A Poet for the Age of Brexit

Revisiting the work of A. E. Housman

Danny Schwartz

Great poets fall into two categories: those whose public personas are of a piece with their work, and those whose personalities seem to contradict their work. If you met, say, Lord Byron, you would have no doubt that this was the man who wrote “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Byron was as dramatic, world-weary, and scandalous in a drawing room as he was on the page. By contrast, if you were introduced to T. S. Eliot, you might have trouble making the connection between this buttoned-up bank clerk and the nightmare enchantment of “The Waste Land.” The patron saint of this latter type—the poet whose poetry is conspicuously at odds with his or her person—would have to be Alfred Edward Housman, the author of A Shropshire Lad and a writer who became, over the course of the 20th century, a kind of tutelary genius of Englishness.

The 63 lyrics in that book, first published in 1896, have a purity of speech and intensity of feeling that lent the collection the aura of a classic from the moment of its appearance. “You may read it in half-an-hour,” said one early reviewer of the book, “but there are things in it you will scarce forget in a lifetime.” What Housman writes about, almost without exception, is sorrow: lost love, nostalgia, mutability, grief, and death. He seems to understand everything about the pain of life, and the beauty of that pain—the way suffering itself can become a source of bittersweet pleasure. He is a poet who can’t listen to a blackbird sing without hearing a summons to the grave:

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.

The emotional directness of his delivery reads like an invitation to intimacy, giving unhappy readers, especially young ones, the sense that they have finally found a sympathetic heart in an unfeeling world. The last poem in A Shropshire Lad is an appeal to the “luckless lads” who will enjoy the poet’s “flowers” after he is gone:

So up and down I sow them
For lads like me to find,
When I shall lie below them,
A dead man out of mind.

Yet as the English biographer and journalist Peter Parker shows in Housman Country, his new study of the poet’s work and legacy, “luckless lads” who came to Housman prepared to open their hearts were shocked by the wary, acerbic, pedantic man they encountered. His obituary in The Times of London described him as “so unapproachable as to diffuse a frost … [He] appeared of all men least tolerant of sentiment.” When the novelist E. M. Forster wrote to Housman expressing enthusiasm for his poetry, Housman responded with a letter that Forster described as “absolutely hateful … I was so disappointed and hurt that I destroyed it after one rapid perusal.” Another writer was stunned, too. “Far from believing that man wrote [A] Shropshire Lad,” he said after meeting Housman, “I shouldn’t even have thought him capable of reading it!”


To perceptive observers, however, the vast gulf between the poetry and the poet only added to Housman’s pathos. Clearly this was a man so sensitive to pain that he had to wear heavy emotional armor. Indeed, the poems themselves are often about the deflection of feeling by an ironic stoicism, which ends up highlighting the very emotion it is meant to conceal. What, readers from the beginning must have wondered, was the wound behind Housman’s bow? What made him so well acquainted with grief?

This was a matter for speculation and rumor during Housman’s lifetime (the man wasn’t about to give anything away), but the answer has long since been established as a central part of his legend. In 1879, when he was 20 years old and a star student at Oxford, Housman fell in love with a classmate, Moses Jackson—a hearty, athletic, and entirely straight man. In his distress that his romantic feelings were not reciprocated, Housman ended up failing his final exams, to the shock of his teachers and family. Although he eventually did become a classical scholar, his career was sidetracked for a decade by the fiasco.

Housman was left convinced that his sexuality doomed him to loneliness—or worse. During his lifetime, public attitudes toward homosexuality in England were growing more hostile and vindictive. Most of the poems in A Shropshire Lad were written in 1895, the same year that Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labor for the crime of being gay. (“Oh they’re taking him to prison for the color of his hair,” Housman wrote bitterly, in a poem that remained unpublished for years.) No wonder he kept his deepest feelings to himself; and no wonder gay men, as Parker shows, constituted one of the best audiences for his poetry. They picked up on subterranean emotions and themes that might be read entirely differently by the straight reader:

Others, I am not the first,
Have willed more mischief than they durst;
If in the breathless night I too
Shiver now, ’tis nothing new.

More than I, if truth were told,
Have stood and sweated hot and cold,
And through their reins in ice and fire
Fear contended with desire.

Any reader who has ever experienced a moral crisis can identify with this poem, but readers for whom sexual desire was linked to a very specific kind of fear might well gather that it was written especially for them. At the same time, Housman’s combination of intense feeling and intense inhibition struck his first readers as quintessentially English. “It is not that the Englishman can’t feel—it is that he is afraid to feel,” Forster observed. “He has been taught at his public school that feeling is bad form … He must bottle up his emotions, or let them out only on a very special occasion.” Is it English reserve or sexual caution, or both, that we hear in Housman’s lines?

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

This poem ends with the speaker lying in his grave, boasting that he “kept his word”—with the implication that his refusal to speak about his love has actually killed him. It is a masterpiece of repression and self-pity, two emotions that help form Housman’s poetic climate.

But the Housman country Parker writes about is not only an emotional territory. It is also an actual landscape, the county of Shropshire in the west of England, on the border with Wales. For many readers, Housman conjured a nostalgia for English country life that was all the more powerful because it bore less and less resemblance to reality. By the end of the 19th century, England was predominantly urban, more Dickens than Wordsworth. But people who were one or two generations removed from the farm delighted in Housman’s timeless visions of village games and plowing oxen.

The mythic nature of Housman’s Shropshire is ironically fitting. “While he undoubtedly put Shropshire on the map for many readers,” Parker writes, “he often acknowledged that he did not in fact know the county well at all.” Actually, he was born in the neighboring county of Worcestershire; Shropshire was the western landscape he could see only at a romantic remove. This separation made it a highly appropriate setting for a book whose central theme is longing. “The preferred view of Housman Country is … from a distance, both in time and geography,” Parker writes. Happiness is always elsewhere:

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.

The opening sections of Housman Country offer an excellent, if familiar, introduction to the man and his work. Parker’s real contribution is to explore the influence of Housman’s work on English culture. When A Shropshire Lad was published, it made a very small splash, selling fewer than 400 copies in its first year. But an enterprising publisher kept the book alive, aided by Housman’s willingness to take no royalty on sales—a decision that cost him thousands of pounds, but kept the price down, making the book more accessible to his “luckless lads.”

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By 1914, A Shropshire Lad was selling upwards of 10,000 copies a year, and it went to war in the packs of many literary-minded soldiers. (Housman commented wryly on this phenomenon: “The advertisement to which I am always looking forward: a soldier is to receive a bullet in the breast, and it is to be turned aside from his heart by a copy of A Shropshire Lad which he is carrying there. Hitherto it is only the Bible that has performed this trick.”) On the Western Front, Housman’s doomed lads and English nostalgia spoke powerfully to young soldiers, and Parker traces the echoes of his poems in the work of war poets such as Edward Thomas and Rupert Brooke. Later, Housman’s poems would be set to music by a wide range of English composers; the glum rocker Morrissey was a natural fan.

Today, in the age of Brexit and the renewed movement for Scottish independence, the question of what Englishness means is once again up for debate. For nativist movements like the UK Independence Party, as for xenophobes across Europe, national identity is usually a matter of ethnic exclusivity and economic isolation. Reading Housman suggests an alternative to this kind of aggressive nationalism—an Englishness whose sources are nature and memory, melancholy and reserve. Of course, this poetic vision can encompass only a small part of what England means; not everyone can live in Housman country. But after more than a century, his poetry remains one of England’s most humane and appealing reflections.