A jolly good nostalgic walk through Housman country.
British poet Ted Hughes described Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) as “the most perfect expression of something deeply English.” He could also have been describing Housman’s greatest work, the poetry collection A Shropshire Lad. In this capacious, generous work of literary and cultural history, Parker (The Last Veteran: Harry Patch and the Legacy of War, 2009, etc.) sets out to prove Hughes’ statement. In 1896, when Housman, then 37, was a professor of Latin, he self-published 500 copies of his small volume of 63 poems. In its first year, it sold only 381 copies in Britain and the United States combined. Because he wanted to make it affordable, Housman declined all royalties. By 1911, it had sold 13,500 copies and has never been out of print, becoming “one of the best-loved volumes of poetry in the language.” George Orwell claimed to have memorized the whole book when he was at Eton. Parker describes it as a “gazetteer of the English heart.” The author first offers a lengthy, affectionate biography of Housman, comparing him to Thomas Hardy, “another writer who straddled the Victorian and modern ages.” Housman composed much of the book while taking long, solitary walks in Hampstead Heath, and it was inspired by his unrequited love for a fellow university student, Moses Jackson. Parker next takes on the English landscape, explaining why Housman chose Shropshire for his setting. For Housman, it “was our western horizon, which made me feel romantic about it.” After a fascinating disquisition on the popular association of walking and poetry, Parker shows how extensively the poems influenced English music—e.g., Vaughan Williams, Morrissey and The Smiths—and how the book became an important companion for English soldiers. The author concludes by providing numerous examples of Housman’s and the poems’ appearances in modern culture (Inspector Morse, The Twilight Zone, The Simpsons) as well as the complete text of A Shropshire Lad.
Delightful, enchanting, and learned.