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Housman was certainly kept busy granting his permissions. The songs on these two CDs represent no more than a fraction of those available. By one count, in the poet’s time or later, there have been, for example, ten settings of Loveliest of trees; eight of When I was one-and-twenty; seven of In summertime on Bredon; six of White in the moon the long road lies. Another source suggests that world-wide the number of song cycles based on A Shropshire Lad currently tops 160. And for as long as composers have been ensnared by the verse, so have writers been rehearsing and re-rehearsing the reasons why A Shropshire Lad should have ‘cried out for music’, in Ernest Newman’s phrase. Clearly, like the similarly much-quarried German poet Heine and Shakespeare (acknowledged as prime influences by Housman himself) the lines are open, lyrical and rhythmic, transparent in quality and yet loaded with meaning and emotion that peel off in layers. Simple language becomes luminous. The feel of the language of folk-song has chimed with modern times—especially around the turn of the century, when many composers were acutely aware both of its potential as the cellular material for a ‘national music’ and, of course, of its vulnerability in a rapidly urbanising age. Allied to that is the attraction to composers of the similarly vulnerable English pastoral scene which lies behind A Shropshire Lad. And so one could go on, not least to the appeal of specific themes to specific composers. But A Shropshire Lad’s allure cannot have lain exclusively in its ‘musical’ qualities. George Orwell once said that Housman ‘had the deepest hold upon the thinking young’ from 1910 to 1925, his poetry reflecting such root issues as the questioning of religious truth and the value of human life in an age of modern warfare—subject matter enough to stir a composer.
The main potential drawback of A Shropshire Lad as far as composers are concerned has to do with the straightforward, ‘naive’ metres—part of the poetry’s essential quality, of course, yet too predictable for many a serious-minded composer with aesthetic scruples to burn. Hence, for example, the spreading of Butterworth’s setting of Look not in my eyes into a basic flow of 5/4; the off-the-beat entries of Orr’s When I watch the living meet; or the slinking in and out of 3/4, 4/4 and 5/4 of Barber’s With rue my heart is laden which threatens a mild sea-sickness. Not of course that the basic rhythms can’t serve perfectly well where metric simplicity, in context, can be exploited as a virtue—there’s music in them, after all.
Given the extraordinary interest composers have shown in A Shropshire Lad, not to mention its huge popularity with the general public (never out of print since it first appeared in 1896), it comes as a surprise that the slim, unassuming volume was not the immediate success that commentators have sometimes accorded to it. When Housman once read such an assertion from an author, he wrote in the margin of the page in question, ‘It wasn’t’. The poet himself paid the then considerable sum of £30 towards the book’s initial publication in 500 copies by Kegan Paul, and then looked on as sales crept only to 494 by the end of 1898. Even after the ambitious young journalist Grant Richards took A Shropshire Lad onto his initial list as a publisher and pushed it hard, only 1,475 copies had been sold seven years after its release. Having apparently then reached a critical mass, sales multiplied from 1906 (with Boer War memories still potent enough to vibrate sympathetically with so much of the poetry) to 1911, averaging 13,500 a year. During the Great War, A Shropshire Lad was in the kitbag of many a Tommy—Housman insisted on keeping the price low to accommodate them. Housman was deeply proud of A Shropshire Lad but remained a passive spectator of the sales charts. He never took a royalty. Clearly the poems had meaning for him far beyond fame or material gain.
Although he had written poetry for some considerable time previously, the key year for A Shropshire Lad is 1894, when the idea finally evolved of extending a selection of his existing poems into some form of cycle which would reflect both his personal philosophy and his sense of geographical dislocation—born and brought up in the West Country before moves to Oxford and then London. The scene change is first reflected in A Shropshire Lad at White in the moon and As through the wild green hills of Wyre, although essentially Housman merely takes up a new viewpoint, London, from which to scan the same ‘territory’. By this time he was Professor of Latin at University College, London, having surmounted through sheer force of academic brilliance the obstacle created by inexplicable failure in his final examinations at Oxford. His sister Kate believed the significant emotional release which opened the way to the rapid completion of A Shropshire Lad was the death of their father Edward Housman in November 1894—he and his oldest son not having been exactly at ease with each other. That the poems were deeply personal in nature could be guessed from the original intention to publish pseudonymously under the title The poems of Terence Hearsay—a smoke-screen to readers, a smoke-screen to himself, under cover of which he could perhaps feel more secure to explore his innermost thoughts and feelings. His brother Laurence—a literary man himself—guessed as much. The replacement title is maybe still a hint at the diversionary tactics going on. As the Housman scholar Keith Jebb, for one, has suggested, Shropshire is here more an idealised stage for an idealised vision of rural life, onto and into which the harsh realities of Housman’s life philosophies are placed. For one thing, Shropshire’s boundaries would have to be redrawn to include for certain all the West Country references in A Shropshire Lad. Although he came to know Shropshire well, the formative memory of the county was as distant views seen on childhood walks from the family home at Fockbury in Worcestershire. Shropshire, he was to recall, was on ‘our Western horizon which made me feel romantic about it’. A short distance then to the county’s becoming the idealised ‘Land of Lost Content’, a ‘safe’ location in which to place baggage too deeply personal to be coped with adequately in everyday life.
A Shropshire Lad, some have said, should thus be seen more as an outlet for Housman’s emotions rather than an expression of them. At the risk of analysing only selected layers of a complex psyche, three areas at least stand out with blatant clarity in the poetry. First, the stone-cold, crushing fatalism, nihilism, the dwelling on the transience of life—call it what you will—seen in any number of lines of such ilk as ‘Wonder ’tis how little mirth | Keeps the bones of man from lying | On the bed of earth’ from Twice a week the winter thorough. Housman’s atheism is reckoned as a response to the death of his mother when he was just short of the age of twelve—although the final renunciation of his religious faith came during student years at Oxford. His brother Laurence felt he may have clung on to some vague belief in a Supreme Being, but not one of a personal nature. The very starkness of the fatalism seen in A Shropshire Lad, warmed only by nostalgia, hints at its having an emotional basis rather than being purely an intellectual construct. Ironically, however, easily the greatest number of literary allusions made in A Shropshire Lad are to the Bible—although, to be fair, Matthew Arnold does come in a close third (behind Shakespeare).
Then, it takes no great genius to detect within A Shropshire Lad the pain and regrets of someone unlucky in love. What only a few could have guessed at was that this was rooted in Housman’s repressed homosexuality. The awareness of such leanings left him with the inevitable sense of being an outsider in the society of his day, additionally guilt-ridden out of respect for his mother’s religion, and with the further hurt of his ultimately unrequited (it seems) love for Moses Jackson. The two met as students at Oxford and shared lodgings—along with Jackson’s brother Adalbert—for three years in London. The relationship with Moses, a brilliant scientist and athlete who became a fellow of University College, London, first cooled and then was all but severed when Jackson first left for India and then popped back to marry and whisk off a young widow, Rosa Chambers. Housman wasn’t invited to the wedding in December 1889—was even, significantly, kept in the dark about it. A Shropshire Lad’s outlook on love is inevitably coloured by all of this, committed to paper even as a homophobic society was pouring scorn and hatred on Oscar Wilde over the notorious 1895 trial which saw him sentenced to two years’ hard labour for homosexual practices.
The many military overtones to A Shropshire Lad captured the imagination of soldiers who served in the Boer War and the Great War, but the verse was of course penned before either. This uncanny apparent prescience is explained by the fact that Housman had a special feeling for soldiery from the time a childhood visit to London brought an impressive sighting of the Guards. His brother Herbert gave up a medical career in 1889 to join the King’s Royal Rifles as a private. Perhaps reflecting the strength of the feminine side to his character, Housman seems to have had a particular admiration for the courage and self-sacrifice of the ordinary soldier. And it is hardly fanciful to envisage that homosexual feelings could be aroused to some extent by the sight of men in uniform, as suggested by the lines in The street sounds to the soldiers’ tread: ‘A single redcoat turns his head, | He turns and looks at me.’
But there is so much else to be read into this deceptively ‘straightforward’ poetry—the sense of history, classical allusion, the special feeling for youth and the young—some of it retrieved with relative ease, some surrendering only to greater familiarity. Given the nagging pain and doubt that underlies so much of the verse, one can only hope that the vision of ‘Shropshire’ itself—the earth, as in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde—offered some form of consolation. Housman, a friend once recalled, had ‘a deep appreciation of the beauties of nature, as regards landscape, & the wild flowers, birds and animals which one comes across in the course of a long day’s walk over fields, & commons & through woods’.
from notes by Andrew Green © 1995