Book Review: A Shropshire Lad

A Shropshire Lad, by A.E. Housman, with wood engravings by Agnes Miller Parker

Sometimes how one finds a book is as interesting as the book itself.  While looking through the shelves of my local library, I found this particular book and was mildly intrigued by it, and found that the book had not been added to the library’s database because it had fallen through the cracks, which required a conversation with one of the librarians.  Although the book and its author are obscure now, the original vanity print run of the poet has remained in print as a popular collection of verse by an English poet (presumably a Shropshire regional poet) who also happened to be a classicist of some repute as well.  And while the poems themselves have over the years come under savage criticism, they are perfectly decent poems [1] of a kind that would be familiar to readers of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.  The poetry was generally enjoyable, and hardly match the bile of one reviewer who said that these poems should be cursed to be set to music by English composers and sung by English singers, as if that was a bad thing.

This book itself is a bit more than 100 pages of material that takes up 63 poems, may of them with some excellent woodcut drawings from Agnes Miller Parker.  The work as a whole is introduced by Ian Rogerson, who notes the enduring popularity of the poem as well as the somewhat savage treatment it received by many book reviewers (who have apparently not read the truly horrific output of some contemporary poets to put these poems in their proper perspective).  The poems themselves are often short but occasionally quite long, and some of the poems have names but many of them are only known by their number.  The poems themselves deal with themes like love and death, and include a few references to the area of Shropshire as well as the author’s classical knowledge.   Some of the poems are full of creative turns of phrase and are even worth remembering as part of the canon of 20th century English poetry and being written about by approving graduate students as part of their doctoral theses and what not.  The pictures add some visual appeal to the poems as well, and the whole project comes off less like the vanity project of someone who had an overly inflated idea of their poetic worth but as someone whose poetry was simply not well-regarded by many of its original readers.

What really comes through in reading this book, though, is the quirkiness of the poet.  Known for returning royalty checks, this poem was clearly not done in order to make the poet money, and the poems were apparently far more popular in the United States than in his native England.  The introduction does a good job in placing these poems within the context of the author’s life, showing him to have been somewhat fierce but also disastrously unlucky in love and somewhat in demand as pleasant dinner conversation.  Yet the poet also seemed rather picky about his poetry, not liking the drawings that were associated with his poems because they thought they would make him look ridiculous.  These poems, thankfully, do not make their poet look ridiculous, but rather as a poetic person who takes reflections on life and love, the lilies of the field, and such aspects as military service or the fate of classical rulers and creates competent poetry from these reflections.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that these poems have endured and remain appreciated even today.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/04/02/book-review-darkness-sticks-to-everything/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/01/17/book-review-downward-dog/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/10/24/book-review-the-selected-poems-of-donald-hall/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/09/25/book-review-the-guards-came-through-and-other-poems/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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One Response to Book Review: A Shropshire Lad

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals | Edge Induced Cohesion

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