[I’ve added some material to this article in the light of some further research on Housman’s life for an article elsewhere. Mostly it relates to the widely-held belief that Housman hadn’t visited Shropshire at the time of the publication of A Shropshire Lad, which doesn’t seem to be the case. D.H., 12th October 2014]
I have a longstanding interest in the poetry of A.E. Housman, largely expressed in terms of having generated an assortment of musical settings of his verse strewn over various blog sites. This is an attempt to get all the relevant material onto one site. Especially (obviously) the settings.
Housman can’t really be described as a Shropshire lad himself: he was born near Bromsgrove in 1859, attended university in Oxford, initially worked in London, and died in Cambridge in 1936. Many sources suggest that he may not actually have visited the Shropshire countryside of which he presented his own idiosyncratic vision until after he had published the collection, and that most of the poems were written while living in Highgate, London. (Oddly enough, I have a Highgate connection too: I helped run a folk club there in the 1980s.) On the other hand, according to Shropshire historian Dr. David Lloyd, when the death of his father in 1894 brought him back to Worcestershire, he spent a great deal of 1894 and 1895 visiting Shropshire, and Housman himself described the first few months of 1895 as his most prolific in terms of writing poetry.
I did not begin to write poetry in earnest until the really emotional part of my life was over; and my poetry, so far as I could make out, sprang chiefly from physical conditions, such as a relaxed sore throat during my most prolific period, the first months of 1895. (Letters, 329)
And in 1911 he told Sydney Cockerell that ‘nearly everything in the Shropshire Lad was written in the first five months of 1895 when he was 36, and the rest in 1894.’ (Cockerell’s diary, as cited in Norman Page’s A.E. Housman: a Critical Biography.) So while his residence at that time was Highgate, it may be that many of the poems were written much closer to the ‘blue remembered hills’. But Haber and Page both suggest that it’s unwise ‘to take Housman’s own chronological limits too literally.’ Certainly the mapping by Page and others of specific verses to specific events and emotions in Housman’s life are an indication that there was more to A Shropshire Lad than pastoral nostalgia, and much more than Housman himself was prepared to discuss publicly. Perhaps the original title of the collection – Poems of Terence Hearsay – is in itself a warning that not all within those verses is as it seems.
Be that as it may, his ashes are buried near St. Laurence’s church, Ludlow, five minutes walk from where I live at the time of writing.
Although I lived for the first 19 years of my life in Shrewsbury, none of my settings of Housman’s verse was composed in Shropshire either. I was living in Berkshire at that time, though the setting to Bredon Hill was composed while I was visiting my parents in Manchester, I think.)
The whole of ‘A Shropshire Lad’ is viewable from bartleby.com. There are countless hard-copy volumes of Housman’s verse, of course, but my favourite is the 2009 edition published by Merlin Unwin with local photographs by Gareth B. Thomas (and a handful from the Shropshire Regimental Museum), an introduction by Prof. Christopher Ricks, and a brief biography of Housman by Dr. David Lloyd, a well-known name in Ludlow historical circles. There is a freely available Gutenberg version of A Shropshire Lad. Martin Hardcastle has a page that seems to include much if not all Housman’s ‘serious poetry’, as well as a few links to other Housman resources.
Other Housman settings have, of course, been composed by real and more celebrated composers like:
- George Butterworth
- Ivor Gurney
- John Ireland
- Ernest John Moeran
- Arthur Somervell
- Ralph Vaughan Williams
Much more in due course.
Small Blue-Green World