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.

  • 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!

  • 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)

  • 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?

  • 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!

  • 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.

  • 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. 🙂

  • 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!

  • 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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