A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman

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Harold Bloom dedicates a section of How to Read and Why to poetry, because, he says, “Poetry is the crown of imaginative literature.” (How to Read and Why, page 69). I don’t feel Bloom’s insights actually are helping me read poetry, but I’ve decided to read the poets he suggests because it’s a broad introduction to some good poetry (I hope).

I’d never heard of A.E. Housman and in some respects I wish I still hadn’t. While Housman’s poems are easy to read and “lyrical,” the collection A Shropshire Lad (written in 1896) is horribly depressing and seems to me to capture the poet’s deep-rooted depression.

Bloom claims, “How to read a poem can be best introduced by reading Housman, whose concise and economical mode appeals by its apparent simplicity” (page 71).  I would have to agree. The poems appear concise. The lyricism is deciving, though, for the underlying messages are ones of lost youth, lost love, lost friendship, and above all, a desire for life to be ended (I kid you not: there are a few suicidal poems in the collection).

Take, for example, the poem that Bloom mentions (in the public domain):

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again. (Poem XL)

It’s beautifully written. I love the rhythm of the words. I love to read it aloud. But when I read it closely and realize the message, I am just as depressed as the narrator: his childhood is past. He cannot find that contentment he once had. Life is moving on, and it’s killing him.

A Shropshire Lad, as a whole, captured the inherent difficulty of growing up. It captured the agony of a young man leaving a haven of peace and entering the reality of the world.

If you love the depressing lyricism of the poem above, the collection has plenty more of it: it may be for you. I, personally, say farewell to Housman here.

Reviewed on January 8, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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  1. I haven’t read enough Housman to have much of an opinion about him, but oh! how I detest Harold Bloom. Even just the title of his book is enough to set my teeth on edge: who is he to tell me how I should read, or, even more egregious, WHY I should read? Insufferable condescension! I was required to read a lot of his criticism in college, and it would literally keep me up at night trembling with rage, even though I knew I was being silly. 🙂 That said, I know many people like him, so I hope you’re enjoying his book more than you did Housman!

  2. Rebecca, I think some poets’ collections tend to have the same mood, and this can be a problem if you are trying to read one from beginning to end. If I am in a pensive mood for example, I might look for a poet like this one. The problem is that I don’t yet know very many poets, so anthologies have been more useful to me at this point. (hope that made sense, I’m not sure if it did)

  3. Poetry is definitely the most difficult thing for me to read. I think you’re totally right here–if a work is making you feel emotionally negative, it’s best to move on to something else. I wonder if there were any poets who wrote more uplifting things?

  4. Emily, I don’t have a strong opinion of Harold Bloom. i’ve read parts of his Shakespeare criticism and found it worthwhile I am enjoying parts of the How to Read and Why book — In fact I was looking for such a book with such a title when I first started my blog, because I wanted to better focus my reading. So I guess it’s just what I was looking for? He’s an opinionated old man, but sometimes I want to get different perspectives. Sorry if my reference to him annoy you! It’s just a personal little project of mine!

    Valerie, yes, I can see what you’re saying. Maybe it was the wrong moment, but I’m also knowing how much I love Blake so I can barely wait to get started on him (he’s next on my list!) Blake is lyrical and depressing as well, but from my experience I know it’s not quite so bleak….

    Marie, it’s difficult for me too! Hence my need to read more of it!

  5. I love Housman – and, we have the same birthday, he and I! Actually one of my favorite Tom Stoppard plays is about Housman, The Invention of Love, and it’s as heartbreaking as I think many of his poems are.

  6. Rebecca – Oh I’m not offended by other people reading him! Sorry if I gave that impression; I didn’t mean to imply you shouldn’t read him. I just tend to get offended by his style of criticism when I’m reading him, but it’s a personal quirk. I’m glad you’re getting something out of his book – it’s a good reminder to me that many readers are looking for just such a book as Bloom’s. 🙂

  7. Jenny, I’m glad someone likes Housman — I just did not enjoy the heartbreaking-ness right now. Maybe it’s a thing I just have to be in the mood for!

    Emily, oh good, I’ve heard so many people rather annoyed by Harold Bloom I get worried about mentioning him. I am treating him as a rather old opinionated teacher. I take everything with a grain of salt!

  8. This is completely off topic but when I saw Shropshire I immediately thought of Precious Bane by Mary Webb. I read it about 6 months ago and it is a little known novel that is beautiful and was definitely worth my time. If you get a chance, I think you’d enjoy it.

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