A E Houseman - A Worcestershire Lad

Talk by Julian Hunt

on Tuesday 19th April 2019 at the Octagon. St Mary's Lillington at 7.45 p.m.

One of the many ironies in relation to Housman is that the poetry for which he is chiefly remembered and loved is set in a county that he asserted in a letter that he spent very little time in. Housman was born near Bromsgrove and went to school there. He retained a love of the town and is remembered in the fine statue there. But equally his association with Shropshire is physically indicated by the plaque on Ludlow’s parish church and the nearby cemetery containing his ashes.

Julian Hunt, of the Housman Society, gave a fascinating and well illustrated account of Housman’s life with a compelling argument that “A Shropshire Lad” was inspired by his lifelong unrequited love for Moses Jackson, a fellow student at Oxford. Housman shocked his fellow students and tutors by failing his Finals, his failure perhaps being partly caused by the psychological turmoil that his homosexual feelings were creating. However, it has also been suggested that he was so vain over his classical learning that he failed to give proper consideration to other parts of the course. Whatever the truth, he subsequently became so famous within the recondite world of classical textual analysis that he was first appointed to a post at UCL and later the professorship of Latin at Cambridge. He went on to become the last great textual critic, who was notoriously scornful of those he thought of as lazy.

Housman remained faithful in his adoration of Jackson for the rest of his life, although Jackson died 13 years before him and failed to invite him to his (Jackson’s) wedding. Their friendship did endure, however. Poignant though veiled references appear in Housman’s diaries indicate his obsession. In other areas of his life he could be brutal and unfeeling, even towards his own brother, Laurence Housman. But somewhat like Larkin, Housman will always be loved and remembered for his poetry, the feelings and sentiments of which belie his unsympathetic personality. His legacy endures in unexpected ways, not just in the music that “A Shropshire Lad” was set to by Ralph Vaughan Williams. but also in its quotations. What other modern poet has inspired a non-biographical television play and a museum? (Dennis Potter’s "Blue Remembered Hills" and the marvellously nostalgic "Land Of Lost Content" in Craven Arms"). Like Larkin’s, some of his lines are deeply embedded in our memories. “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now” was the only poem my daughter was required to learn by heart at school.

“A Shropshire Lad”, published early in his life and initially at his own expense, has at its heart a profound sadness at the impermanence of life and a bitter rejection of a God who looks on impassively at our fates. Death figures very prominently as a lurking presence. Housman’s inspiration was the Greek and Latin Lyricists and elegists that he loved so much. The simplicity of the verse is reminiscent of Wordsworth at his best, as in the Lucy poems. There is warmth and humour too in some of the poems, a feature that is frequently overlooked. For example, from “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff”:

Oh I have been in Ludlow Fair

And left my necktie God knows where,

And carried half-way home, or near,

Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer.

Then the world seemed not so bad

And I myself a sterling lad;

And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,

Happy till I woke again”

Or equally, though bitter-sweet, “Are My Fields A-ploughing” ends with the dead young man asking after the welfare of his girlfriend and male friend, gets this response:

Aye, she lies down lightly

She lies not down to weep.

Your girl is well contented

Be still, my lad, and sleep”

Followed by:

“Yes, lad, I lie easy

I lie as lads would choose

I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart

Never ask me whose”

Barry West

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