Favourite Poems – “A Shropshire Lad” by A.E.Housman

Following my posts about Kubla Khan, Because of You, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, and The Lake, this is the last post about some of my favourite poems. And it is a bit of a cheat because A Shropshire Lad by A.E.Housman is a collection of 63 poems rather than a single poem.

The next thing to admit is that until May 2021, I don’t think I’d ever read A Shropshire Lad. As I discussed in my post about Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, this I see as a failing of the education system, as well as my own laziness. As far as I remember we studied very little poetry at school. At some point between when I was about 8 and 13, we read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (as I noted in my post Kubla Khan), and I suspect I had to endure some Shakespeare at some point, but that (as far as I remember) was it. The reason why I would like to have read A Shropshire Lad at school is not merely about poetry (as I’ve noted before, I am not usually a fan of poetry) – it’s also about local identity. If you’re being educated somewhere, you should get an education of the local area, its history and culture, on top of any national curriculum.

I must have had some vague awareness of the term A Shropshire Lad as I was growing up, but that was really the limit of my knowledge. In fact, one of my main memories of it being mentioned was soon after I started university in Sheffield. At this time I was happy to finally be escaping from the countryside of Shropshire and moving to a big city. My parents moved from Shropshire at the same time. Other than my place of birth, as written on my passport, there was no particular link to the county any more. So when my lecturer, Graham Healey, commented on me being ‘a Shropshire lad’, I was quite dismissive of the idea as my identity was already switching to Sheffield, where I would go on to live for 9 years (albeit with one year in Seto, Japan, in between) and become a Sheffield United fan (I had supported Shrewsbury Town some of the time as a child).

So what changed?

Old age? Nostalgia? That my daughter is now at my old school, Concord College, in Shropshire? The passing of my father? I don’t know. Probably a combination of all of these and others I’m not aware of.

Whatever the reason, I picked up a copy of A Shropshire Lad – there are no shortage of them on Amazon and as the poem(s) are so old (and so not facing any copyright restrictions), I suspect I could have found it for free on the internet. I got one one that comes with an introduction about Housman and A Shropshire Lad. In some respects it’s a shame that the one I got is a large size page (I guess I should have checked better in advance), making it harder to take with you on a walk in the Shropshire hills, as I had planned, but in the end, the first time I read it, I was sat on a bench, next to a road, and at the foot of hill close to where I grew up as the weather wasn’t great (nothing unusual about that in Shropshire) and I didn’t have much time. The photo below shows the view I had when I paused from reading.

My view (of the Caradoc) from where I read A Shropshire Lad – close to the house where I grew up and similar to the view that I woke up to everyday.

As I read the introduction about Housman and the poem(s), I realised that I was likely to find the read rewarding due to one of the key issues in A Shropshire Lad being the transience of life – a concept that is of interest to me due to my research related to Japan (such as my work on the JL123 plane crash, including Dealing with Disaster in Japan, and in Japan: The Basics, where I discuss mono-no-aware). The importance of this, and other topics, that A Shropshire Lad addresses is another reason why I think it should be studied more in schools – especially in Shropshire, but also more widely.

As I read the book in my furusato, to use the Japanese term for where you come from, I suppose I was a bit disappointed that it doesn’t include more on areas of Shropshire that I am most familiar with; the Caradoc, Church Stretton, All Stretton, the Long Mynd, Acton Burnell, and Shrewsbury. But it was still an enjoyable read and I would still include it amongst my favourite poems. Out of the 63, I’m not sure if I can pick a particular favourite, but at the moment, the following ones resonate:

XIV

There pass the careless people

That call their souls their own;

Here by the road I loiter,

How idle and alone.

Ah, past the plunge of plummet,

In seas I cannot sound,

My heart and soul and senses,

World without end, are drowned.

His folly has not fellow

Beneath the blue of day

That gives to man or woman

His heart and soul away.

There flowers no balm to sain him

From east of earth to west

That’s lost for everlasting

The heart out of his breast.

Here by the labouring highway

With empty hands I stroll:

Sea-deep, till doomsday morning,

Lie lost my heart and soul.

XXXII

From far, from eve and morning

And yon twelve-winded sky,

The stuff of life to knit me

Blew hither: here am I.

Now – for a breath I tarry

Nor yet disperse apart –

Take my hand quick and tell me,

What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;

How shall I help you, say;

Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters

I take my endless way.

XXXIII

If truth in hearts that perish

Could move the powers on high,

I think the love I bear you

Should make you not to die.

Sure, sure, if stedfast meaning,

If single throughout could save,

The world might end to-morrow,

You should not see the grave.

This long and sure-set liking,

This boundless will to please,

Oh, you should live for ever

If there were help in these.

But now, since all is idle,

To this lost heart be kind,
Ere to a town you journey

Where friends are ill to find.

LV

Westwards on the high-hilled plains

Where for me the world began,
Still, I think, in newer veins

Frets the changeless blood of man.

Now that other lads than I

Strip to bathe on Severn shore,

They, no help, for all they try,

Tread the mill I trod before.

There, when hueless is the west

And the darkness hushes wide,

Where the lad lies down to rest

Stands the troubled dream beside.

There, on thoughts that once were mine,

Day looks down the eastern steep,

And the youth at morning shine

Makes the vow he will not keep.

LX

Now hollow fires burn out to black,

And lights are gutter low:

Square your shoulders, life your pack,

And leave your friends and go.

Of never fear, man, nought’s to dread,

Look not left nor right:

In all the endless road you tread

There’s nothing but the night.

I suspect there is still much I have yet to understand about A Shropshire Lad, so I will need to revisit it again, just as I revisit Shropshire so much more at the moment. No longer is Shropshire a place from which I want to escape, but one that I wish to return to. After all, I am a Shropshire lad.

Floreat Salopia

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