may be observed in the study, especially in Chap-
ter IV. This repetition is justifiable only by the fact that I wished to
examine the relationship between the sixty-three poems of A Shropshire
Lad from both a thematic and structural standpoint and therefore found it
necessary to analyze the same poems from two different points of view.
The distinction between theme and structure may also be objected to since
it Is an artificial one. In actuality theme and structure in poetry are
much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to separate than I have made
them appear. Yet such arbitrary distinctions are useful and even neces-
sary for critical analysis.
1 wish to thank Dr. Alton C. Morris for his valuable assistance
in the completion of this study. I am also indebted to Dr. William Ruff
and Dr. Charles Crittenden, other members of my Supervisory Committee.
The quotations from Housman's poetry are taken from the 1959
Centennial Edition of Complete Poems edited by Tom Burns Haber. This
edition contains the version of A Shropshire Lad of the 1940 New York
edition, which incorporates the minor changes Housman made in the text
TABLE OF CONTENTS
PREFACE . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..
INTRODUCTION. . . . . .
THE THEME OF MUTABILITY IN
A SHROPSHIRE LAD . . . .
THE THEME OF MUTABILITY IN
A SHROPSHIRE LAD: HOUSML4N'S
QUEST FOR PERWMNENCE . . .
THE STRUCTURE OF A SHROPSHIRE LAD
CONCLUSION . . . . .
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . 24
. . . . . . 66
. . . . . 98
Norman Marlow stated in 1958 that "twenty years after Housman's
death there is still no comprehensive study of his poetry and very little
balanced criticism of it,"' thus noting a deficiency in Housman scholar-
ship which exists today, almost three-quarters of a century after the
publication of A Shropshire Lad. One might attempt to explain this lack
of critical study by reference to Housman's small body of published po-
etry. Yet there has been no lack of Interest in him since the publication
of A Shropshire Lad in 1896. William White's extensive bibliography of
Housman has not yet appeared, but in a preview of his listings published
in 1953 he reported that since 1896 A Shropshire Lad has been reprinted
more than fifty times in England, and that in America more than twenty
publishers have Issued scores of editions. Although there is still no
definitive biography, more than ten books about Housman have been printed,
and he is discussed in more than 300 chapters in books, 500 periodical
articles, and 350 book reviews. Moreover, his poems appear in over 275
These figures certainly dispel any notion of a lack of interest
in Housman the poet. Yet Robert Stallman In a critical bibliography of
IA. E. Housman: Scholar and Poet, Minneapolis, 1958, p. vil.
2"A. E. Housman Anthologized: Evidence in the Growth of a Poet's
Reputation," Bulletin of Bibliography, XXI (1953), p. 43.
Housman noted in 1945: "Technical criticism of the poetry is quite
scarce. Only twenty-four articles attempt analyses of the poems, twelve
of these pieces being brief or elementary."3 Stallman also noted that of
the 177 poems in The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, only 27 had been
analyzed in whole or in part. Stallman's bibliography, however, lists a
wealth of Housman material and itself supplements the 1941 bibliography
of Theodore Ehrsam,5 which lists over 200 Items on Housman.
Clearly, th,,, the lack of any comprehensive study or analysis of
the poetry cannot be explained in terms of a lack of interest in Housmen.
An explanation must be sought, instead, In an examination of the direc-
tion Housman criticism has taken. A review of the major trends of Housman
scholarship will reveal, I believe, several good reasons why critical
study of the poetry has been largely ignored.
First, it is evident that the enigma of Housman the man has doml-
nated Housman studies. He has suffered, like Byron, from the fact that
his personality is of more interest to many readers than his poetry, and
that for some scholars the poetry is read only as a key to the personal-
ity.) The image of Housman that emerges from his biographers is, it is
true, conducive to such an approach, for Housinn's life constituted a se-
ries of minor tragedies. The death of his mother on his twelfth birthday,
his sister Katherine Symons reports, had such a lasting effect on Housman
3"Annotated Bibliography of A. E. Housman," PfA, LX (1945), p.
4~LOd., p. 497.
5A Bibliography of Alfred Edward Housman, Boston, 1941.
that death became an obsession with him. His failure in Greats at Oxford
disgraced him in the eyes of his family and caused him to seek refuge in
London as a civil servant for a time. The death of his father in 1894
was'not only a personal loss but threw him into extreme financial diffi-
culties. Finally, his relationship with Moses Jackson, a fellow student
at Oxford, was the source of deep emotional scars. It was climaxed in
1887 by Jackson's departure for India after the friendship was strained,
some scholars infer, by an unnatural attachment on Housman's part.7
But Housman's personality would perhaps not have achieved so much
attention were it not for the nature of the poetry which he wrote. It is
a poetry, said Stephen Spender, which seems to hide('some nagging Housman-
ish secret One feels that the poem has its autobiographical aspect; and
yet this is realized neither in the situation of the speaker of the po-
etic monologue nor in that of the 'hearts that loved him."' There is, in
short, says Spender, "a personal tragedy concealed in this poetry."9 And
it must be admitted that the lads of Shropshire, who are obsessed with
death even in the prime of life, who grieve for departed friends and ex-
press a sense of guilt for nameless sins, suggest parallels with Hous-
man's own personal situation as it has been reconstructed by his
6Alfred Edward Housman: Recollections, New York, 1937, p. 8.
7The biographies of both George L. Watson (A. E. Housman: A Di-
vided Life, London, 1957) and Maude M. Hawkins (A. E. Housmen: Man Bc-
hind a Mask, Chicago, 1958) propose the theory that Housman was homosc:.u-
ally attracted to Jackson.
"'The Essential Housman," in The Haking of a Poem, London, 1955,
91bid., p. 162. /
biographers. Thus the notion that Housman's poetry is merely the embodi-
ment of his personal dilemma has become the subject of a large body of
Housman criticism, and it has been responsible for the widely held dictum
that Housman's personality must be seen as the key to his poetry and the
resulting corollary that the poetry may contain the key to his
J. K. Ryan illustrates this approach quite well with his insist-
ence on "intimate sources" for Housman's poetry and his assumption that
Housman as a poet presents a special problem which cannot be solved by
the conventional methods of examining cultural and traditional influences:
In the case of Housman . intimate sources for his work
must be sought. Experiences common to most men, external con-
ditions and forces, and training and tradition, whether natural
or cultural, are not enough to explain the temper of his work.
The temper must ;ear an explanation that is personal in the
fullest and most basic sense, for it results not only from an
emotional nature that is Intense and passionate, but also from
a clear intelligence and a deliberate will.11
J. P. Bishop states: "Perfect understanding of his poems depends upon
knowledge of his personal plight."12 Lawrence Leighton finds that "Hous-
man's poetry tends to lend itself to confusion between the personality of
the poet and the poetry." His poetry needs a key, "which can come only
from our knowledge of the poet."13 Following the same reasoning, Rica
IOGeorge Watson states In his biography of Housran: "In this
study . his poetry becomes the indispensable key to a personality
which even those who knew him best always confessed to finding adaman-
tine" (op. cit., p. 11).
11"Defeatist as Poet," Catholic World, CXLi (1935), p. 35.
12"The Poetry of A. E. Housman," Poetry, LVI (1940), p. 150.
13"One View of Housmen," Poetry, LII (1938), p. 95.
Brenner states that "the poems as transmutations of Housman's experience"
cannot be explained until he reveals the clue.14 Other critics who take
this view include Mortimer Raymond, who finds that A Shropshire Lad "is
the projection of what Housman . suppressed in his own life,"15 H. W.
Garrod, who relates the poems to an unknown personal tragedy,16 A. F.
Allison, who sees Housman's characters as the tragic realization of him-
self,17 and Jacob Bronowskl, who feels that the poems ask the reader to
pity the poet himself.18
It is, of course, tempting to look for an autobiographical ex-
planation for Housman's poetry, and doubtless Housman, like all poets,
relied on personal experiences and emotions to provide the materials for
the construction of his poems. (et to insist that Housman's poetry can
be understood only in a biographical context is to limit unnecessarily
the range of criticism and to subordinate the poetry to the poet. At its
furtherest extreme, this approach finds worth in the poetry only as it re-
veals the poet. Benjamin Brooks, for example, feels that the "poetic"
reasons for accepting Housman died away with the Georgians, and it is
only personal and psychological reasons which make him of interest to
14en Modern Poets, New York, 1930, p. 191.
15"HousImn's Relics," New Statesman and Nation, XII (October 24,
1936), p. 631.
16"Housman: 1939," Essays and Studies, XXV (1939), pp. 7-21.
17"The Poetry of A. E. Housman," Review of English Studies, XIX
(1943), p. 279.
18"Alfred Edward Housman" in The Poet's Defence, Cambridge, 1939,
pp. 223-225. For other views on this subject see Stallman, op. cit., pp.
later schools.19 Ernest Moss, whose psychological criticism finds in
Housman "a longing for return to the elemental womb," concludes that "it
is Improbable that the mass of his work can be enjoyed as poetry."20
The biographical approach thus suffers from its preoccupation
with psychological motivation and its tendency to turn Housman into a
"case-book item," to use Benjamin Brooks' phrase. Its tendency is always
to exploit the poetry in a study of the poet. Secondly, it explains
nothing about the poetry as poetry; it can only explain the poetry as
autobiography. But the third and most serious charge which can be lev-
eled against this prevailing view of Housman's poetry is that it can of-
fer no evidence in support of a personalized poetry, only the feeling
that the poetry is autobiographical, and to counter this view, one need
only point to other critics who feel otherwise. Louis Kronenberger, for
example, states that Housman "is intense but remote, pathetic but imper-
sonal."21 Eda Lou Walton holds that Housman depersonalizedd his philos-
ophy and emotions so that they, and his poems, become 'not mine, but
man's.'"22 And H. P. Collins finds that the Shropshire lad speaks ob-
jectively; Housman as the poet of a genre, has an objective method of
self-dramatization.23 Finally, one of the paradoxes of the biographical
19"A. E. Housman's Collected Poetry," Nineteenth Century, CXXVIII
(1940), p. 71.
20Cuoted in Stallman, op. cit., p. 484.
21"A Note on A. E. Housman," Nation, CXLV (December 18, 1937),
22"Not Mine, but Man's,"' Nation, CXLIII (November 7, 1936), p.
23Modern Poetry, London, 1925, pp. 66-77.
approach is that its advocates seem to have ignored their prime biograph-
ical source, Housman's own statement on the subject. In a letter to a
French student he stated flatly, "Very little in the book is
Thus the attempt to emphasize the personal element in Housman's
poetry at the expense of other elements is unsatisfactory on at least
three counts. Although much of the criticism of Housman today is based
on such an approach, very few tangible results may be found. Such a
trend leads inevitably to conjecture over the cause of the personal
crisis which is seen reflected in the poetry. For example, we may look
at the flurry of activity produced by Housman's remarks in the preface to
Last Poem, where he wrote:
I can no longer expect to be revisited by the continuous ex-
citement under which in the early months of 1895 I wrote the
greater part of my other book [A Shropshire Lad], nor indeed
could I well sustain it if it came.
Scholars who have looked for biographical elements in Housman's poetry
have utilized his phrase "continuous excitement" as the starting point in
a search for personal events of early 1895 which may have acted as the
genesis for the poem of A Shropshire Lad. Grant Richards in his biog-
raphy of Housman stated:
. this passage from the preface to Last Poems concerns A
Shropshire' Lad'more closely than it concerns the later book.
It is important for the full understanding of A Shropshire
Lad and its author; and it !s provocative in leaving so much
to conjecture. Time, which dims most things, has cleared the
way for an understanding of the experience which Housman re-
cords as accompanying the writing of the poems. . .2
24Quoted in Marlow, op. cit., p. 150.
25Housman 1897-1936, New York, 1942, p. 311.
This experience, Richards believes, was "a sudden conviction .. that
he was producing creative work that was just as likely to make him im-
mortal as his scholarship."26
Tom Burns Haber states that as yet he is "unable to explain this
vague reverence,"27 but cites Percy Withers' testimony that in one of
Withers' last meetings with Housman, the poet mentioned the death of a
German woman with whom "in the earlier years companionship had been close
and constant. . .028 Haber concludes that if Withers' testimony is
true, "it provides another reason for examining the background of Hous-
man's romantic lyrics."29 Elsewhere Haber cites the phrase "continuous
excitement" in support of his thesis that the "feminine" language of the
suppressed poems of the early months of 1895 suggest an emotional un-
balance which reveals the "tragedy of a fruitless search for human com-
fort which those [Housman) loved best could not give him."30 Norman
Marlow finds that Housman's state of "practically continuous excitement"
along with the fact that he was "somewhat out of health" was the result
"partly of his father's death in the winter of 1894 . and partly of a
bitter controversy which he had been waging on some question of
261ibi., p. 312.
27"Heine and Housman," JEGP, XLIII (1944), p. 330.
30'A. E. Housman's Downward Eye," JEGP, LIII (1954), p. 318.
310p. cit., p. 9.
The basic assumption behind each of these conjectures is that by
"excitement" itousman implied an emotional state caused by personal un-
rest, and each attempts to arrive at the cause of the unrest. A further
implication is that a knowledge of the cause of the excitement could re-
veal something of the motivation behind Housman's writing of A Shropshire
Lad and further strengthen the position of those who Insist on a bio-
graphical interpretation of Housman's poetry. But a hitherto unpublished
Housman letter indicates that these scholars' conjectures are the result
in part of a misinterpretation of the word excitement as Housman used it
in the preface to Last Poems. In a letter to Paul V. Love, an American,
dated February 14, 1927, Housman stated, "The excitement was simply what
is commonly called poetical inspiration."32 This clarification dispels
the idea that the words of the preface veiled some personal revelation,
for excitement suggests an emotional state apart from the creation of po-
etry while Inspiration does not.
Elsewhere Housman also attempted to reject the notion that his
poems were the result of a personal tragedy or crisis. In answer to an
inquiry whether A Shropshire Lad was the result of 'a crisis of pessi-
mism" he replied that he had never had any such crisis. He added,
". .I did not begin to write poetry in earnest until the real y emo-
tional part of my life was over. .. ."33 In addition, Wilfrid Scawen
Blunt writes in My Diaries of a conversation with Housnan in which he
asked the poet whether there was any episode in his life which suggested
32The letter contains only the one sentence quoted above.
33Laurence Housman, My Brother, A. E. Housman, New York, 1938, p.
the gruesome character of his poems. "Housman assured me it was not so.
He had lived as a boy in Worcestershire, not in Shropshire, though within
sight of the Shropshire hills, and there was nothing gruesome to record."34
Housman's explanation of his remarks In the preface of Last Poems,
undiscovered until recently, further frustrates the efforts of scholars
to discover personal events which triggered the intensely creative period
of the early months of 1895, when most of the lyrics of A Shropshire Lad
were written. But by discouraging a purely biographical approach to the
poetry, ;iousman's letter may have helped to prepare the way for a badly
needed critical evaluation of the poetry based on its own merit, apart
from its revelation of the poet. Certainly the view which holds that
Housman's poetry must be read in the light of his personality tends to
lead one away from the poetry to the biography with the subsequent de-
valuation of the poetry. It is one of the purposes of this study, how-
ever, to demonstrate that Housmon's poetry may be read apart from any bi-
ographical reference, and more specifically, that A Shropshire Lad, the
work which must certainly be regarded as central to an understanding of
Housman, is a self-contained and self-sufficient work which may be read
as a whole, not simply as a series of self-revealing lyrics. This is not
to deny that there is a personal element in the poetry, but it is to deny
that the knowledge of this personal element is sufficient or even neces-
sary to explain the poetry.
If critical neglect of Housman's poetry has been promulgated by
the tendency of critics to view his poetry as autobiography, this neglect
340uoted in Richards, op. cit., pp. 105-106.
has been furthered by a similar tendency to regard Housman's poetry as
philosophy. Because he chose to consider in his poems some of the great
conimonplaces of life--the transience of human existence, the certainty of
death, the injustice of man's condition to earth--he was early labeled a
"message" poet, more specifically a pessimist, and his poetry has been
frequently acclaimed or dismissed on the sole ground of the reader's
agreement or disagreement with the poet's message. J. B. Priestley in
discussing Housman's critical neglect finds that one important reason for
it "is concerned with the charge of pessimism that has been urged against
these poems."35 Tom Burns Haber summarizes the problem in these words:
A. E. Housman is one of those unfortunate poets who pass into
Literature over-burdened with a message. The earliest reviewers
of A Shropshire Lad discovered and announced it; it was found
again in Last Poems, and in one way or another many commentators
on Housman's collected verse h3ve been busy with this message.
Comparatively few have had much to say about his poetry.30
The preoccupation with the philosophical import of Housman's work
has taken several forms. Some critics37 have pronounced Housman a pessi-
mist but urged that this pessimism is of value to his poetry, that
through it he has revealed to the reader how to enjoy life and how to
35Quoted by Albert Fuquay, A Study of the Criticism of the Poetry
of A. E. Housman, an Unpublished Thesis, University of Florida, 1948,
36"Housman's Poetic Ear," Poet Lore, LIV (1948), p. 257.
37See, for example, William Benet, "A. E. Housman's 'Last Poems,'"
Bookman, LVII (1923), p. 83; Harrold Johnson, 'A. E. Housman: Poet and
Pessimist,' Hibbert Journal, XXXV (1937), p. 338; Arnold Whitridge,
"Vigny and Housman: A Study In Pessimism," American Scholar, X (1941),
pp. 156-169; and F. L. Lucas, The Decline and Fall of the Romantic Ideal,
Cambridge, 1937, p. 280.
endure it.38 But the weight of opinion is that his philosophical beliefs,
being unsound and inconsistent, prevent the appreciation or enjoyment of
his poetry.39 In short, many commentators have pronounced Housman a
philosophical poet only to reject his poetry because his philosophy is
unsound or Inconsequential. Cleanth Brooks relates Housman's philosophy
to that of Bertrand Russell, his Cambridge contemporary, but states that
"a rereading of the mass of Housman's poetry indicates that Housman had
no . world view to set up. Intellectually, he has not moved far past
an austere scepticism."40 The implication here is that the absence of a
"world view"- and the belief in scepticism condemn Housman's poetry, for
Brooks concludes that Housman is not even the perfect minor poet, as some
scholars have ranked him.41 R. P. Blackmur concurs that Housman "was not
a great minor poet," for in his view of life and death "he disciplined
out of his verse all but the easiest and least valid form of death."42
Housman is thus not a profound thinker but "a desperately solemn purveyor
of a single adolescent emotion."43 Even Louis MacNeice, who is generally
sympathetic to Housman, holds that although Housman's philosophy has very
little meaning, it is essential to his poetry. He states:
38SeeHarrold Johnson, op. cit., p. 338.
391 am indebted to Stallman's critical bibliography of Housman
for the classification of the conflicting views on Housman's philosophy.
40'The Whole of Housman," Kenvon Review, III (1941), pp. 105-10b.
411bid., p. 108.
42The Expense of Greatness, New York, 1958, p. 204.
43bid., p. 202.
. the beliefs behind A Shropshire Lad are a pretty thin
meaning and rather reprehensible beliefs when abstracted from
the poetry, but without them the poetry would be dead. . .
The charge of Inconsistency and contradiction is also leveled
against Housman. Jacob Bronowski holds that the poems have no standard
Every standard is called on, now in this poem, now In that.
Every poem is at odds with every other. For every poem has
a standard an, makes a judgment of living: but Housman has
Hugh Molson states that Housman answers the philosophical questions he
raises "in contradictory ways." The feeling that it is better to be
alive than dead is vigorously expressed by a suitor [of one poem]. . .
Exactly the opposite opinion is expressed in another poem."45 Finally,
Lawrence Leighton rejects Housman's beliefs because they depend on preju-
dices, not thought. Leighton states:
If the reader submits to the beliefs, he is in the end baffled.
For the poetry does not justify its statements nor for all its
apparent effect does It advance his understanding.46
Thus the view that Housman Is a philosophical poet frequently
leads to his rejection because of his limited world view, his thinness of
meaning, his inconsistencies and contradictions, and his failure to ad-
vance tht'reader's understanding. And these are perhaps valid objections
if Housmen is to be considered a philosopher and his poetry is to be
43"Housmen in Retrospect," New Republic, Cll (April 29, 1940),
40p. cit.. p. 221.
45"The Philosophies of Hardy and Housman," Ouarterly Review,
CCLXVIII (1937), pp. 207-208.
460p. cit., p. 98.
regarded as a philosophical system. John K. Ryan stated the assumption
that seems to underlie these critics' rejection of Housman when he stated,
"The appeal and power of the philosophical poet must ultimately rest on
his thoughts rather than on the way he expresses them."47 Yet such an
approach has serious drawbacks. No harm is done in speaking of the "phi-
losophy" of a poet on a colloquial level, but to apply the criteria of
philosophy to poetry may lead to confusion, for the two admit of con-
flicting sets of criteria. For example, to say that a philosophical
statement is self-contradictory is to discredit it. Yet Cleanth Brooks,
who objects to Housman on philosophical grounds, has devoted an entire
volume to show that
. paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to
poetry. It is the scientist whose truth requires a language
purged of every trace of paradox; apparently the truth which
the poet utters can be approaches only in terms of paradox.
Again, clarity and specificity are virtues of the language of philosophy;
yet the New Criticism has held that one criterion for great poetry is
ambiguity, the ability of a poetic statement to contain two or more mean-
ings simultaneously. There are other conflicting criteria for philosophy
and poetry, but it should be sufficiently clear that many of Housman's
critics have ignored the fact that poetry is not philosophy. Housman's
reputation as a poet has certainly been hurt by the philosophical ap-
proach to his poetry. The feeling persists among critics that Housman
was attempting to construct some sort of philosophical system, but that
he failed because his thought was "adolescent" (a favorite word among
47p. cit., p. 34.
The Well Wrought Urn, New York, 1947, p. 3.
Housman's detractors), or because his conclusions were perverse or mean-
ingless. Yet it is to be doubted that Housman's poetry can be suffi-
ciently understood if it is to be seen as a series of philosophical
statements to be judged as true or false. In considering the view of
Housman as a philosophical poet, J. B. Priestley has stated:
We cannot explain [Housman's] dominating mood in terms of some-
thing outside poetry, such as a system of ethics or a definitely
formulated philosophy. Judged by such alien standards, the poet
is contradictory and downright perverse in his determination to
make the worst of things;( thus his running grievance, on examina-
tion, can be resolved into two separate complaints that are not
at all consistent; In the first,\life Is lovely enough, but all
too short, and death is the enemy of happiness; In the second,
existence itself is a misery only to be endured until the wel-
come arrival of death the deliverer. Yet when we are actually
reading the poems we never feel that the poet Is thus cancelling
out his complaints. No, because such a contradiction (which
would be very awkward If poetry were what some people think it
is, philosophy in fancy dress) is not really there--indeed, has
nothing to do with actual poetry at all.49
Housman's own personal aesthetic, which he gave in the Leslie
Stephen Lecture for 1933, entitled The Name and Nature of Poetry, also
tends to refute those who have tagged him as a poet of thought. In his
lecture Housman stated clearly and unmistakably that, to him, poetry is
not thought, but emotion. He says: ("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.550 And the essence of poetry is not the abstracted thought but
its expression: "Poetry Is not the thing said but a way of saying it."51
49"The Poetry of A. E. Housman," London Mercurv, VII (1922), p.
50A. E. Housman: Selected Prose, ed. John Carter, New York, 1961,
51bid., p. 187.
Housman's own careful distinction between philosophy and poetry is thus
made clear: "Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not . the Intel-
lect is not the fount of poetry . it may actually hinder its
Housman talks here about the reader's sense and what was felt by
the writer; he is not concerned with the construction of any sort of
formal system. Furthermore, men who knew Housman have attested to the
fact that he was not interested in formal schools of philosophy. Canon
J. T. Nance, who was a tutor in St. John's College, Oxford, when Housman
was a scholar there, has written: ". .. Housman did not take any in-
terest in Greek philosophy. His interests were in pure scholarship."53
Percy Withers, who knew Housman well, reports that once when he attempted
to discuss some question in metaphysics with Housman, Housman replied
angrily: "That is a subject I will not discuss." Withers concludes that
Housman objected to 'the whole realm of philosophic thought."54 It is
strange then, in view of so much evidence to the contrary, that Housman
should be regarded by so many as a philosophical poet, for his poetry
does not admit of logical analysis or abstracted meaning. This study, on
the contrary, assumes that if Housman is to be understood, he must be
studied as a poet through a thematic and structural analysis of his best
known and most highly regarded work. The study attempts to examine his
ideas in the context in which they appear rather than to abstract them
521_id., pp. 187-188.
53Quoted in Richards, op. cit., p. 322.
54JLid., pp. 57-58.
out of context as philosophical statements. It is concerned with the
structure of Housman's work, both the individual lyrics and the whole
work, regarded as a unit.
But one final aspect of Housman criticism must be considered, for
it is fundamental to the present lack of any sizable body of critical
analysis of Housman's poetry. As early as 1937, Louis Kronenberger
stated that not much remained to be said about Housman's art:
Much has been written about his verse, but very little that
was more than a way of expressing pleasure in it--very little,
that is to say, which was really critical in method. . .
One could hardly tie him in with anything very original con-
cerning life itself, or explain at great length a philosophy
that was almost self-explanatory, or find special meanings in
him that the rest of the world has neglected to find.55
Kronenberger feels then that Housman's verse is in no need of close anal-
ysis since it is so simple as to be self-explanatory. And this view is
widely held among commentators of Housman's poems. Oliver Robinson, for
example, issued in 1950 when he called a critical essay on Housman's po-
etry, noting that "the studies of the form and contents of A. C. Hous-
man's poetry which already exist are little more than fragmentary," and
that, consequently, "there is room for a more detailed discussion than
has appeared up to the present time."56 But Robinson's discussion of
the poetry itself amounts to no more than noting certain themes and quot-
ing the poems in which these themes appear. He apparently feels that no
more detailed discussion is necessary, since, as he states, "Usually the
550p. cit., p. 690.
56Anry P1rt: The Poetry of A. E. Housman, Boston, 1950, p. 11.
poems are self-explanatory."57 Lawrence Leighton is in agreement with
this conclusion. He finds that Housman's forms are simple, his style
easy, his symbols without obscurity, so that they make little demand
upon any reader's erudition or Ingenuity.'58
If Housman's poetry is so simple and direct as not to require ex-
plication, then close textual analysis is unnecessary, and certainly no
opinion Is so predominant among commentators as that which holds that the
verses are marked by an essential simplicity of form and thought. H. P.
Col I ns,59 lan Scott-Kilvert,60 Louis Untermeyer,61 Herbert Gorman,62
James Brannin,63 and Rica Brenner,6 all point to Housman's simplicity
as one of the outstanding characteristics of his poetry. And while all
of these critics have praised Housman's simplicity as an asset to lyric
poetry, others have utilized the same quality to discredit Housman as a
poet. Edith Sitwell states:
This admired simplicity of his seems not so much the result
of passion finding its expression in an inevitable phrase
. as the result of a bare and threadbare texture i- not
571bid., p. 22.
580p. cit., p. 93.
59op. cit., p. 74.
60A. E. Housman, London, 1955, p. 26.
61Modern American Poetry: Modern British Poetry, New York, 1942,
Vol. II, p. 102.
62The Procession of Masks, Boston, 1923, p. 171.
63"Alfred Housman," Sewanee Review, XXXIII (1925), pp. 192-194.
cit., p. 188.
strong enough to contain an explosive force, or the possibility
of a passionate upheaval under the line. .. I am unable to
understand why Housan's technique should have been so much
admired by some people. It is not actually incompetent, but it
rarely bears the slightest relation to the subject.b5
Conrad Aiken finds that the verse-texture is thin and the imagery thread-
bare,66 and Edwin Muir also uses the term threadbare to describe Housman's
Thus if Housman's verses are simple and direct, critics cannot
agree whether this simplicity is good or bad. But, more important, if a
simplicity of form leads to a self-explanatory poetry, as has been sug-
gested, readers should be able to agree in their interpretations of the
poems. Yet, on the contrary, Robert Staliman, who has classified the
views of critics on Housman's verse, finds that "on almost every point
of Housman criticism which this bibliography records the critics
It seems fair to state then that most commentators have assumed
a simplicity in Housman that has been partly responsible for the neglect
of any sort of substantial body of analytic criticism. But the further
implication of this view of Housman--that a simplicity of form leads to
a self-explanatory poetry--does not necessarily follow, for there is much
disagreement among critics on the interpretation of Housman's poetry.
65"Three Eras of Modern Poetry," in Trio by Osbert, Edith, and
Sacheverell Sitwell, London, 1938, pp. 104-105.
66"A. E. Housman," New Republic, LXXXIX (November 11, 1936), pp.
67,A. E. Housman," London Mercury, XXXV (1936), p. 63. Quoted in
Stallman, oR. cit., p. 476.
68Op. cit., p. 480.
But it may also be possible that the basic assumption found in almost all
Housman criticism--that a simplicity of form is inherent in his poetry--
Is also incorrect. Elisabeth Schneider in a work entitled Aesthetic
Etotive has shown that form in art has two aspects. These are the in-
herited aspects of form, traditions built up by past artists; and the
original form, that which is worked out by each artist for the needs of
his particular problems.69 Certainly Housman's inherited forms, the
ballad and pastoral traditions, are marked by simplicity, but this sim-
plicity of genre should not be confused with Housman's own particular use
of the genre. At least two critics have suggested that Housman's verse
structure may not be as simple as has generally been thought. Mary M.
. those simple meters of his were used in the beginnings
by the men who made the ballads, the little lyrics, and the
folk poetry. . But [Housman] used them with a current of
complexity under their smoothly flowing, familiar surface.
. For the young poets of our day, his attitude toward
life, like his meters, is monotonous; and perhaps they do
not see the emotional intensities and perplexities that are
behind this clear poetry. .. .70
And Nesca A. Robb holds that although the beauty of a style which is
"classically simple and strongly individual" has enchanted many readers
and kept them from looking beyond it, "a full analysis of Housman's art,
verbal and metrical, would be well worth attempting," for she feels that
the poems "contain a vision of life more subtle and complex than is gen-
69New York, 1939, p. 91.
70"Poets and Psychologists," Form, CIII (1940), p. 322.
71"A. E. Housman," in Four in Exile, London, 1948, pp. 11-12.
Housman's structure, be it simple or complex, must await further
investigation, but certainly it is a matter worthy of close study. The
nature of Housman's structuring principles in A Shropshire Lad and the
relationship of the structure to the them developed In that work are of
primary concern in this study.
This study, then, is not primarily concerned with the personal
elements or philosophical implication of Housman's poetry. It also ques-
tions the predominant view of Housman criticism that his verses present a
simplicity that defies analysis. On the contrary, the need for close
critical examination of his poetry is made evident by even a cursory re-
view of available criticism. Too many critics have based their views of
Housman's poetry on assumptions that do not bear close scrutiny. It
seems almost self-evident that if Housman is to be understood as a poet,
his poetry must be the first consideration. This inquiry has therefore
attempted to analyze the most fundamental aspects of his poetry--theme
and structure as they are used in A Shropshire Lad.
It may appear that restricting this study to A Shropshire Lad is
unduly limiting any analysis of Housman's poetry. Yet special reasons
exist for such a restriction. In the first place, A Shropshire Lad con-
tains over half of all the poetry Housman published in his lifetime. The
only other volume of poems he chose to publish was Last Poems, which was
issued twenty-six years after A Shropshire Lad. The other collections,
More Poems and Additional Poems, represent verses Housman chose not to
publish himself and were published after his death by his brother,
A Shropshire Lad contains the core of Housman's poetic achieve-
ment. A number of the verses of Last Poems were written at the same time
as the poems of A Shropshire Lad but were, for some reason, not included
in that volume. A Shropshire Lad also represents not only the most rep-
resentative but the most highly regarded collection of Housman's poetry.
Many critics discredit the posthumous poems as mere repetitions, in a
less polished form, of what he had written earlier.72
Finally, A Shropshire Lad is of special interest because of the
external evidence that Housman may have had some particular arrangement
In mind in excluding many poems later published in Last Poems. It is
certain that the poems are not arranged chronologically according to the
date of their composition, and It is strange that Housman should pass
over poems which are of a quality equal to many of those that he pub-
lished in 1896. Moreover, Housman refused to allow A Shropshire Lad to
be published in one volume with Last Poems or to allow poems from the
earlier collection to be included in anthologies, although he did not
make the same demands of Last Poems. Housman's publisher, Grant
Richards, concludes from these facts: "His idea gaX have been that he
looked on the book as a sequence of poems and in consequence disliked any
one being divorced from its fellows."73 None of these bits of evidence
can prove anything conclusive, but they do support the view that Housman
72,. . the posthumous poems are interesting but on the whole
they do him a disservice, because although they contain beautiful lines,
and even whole poems as good as any he wrote, they say in a cruder form,
which sometimes amounts almost to parody, what he has said before. . "
--Stephen Spender, quoted in Richards, op. cit., p. 369.
73op. cit., p. 53.
regarded the arrangement of poems in A Shropshi re Lad as important. The
contention of this study is that A Shropshire Lad does indeed contain a
unity of theme and that it is structured to be read as a whole. The
failure to regard it as such has led many critics into conclusions which
this study will attempt to revaluate in light of a new interpretation of
THE THEME OF MUTABILITY IN A SHROPSHIRE LAD
To demonstrate the thematic unity of A Shropshire Lad one Is not
obliged to show that all of the sixty-three lyrics it contains have the
same theme, only that the work as a whole contains one dominant theme,
which runs throughout the poems and which unifies the work by providing a
general context into which the individual poems may be fitted. The lyr-
ics, taken separately, are obviously concerned with a number of diverse
subjects--war, love, suicide, murder--to name only a few of the most fre-
quently recurring topics. Yet if it can be shown that these poems are
the particular manifestations of a larger, more inclusive theme which un-
derlies the whole work, then A Shropshire Lad may be regarded almost as
one large poem, not simply as a collection of sixty-three smaller ones.
Although various thems have been postulated for the work by
critics, a close examination of A Shropshire Lad reveals It as a work
1John Stevenson states: ". the whole'theme of Housman's po-
etry . Is the loss of Innocence." ("The Martyr as Innocent: Hous-
man's Lonely Lad," South Atlantic Quarterly, LVII , p. 70.)
Edmund Gosse finds: "Mr. Housman, at all events, has, as it
seems to me, only one subject, which he treats in a hundred ways--He is
the poet of desiderlum, of the unconquerable longing for what is gone
forever, for youth which has vanished, for friends that are dead, for
beauty that was a mirage." ("A Shropshlre Lad," in More Books on the
Table, London, 1923, p. 23.)
J. F. Macdonald says of A Shropshire Lad: ". . ts theme was
an old one, the joy and beauty of life in springtime dimmed by the shadow
of swift-coming death. . To enjoy the sun and the flowers while one
may and lay oneself down at last In acquiescence--this is the bittersweet
wisdom of life." ("The Poetry of A. E. Housman," Queen's Quarterly, XXXI
, p. 119.)
concerned primarily with time--the mutability of life, the transience of
human existence. I am not the first to have noted this theme in Hous-
man's major work. Rica Brenner,2 Arnold Whitridge,3 Carl and Mark Van
Doran,4 and Michael Macklem,5 among others, have commented on Housman's
concern with "the shortness of life, the frailty of beauty, the cruelty
of time.'6 The theme receives its closest analysis by Macklem, who dis-
cusses it in treating Housman's use of the pastoral elegy. No one, how-
ever, has traced its development through A Shropshire Lad and shown its
relationship to the individual lyrics of the work.
Although the mutability theme is introduced in its most complete
form in the second lyric of the volume, "Loveliest of Trees," it is evi-
dent even in the opening poem. Lyric I, "1887,"7 as its title suggests,
serves to place A Shropshire Lad in its proper historical setting. It is
an occasional poem on the celebration of the fiftieth year of Victoria's
reign, and it conveys something of the prevailing mood of the time with
its emphasis on imperialism and the far-flung British empire. "1887" may
almost be said to serve as an introduction to A Shropshire Lad. In no
20p. cit., p. 182.
30p. cit., p. 160.
4American and British Literature Since 1890, New York, 1925, p.
5"The Elegiac Theme in Housman," Queen's Quarterly, LIX (1952),
6Carl and Mark Van Doren, 2o. it.
71t is significant that "1887" is one of the few poems of A
Shropshire Lad to which Housman gave a title.
other poem In the work is the reader so much aware of historical time and
place. After this introductory poem, Housman turns to the universe of
his own creation, Shropshire. Out here for a moment the reader is re-
minded that he is in the British Empire of the end of the nineteenth
century. It is into the spirit of celebration and faith in the perma-
nence and stability of the British crown that Housman interjects his own
note of mutability and prepares the reader for the poems which "1887"
The poem begins with a description of the fires which dot the
English hillsides in honor of the Golden Jubilee:
From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.
Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because 'tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.
Housman's repetition of this last phrase three times in the poem in vari-
ous forms underlines the spiritual basis on which the crown, at least
traditionally, rests in the English view. But the whole point of "1887"
is to show that the permanence of the crown is based on the mutability of
its subjects. Housman does this by his emphasis on the British soldier,
who in the work of saving the Queen "shared the work with God" (1. 12).
The soldiers in the poem are referred to as saviourss," and in his use of
Christian symbols, Housman replaces the spiritual basis for the salvation
of the crown with a purely physical one. In stanza 4 Housman speaks of
the soldiers in words traditionally associated with Christ:
To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.
The last line suggests Matthew 27:42, where the chief priests, scribes,
and elders mock Christ by saying, "He saved others; himself he cannot
save." In associating these words with the British soldiers, Housman
signifies that they are the Christs of the modern world on whose shoulders
the fate of the crown rests. But if Housman transfers the burden of sal-
vation of the state from God to man, it is not because of any permanence
inherent In individual man. The last stanza of the poem is explicit in
contrasting the stability of the crown with the mortality of man:
Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you've been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.
The physical fact of generation, men passing into and out of existence,
is thus seen as the basis for the preservation of the crown. Man, con-
sidered generically, attains a sort of permanence only in reproducing his
own kind. Individual man must, therefore, "get the sons his father got,"
and the act of generation, the acceptance of his own individual mortality,
becomes man's only basis for the preservation of the state. "1887" thus
not only introduces A Shropshire Lad into its proper setting of time and
place but suggests the theme which is more fully explored in the poem
Lyric II, "Loveliest of Trees," is probably Housman's best-known
work and certainly the most frequently anthologized of all his poems.8
It is also Housman's most explicit and direct statement of the mutability
theme. Whereas in "1887" the theme served as an underlying assumption In
a poem about the celebration of Victoria's Golden Jubilee, in "Loveliest
of Trees" it is the sole consideration of the poem.
On the surface the poem is the most simple of poetic utterances.
It opens with an image from nature which may be said to symbolize some-
thing of the beauty of life:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
But the beauty of the image has an ironic effect on the observer; it re-
minds him of the transience of life. He has only a short time in which
to enjoy the loveliness of the world:
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
But the image has yet another effect on the observer in causing him to
drink more deeply of the world's beauty while he is yet alive:
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
8Wliliam White (o,. cit., p. 43) states that in 1953 it has ap-
peared in 103 anthologies. The second most popular of Housman's poems,
Lyric XIII ("When I Was One-And-Twenty"), had appeared in 78.
The surface statement of the poem is thus simple: life Is beau-
tiful but It is short, and since it is short, one must enjoy it now.
Translated into these terms, the poem seems commonplace, even insignifi-
cant; yet it is a restatement of one of the recurrent themes that most
great poets have dealt with--Spenser and Shakespeare, Marvell and Shelley,
to name only four of the most obvious examples. But perhaps Housman's
treatment of the theme is not as bare as it first appears. An examina-
tion of the poem's imagery reveals that "Loveliest of Trees" conveys the
idea of transience not only by direct statement but also by the pattern
of its images. After its introduction in lines 1 and 2, the cherry tree,
the central image of the poem, is mentioned three times. In line 4 it is
spoken of as 'Wearing white for Eastertide." In line 5 it is referred to
as a "thing in bloom," and In the last line of the poem It Is said to be
"hung with snow." These three images, taken separately, could be said to
be merely conventional images for white blooms, but taken In order, as
they appear in the poei, they suggest something more.
Winifred Lynskey has suggested that the snow image carries with
It the suggestion of winter and death, merely continuing the association
with death that "Eastertide" had introduced In the first stanza.9 W. L.
Werner argues against this Interpretation of the snow image, offering as
evidence the fact that one of the poetic definitions of snow is "a mass
of white petals." He further states that Lynskey's association of Easter
with death is "sheer perversion, for if Easter has any meaning, it is
9"Housman's 'Loveliest of Trees,"' Exolicator, IV (1945-46),
resurrection and immortal life."10' Werner is certainly correct in point-
ing out that Easter, as a poetic symbol, has been traditionally used to
convey the idea of springtime and rebirth, not winter and death. Yet, in
arguing against the association of winter with the snow image, he seems
to overlook one of the functions of imagery. It is impossible for a
poet, in introducing a word like Eastertide or snow into a poem, to sepa-
rate it from the meanings commonly associated with it. The phrases
'wearing white for Eastertide" and "hung with snow" are both clearly de-
scriptive of the whiteness of the cherry blossom, but the images cannot
be limited, in this case, merely to color associations, and snow carries
with it the idea of winter as surely as Easter (as Werner admits) carries
with it the idea of rebirth.
What both critics have failed to notice in the poem is the pro-
gression of the three images. The image pattern in the poem progresses
from spring hearingn g white for Eastertide") to summer ("things in
bloom") to winter ("hung with snow"), or, if one prefers, from rebirth,
to growth, to death.11 Whatever content one cares to Impose on the pat-
tern, it is the pattern itself which is important. The cyclical movement
of the images mirrors the paraphrasable content of the poem in conveying
the theme of mutability. "Loveliest of Trees," then, Introduces fully
both the theme which underlies A Shrooshlre Lad and a structuring pattern
10"Housman's 'Loveliest of Trees,"' Explicator, V (1946-47),
l1The editors of the Explicator have noted, in connection'with
this reading of the poem, that Housman equates the spring with the first
twenty years of life and winter with the last fifty years (I, [1942-431,
which recurs repeatedly throughout the work. To see a further example of
Its use, one need only turn to the poem which immediately follows "Love-
liest of Trees."
Lyric III, "The Recruit," is a poem In which the poet wishes a
young soldier well on his departure and assures him that his friends will
remember him while e Ludlow tower shall stand" (1. 4). The tower acts as
the controlling image in the poem in the same way that the cherry tree
was used in Lyric II. At the beginning of the poem Ludlow tower stands
as a symbol for durability and permanence:
Leave your home behind, lad,
And reach your friends your hand,
And go, and luck go with you
While Ludlow tower shall stand.
irony is introduced into the poem, however, by the repetition of the last
line of the first stanza three times throughout the poem, each time with
a slight shift in meaning. Stanza 4 states:
Come you home a hero,
Or come not home at all,
The lads you leave will mind you
Till Ludlow tower shall fall.
"While Ludlow tower shall stand" has now become "Till Ludlow tower shall
fall." The last stanza of the poem comal.tits the progression:
Leave your home behind you,
Your friends by field and town:
Oh, town and field will mind you
Till Ludlow tower is down.
in meaning, the three lines are the same; it is only in the subtle pro-
gression from stand to fall to down that Housman manages to suggest that
even this symbol of permanence is itself only temporal and that the fame
and memory of the recruit are equally temporal.
Housman's structuring principle in this poem thus becomes the
manipulation of the central image of the poem, and the comparison in
structure between "The Recruit" and Loveliest of Trees" is obvious. In
both cases Housman utilizes the drift or pattern of the images to convey
the idea of mutability. But whereas in "Loveliest of Trees' the struc-
ture reinforced the paraphrasable content of the poem, in The Recruit"
the structure explicitly contradicts it, and the irony of the poem lies
in the disproportion between the truth of the speaker's remarks to the
recruit (that he will be long remembered) and the qualification that the
poem's structure suggests (that his memory, like the tower, is subject to
The mutability theme is further developed in Lyric V, primarily
through the flower imagery of the poem, but also dramatically, thrcLgh
the interchange between two young lovers. The first stanza Introduces
both aspects of Housman's treatment of the theme:
Oh, see how thick the goldcup flowers
Are lying in field and lane,
With dandelions to tell the hours
That never are told again.
Oh, may I squire you round the meads
And pick you posies gay?
--'Twill do no harm to take my arm.
'You may, young man, you may.'
The sense of time is dominant in the poem, as the imagery sug-
gests. In the first stanza the dandelions "tell the hours/That never are
told again. Stanza 2 further links the flower image to the mutability
theme: "What flowers to-day may flower to-morrow/B t nevar as good as
new." Finally, in stanza 4 Housman firmly fuses image and theme as the
young man signs, "Ah life, what is it but a flower?" The poem is set in
springtime, the season of youth, and the sense of the fleetingness of
time ends In a care diem argument on the part of the young man:
Ah, spring was sent for lass and lad,
'Tis now the blood runs gold,
And man and maid had best be glad
Before the world is old.
Yet the youth unconsciously betrays himself. His argument is based on
the idea that since life cannot be preserved at its prime in youth--since
tomorrow is never as good as today--life must be seized at its prime. The
flower metaphor serves his purpose well as an image of the decay brought
through time. Yet in stanza three, again through the use of the flower
metaphor, he reveals the weakness of his own argument: the flower of
life may be despoiled as surely through his method as through the ravages
Some lads there are, 'tis shame to say,
That only court to thieve,
And once they bear the bloom away
'Tis little enough they leave.
Then keep your heart for men like me
And safe from trustless chaps.
My love is true and all for you.
'Perhaps, young man, perhaps.'
The consciousness of life's mutability thus underlies the whole poem.
The youth's argument is based on his conception of life's transience, and
In the course of his argument, in the Interchanges between the two lovers,
Housman produces yet another pattern of mutability. Quoting only the
last lines of each stanza of the poem, we may see this pattern unfold:
Oh, may I squire you round the meads
And pick you posies gay?
--'Twill do no harm to take my arm.
'You may, young man, you may.'
What flowers to-day may flower to-morrow
But never as good as new.
--Suppose I wound my arm right round--
"'Tis true, young man, 'tis true.'
My love is true and all for you.
'Perhaps, young man, perhaps.'
Be kind, have pity, my own, my pretty,--
'Good-bye, young man, good-bye.'
The girl's answers to the youth's entreaties reveal an early
promise (stanzas 1 and 2),a hesitancy ("Perhaps, young man, perhaps"),
and finally a complete negation in stanza 4 ("Good-bye, young man, good-
bye"). This pattern of development from the early promise of youth to
the growth toward disillusionment and finally complete negation may be
related to the patterns we have seen In "Loveliest of Trees" and 'The Re-
cruit." Of course, in each poem the content of the pattern is different,
but in all three poems the structure suggests roughly the same triad of
changes which progresses from an early state of youth or promise to a
later state of disillusionment.
Thus, an examination of four of the opening poems of A Shropshire
Lad suggests something of the form the mutability theme is to take in the
work. Housman asserts what, in his view, is the predominant fact of hu-
man existence, the impermanence and decay which characterize the life of
man, and this theme not only forms the basis for the subject of the poems
but dictates the structuring principle as well. That is, Housman delib-
erately chooses mutability as a subject for his poetry, but he also de-
velops the idea through a cyclical pattern or form which acts to convey
the notion of change from one state to another.
Both Housman's theme and his structural development of it may be
traced throughout the work. At times, as in Lyrics Vii and XIII, the
theme occurs as a sudden revelation by which youth emerges from innocence
to experience. Lyric VII traces such an emergence. The poem opens at
morning, which, like spring in Housman's world, suggests the time of
When smoke stood up from Ludlow,
And mist blew off the Teme,
And blithe afield to ploughing
Against the morning beam
I strode beside my team, .
Line 3 emphasizes the innocent nature of the country lad who strides
"blithe afield," and in stanza 2 whistles as he walks beside his team.
His mood is interrupted by the song of a blackbird, which the lad inter-
prets in the following manner:
'Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise.'
Nature, then, as represented by the bird, reveals that life is cyclical
and ends in oblivion. Human effort Is merely a grim joke, promulgated by
an ignorance of the true pattern of life. The youth at first rebels
against this view:
I heard the tune he sang me,
And spied his yellow bill;
I picked a stone and aimed it
And threw it with a will:
Then the bird was still.
But the youth has not succeeded In stilling the doubt which has now grown
inside him, and the lesson of nature becomes a part of his own thinking:
Then my soul within me
Took up the blackbird's strain,
And still beside the horses
Along the dewy lane
It sang the song again:
'Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
The sun moves always west;
The road one treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest,
And that will be the best.'
The sun, as a metaphor of change, recalls the first stanza of the poem,
which represented the lad starting out to his labor in the morning, but
"the sun moves always west," and morning is inevitably succeeded by dark-
ness; change is an undeniable fact of life. The cycle of the sun thus
becomes analogous with the cycle of life, for the youth sees that "the
road one treads to labour" will eventually "lead one home to rest." His
resignation to this fact of existence is seen in the last line of the
poem: "And that will be the best."
Lyric XIII is structured on a similar pattern. One of the most
oft-quoted of Housman's poems, it too records the sudden emergence from
innocence to experience:
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.
The discovery which is significant in the poem is that love is of a dif-
ferent nature from "crowns and pounds and guineas," and the perception of
the transitory nature of love brings with it a sudden shock of recogni-
tion. Housman manages to convey the suddenness of the lad's discovery by
delaying the revelation until the last two lines of the poem: "And I am
two-and-twenty,/And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true."
Lyrics VII and XIII deal with the subject of youth on the thresh-
old of discovery. This motif dominates many of the Shropshire lyrics,
and it also serves to explain the predominance of poems concerned with
young lovers, soldiers, and condemned criminals. Michael Macklem has
pointed out that Housman's sense of the transience of life "explains his
emphasis on youth, when the joy of the moment is most Intense, and on its
shortness and its loss."l2 John Stevenson, in an examination of Housman's
use of point of view, reaches the conclusion that the soldiers, young
lovers, and criminals of Housman's poetry are all various manifestations
of one point of view, that of the Shropshire Lad. But Stevenson's
120. cit., p. 44.
findings are also important In revealing the relationship between the
various personae of Housman's Shropshire and the mutability theme. He
The lad is variously the soldier, the lover, the "young
sinner," and the rustic observer or commentator on life. In
any of the roles, he is almost invariably characterized by
his ingenuousness in the grip of a strong emotion, by what is
often defined as on the threshold of discovery. He is awk-
ward, but straightforward in his actions, and always the
process of discovery results in a revelation of some kind.
rThe conflict that becomes dramatized in the action, and in.
his onmind, is the conflict between the actual and the
ideal, the world of being and the world of becoming; what
Mr. Cleanth Brooks has described as "The world 'Presences'
that are absolute and do not change, and the world of becom-
Ving which passes from birth to decay and death." . In-
herent in the discovery is a rejection of an easy optimism
and a keen awareness of the cyclic movement of man's march
from birth to death and of man's vanity in his achievement.13
Housman thus frequently conveys a sense of life's impermanence by concen-
trating on that moment in time which brings to man an awareness of his
essential mortality. In Lyrics VII and XIIi this moment flashes with a
suddenness of meaning that dismays the lad but also brings with it an
element of the truth of human existence. In Lyric VII the lad's soul
takes up the blackbird's message as an undeniable truth, and in Lyric XIII
the lad exclaims in a moment of discovery, "Oh, 'tis true, 'tis true."
The condemned criminals, the soldiers, and the young lovers in A Shrop-
shire Lad are thus important as symbolic manifestations of Housman's
mutability theme. Each faces, in his own way, a moment of high intensity
which reveals the truth of man's mortality.
The death which the murderer of Lyric IX faces is thus not distant
and unreal but imminent:
'30D. cit., pp. 77-78.
They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.
The pathetic fallacy of those lines emphasizes the change that occurs in
the outlook of one for whom death has become a reality, a part of the
consciousness. Death, accordingly, is localized in time in the poem:
S. he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine; . .
The effect of the poems of A Shropshire Lad concerned with con-
demned criminals is an intensification of the mutability theme, for Hous-
man sets up a dramatic situation in which the transformation from youth
and innocence to experience and death is telescoped into one moment of
discovery. This is true of Lyric VIII, where Housman represents in a
dramatic monologue a murderer's departure from the land of his youth
after his crime:
'Farewell to barn and stack and tree,
Farewell to Severn shore.
Terence, look your last at me,
For I come home no more.
'The sun burns on the half-mown hill,
By now the blood is dried;
And Maurice among the hay lies still
And my knife is in his side.
The poem has been condemned for its 'cheap theatrics" and "dis-
agreeable melodramatics,"4 but Housman manages to convey a universality
14See Frank Sullivan, "Housman's 'Farewell to Barn and Stack and
Tree,'" ExDlicator, 11 (1943-44), item 36.
to the poem by his utilization of the Cain and Abel story.15 Stanza 3
reveals that the murderer and his victim are brothers:
'My mother thinks us long away;
'Tis time the field were mown.
She had two sons at rising day,
To-night she'll be alone.
Stanza 6 mentions both the rick and the fold, suggesting the two occupa-
tions of farmer and shepherd:
'Long for me the rick will wait,
And long will wait the fold, .
We are led to assume that since the speaker is the farmer ("We'll sweat
no more on scythe and rake,/My bloody hands and I"), Maurice, the mur-
dered brother was, like Abel, a shepherd.
The recognition of the parallel with the Biblical story empha-
sizes again Housman's underlying theme of the growth from innocence to
discovery, for the poem clearly employs a myth which is a part of the
archetypal pattern of loss of innocence, and the Eden-like setting, from
which the youth is forced by his sin to leave, offers still another par-
allel with the creation myth.
Lyric XLVII, 'The Carpenter's Son," also reveals Housman employ-
ing traditional Biblical symbols in poems dealing with young criminals.
The carpenter's son is clearly Christ. He is to be hanged between two
thieves, and, in addition, he "hangs for love." Yet Housman's Christ
figure in this poem, like the soldiers in "1887," represents a reversal
15This interpretation is suggested by R. T. R., "Housman's 'Fare-
well to Barn and Stack and Tree,"' Explicator, I (1942-43), query 29.
of a traditional concept. Just as the soldiers in Lyric I were used to
emphasize the physical rather than the spiritual basis of life, "The
Carpenter's Son" reverses the pattern traditionally associated with
Christ's crucifixion. Instead of a Christ who dies magnanimously that
others may be saved, Housman's poem represents the carpenter's son as re-
gretting his loss of innocence, for experience has taught him that his
efforts to better mankind were futile:
'Oh, at home had I but stayed
'Prenticed to my father's trade,
Had I stuck to plane and adze,
I had not been lost, my lads.
'Then I might have built perhaps
Gallows-trees for other chaps,
Never dangled on my own,
Had I but left ill alone.
Instead of the symbolic act by which man is redeemed of his sins, the
death of the carpenter's son is regarded in the poem only as an example
for the lad's comrades to "leave 11l alone":
'Comrades all, that stand and gaze,
Walk henceforth in other ways;
See my neck and save your own:
Comrades all, leave II alone.
Housmen's motives in Lyric XLVII might appear at first quite puzzling un-
less the poem is related to the over-all theme of A Shropshire Lad. Seen
in this larger context, "The Carpenter's Son" becomes another expression
of the mutability theme. S. G. Andrews has pointed out that Housman's
use of the Biblical allusion in the poem represents a reversal of the
traditional poetic use of allusion. Instead of adding to the meaning of
the situation described in the poem, Housman's allusion to Christ points
back to the original act of crucifixion and asks the reader to reinter-
pret its significance in the light of the concept of man represented In
A Shropshire Lad. Andrews states:
It is significant that Housman's repeated allusions to
Christ do not help us to understand the carpenter's son or
his fate. Instead, they encourage us to transfer the speech
of the Carpenter's son to the mouth of Christ and t? search
for a sense in which the speech might apply to Him.'
It appears, then, that "The Carpenter's Son,' like "1887" is a
poem which attempts to re-define a spiritual concept In strictly humanis-
tic terms. Housman's Christ is a disillusioned man who is faced with the
vanity of his efforts in the light of his knowledge of the true nature of
man. As Andrews notes, the lesson Housman draws from the life of Christ
is that it is futile to attempt to change man's nature, to war with evil;
the mature man has learned to accept it as an inevitable condition in a
transitory and imperfect world. Housman's Christ has accepted at his
death the essential mortality of man, and the only promise he Is able to
leave to his comrades is that they will face a better death than he now
'Make some day a decent end,
Shrewder fellows than your friend.
Fare you well, for ill fare I:
Live, lads, and I will die.'
Thus, the condemned criminals of A Shropshire Lad make the tragic
discovery of man's impermanence in the face of immediate death. Housman's
soldiers too become Important symbols in the development of the theme.
16"Housan's 'The Carpenter's Son,'" Explicator, XIX (1960-61),
Two poems dealing with war, "1887" and "The Recruit," have already been
discussed. Housman's attitude toward the English soldier, as revealed in
these as well as the other war poems of A Shropshire Lad, is a curious
mixture of admiration and irony. In "1887" the soldiers are glorified as
men who, in the labor of preserving the state, "shared the work with God."
Yet they are saviors who could not even save themselves, and they lie
buried now in foreign fields. In "The Recruit" the poem's narrator wishes
a young soldier well but hints that his memory may well be short-lived.
Yet this ambivalent attitude is explained if one realizes that the soldier
is man in Housman's universe, and his tragic dilemma is man's dilemma in
"a world he never made." Lyric XXII reveals one aspect of this attitude
toward the soldier:
The street sounds to the soldier's tread,
And out we troop to see:
A single redcoat turns his head,
He turns and looks at me.
My man, from sky to sky's so far,
We never crossed before;
Such leagues apart the world's ends are,
We're like to meet no more;
What thoughts at heart have you and I
We cannot stop to tell;
But dead or living, drunk or dry,
Soldier, I wish you well.
The narrator's respect for the soldier in the poem is clearly
not based on Individual qualities; the soldier is a stranger, and he can-
not stop to tell what thoughts are in his heart. The speaker's attitude
is based instead on the generic qualities of the soldier; he is respected
simply because he is a soldier, because he has accepted the consequences
of being what he is. These consequences are amplified in the other war
poems of A Shropshlre Lad. In Lyric XXXV, the first two stanzas present
the image of soldiers following the sound of drums to certain death:
On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.
Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.
(The fate of the soldier and the fate of man is to march to an inevitable
death. Housman does not glorify or romanticize this process. Stanza 3
presents a stark picture of the forgotten dead:
East and west on fields forgotten
Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lonely lads and dead and rotten;
None that go return again.
The significance of the soldiers of A Shropshire Lad lies in the
fact that Housman is able to magnify his theme through the war imagery.
The soldier is man stripped of all superfluous trappings. In Housman's
war poems, an elemental dichotomy may be observed between life and death.
The soldier's symbolic function Is to dramatize man's inevitable march
toward death: "None that go return again." The last stanza of Lyric XXV
illustrates something of the motivation behind the soldier's willing ac-
ceptance of that march:
Far the calling bugles hollo,
High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
Woman bore me, I will rise.
The scariet-clad soldiers rise to answer the call of war because '"oman
bore me." It is of the nature of man to experience the fate of certain
death, and Housman's admiration for the soldier, which is evident through-
out A Shropshire Lad, is based on the fact that the soldier represents
man at his highest, stoically accepting the fate of his creation. He can
accept death, as the last line of the poem makes clear, because he has
accepted the truth of his own transitory existence. In this respect, the
poem's ending is close to the ending of "1887" in recalling that man's
individual existence is based on the act of generation and is therefore
impermanent in contrast to the permanence of the generic class of man.
Two concluding war poems, Lyrics LVI and LX, support the view
that the soldier's primary symbolic function is to depict dramatically
men's inevitable journey toward death. Lyric LVI deals with the futility
of attempting to escape this fate. It is entitled "The Day of Battle,"
and, like many of the poems of A Shrooshire Lad, it centers on a crisis
which reveals to man the truth of his transitory existence. Stanza I de-
picts the dilemma which confronts the soldier:
'Far I hear the bugle blow
To call me where I would not go,
And the guns begin the song,
'Soldier, fly or stay for long.'
The choice that is presented in the first stanza dictates the structure
3f the remaining three stanzas; each is structured as one step of a logi-
cal argument (if . but since . therefore):
'Comrade, if to turn and fly
Made a soldier never die,
Fly I would, for who would not?
'Tis sure no pleasure to be shot.
'But since the man that runs away
Lives to die another day,
And cowards' funerals, when they come,
Are not wept so well at home,
'Therefore, though the best is bad,
Stand and do the best, my lad;
Stand and fight and see your slain,
And take the bullet in your brain.'
The crux of the argument lies in lines 9 and 10. The inevitability of
death makes escape merely a cowardly delaying tactic. The soldier is
thus left with the decision to 'stand and do the best," to accept the
fate of being a soldier, which involves facing death squarely without
Lyric LX too concentrates on the death which Is the inevitable
fate of the soldier, though in a more indirect manner. Where Lyric LVI
contained a reasoned, logical structure, Lyric LX reaches a similar con-
clusion without logic or even without a reference to death:
Now hollow fires burn out to black,
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go.
Oh never fear, man, nought's to dread,
Look not left nor right:
in all the endless road you tread
There's nothing but the night.
The light-dark Image pattern of the poem becomes yet another of
Housman's unstated analogies through which he structures his theme. The
simplicity of the pattern perhaps accounts for the fact that we recognize
that the poem Is about death without actually being told directly that it
is. And we may even recognize that, like Lyric LVI, the poem offers a
sort of argument of its own, though, of course, a very indirect one. It
is an argument by analogy to which we have to supply the literal terms
which the poem, in its pattern, only implies. It is not necessary, in
understanding the poem, to consciously label the corresponding dichotomies
(light--life, darkness--death), but this unstated correspondence is cer-
tainly present. Housman's structure, as Elisabeth Schneider has observed,
has the effect of driving in the meaning although leaving certain ideas
unexpressed.17 Housman accomplishes this in Lyric LX by a fusion of pat-
tern and meaning, for in a significant way the pattern of the poem is the
meaning, and the final line of the poem ("There's nothing but the night")
becomes meaningful only when the reader accepts the light--dark pattern
that is developed in the poem. Likewise, the poem's argument (that since
death is inevitable, it is not to be feared) becomes meaningful only when
the further implications of Housman's structure are realized.
The function of the large number of poems of A Shropshire Lad
dealing with criminals and soldiers should now be clear. These figures
are utilized by Housman as symbols of mutable man, and they present in a
simplified and dramatic form the dilemma of man on which the poet concen-
trates. In a sense the soldier, the condemned criminal, is archetypal
man, confronted by the penalty of death and forced to rationalize that
death as a part of human existence.
The poems of A Shropshire Lad dealing with young lovers are also
important in the development of the mutability theme. Macklem has noted
Housman's frequent use of love as a traditional symbol of the intensity
170p. cit., pp. 95-96.
and brevity of happiness.18 Stevenson has spoken of Housman's lover as
one who, "aware of the inevitability of death and decay, aware of the
ambiguity of honor and love, accepts the moment of fulfillment as the
only reality.'19 Yet, as Stevenson further notes, the lover in Housman's
poetry soon discovers the transitory nature of love, and his commitment
ends in frustration. It is thus that love frequently functions as a sym-
bol for mutability in Housman's poetry. The Ideal love of youth, charac-
terized by a sense of permanence, leads to the disillusioned love of ac-
tuality In the same way that the process of growth brings with it an
ever-increasing awareness of the decay and Impermanence of life. Housman
further implements the close correlation of love with the mutability
theme by his constant identification of love with death. Tom Burns Haber,
noting this interweaving of love and death, states: "When Housman men-
tions the sex-embrace he usually casts the odor of death around it."20
Three consecutive poems, Lyrics XXV, XXVI, and XXVII, illustrate
Housman's juxtaposition of love and death. All three poems deal with a
triangle of lovers In which one of the lovers is now in the grave. Lyric
XXVII, often called "Is My Team Plowing," reveals the inconstancy of love
in depicting a dead lover speaking from the grave. The poem alternates
the dead man's questions and his friend's answers:
'Is my team plowing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?'
180O. cit., p. 44.
190p. cit., p. 81.
20"A. E. Housman's Downward Eye," p. 312.
Aye, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plow.
'Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
How I stand up no more?'
Aye, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.
The first four stanzas serve to emphasize the changelessness of the scene
the dead man has left. The cycle of life has continued unaltered: "No
change though you lie under/The land you used to plow." This Idea is
continued In the last four stanzas of the poem with added poignancy as
the dead man asks about his friend and his sweetheart:
'Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?'
Aye, she lies down lightly
She lies not down to weep;
Your girl Is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
'Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?'
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
The last stanza emphasizes the paradox that Is inherent in the poem, for
in asserting the permanence of the life that the dead man has left, his
friend has also emphasized the transience of individual man as contrasted
with generic man. The friend and the sweetheart remain unchanged, but
only at the expense of the dead lover. The oem thus reveals Housman's
use of love as a symbol of the brevity and transience of life. It deals
with two kinds of love--the love of a friend and the love of a sweet-
heart. The dead youth's questions reveal that he naively regards love as
fixed and unchanging. He asks if his sweetheart has 'tlred of weeping,"
as if physical exhaustion were the only force which could end her grief.
His innocence and naviete are also revealed in the ambiguity of his de-
sire that his friend has found "a better bed to sleep in. The poem's
last stanza, however, destroys the dead youth's notion of love's perma-
nence as an illusion. Love, like life, is marked by an inconstancy and
a brevity which is emphasized further by the juxtaposition of the lover
and the grave which characterizes this poem and the two which precede it.
Lyric XXV presents the same situation from a different point of
view--that of the lover who steals a dead man's sweetheart:
This time of year a twelvemonth past,
When Fred and I would meet,
We needs must jangle till at last
We fought and I was beat.
So then the summer fields about,
Till rainy days began,
Rose Harland on her Sundays out
Walked with the better man.
The better man she walks with still,
Though now 'tis not with Fred:
A lad that lives and has his will
Is worth a dozen dead.
Fred keeps the house all Kinds of weather,
And clay's the house he keeps;
When Rose and I walk out together
Stock-still lies Fred and sleeps.
Lyric XXVI completes the triangle by viewing the situation from the third
point of view--that of the lover who accepts a new sweetheart after the
death of the old one:
Along the field as we came by
A year ago, my love and I,
The aspen over stile and stone
Was talking to itself along.
'Oh, who are these that kiss and pass?
A country lover and his lass;
Two lovers looking to be wed;
And time shall put them both to bed,
But she shall lie with earth, above,
And he beside another love.'
The last stanza of the poem reveals that the prophecy of the aspen tree
has indeed been fulfilled:
And sure enough beneath the tree
There walks another love with me, . .
However, the poem further strengthens its characterization of love's in-
constancy by suggesting an endless cycle of lovers forgotten in death and
betrayed by the surviving lover:
And overhead the aspen heaves
Its rainy-sounding silver leaves;
And I spell nothing in their stir,
But now perhaps they speak to her,
And plain for her to understand
They talk about a time at hand
When I shall sleep with clover clad,
And she beside another lad.
These three lyrics illustrate on a small scale the sense of con-
tinuity which characterizes the whole of A Shropshire Lad. Examined
closely, the three poems are seen as three perspectives of the same theme.
Each is concerned with the destructive power of time, and each develops
its theme by concentrating on the ephemeral nature of those feelings and
emotions which are traditionally regarded as the most enduring, the least
subject to change--love and the memory of the dead. But the sense of the
cruelty of time is strengthened In each of the poems by Housman's depic-
tion of the transiency of the individual against the background of the
permanence of his class. All three poems are structured around this con-
trast; the pattern'of life continues for the living, and the dead are
soon forgotten. As Nesca Robb has stated in discussing these poems:
Life goes on with its claims and affections, and time brings
the swift onset of forgetfulness and the betrayal of the dead
by the living. . It is a discovery so bitter that it shakes
the poet as death itself has not the power to do.21
The unity observed In the theme of these lyrics may be noted in
all of the poems of A Shropshire Lad dealing with young lovers. Each de-
picts something of the cruelty of time, and transiency of love and of
life. "Bredon Hill," Lyric XXI, is structured on the pattern which char-
acterizes many of the lyrics of the work. It opens 'in summertime on
Bredon" with a scene suggestive of youth and promise, but in the course
of the poem the early hope of youth is extinguished by death, and there
is a corresponding transition from summer to winter, "'hen the snows at
Christmas/On Bredon top were strron." The poem contains yet another
Image pattern through which the mutability theme is developed--the church
bells which sound through the shires. This image Is introduced in stanza
In summertime on Dredon
The bells they sound so clear;
210p. cit., p. 25.
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear.
The two young lovers who lie on Bredon Hill on Sunday morning resist the
call of the bells as a summons to worship but reinterpret them as sym-
bolic of the fulfillment of their love; they hear them as wedding bells:
The bells would ring to call her
In valleys miles away:
'Come all to church, good people;
Good people, come and pray.'
But here my love would stay.
And I would turn and answer
Among the springing thyme,
'Oh, peal upon our wedding,
And we will hear the chime,
And come to church in time.'
In stanza 6 the bells have become funeral bells, for one of the lovers
"stole out unbeknown/And went to church alone." Because of her death the
sound of the bells has taken on a new meaning for the lad who now listens
to them alone. The sound which was in youth and Innocence "a happy noise
to hear" and a symbol of promise has now become, through the experience
by which the lad has discovered the impermanence of love and of life, a
call to death, and it is a call which the youth realizes he must answer.
The last stanza of the poem states:
The bells they sound on Bredon,
And still the steeples hum,
'Come all to church, good people,'--
Oh, noisy bells, be dumb;
I hear you, I will come.
"The True Lover," Lyric LIII, again centers on the inconstancy of
love with what appears to be symbolic Implications. The poem is concerned
with the suicide of a young lover; yet critics have been intrigued by its
cryptic message. Brooks, Purser, and Warren talk of the poem's "symbolic
force" and its ability to project "something beyond itself."22 Maude H.
Hawkins also finds that the suicide "may be entirely symbolic.''23 Much
of the poem's force lies in its effective use of the ballad form. It is
stripped of all but the most significant details with no attempt at char-
acterization, and the true nature of the situation described in the poem
is not immediately given but is revealed by degrees so that it is not un-
til the last line of the poem that the reader is able to interpret (or
perhapss reinterpret) the ambiguous title of the poem and to understand
the phrase which is repeated in the poem: 'Vihen lovers crown their vows."
The poem deals with a lover who desires to see his sweetheart
(who has presumably rejected him) once more before he departs for some
The lad came to the door at night,
When lovers crown their vows,
And whistled soft and out of sight
In shadow of the boughs.
'i shall not vex you with my face
Henceforth, my love, for aye;
So take me in your arms a space
Before the east'is grey.
'When I from ience away am past
I shall not find a bride,
And you shall be the first and last
I ever lay beside.'
22An Approach to Literature, New York, 1952, pp. 293-297.
23"Housman's 'The True Lover,'" Exolicator, VIII (1949-50),
It is not until stanza 5 that the reader discovers the true nature of the
lad's journey. The first suggestions come through the sweetheart's
'Oh do you breathe, lad, that your breast
Seems not to rise and fall,
And here upon my bosom prest
There beats no heart at all?'
'Oh lad, what is it, lad, that drips
Wet from your neck on mine?
What is it falling on my lips,
My lad, that tastes of brine?'
The lad's answers, which reveal that his heart has stopped and "never
goes again" and that his throat has been cut, only make more emphatic the
point which has already become clear--that his journey is a journey of
death. Realizing this fact, the reader may well wonder at Housman's pur-
pose in depicting such an unrealistic situation. Yet the death of the
young lover is important to the theme which the poem develops. Darrel
Abel's analysis24 of "The True Lover" is quite perceptive in finding that
the poem's real center is the assumption that human nature is incapable
of an enduring passion. The true lover of the poem's title is one whose
love never ceases, but a knowledge of the inconstancy of love brings with
It the realization that the lover must eventually break his vow to be
true. Therefore, as Abel further notes, the lover in this poem "remains
true by adopting the desperately logical expedient of suicide at the
24L'Housman's 'The True Lover,'" Explicator, VIII (1949-50), item
consumnating moment of love. 25 With this interpretation In mind, we may
note, again following Abel's analysis, that the line which is repeated
twice in the poem, "when lovers crown their vows," takes on new meaning.
In the opening stanza the line may be read conventionally as suggesting
the lovers' promise to consummate the act of love. But through the
course of the poem Housman has again2u redefined the line so that when It
appears as the last line of the poem, it refers to the act of suicide as
the true crowning of the vows of love. Thus the poem emphasizes the
transitory nature of human emotions by suggesting that only by death is
man freed from the inconstancy that characterizes life.27 The true lover
of the poem's title is defined as a dead lover.
All of Housman's love lyrics in A Shropshire Lad are not as seri-
ous in tone as the preceding analysis might indicate. Yet all of them
are characterized by the same emphasis on inconstancy. The lover in
Lyric XVIII is almost flippant in his attitude toward the inconstancy of
love. Yet even though the poem is light in tone and avoids Housman's
customary association of love with death or suicide, Lyric XVIII does em-
phasize the brevity of love and further underscores Housman's theme that
"nothing will remain":
Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave,
26See, for example, Lyrics I and III, where Housman accomplishes
the same feat of redefining a phrase or line through the curse of the
27This point--that death furnishes a permanence which man is de-
nied in life--is an important corollary to the mutability theme and is
discussed more fully in Chapter III.
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave.
And now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they'll say that I
Am quite myself again.
Lyric VI contains something of the same lighthearted view of love.
It treats love as an illness in the courtly love tradition, and the lover
is "mute and dull of cheer and pale,' lying 'at death's own door." The
maiden can "heal his all" but at the risk of becoming infected herself.
So transitory is the nature of love that if the lover's desires are ful-
filled, his love is over, and it is the maiden who must "lie down
Then the lad for longing sighs,
Mute and dull of cheer and pale,
If at death's own door he lies,
Maiden, you can heal his all.
Lovers' ills are all to buy:
The wan look, the hollow tone,
The hung head, the sunken eye,
You can have them for your own.
Buy them, buy them: eve and morn
Lovers' ills are all to sell.
Then you can lie down forlorn;
But the lover will be well.
The last two lines indicate not merely that the maiden is now in love
also, but that the lad is now "well," that is, has recovered from the
ills of love and no longer holds the same affection for the maiden, so
that it is now she who is forlorn." The process has thus come full
circle, and the poem emphasizes the presumably endless cycle for which
love's intransiency is responsible.
Recognizing the cyclical pattern in the poem, we may see its re-
lationship to Lyrics XXV, XXVI, and XXVII, which depicted the shifting
pattern of affections among a triangle of lovers, and to Lyric XXI, which
utilized the metaphor of the changing seasons to portray love's change-
fulness. The constant recurrence of this cyclical pattern in the love
lyrics as well as its frequent occurrence in the opening lyrics such as
11, III, V, and VII, emphasizes again that Housman consistently employs
such a structural pattern as submerged metaphor for change.
Tom Burns Haber has noted the frequency of this cyclical struc-
ture in Housman's poetry.28 He quotes, for example, from Lyric XXXVI,
which employs the metaphor of the circle, and states that in the two
stanzas quoted below Housman wrote his poem of his poems," that is, we
are to understand, his poem which describes his poetic method:
The world is round, so travellers tell,
And straight though reach the track,
Trudge on, trudge on 'twill all be well,
The way will guide one back.
But ere the circle homeward hies
Far, far must it remove:
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.
Haber points out that not only does Housman utilize the circle
metaphorically in his structure but he also creates a circular pattern
through his practice of making one or more of the last lines of a poem
identical with one or more of the first or, at times, repeating a key
word or phrase in the last line that was found in the opening of the
28"A. E. Housman: Astronomer-Poet," English Studies, XXXV (1954),
poem. Yet Haber ignores the relationship between this structuring prin-
ciple and the theme of Housman's poetry. He theorizes instead that Hous-
man's interest in astronomy29 is responsible for his tendency to employ
the circle as a frequent metaphor in his poems. Housman's use of cycli-
cal structure Haber regards as "the habituated movement of his mind, which
did not act in tangential and parabolic patterns, symbols of the true
maker.'30 Haber, in fact, is convinced that Housman's utilization of the
cyclical pattern works to the detriment of his poetry:
As to form, these influences have not oeen fortunate: the stuff
of poetry was too often subdued to what the scholar worked in.
. When the poet's mind began to give form to the emotional
flux, it too often was set spinning in the well-worn cycle.
Scit vox miss revert. Without his circles and ellipses the
astronomer is nothing but they are death to poetry.3
Haber fails to see, however, that Housman's structuring principle
is indeed parabolic32 in another sense of the word, for his structural
pattern frequently acts as a parable or image of the theme that is pre-
dominant In the poems of A Shropshire Lad. For example, a close analysis
of Lyric XXXVI, which Haber uses as illustrative of the cyclical pattern
In Housman's poetry, reveals that the circle, as the central metaphor of
29Haber records that as a child one of Housman's games involved
placing his two younger brothers on the lawn to illustrate the mechanics
of the solar system. Housman maintained a lifelong Interest in astronomy.
The majority of his scholarly work was devoted to editing the five books
of the Astronomica of-Manilius.
300p. cit., p. 158.
32Haber apparently means by the term parabolic "in the form of a
parabola." Another meaning is "in the form of a parable or allegory."
the poem, is not merely an habituated movement of the poet's mind. In-
stead, the cyclical movement is essential in depicting and reinforcing
the poem's theme of life's pattern of change. Haber omitted stanza 2 of
the poem, which fuses the circle metaphor and the poem's meaning. Stanzas
1 and 2 are as follows:
White in the moon the long road lies,
The moon stands blank above;
White in the moon the long road lies
That leads me from my love.
Still hangs the hedge without a gust,
Still, still the shadows stay:
My feet upon the moonlit dust
Pursue the ceaseless way.
The pattern of this stanza is a familiar one that occurs repeatedly in
A Shorpshire Lad. It contrasts ceaseless change with stability and per-
manence. In the first two lines the word still is repeated three times,
and the phrase without a gust and the word stay also emphasize a motion-
lessness that is in sharp contrast to the lover's "ceaseless" pursuit of
his way. Furthermore, Housman utilizes a cyclical structure for the
whole poem. The last stanza repeats essentially the rises of the first
stanza and repeats two of the lines of the first stanza. Thus the struc-
ture seems to represent not merely an obsessive trait in the mind of the
poet but a functional element of the poem. In fact, the whole poem func-
tions as an expressive metaphor of mutability, with the lover's endless
change shown against a backdrop of changelessness.
A similar pattern of change may be observed in Lyric XXXI. Again
a cyclical pattern is developed in the poem, and again the functional
relationship between the pattern and the poem's theme may be demonstrated.
The poem, quoted in full, is as follows:
On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble:
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the sapling double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then It threshed another wood.
Then 'twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.
There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.
The gale, it piles the saplings double,
It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
A knowledge of the geographical references in the poem is neces-
sary if it is to be completely understood. Robert Stallman explains them
The Wrekin, near Shrewsbury and Wenlock in Salop or Shrop-
shire, the region about Ludlow celebrated by Housman, is a
solitary West-country hill over 1300 feet high. "It is In-
teresting to the geologist," Murray's Handbook of England and
Wles reports, as being a remarkable example of eruptive trap.
. There are traces of British camps on the summit, but
they are much overgrown with plantations." Since the Wrekin
was an extinct volcano whenn Uricon the city stood," the ashes
of the Roman under Uricon are not volcanic; they are the ashes
simply of Roman and English yeomen levelled by Time and Fate.3
33"'Housman's 'On Wenlock Edge,'" Exolicator, III (1944-45), item
As Stallman implies, the poem Is concerned with time but, more
specifically, with the paradoxical notions of continuity and change in
time. The poem, of course, has a much broader scope than the love lyric
like No. XVIII; its scene takes in centuries. The Wrekin is itself a
symbol of both the change and continuity of times. Its slopes show evi-
dence of the Roman city of Uricon, which has now been levelled by the de-
cay of centuries. Yet the wind which blows now "through holt and hanger"34
is the "old wind in the old anger" that blew through another wood when a
Roman watched the saplings of the woods double. Thus both mutability and
permanence are represented by the scene on Wenlock Edge.
Housman also emphasizes the continuity of feeling which exists in
generic man: "The blood that warms an English yeoman,/The thoughts that
hurt him, they were there" [in the tinm of the Roman]. Yet within this
continuity Housman also reveals change. In line 16 the Englishman who
watches the wind riot through-the ioods acknowledges the cycle of change
which constitutes human existence: "Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis i."
The last two lines of the poem are eloquent in their implication that the
Englishman realizes the significance of his discovery that "then 'twas
the Roman, now 'tis I":
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
34The sense of history is strengthened in the poem by Housman's
use of the archaic words holt and hanger, both from the Anglo Saxon word
stock. Hanger, according to the OED, refers to 'a wood on the side of
a steep hill or bank." A holt is a wooded hill.
As Spiro Peterson has observed,35 line 16 almost echoes after the conclu-
sion of the poem. That is, the reader may be tempted to supply line 16
as the final line of the poem. The Roman had his day and is now ashes
under Uricon; now 'tis I. The parallel between past and present is com-
plete, and the pattern of human existence has again come full-circle.
But the poem's structure is more complex than the preceding anal-
ysis indicates. Two dominant motifs run throughout the poem--the histori-
cal perspective of man as symbolized by the hill and its ruins, and the
close correlation between man and nature as depicted in the wind imagery.
As Peterson has noted, the man-nature parallel reinforces the past-present
parallel in the poem.
The poem opens with a scene of a "woods in riot." The forest
"heaves"; the "saplings double"; the leaves show "thick on Severn." This
disturbance parallels the emotional unrest of the observer (the English-
men, but, by implication, the Roman also), who watches the scene. The
poem's structure establishes this parallel by the fusion of the images of
man and the images of the wind-torn woods. Fused images such as "gale of
life" in line 14 and "tree of man" in line 15 link the two motifs. In
addition Housman gives the wind human qualities in his reference to its
"old anger" in line 7. Thus Housman, through the structure of the poem,
makes the further implication that the pattern of nature and the pattern
35The 'sense of the complete parallel, the logic of the poem, the
structure of the stanza demand that the poem conclude with the same three
words [now 'tis I]. Like the Roman, the speaker (and 'his trouble') are
soon to be under the ashes of Wenlock. The Force, which meant distur-
bance or change for nature, destruction for past civilization, now signi-
fles oblivion for the speaker himself. All the more conspicuous for
their absence are the expected words 'now 'tis 1.'" ("Housman's 'On Wen-
lock Edge,'" Explicator, XV [1956-57], item 46.)
of man's existence are imaged by the same cycle. Peterson finds that the
reinforce the structure because they interpret the subject,
namely, that physical and human nature are passive victims
of a Force violent but not malevolent . .the poem says
nature avoids complete destruction by an endless cyclical
process--as does man. The Roman and his man-made Uricon
are succeeded by the English yeoman and his Wenlock. Man
succumbs to his never-quiet spirit, just as nature (wood,
hill, river) meets its trouble, gale, old wind in the old
Lyric XXXI thus becomes another of the many expressions of the
mutabilitytheme in A Shropshire Lad. It also serves as an impressive ar-
gument against Haber's contention that Housman's cyclical structure is
not a meaningful and necessary element in his poetic construction. Lyric
XXXI, like many of the other lyrics of A Shropshire Lad examined in this
study, demonstrates that Housman utilizes structure as an inseparable
part of the poem'r total meaning. The mutability theme which dominates
A Shropshire Lad and the cyclical structure which recurs repeatedly in
the poems are fused into a unity of meaning which cannot be explained
away merely by reference to Housman's study of astronomy or an obsessive
habit of mind.
Haber and other Housman critics have tended to ignore the essen-
tial unity of theme which characterizes A Shropshire Lad and the close
relationship which exists between this theme and the structural patterns
of the poems of the work. Yet it should be clear that a recognition of
the unity of theme which characterizes the work is necessary for an
understanding of Housman's reliance on certain symbolic characters and
incidents as well as his reliance on certain recurring structuring prin-
ciples. The preceding examination of the mutability theme in A Shrop-
shire Lad has attempted to demonstrate its predominance in the work; yet
the theme is by no means restricted merely to the poems discussed in this
chapter. Housman develops two important variations on the mutability
theme, and these must be considered in Chapter III.
CHAPTER I I
THE THEME OF MUTABILITY IN A SHROPSHIRE LAD:
HOUSEMAN'S QUEST FOR PEirf-twArtl.E
The theme of mutability is, of course, one of the great common-
places of English poetry. Yet the great poets of every age have managed
to transform the cliches of the theme into eloqu-nt statements on the hu-
man condition. In many ways Housman's treatment of this recurring theme
is quite conventional; however, one variation represents something of a
departure from tradition.
Lyric II of A Shropshire Lad, "Loveliest of Trees," suggests the
more conventional aspects of Housman's utilization of the theme. First,
life Is short; "fifty springs are little room" to enjoy the beauty of the
world. But, further, an awareness of this brevity leads to a desire to
experience life more intensely; "since to look at things in bloom/Fifty
springs are little room," the observer is motivated to experience the
beauty of spring immediately. Thus a knowledge of life's mutability here
leads to a more vigorous participation in life.
Yet a seemingly contradictory reaction to the consciousness of
life's mutability may be observed in the work. In many of the poems an
awareness of the brevity and decay which characterize life leads to the
acceptance of death instead of a more intense participation in life.
Lyric VII, for example, had characterized life as a cyclical process of
change ended only by death.
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And in the last stanza of the poem:
The sun moves always west;
The road one treads to labour
Will lead one home to rest, .
And the poet adds to the last stanza in an acceptance of death as the end
of the process of mutability: "And that will be the best."
These two apparently conflicting reactions to the awareness of
life's essential mutability may be traced throughout A Shropshire Lad.
They represent the poet's attempts to work out some of the implications
that his theme suggests. They also support the unity of theme in the
work, for in tracing these two threads of the theme through the poems of
A Shropshire Lad, one discovers that the mutability theme lies at the
center of almost every lyric. Furthermore, a careful analysis of these
two aspects of the theme casts some doubt on many of the assumptions of
critics of A Shrooshire Lad, especially the large majority who view Hous-
man as the bitter pessimist who is content merely to express in his po-
etry the evil and injustice of life. It Is clear, in fact, in examining
the view of life represented in Loveliest of Trees" that to regard Hous-
man merely as a pessimist is to oversimplify the complex issues involved
in his treatment of the mutability theme.
Lyric IV, entitled "Reveille," continues the idea Introduced in
"Loveliest of Trees." The poem's title suggests both its subject and its
central metaphor. It is a call for action In the face of approaching
death, and it develops its theme structurally through the controlling
metaphor of the sun's passage from dawn to dusk:
Wake: the silver dusk returning
Up the beach of darkness brims,
And the ship of sunrise burning
Stands upon the eastern rims.
Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,
Trampled to the floor it spanned,
And the tent of night in tatters
Straws the sky-pavilioned land.
Housman's use of the conventional symbolic association of light with life,
darkness with death has previously been noted. Here the poem is struc-
tured on the analogy of the journey of life from youth to old age and the
journey of the sun from dawn to darkness. The unstated analogy serves as
the basis for the argument for action and involvement in life in youth
before death removes the opportunity for action:
Up, lad: thews that lie and cumber
Sunlit pallets never thrive,
Morns abed and daylight slumber
Were not meant for man alive.
Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.
The poem opens with dawn, closes with the suggestion of falling night
(1. 24) In the same way that Lyric II progressed from springtime to win-
ter, and the use of the journey of the sun as a structuring device de-
velops the same underlying notion that mutability Is the essential fact
But Lyric IV reveals one additional aspect of the mutability
theme. The consciousness that life Is subject to decay, that "breath's
a ware that will not keep," does not lead Housman to a rejection of life,
rather, as "Reveille" suggests, to an emphasis on an intensity of living.
In other words, the fact that life is inevitably marked by a slow decay
and eventual death does not therefore make it worthless; on the contrary,
the recognition of mutability leads to an emphasis of the value of life
at Its prime. Ignoring this aspect of Housman's theme has led to some
misinterpretation of A Shropshire Lad. Hugh Molson, for example, states
that Housman regarded human life "as an unmerited ordeal which serves no
useful purpose but from which man obtains his final release after death.'
Stephen Spender finds that "the hangings, suicides, shooting, war, hem-
lock" of Housman's poems express his feelings about the wretchedness of
life. . .,2 Edmund Wilson writes that In Housman's poetry 'we find
only the realization of man's smallness . of his own basic wrongness
to himself, his own Inescapable anguish."3
Yet clearly "Reveille" predicates some value to life. It en-
courages a participation in life even as it retains a consciousness of
approaching death, and this idea is not restricted to one poem. It may
be found in a number of the poems of the work. In Lyric XXIV the same
theme iL expressed:
Say, lad, have you things to do?
Quick then, while your day's at prime.
1"The Philosophies of Hardy and Housman," Quarterly Review,
CCLXVIII (1937), p. 205.
20p. cit., p. 159.
3"A. E. Housman" in The Triple Thinkers, New York, 1948, p. 62.
Quick, and if 'tis work for two,
Here am I, man: now's your time.
Again the call for action is based on the consciousness of life's tran-
sience, as may be seen in the last lines of the poem:
Use me ere they lay me low
Where a man's no use at all;
Ere the wholesome flesh decay,
And the willing nerve be numb,
And the lips lack breath to say,
"No, my lad, I cannot come."
In Lyric XXXII the mutability theme again produces an appeal for
From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew higher: here am I.
Now--for a breath I tarry
Nor yet disperse apart--
Take my hand quick and tell me,
What have you in your heart.
Speak now, and I will answer;
How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind's twelve quarters
I take my endless way.
In this poem Housman's habitual use of the natural elements to suggest
mutability may also be observed. The metaphorical use of the wind paral-
lels Housman's use of the seasons and the journey of the sun from morning
to night in producing controlling image of man's mutable state. Man is
like the wind that gathers from Its twelve quarters, tarries for a
breath," then takes its endless way. And the realization that life is
only a moment In an eternity of time serves to quicken the intensity of
that moment: "Take my hand quick and tell me" . "Speak now, and I
will answer." The repetition of quick cited in lines 2 and 3 of Lyric
XXIV quoted above achieves the same end. It is also possible to inter-
pret quick as a pun on the older meaning of the word.
Lyric LVII again emphasizes the value of life even in the face of
You smile upon your friend to-day
To-day his ills are over:
You hearken to the lover's say,
And happy is the lover.
'Tis late to hearken, late to smile,
But better late than never:
I shall have lived a little while
Before I die for ever.
These poems clearly cast some doubt on the view that Housman re-
garded life as an "unmerited ordeal" from which death releases-man, a
view which implies that for Housman death is superior to life. S. G,
Brown, in fact, states that for Housman "death is good because it is a
release from trouble, an endless sleep."4 The tone of Lyrics II, IV,
XXIV, XXXII, and LVII refute such a view. And, in fact, it is possible
to quote passages in A Shropshire Lad in which Housman states that life
at its prime is far superior to death. Lyric XXV states:
A lad that lives and has his will
Is worth a dozen dead.
And Lyric XXXIII introduces the idea of prolonging life through love:
If truth in hearts that perish
Could move the powers on high,
4"The Poetry of A. E. Housman,"' ewanee Review, XLVIII (1940),
I think the love I bear you
Should make you not to die.
Sure, sure, if stedfast meaning,
if single thought could save,
The world might end to-morrow,
You should not see the grave.
This long and sure-set liking,
This boundless will to please,
--Oh, you should live for ever
if there were held in these.
Thus a number of the poems of A Shropshire Lad predicate a value
to life not in spite of but almost because of the recognition of its es-
sential mutability. Yet this aspect of the work is in direct contradic-
tion to the widely held view that Housman voices "a philosophy compounded
of pessimism and defeat."5 But is A Shropshire Lad self-contradictory in
its view of the relative values of life and death? A number of critics
have felt that such is indeed the case. Jacob Bronowski states:
Housman's poems reel from one standard to another. If one poem
finds love worthy . the poem over the page will find it
pointless. . If one poem is glad that a young man has left
life before honour, the next will say that silly lads always
want to leave their life.
Hugh Molson finds that Housman answers the question of the value of life
and death in contradictory ways:
The feeling that it is better to be alive than dead is vigor-
ously expressed by a suitor who, rejected while his rival was
alive, has survived him with satisfactory results. . Ex-
actly the opposite opinion is expressed In another poem.7
5Untermeyer, op. cit., p. 101.
60p. cit., pp. 222-223.
70p. cit., pp. 207-208.
J. B. Priestley writes:
S. his running grievance on examination, can be resolved
into two separate complaints that are not at all consistent;
in the first, life is lovely enough, but all too short, and
death Is the enemy of happiness; in the second, existence it-
self is a misery only to be endured until the welcome arrival
of death the deliverer."
Rica Brenner states that in the variations of the theme of A Shropshire
Lad we find:
. an insistence on enjoying to the full the pleasures of
the moment, or an equally insistent welcoming of death as a
happy solution to life's cares. . Whatever the line of
reasoning may be, the same conclusion is reached. Life is
beautiful but brief; or life is a burden, to be laid down
gladly. In either case, death comes; and, more often than
not, it is a welcome release.9
Thus it is obvious that a number of critics have found Housman
inconsistent in working out the implications of the mutability theme.
Although in a number of poems Housman has emphasized that an awareness of
time leads to an increased awareness of the value of life and of living,
commentators have pointed out that the emphasis on the value of death in
A Shropshire Lad contradicts this view. It is necessary, therefore, to
examine Housman's treatment of death in the work and to relate his view
of death to the mutability theme.
Housman's obsession with death has been widely noted. R. P.
Blackmur states that Housman wrote "almost entirely of death."'0
Bronowski is concerned with "the steady place of death in Houseman's
8p. cit., p. 173.
90,. cit., pp. 182, 184.
100p. cit., p. 202.
poems."i Stephen Spender finds that although there is "very little
feeling about the dead in Housman's poetry, "there is a great deal of
death."12 William Lyon Phelps attempts to explain Housman's "constant
dwelling on death, 13 and John Peale Bishop has identified Shropshire as
"a country that belongs to the dead."14 The notion that death is somehow
central to the theme and mood of A Shropshire Lad is borne out by even a
superficial reading of the work. Yet Housman's treatment of death in the
poems has been subject to frequent oversimplification and a rigidly lit-
eral interpretation. To be fully understood it must be seen in relation-
ship to the mutability theme. ignoring this relationship leads to the
view that Housman's attitude toward death In the work is merely capri-
cious and inconsistent.
Since life is all too brief and death is the end of life, it
would seem to follow that Housman would be opposed to death as the agent
which destroys life; however, this is not the case. Housman's view of
death in A Shropshire Lad takes a paradoxical turn. From the opening
poem of the work a world of change is established, and Housman's quarrel
with life in the lyrics of A Shropshire Lad lies in the realization that
change and decay are the primary facts of existence. But A Shropshire
Lad is also marked by a search for permanence in a world of change. And
'IIo. cit., p. 221.
120 cit., p. 159.
13The Advanc.. of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century, New
York, 1924, 0. 67.
14O. cit., p. 151.
Housman's search for an agent to arrest the decay, to halt the mutability
of life and freeze life at Its prime, leads to the conceit which is central
to the work, a conceit In which death paradoxically becomes the only agent
of stability In a life of ceaseless change.
Housman's own life was marked by the same sort of quest for per-
manence that we find mirrored in his poetry. On October 3, 1892, Housman
delivered the traditional introductory lecture to open the academic year
before the Faculties of Arts and Laws and Science in University College
London. He spoke in the lecture of the value of learning and knowledge.
One passage is particularly revealing in Indicating that his choice of a
life of scholarship may have been related to the theme which underlies his
poetry. He stated:
The pleasures of the Intellect are notoriously less vivid than
either the pleasures of the sense or the pleasures of the af-
fections; and therefore, especially in the season of youth, the
pursuit of knowledge is likely to be neglected and lightly es-
teemed in comparison with other pursuits offering much stronger
immediate attractions. But the pleasure of learning and knowing,
though not the keenest, is yet the least perishable of pleasures;
the least subject to external things, and the play of chance,
and the wear of time. And as a prudent man puts money by to
serve as a provision for the material wants of his old age, so
too he needs to lay up against the end of his days provision for
the intellect. As the years go by, comparative values are found
to alter: Time, says Sophocles, takes many things which once
were pleasures and brings them nearer to pain. In the days when
the strong men shall bow themselves, and desire shall fail, it
will be a matter of yet more concern than now, whether one can
say "my mind to me a kingdom is"; and whether the windows of the
soul look out upon a broad and delightful landscape, or face
nothing but a brick wall.15
Here then is a link between Housman's scholarship and his poetry.
Both represent a search for permanence in a mutable world. The unique
15A. E. Housman: Selected Prose, p. 20.
virtue of learning for Housman is that it is not subject to the 'Wear to
time." The world of scholarship exists apart, 'the least subject to ex-
ternal things." How strongly the idea of mutability affected Housman's
thinking and writing is thus evident from the lecture delivered less than
three years before the spring of 1895, when most of the poems of A Shro2-
shire Lad were written. The quest for permanence, which was a part of
the argument for the supremacy of the pleasures of the intellect over the
pleasures of the senses or the pleasures of the affections in Housman's
scholarly activities, becomes a molding idea in his poetry. It is in
this context that his concern with death in A Shropshire Lad must be seen.
Housman's view of death is nowhere seen more clearly than in Lyric
XIX, "To an Athlete Dying Young." The athlete in the poem obviously sym-
bolizes for Housman that period of greatest value in life, for he has
both youth and achievement. Consequently, he is regarded as a "smart
lad, to slip betimes away" from the ever-fleeting phantom of life and
Into the permanence of death. "To an Athlete Dying Young" is thus one
expression of the paradox that is central to A Shropshire Lad, for death
at times is a matter of joy rather than of sorrow.
The paradox that the poem develops is carefully reinforced through
the poem's imagery. As Brooks and Warren have noted,16 Housman uses the
images which are associated with the youth's athletic achievements to de-
scribe his death. Stanzas I and 2 of the poem describe the two triumphant
processlcns the athlete has taken part in. In the first he Is carried
through the town on the shoulders of his friends after winning a race:
16Understanding Poetry, New York, 1938, p. 3b5.
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
In stanza 2 the young athlete is brought home dead, but the parallels be-
tween this and the former triumph are carefully drawn:
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of o stiller town.
This parallel implies that the athlete's death is another victory in a
race. He has beaten his fellows in the race toward the final destination
of all men, death. But the youth is regarded as a "smart lad" not be-
cause he is dead but because his death has occurred at the prime of life.
He will not have to watch his records being broken by other, younger men
after his physical prowess has been withered by age:
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
Thus death in the poem becomes the agent by which the process of
mutability is halted. There is a sharp contrast between the mutability
of the world of the living and the new-found permanence of the youth In
death. In stanza 3 the world Is identified as "fields where glory doas
not stay." And Housman adds:
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
The laurel and the rose here apparently symbolize fame and beauty,17 both
subject to decay in life but not, according to the conceit of the poem,
in death. In the last stanza Housman returns in an oblique way to the
laurel and the rose, and he presses the contrast between life and death.
He is describing the athlete in death:
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwlthered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl's.
Here through the references to the early-laurelled head' and the garland
"briefer than a girl's' Housman suggests again the notions of fame and
beauty, which were spoken of in stanza 3 as withering quickly in life.
In death, however, the youth's garland is "unwithered on its curls." The
poem thus emphasizes the contrast between two states, one marked by de-
cay, the other by permanence.
Recognizing the relationship between Housman's view of death and
his concern with mutability, one is thus led to the obvious conclusion
that death in 'To an Athlete Dying Young" is a part of a poetic conceit
which runs throughout the poem. Of course it is the very nature of the
conceit to bring together radically dissimilar Ideas, which in the common
sense world of fact would appear ridiculous. Perhaps one of the most fa-
mous is Eliot's comparison of the evening with "a patient etherised upon
178rooks and Warren, op. clt., p. 385.
a table. . ."l8 The metaphysical poets also utilized the conceit, like
Housman, to develop an idea which appeared illogical to the common sense
view of reality.19 Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" also utilizes a conceit
similar to Housman's in conveying meaning which cannot be expressed ef-
fectively in any other way. The danger of abstracting Housman's view of
death and discussing it literally as a philosophical belief thus becomes
immediately apparent. This danger is illustrated by a comparison between
Housman's 'To an Athlete Dying Young" and Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
Parallels between the two poems are numerous. In both life has
been frozen at the moment of highest intensity. Keats' urn is a "still
unravish'd bride," and Housman's athlete In death holds high the "still-
defended challenge-cup." In both poems there is a triumph over time. In
Keats' poem the figures are frozen in action on an ancient urn, but be-
cause they can never consummate their actions, they are "for ever warm
and still to be enjoy'd/For ever panting, and for ever young." (11. 26-
27). Keats too contrasts this state of permanence in art with that of
life. He finds that the passions frozen on the urn are
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead and a parching tongue.
18From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," 11. 2-3.
19ef. Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning," where the
oneness of two lovers who must part is compared to the two legs of a
compass. Donne's conceit, like Housman's, is more than a mere decorative
image but attempts to depict meaning which Is apparently impossible with-
out the use of such paradoxical language.
Housman's athlete is frozen in death also. In fact, the description of
the dead youth serves to fix him in an inroble position in space and time.
in stanza 6 the poet addresses the dead athlete:
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
The youth is thus fixed between the two states of life and death, his
foot on the "sill of shade." Brooks and Warren explain the "sill" and
the "low lintel" as the edge of the grave, into which the youth is about
to be lowered.20 Nat Henry, however, rejects the grave image and feels
instead that the sill of shade belongs to the vertical door between the
town of the living and the "stiller town" of the dead.21 Elizabeth
Nitchie's interpretation22 offers a further parallel with Keats' poem.
She states that carvings of some Greek stelae represent the dead person
standing or sitting in a doorway. Such pictures, she finds, obviate the
necessity of the interpretations of the low lintel as the edge of the
horizontal grave or as the lid of the coffin, as C. R. B. Combellock sug-
gested.23 Whether or not Housman had such carvings in mind, it Is true
that his description of the youth In the final stanza Is almost that of a
statue, around which the dead gather.
2000. cit., p. 386.
21"Housman's 'To an Athlete Dying Young,'" Explicator, XII (1953-
54), item 48.
22"Housman's 'To an Athlete Dying Young,'" Explicator, X (1951-
52), item 57.
23"Housman's 'To an Athlete Dying Young,"' Explicator, X (1951-
52), item 31.
Both poems are then constructed around a poetic conceit which Is
meaningful only in the context of the poem. Housman utilizes a certain
metaphorical conception of death in the same way Keats uses the concep-
tion of art--to halt the decay of time and to preserve the moment of
highest intensity. And it is important to recognize that this conceit
runs throughout A Shropshire Lad. To ignore It is to fail to recognize
the full implication of Housman's treatment of death in the work.
Lyric XII, "When I Watch the Living Meet," illustrates Housman's
further use of death as a metaphorical agent for halting decay. The poem
again contrasts two states. Life is characterized as "the house of
flesh" where "the heats of hate and lust . are strong. Death is the
"house of dust" where "revenges are forgot/And the hater hates no more."
The two states are contrasted also in time of duration. In life man will
"lodge a little while," but in the house of dust, his sojourn shall be
long." The last stanza of the poem again recalls Keats' ode. Housman
depicts two lovers in death:
Lovers lying two and two
Ask not whom they sleep beside,
And the bridegroom all night through
Never turns him to the bride.
In death the lovers are forever bride and bridegroom. Their state can
never be altered by the decay of time. They are thus to be regarded as
fortunate because death has caught them at one of the highest points of
life and halted the progression of time.
"The Immortal Part," Lyric XLIII, further displays Housman's
search for permanence as he presents the ironic view that only the bones
of man survive death. Stanza 2 asks:
'When shall this slough of sense be cast,
This dust of thoughts be laid at last,
The man of flesh and soul be slain
And the man of bone remain?
The central statement of the poem is that the permanent man, the man of
bone, is born only after the temporal man of flesh and mind has melted
away. The force of the juxtaposition of the man of flesh and the man of
bone is to stress again the impermanence of life. Stanzas 3, 4, and 5
develop a r-w-familiar contrast:
'This tongue that talks, these lungs that shout,
These thews that hustle us about,
This brain that fills the skull with schemes,
And its humming hive of dreams,--
'These to-day are proud in power
And lord it in their little hour:
The immortal bones obey control
Of dying flesh and dying soul.
''Tis long till eve and morn are gone:
Slow the endless night comes on,
And late to fulness grows the oirth
That shall last as long as earth.
In "The Immortal Part" the images associated with life are temporal ob-
jects--fire, smoke, and dust, and the flesh is regarded merely as an
empty vessel or a garment which is worn by the skeleton, which in death
achieves mastery over the flesh and soul because it alone is permanent.
The poem also repeats the care diem theme. Man must "do [his] will/
Today while the is] master still":
Before this fire of sense decay,
This smoke of thought blow clean away,
And leave with ancient night alone
The stedfast and enduring Lone.
Lyric XVI is interesting in depicting in one image both the tran-
sitory nature of life and the permanence found in death. The entire poem
Is devoted to the description of a scene in which a nettle is tossed
about on a grave by the wind:
It nods and curtseys and recovers
When the wind blows above,
The nettle on the graves of lovers
That hanged themselves for love.
The nettle nods, the wind blows over,
The man, he"does not move,
The lover of the grave, the lover
That hanged himself for love.
Even without understanding anything of the meaning of the poem,
one may note, first of all, that the contrast in the image is In terms of
motion. The nettle "nods and curtseys and recovers," but the man, "he
does not move." This pattern is frequently utilized by Housman in de-
picting life's ceaseless change as contrasted with the stability found in
death. Yet Housran's choice of symbols in this poem seems to suggest
something more than this. Randall Jarrell, in analyzing the poem, equates
the nettle with living man, the wind with the force of life:
The nettle is merely repeating above the grave, compelled
by the wind, what the man in the grave did once, when the wind
blew through him. So living is (we must take it as being) just
a repetition of little meaningless nodding actions, actions
that haven't even the virtue of being our own--since the wind
forces them out of us; life as the wind makes man as the tree
or nettle helpless and determined.
It is not necessary, however, to view the poem in the fatalistic
light which Jarrell's reading suggests. Housman is able, through the
symbols of the nettle, the wind, and the dead lover, to draw a complex
21khTexts from Housman," Kenyon Review, I (1939), p. 267.
image of life's transitory state--complex, as Jarrell suggests, because
grass, which is a common symbol for transitoriness, here outlasts man and
serves, in addition, to reinforce the notion of man's mutable state.
Perhaps the key to understanding Housman's choice of the nettle as a sym-
bol may be found in one of his other poems in which the nettle is also
used, Lyric XXXII of lbore Poems.25 The poem, in its entirety, is as
With seed the sowers scatter
The furrows as they go.
Poor lads, 'tis little matter
How many sorts they sow,
For only one will grow.
The charlock on the fallow
Will take the traveller's eyes,
And gild the ploughland sallow
With flowers before it dies,
But twice 'twill not arise.
The stinging-nettle only
Will still be found to stand:
The number less, the lonely,
The thronger of the land,
The leaf that hurts the hand.
It thrives, come sun, come showers,
Blow east, blow west, it springs;
It peoples towns, and towers
About the courts of kings,
And touch it and it stings.
The nettle in both poems thus may be seen as a symbol of the
state of man's existence. Lyric XXXII of More Pomi also suggests Hous-
man's use of it in Lyric XVI, for 'the stinging-nettle only/Will still be
found to stand." Housman implies that that part of life which is pain-
ful, which hurts the hand, outlasts that part symbolized by the charlock
25Jarrell also notes a connection between the two poems.
on the fallow, which "will take the traveller's eye" and "gild the
ploughland sallow" but dies and will not arise again. The lover that
hanged himself for love in Lyric XVI corresponds to the charlock. The
stinging nettle has survived him. He is dead and will not rise again.
Yet the paradox of the poem is that the "lover of the grave" has
triumphed over the forces of life symbolized by the nettle and the wind,
for he has escaped the ceaseless cycle of change which the nettle must
continually undergo as it is buffeted by the wind. Thus the ambiguity of
line 7 becomes meaningful. At first the reader assumes that he is to re-
gard the lover in the poem in the conventional sense--that is, he hanged
himself for love of a woman. Yet line 7 identifies the lover as "the
lover of the grave." This may be read in two ways: the lover who now
lies in the grave or the man who loved the grave. It is in this second
sense that the line must be read if the poem is to become meaningful.
The nettle, symbolic of the hurtful nature of man's existence, is char-
acterized as being thrown into an endless cycle by the wind, or life
force (a cyclical pattern being suggested by the series of motions--nd_,
curtseys, recovers. The lover, however, has escaped this cycle: "he
does not move." He was able to exchange the transitory nature of life
for the permanence found only in death because he was a "lover of the
grave" and hanged himself for love" [of the grave]. He has thus escaped
"the fields where glory does not stay" in the same way as the athlete of
This conceit may be further Illustrated by another quite popular
lyric, number LIV:
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 boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
Lyric LIV illustrates Housman's ability to depict a commonplace emotion
with great complexity. He is dealing with the sense of loss one feels
for the dead, yet in structuring this emotion he manages to again suggest
the idea of life's loss through change and death's victory over this loss.
Yet it is significant that this suggestion does not occur in the thought
of the poem, which is rather straightforward and simple, contained essen-
tially in the first two lines, but instead in the poem's image pattern.
John Crowe Ransom has objected to the first lir. c the poem as
"painful, grandiloquent, incredible to the naturalistic imagination." He
S. I think we must have misgivings as to the propriety of
linking this degree of desolation with the loss of friends
in wholesale quantities. Grief is not exactly cumulative,
not proportionate to the numerical occasions; it is the qual-
ity of a single grief rather than the total quantity of all
the griefs that we expect to be developed in a poem, if the
poem is in the interest of the deepest possible sentiment.2b
Ransom ignores the fact that the poem is not at all concerned with any
specific death. It is instead an analysis of the phenomenon of death it-
self, of the thought of death and the effect of these death-thoughts on
the narrator. The poem, after all, begins with an emphasis on the narra-
tor's thoughts: "With rue my heart is laden. .. ." Ransom's quibble
2"Honey and Gall," Southern Review, VI (1940), p. 7.
with laden in line 1 also misses the irony inherent in the imagery of the
poem. Housman here has attempted to depict feelings in paradoxical terms
(and this parallels the larger paradox which the poem develops). The
sense of desolation or emptiness is produced by laden (or fullness). The
sense of stillness in lines 5 and 6 is depicted by an image which empha-
sizes a leaping motion, and the impression of rosiness in lines 7 and 8
Is suggested by Housmun's reference to the fading of roses. Housman has
thus managed to produce through this imagery simultaneously the stillness
of death and the activity of life.
Ransom also objects to the golden of line 2. He finds that "the
image needs a little specification: Shakespeare's golden lads and girls
were in better order by virtue of the contrast with the chimney-
sweepers. 27 But "golden friends" should not be taken strictly as a
color image. In poems dealing with mutability, as both Housman's and
Shakespeare's certainly are, golden must be taken in its earlier physical
sense. Just as in alchemy gold represented the perfect mixture of the
elements, the lads and lassies of Shakespeare's and Housman's lyrics rep-
resent that period in time in which the elements of life are in perfect
Balance. In Shakespeare's imagery this gold is turned to dust by time,28
yet the fact to notice in Housman's poem is that, strictly in terms of
28Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
(Sung in IV, ii of Cymbeline as a dirge for the supposedly dead
the im(n --ry of thz poem, the golden boy', and iirl escape tn' d'-cay of
time, Housman manages this conceit by transferring the sense of decay
from the dead youths to the physical world they have left. The "li.'It-
foot lad of line 4 is still described as lightfoot in death; however,
the brooks he was accustomed to leap in youth are now too broad for
leaping." Likewise, the "rose-lipt maiden of line 3 maintains, in the
poem's imagery, the complexion of her youth; yet she is sleeping in
"fields where roses fade.-' Housman thus continues the conceit in which
death becomes the agent for halting the decay of time, for fixing and
maintaining the moment in which life is at its prime.
Ransom's objection that Housman does not depict strikingly enough
the shameful end which death involves ignores the conceit which is a part
of the poem. He states, referring to the rose-lipt girls:
. that does not seem too shameful an end. Roses fade in
the best of fields. . What we require is an image to carry
the fading of the rosy lips; to be buried in the ground involves
this disgrace sufficiently for brutal logic but not for poetic
Ransom's statement serves to point up the danger of ignoring the
unity of theme of A Shropshire Lad. He feels the poem requires an image
to suggest that the rosy lips fade in death. Yet if the reader is con-
scious of the continuing conceit Housman constructs a..out death in the
work, he realizes that the poem scrupulously avoids the suggestion that
death brings with it a decay, and, instead, emphasizes the decay which
characterizes life. Therefore, Housman's seemingly simple statement
about death, which Ransom finds inept, becomes somewhat more complex on
290p. cit., p. 8.
closer examination--complex because the attitude toward death in the poem
is a complex one. Stanza I offers only an overwhelming sense of grief;
yet this feeling of loss over the death of youth finds compensation in
stanza 2 with the fuller realization that death is both a loss and a gain.
But this is a complexity which must be seen, finally, in the whole of A
Shropshire Lad, and critics who consider only isolated poems may conclude,
like Ransom, that
the ironical detail of this poem is therefore fairly inept.
The imagination of this poet is not a trained and faithful
instrument, or at least it does not work well for him here.
That is not an additional charge, however, to saying that the
poem as a whole is not very satisfactory, for it is the spe-
cific ground of the poem's failure. There cannot be a fine
poetry without a fine poetic texture.30
Ransom's judgment of Housman's poem is then based, in part, on
Ransom's lack of understanding of the theme of the work of which the poem
is a part. He condemns the poem partly for the fact that it fails to
provide "an image to carry the fading of the rose lips" without realizing
that to have done so would have involved violating the continuity of the
conceit which Housman utilizes in developing the theme of A Shropshire
Lad. And even though the conceit is not clearly stated in Lyric LIV (al-
though it is certainly present), elsewhere in the work it receives more
direct treatment. Lyric XXIII, for example, helps strengthen the inter-
pretation of Lyric LIV as a poem which regards death not wholly as a
shameful end but at least partly as an agent which halts the mutability
of life. The scene of Lyric XXIII is Ludlow fair. The narrator watches
the hundreds of lads as they arrive from "the barn and the forge and the
mill and the fold" (1. 2). He sees that some are there for the girls,
some for the liquor, but his interest lies in another group, for "there
with the rest are the lads that will never be old." It Is in the con-
trast between these two groups that the heart of the poem lies. Many of
the first group are, in their prime, handsome and brave:
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the
The latter group, however, are regarded as "fortunate fellows,"31 for
they will "carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man" (1. 15).
The last two stanzas of the poem make clear why these men are to be re-
garded as fortunate:
I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them
And watch them depart on the way that they will not
But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.
Again, it would be easy to oversimplify the attitude toward death
in this poem and regard death merely as an escape from the misery of ex-
istence, as many of Housman's critics have insisted. But, viewing the
poem in relation to the theme of the whole work, one must conclude that
here, as elsewhere in A Shropshire Lad, the point is not that these lads
31Compare this with the "smart lad" of Lyric XIX, who also es-
capes through death the decay of age.
have escaped some sort of evil inherent in all of life; they have, in-
stead, escaped the change and decay of time, and as Housman's coin image
suggests, they have preserved the essence of man and gained something of
that permanence which is the object of Housman's quest throughout much of
A Shropshire Lad.
Lyric XLIV deals with another aspect of life's mutability, the
sudden change of fortune with which man is powerless to contend. Here
even the act of suicide becomes an acceptance means of halting life's
Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending,
'Twas best to take it to the grave.
Oh you had forethought, you could reason,
And saw your road and where it led,
And early wise and brave in season
Put the postal to your head.
Suicide thus becomes justified because even though death is not desira-
ble, the ills of time and the disgraces of ever-changing fortune are even
Dust's your wages, son of sorrow,
But men may come to worse than dust.
Stanzas 5 and 6 of the poem make clear that, again, death is not
regarded merely as escape from the evil and injustice of the world. It
Is, Instead, a means to "carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of
men." Housman considers in Lyric XLIV generic man. By his act of sui-
cide the lad has saved himself and his fellows the dishonor and guilt
which his unnamed disgrace would have brought them:
Souls undone, undoing others,--
Long time since the tale began.
You would not live to wrong your brothers:
Oh lad, you died as fits a man.
Now to your grave shall friend and stranger
With ruth and some with envy come:
Undishonoured, clear of danger,
Clean of guilt, pass hence and home.
The source of this lyric casts some further light on these lines.
Laurence Housman states in his biography of his brother:
On August bth, 1895, a young Woolwich Cadet, aged eighteen,
took his own life, leaving a long letter addressed to the Cor-
oner to say why he had sone so. The gist of that letter was
quoted in a newspaper cutting of the day, which I found lying
in my brother's copy of A Shropshire Lad alongside the poem
Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
It is quite evident that certain passages in that letter
prompted the writing of the poem; one sentence indeed is al-
Laurence Housman then quotes a part of the young Cadet's letter:
"I wish it to be clearly understood that I am not what is
commonly called 'temporarily insane' and that I am putting an
end to my life after several weeks of careful deliberation.
I do not think that I need justify my actions to anyone but
my Maker, but . I will state the main reasons which have
determined me. The first is utter cowardice and despair.
There is only one thing in this world which would make me
thoroughly happy; that one thing I have no earthly hope of
obtaining. The second--which I wish was the only one--is
that 1 have absolutely ruined my own life; but I thank God
that as yet, so far as I know, I have not morally injured, or
'offended,' as it is called in the Bible, anyone else. Now I
am quite certain that I could not live another five years with-
out doing so, and for that reason alone, even if the first did
not exist, I should do what I am doing. . At all events it
is final, and consequently better than a long series of sorrows
310p. cit., pp. 103-104.
321bid., p. 104.
The last two sentences quoted above must certainly have attracted
Housman to the story, for they parallel the concept of death which recurs
throughout poems written during this period. The young man utilized
death to halt the moral decay which is hinted at in the letter ("I could
not live another five years without doing so. . ."). Housman applauds
this idea in lines 19 and 20:
You would not live to wrong your brothers:
Oh lad, you died as fits'a man;
The last sentence quoted from the lettercontains the idea which forms the
basis of the concept of death stated nmst. clearly in 'To an Athlete Dying
Young" but found throughout A Shropshire Lad, the notion that it is better
to flee the mutable world at one's prime before the adversities of for-
tune and the decay of age set in. The young Cadet wrote, "At all events
it is final, and consequently better than a long series of sorrows and
disgraces." Compare Housman's lines:
Oh soon, and better so than later
After long disgrace and scorn, . .
Thus the Cadet parallels the "smart lad" of Lyric XIX and the
"fortunate fellows" of Lyric XXIII in escaping the ill fortunes of time.
The last stanza of the poem offers the youth still further compensations:
Turn safe to rest, no dreams, no waking;
And here, man, here's the wreath I've made:
'Tis not a gift that's worth the taking,
But wear it and it will not fade.
The wreath mentioned in line 25 may be identified on two levels. On the
literal level it is the token of victory, the poet's sign that the lad
has triumphed over the adversities of time. It will not fade because it
is artificial, not organic ("a wreath I've made"). It may be compared to
the garland which the athlete of Lyric XIX wears "unwithered on its
curls." But the wreath may also be seen as the poem itself (an artifact
which is made and, again, because it is artificial, not organic, not sub-
ject to the wear of time). The poet thus offers the lad the permanence
of art in repeating the conceit of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18. Both poets
recognize the mutability of the natural world33 and offer the permanence
of art to halt the decay. Shakespeare states that through his poem "thy
eternal summer shall not fade" (1. 9). Housman's statement is remarkably
close: But wear it and it will not fade."
Perhaps it is not necessary to point out that both death and art
are utilized in much the same manner by Housman in this poem and in other
lyrics of A Shropshire Lad, as poetic answers to the dilemma posed by an
awareness of the mutaile nature of man's existence. Yet apparently nu-
merous critics have ignored this aspect of Housman's treatment of death
in the work. Their error lies in confusing poetic conceit and philosoph-
ical belief. No critic has been naive enough to assume that Shakespeare
believed his poem would literally preserve the beauty of the young men
(or woman) to whom Sonnet 18 is addressed. Yet Housman's utilization of
a similar conceit has been interpreted literally with the resulting
33Shakespeare's statement of the theme is, of course, a familiar
Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st, . .
judgment that his philosophy is perverse and contradictory. The contra-
dictions, however, seem to dissolve on close analysis. Life at its prime
is good, Housman asserts; the evil lies in its essential transience. And
the great paradox lies in the fact that the preserver of permanence is
also the destroyer of life. Housman, in A Shropshire Lad, emphasizes
both aspects of death. The results have been called inconsistent, but
they have only the inconsistence of all poetic conceit. Examined in the
harsh light of common sense, Housran's poetry may indeed appear self-
contradictory. Yet if A Shropshire Lad is analyzed as a whole work, the
thread of its theme traced through the short lyrics, it is revealed only
as stating the paradox of human existence. A Shropshire Lad, it is true,
is centered around the human dilemma of life and death, mutability and
permanence, and this dilemma can be resolved only in paradoxical terms.
Cleonth Brooks states in The Well Wrought Urn, a study of the statement
of paradox in poetry:
If the poet, then, must perforce dramatize the oneness of the
experience, even through paying tribute to its diversity, then
his use of paradox and ambiguity is seen as necessary. He is
not simply trying to spice up, with a superficially exciting
or mystifying rhetoric, the old stale stockpot. . He is
rather giving us an insight which preserves the unity of ex-
perience and which at its higher and more serious levels,
triumphs over the apparently contradictory and conflicting
elements of experience by unifying them into a new pattern.
It is in this sense that Housman's treatment of death must be seen. As a
practical answer to the dilemma posed by time's decay, Housman poetry
fails. But the lyric poet, it must be agreed, has traditionally not at-
tempted to provide practical answers to life's problems, and his poetic
answers serve only to reveal what has been called the human condition.
3 p. cit., pp. 213-214.