from Northwest Review, Volume 49 Number 1
When I was high school senior in Alabama, I joined the French club, though my talents with the language were such that I passed French II only by doing extra credit work: I backstitched an industrial map of the country, France outlined in red thread, with little blue squares and little black triangles clustered along the Rhine, barely in France, where coal and bauxite were mined. I joined the club for one reason: It took a yearly trip to New Orleans, home of French culture in America. As the chartered bus idled outside Sidney Lanier High School on a Friday morning in spring, I suddenly realized that I hadn't brought a book to read if I got bored. I raced into the school library, grabbed a copy of A. E. Housman's collected poems off the shelf, checked it out, and scrambled back to my seat on the bus.
I don't know why I picked Housman. Probably because I understood Housman had something to do with the early part of the twentieth century, and I'd decided I was a modernist. I'd made that discovery in tenth grade when, bored, I'd paged ahead in the English textbook and read Eliot's "The Hollow Men." Before then, I'd thought it was impossible I could be transported by a poem—by the interweaving, through word rhythm, of thought and emotion. I was, I thought, a hollow man, a modernist. Before Eliot, poetry had seemed sappy and girlish, nothing to do with my life, what I valued and understood and what the people around me valued and understood. I couldn't swing with the language of poetry because the subjects meant nothing to me—Keats and his vase, Shakespeare and the complicated yearning of the sonnets. At best, the rhythms of the language sometimes tugged at me in a way I responded to, and I spent afternoons halfheartedly memorizing "The Raven,""The Charge of the Light Brigade," and Hamlet's soliloquy just because it seemed like something I should do. But "Prufrock" and "The Hollow Men" spoke in a way that I got, that a boy can get. Over and above what the poems say, there is something at the rhythmic level in Eliot's early poems, and Housman's A Shropshire Lad, too, that reaches out to the immaturity of the boy trying to be mature, knowing, and that connects to and elaborates on a boy's sense of world weariness.
As it turns out—and I was young enough to be surprised by this—I didn't read Housman on the bus full of kids going to New Orleans. But I did read it when I got back home. I wasn't captivated as I was by Eliot, but pulled gently yet companionably into Housman's Shropshire, a county that was very much like one of the precincts of my head at the time. I've asked friends when they first read Housman, and we guys all seem to have gone through Housman phases as boys verging into men. I stopped asking women about Housman after the third one in a row laughed with rich amusement at the idea she'd have wandered the fields of Shropshire in late adolescence instead of brooding in, say, the dark enclosures of Sylvia Plath's psyche, a space in which I too have brooded, though later and not for long. The air is very close in there. And in a walled-off corner of it, I imagine the dried but intact corpse of Fortunato will one day be unearthed.
Housman's A Shropshire Lad was the first book of serious poetry that I read as a book. The mere fact of being able, with some occasional puzzling over archaic diction and condensed syntax, to understand the poems, to have them yield to my reading without notes and the intervention of teachers, was a pleasure. Pleasurable too was the way Housman's poems sounded both old-fashioned, as the poems in the textbooks did, and modern in a bitter spirit that textbooks protected me from. In their form and language, the poems were comfortingly "poems" as I had learned them, and yet they took me surprisingly into an existential way of thinking that I'd begun secretly to entertain. I knew the classical stoicism-tinged-with-existential-despair I was investigating had to be kept from my Christian parents and teachers, and that made it interesting. That meant the poems belonged to me, not them, and I liked having them for myself.
In Housman I recognized some of the same spirit, or lack of spirit, I reacted to so strongly in Eliot, but with other echoes and overtones. I could see touches of the English ballads that I'd read in the tenth grade and puzzled over. I wasn't sure I understood "Lord Randall," when in fact I did ("That's it? She poisoned him? So what?"), and I was powerfully moved by Sir Patrick Spens's sailing to certain death because he was ordered to, and yet amazed at my admiration for his casual disregard for his life and the lives of his men, poor jerks who had no say in the matter.
In A Shropshire Lad I recognized traces of the folk songs I loved instinctively. Belting out "Barbara Allen," "The Red River Valley," "The Birmingham Jail," and "The Cowboy's Lament" in elementary school, my voice became, for the time I was singing them, the sad and knowing voice of the songs. Their knowledge became my understanding, however briefly, and I sang it with my own lips, tossing it back into the world it came from—although I am tone deaf, a fact I was then blessedly unaware of Sometimes, though, joy had nothing to do with understanding. I remember sitting in class on a bright North Carolina morning, having pedaled my bike to school, and in one voice with thirty other ten year olds, joyously, loudly, and insistently inquiring of one another:
What do you do with the drunken sailor,
What do you do with the drunken sailor,
What do you do with the drunken sailor,
Earl-Lie in the Morn-Ning?
I looked out the window, over the beaten earth of the playground to the oaks against the Carolina-blue sky, and, still singing, wondered where my drunken sailor was, why he was my responsibility, and what in the world I would do with him when I found him. Housman would have known what to do with him: Eulogize him.
In the songs, my voice led and my imagination followed, as I declared myself a scorned male lover, a deserted female lover, a lonely convict, and a cowboy:
As I walked out in the streets of Laredo,
As I walked out in Laredo one day,
I spied a young cowboy all dressed in white linen,
All dressed in white linen and cold as the clay.
Oh, sit down beside me and hear my sad story,
These words he did say, as I boldly walked by.
The word I love is boldly. As a ten year old, I thought about that word, understanding it and admiring it until I thought of it as mine, my possession as surely as my sharpened, oiled, and resharpened Barlow knife was my possession. Boldly precisely nailed the walk that I too had walked, the nervous, self-conscious, self-hating swagger that simply being alive sometimes called for. Boldly nailed the brassy disregard I'd learned and felt ashamed for learning as I strode boldly past bristle-chinned beggars in the street, cripples passed out on park benches, retards lolling, open mouthed, against the back corners of worn wheelchairs parked for hours on the front porches of neighbors' houses. How rudely, vulgarly, insultingly, and boldly healthy I felt walking past them, every step somehow unforgivably and necessarily a swagger though I had not changed my gait.
From a "The Cowboy's Lament," it is not far in form, time, language, or attitude to:
Farewell to barn and stack and tree,
Farewell to Severn shore,
Terence, look at last at me,
For I come home no more.
On your midnight pallet lying,
Listen, and undo the door:
Lads that waste the light in sighing
In the dark should sigh no more.
Or even to the more literarily cadenced, syncopated lines of:
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you though the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Housman's lads possess the same rude insistence on life's being for the living that the ballads insist on, and the same sorrow in knowing it.
As a Baptist boy, I sang hundreds of hymns in church, through many verses. I sang them as articles of faith and as meditations on flesh and spirit—and I sang them as tunes that were joyous and even ecstatic in my mouth—so I was comfortable with Housman's use of the Gospels' language:
When I meet the morning beam
Or lay me down at night to dream,
I hear my bones with me say,
'Another night, another day.
'When shall this slough of sense be cast,
This dust of thoughts be laid at last,
The man of flesh and soul be slain
And the man of bone remain?'
I was comfortable with the dust and bones, right out of the "Book of Isaiah," and the echoes of the children's prayer I often prayed ("Now I lay me down to sleep ..."), but it was a rebellious pleasure to see the anguished grappling of Paul's epistles followed out to the very un-Pauline fatalism I was also toying with. I thrilled the small thrill of seeing my fears and suspicions embraced as wisdom. Housman let me try on, like a new suit, the stoical atheism of young men, a suit I liked the cut of at the time.
Likewise, I was happy to find stray echoes of Poe, another favorite of death-obsessed boys: "On your midnight pallet lying/Listen, and undo the door" and:
On the idle hill of summer
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.
Had Housman read Poe? I didn't know. Was the rhythm something inherent in short lines and heavy rhymes? Did it grow naturally and independently out of each poet's macabre fascination with early death? I didn't know, but I was pleased to have these questions occur to me.
Death is at the core of A Shropshire Lad and at the core of my attraction to the book—that, and hearing the tight, swinging cadences of iambic tetrameter turned to subject matter that I respected and had some use for. Not daffodils, not clouds, not Nature and God—not the sentimental subjects and the high vagueness of art that I was tired of, bored by, and convinced I was superior to.
Housman's poetry did not become popular until World War I, which tuned the world's ears to his laments for young men dying. I too was hearing it through the ear trumpet of World War I, in which my grandfather had been gassed—heard it, too, through World War II, in which my uncle served and for which my father had been training as a naval aviator when the war ended—and the Vietnam War. My father spent my first year of high school in Vietnam, and the war was the threatening backdrop against which I lived my high school and college years. Would my father be killed? Would I go? I'd been for the war and against the war. I'd worried about it and ignored it. I wept over newspaper stories about the war and made jokes about it.
I had no desire to go to Canada, no convictions against the war strong enough to make me choose prison over military service, and I'd decided on passivity: If I were drafted, I would go. I would go, though I was convinced that I would die if! went. I would be, I was sure, one of those Shropshire lads sent to foreign lands to die in combat, and that made me sad and world weary in the way of many lads—that peculiarly English word!—edging into manhood. Like the boys in Housman's poems, I was aware of the larger forces acting on me, angry about them and the powerful men whose decisions affected me, and yet submissive. In a tone like Housman's, I thought of my death stoically, bitterly, cynically, and sentimentally—a combination that I understood as wisdom. Like Housman, I wanted to have my sentimentality and eat it, too.
One way that Housman accomplishes that feat is by complicating his tone, and thus his meaning, with double rhymes that both emphasize his sentiments and slightly mock them. His heavy double rhymes reach out and grab you by the ears, not always a comfortable handle by which to be held so vigorously. We associate double rhymes most strongly with light verse, and not just because of their shared long history. The double rhyme's loud clang and its double insistence on itself tips us toward amusement. In XXXV ("On the idle hill of summer"), for instance, and in XXXI, Housman employs the double rhyme on the first and third lines of the quatrain and then shifts to emphatic single rhymes on the second and fourth lines. Here are the first two stanzas:
On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.
'T would blow like this through holt and hanger
Wen Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
In each stanza, the double rhyme in the third line wobbles the tone toward amusement before adjusting back to seriousness again in the fourth, when the heavy single rhyme mutes the double rhyme buried in the middle of the stanza. Housman suspends the poem between gravity and a wry note challenging that seriousness. The under-note of amused self-awareness, though subordinate to the main movement of the poem, enlarges the intelligence of the poem, so the poet can have his sentiment and sometimes his sentimentality, while mocking them, too.
I loved Housman and yet was not awed or intimidated by him as I was by Eliot and Yeats. Housman remains a pleasure to reread, but even as I was reveling in the bittersweet delights of Shropshire, I knew my love for Housman was already well on its way to mere affection, and that I'd soon be looking over his shoulder to more complex and rewarding poets. We all come to literary history ahistorically. After Housman, I could read Wordsworth's ballads without wincing at the daffodils, clouds, lambs, yews, butterflies, and solitude—and so I was finally able to begin to see the serious poetry in what I dismissed as namby-pamby humbug. Though I see that Wordsworth is infinitely the greater poet and thinker, in a part of my brain he remains secondary to Housman, who opened the door to him, and to Herrick and Vaughn and Coleridge and Keats and Marvell and on and on.
I came to them through the county of Shropshire, the fields and roads I walked as a lad, though lad has always been a foreign word to me, an alien word I can never say or write without American irony, enjoying my own distaste at the preciousness of it. "A Shropshire Lad," a brilliantly bland title, is not just about lads-no-longer-boys poised on the point of adulthood and looking back toward innocence and forward toward experience. The old pastoral world of Shropshire is available only to a lad. Once one is no longer a lad, the pastoral world, the slightly troubled Eden of youth, no longer exists either, and the Shropshire Man, if he existed, would see that it never did. But there is no Shropshire Man. Even if he existed, as he almost does in the poems of Hardy and Larkin, there is still something not entirely mature about him. We may cling to our youths, but they also cling to us.
About the Author
Andrew Hudgins is the author of seven books of poems, including Saints and Strangers, The Glass Hammer, and Ecstatic in the Poison. A finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, he is a recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships as well as the Harper Lee Award. He currently teaches in the Department of English at Ohio State University.
University of Oregon
General and Nonfiction Editor: Daniel Anderson
Fiction Editor: Ehud Havazelet
Poetry Editor: Garrett Hongo