A Shropshire Lad by AE Housman(1896)

The Classics professor Alfred Edward Housman surprised his students and colleagues when, in 1896, he published a collection of 63 short lyric poems which his publisher persuaded him to title A Shropshire Lad. Tennyson was responsible for the view that poetry should be pure and lyrical, flying far above the sordid realities of Victorian England. His acolyte Francis Palgrave produced a Golden Treasury of English Verse (1861) which selected with care only the purest of thin, high, quavering lyrical poetry from the previous 450 years of hugely varied verse and poetry.

The poems in A Shropshire Lad continue down that narrowing avenue, producing short, rhyming verse which aspires to a purity untainted by real-life diction or attitudes or events or activities, instead creating a set of bloodless variations on half a dozen stock sentimental themes: the soldier going off to war; handsome young men doomed to die young because they are different, either through suicide or fighting or being hanged for crimes of passion: in short, the narcissistic mentality of an angsty 15-year old.

All this is set in a largely fictional Shropshire of the mind, an imaginary, a Platonic Form of an English rural county which, however, has been taken over by Thomas Hardy and is populated by lads (18-21) who woo lasses who are either reluctant or die young and are carried to the churchyard where they join the other restless souls underground, at which the lads leave their depressing lives to take the Queen’s shilling and go fight in one of the Empire’s countless little wars, or stay at home to become bad ‘uns, to murder or rob and swing for it (Housman is morbidly obsessed with hanging).

The extreme purity of the vocabulary, the idealised English landscape and the teenage sentimentality of the thoughts made it a surprise bestseller. I was interested to learn from the Wikipedia article that the Boer War had an impact on its sales and influence, that “Housman’s nostalgic depiction of rural life and young men’s early deaths struck a chord with English readers”. Of course this chord was to ring even louder during and after the vastly more terrible slaughter of the Great War, and established Housman’s thin pallid verse as a coffee-table favourite.

Poem XL

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Why, the sceptical reader is tempted to ask, can you not go there again? Oh because I can’t, I am doomed, I am a lost soul, oh can’t you see, oh growing up is sooo hard. Surely it is not only the rural setting which represents an escape from the urban life most of us lead, but the essentially adolescent sentiments of the verse which represent a Hollyoaks-style escape from the complex problems of adult life, careers, money, wives and children, which underpin its enduring appeal.

Various of the 63 lyrics have been set by various composers, most notably George Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney. For my money the Butterworth settings are head and shoulders above the others; with his music these pallid lyrics achieve a depth and resonance the words alone lack made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Butterworth himself was killed in the Great War and so his songs about doomed young men have a horrible irony.

TV: The Great War (BBC)

9 March 2012

In 1964 the BBC produced a major documentary series about The Great War, feted with prizes and widely seen as the precursor to ITV’s landmark World At War. I toyed with buying the box set off Amazon but it’s a surprising ¬£60 and I suspected would join all the other half-watched box sets in the cupboard.

Whereupon I discovered the whole thing is available free on YouTube! Just search for the titles of each episode, as listed on Wikipedia.

Having watched 23 episodes I’m struck by a) just how much footage seems to exist of specific events and b) the cumulative effect of hearing just a few pieces of classical music over and again: the brooding opening of Shostakovitch’s 11th symphony, the most intense parts of his 5th and 7th symphonies; the titanic opening chords of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica (occasional snippets of his pastoral symphony); and the stern original score composed by Wilfred Josephs, all build up a harrowing and devastating musical accompaniment to the scenes of horror caught on the old b&w footage.

The Great War on YouTube

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