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A Shropshire Lad

author of text
1896

 
Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936) made it a principle never to refuse permission for poems from A Shropshire Lad to be set to music. ‘I always give my consent to all composers in the hope of becoming immortal somehow’, he once quipped. This wasn’t to say he couldn’t breathe fire when liberties were taken with texts—he was reportedly cut to the quick when he observed that Vaughan Williams had omitted two verses from Is my team ploughing? in his setting for the On Wenlock Edge cycle. ‘I wonder how he would like me to cut two bars out of his music’, was the wounded retort. What Housman made of the idea that John Ireland should actually start his setting of March (as ‘The Heart’s Desire’) at the third stanza hardly bears thinking about. ‘Neither illustrators nor composers care twopence about words and generally do not understand them’, was the poet’s perhaps uncharitable declaration on the whole subject. In any case, maybe in part because his own sympathies lay with the popular music of his day, Housman found listening to settings of his words painful and embarrassing. The story goes that having said as much to Herbert Howells over dinner one evening, the composer promptly destroyed his own Housman songs. May that yet prove to be one of HH’s familiar false trails and the songs turn up in some unconsidered brown-paper parcel.

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

Recordings

Housman: A Shropshire Lad
CDD220442CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
Hyperion monthly sampler – August 2014
FREE DOWNLOADHYP201408Download-only monthly sampler

Details

No 01: 1887  From Clee to heaven the beacon burns
Track 1 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'45] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 03: The Recruit  Leave your home behind, lad
Track 3 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'09] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 04: Reveille  Wake, the silver dusk returning
Track 4 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'03] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 07: When smoke stood up from Ludlow
Track 7 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'17] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 08: Farewell to barn and stack and tree
Track 8 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'03] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 09: On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
Track 9 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'27] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 10: March  The sun and noon to higher air
Track 10 on CDD22044 CD1 [0'25] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 11: On your midnight pallet lying
Track 12 on CDD22044 CD1 [0'36] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 14: There pass the careless people
Track 15 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'00] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 16: It nods and curtseys and recovers
Track 17 on CDD22044 CD1 [0'26] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 18: Oh, when I was in love with you
Track 19 on CDD22044 CD1 [0'18] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 19: To an athlete dying young  The time you won your town the race
Track 20 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'37] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 24: Say, lad, have you things to do?
Track 25 on CDD22044 CD1 [0'30] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 26: Along the field as we came by
Track 27 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'00] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 28: The Welsh Marches  High the vanes of Shrewsbury gleam
Track 29 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'57] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 30: Others, I am not the first
Track 31 on CDD22044 CD1 [0'49] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 31: On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble
Track 32 on CDD22044 CD1 [1'09] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 32: From far, from eve and morning
Track 1 on CDD22044 CD2 [0'36] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 34: The new mistress  Oh, sick I am to see you
Track 3 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'09] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 37: As through the wild green hills of Wyre
Track 6 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'49] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 38: The winds out of the west land blow
Track 7 on CDD22044 CD2 [0'57] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 41: In my own shire, if I was sad
Track 10 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'35] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 42: The Merry Guide  Once in the wind of morning
Track 11 on CDD22044 CD2 [2'13] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 43: The Immortal Part  When I meet the morning beam
Track 12 on CDD22044 CD2 [2'23] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 44: Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Track 13 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'36] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 45: If it chance your eye offend you
Track 16 on CDD22044 CD2 [0'27] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 46: Bring, in this timeless grave to throw
Track 17 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'07] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 47: The Carpenter's Son  Here the hangman stops his cart
Track 18 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'44] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 48: Be still, my soul, be still
Track 19 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'38] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 50: In valleys of springs and rivers
Track 21 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'15] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 51: Loitering with a vacant eye
Track 22 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'14] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 53: The True Lover  The lad came to the door at night
Track 24 on CDD22044 CD2 [1'44] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 55: Westward on the high-hilled plains
Track 26 on CDD22044 CD2 [0'42] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 56: The Day of Battle  Far I hear the bugle blow
Track 27 on CDD22044 CD2 [0'51] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 58: When I came last to Ludlow
Track 29 on CDD22044 CD2 [0'21] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 60: Now hollow fires burn out to black
Track 31 on CDD22044 CD2 [0'19] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
Track 16 on HYP201408 [0'19] Download-only monthly sampler
No 62: Terence, this is stupid stuff
Track 33 on CDD22044 CD2 [3'49] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
No 63: I hoed and trenched and weeded
Track 34 on CDD22044 CD2 [0'54] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I

Track-specific metadata for CDA66471/2 disc 2 track 21

In valleys of springs and rivers
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-95-47221
Duration
1'15
Recording date
1 January 1995
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown & Graham Johnson
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. A Shropshire Lad (CDA66471/2)
    Disc 2 Track 21
    Release date: May 1995
    Deletion date: November 2001
    2CDs Superseded by CDD22044
  2. Housman: A Shropshire Lad (CDD22044)
    Disc 2 Track 21
    Release date: November 2001
    2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) Composers of World War I
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