Housman Country: Into the Heart of England by Peter Parker; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 544 pp., $30
I can still hear myself, when I think about it, replying to an American lady in Cairo who asked me if I was British. It was sometime in the late 1940s, I would guess, and being British in Egypt then was not always comfortable. “Say, are you British?” she wanted to know, and I answered in kind.
“O, very British,” said I.
What another world it was in those days! To be British meant something altogether different—to her, to the world at large, and to me. But it would not last. Americans would soon begin to lose the inherited respect that so many of them felt toward the Old Country. The nations of World War II would presently forget Churchill’s heroic Britain of the Spitfires. The British Empire was no more, and people would not so often think of themselves as very British at all. And by now, as the so-called United Kingdom is apparently disintegrating, citizens of Great Britain may well look back with some confusion to their old certainties.
Actually, though, it was never really Britain I myself felt emotional about. Mine was too complex a loyalty to explain to the American in Cairo, but it was by no means a country-right-or-wrong sort of pride. It was pride in an idea, and its name was not Britain, but England. It is itself subsumed nowadays in my love for Wales and Welshness, but still in my heart I always hear, as poets have down the generations, the English siren-call. The gentle beauty of England’s countryside was part of it, and the grandeur of its history, and the humor that ran through its affairs, and the melancholy, and the ironic blend of right and wrong, and Shakespeare, and what people like me always fondly thought of as an essential kindliness. The American Henry James defined it as the sense of England.
Never fear. The United Kingdom may dissolve, Great Britain is losing its meaning and the imperial idea is long discredited, but no doubt that old dream of England will lyrically ride the debacle. I embark upon this self-centered opening to a book review because the book itself is a contribution to the dream’s survival. The literary historian Peter Parker has devoted some 450 pages essentially to the study of a particular, profoundly relevant poem, A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896) together with its sibling Last Poems (1922). Shakespeare apart, I think it safe to say that among English people of my kind and generation, few poems spring more readily to mind and memory than the lyric verses of these collections. Parker has devoted his taste and his learning to the task of interpreting this very particular preference, and nobody could do it better. He has sympathetically explored the nature of Housman himself, and the intellectual climate of his day, and the particular sense of mingled pride, resentment and tragedy that was to haunt the England of his time, cruelly affecting the nature of British family life (my own, for instance).
The bittersweet suggestion of A Shropshire Lad is apparent almost from the start. In one of the best-known of all its verses, frequently set to music (by my own brother, among others), the cherry tree is lovingly apostrophized—it “is hung with bloom along the bough / And stands about the woodland ride / Wearing white for Eastertide.” What could be more idyllic? But turn a single page, into the next stanza, and here we read that
And you till trump of doomsday
On lands of morn may lie,
And make the hearts of comrades
Be heavy where you die.
Here is the sad irony that so many readers have cherished in A Shropshire Lad, and the sense of comradely kinship that Housman emphasized throughout the work by his constant use of the exhortation “Lads!” More sophisticated critics than I have interpreted this as a sign of latent homosexuality. I read it as natural human decency, written with tragic prophecy in the last decade of the 19th century—a few years before hundreds of thousands of English lads were to die in the battles of World War I. And the irony can sometimes be expressed, too, in humor of a deliberately bucolic flavor, for he was not writing of or to the officer classes:
Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave.
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave.
But now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they’ll say that I
Am quite myself again.
The reason this bittersweet mélange has meant so much to readers down the generations is this: it has seemed to many of us a very part of England itself. As one of its earliest critics wrote, in 1896, “Mr. Housman has a true sense of the sweetness of country life, and of its tragedies too.” And although Housman was no Shropshire lad himself, having been born in Worcester, he had chosen to celebrate in this, his first book of poems, one of the English counties that has always seemed, and sounded, most thoroughly English. The very names of the place sound comfortably homely—Clunton and Clunbury, so Housman assured his readers, are “the quietest places / Under the sun.” Ever since, poets have been following his example in celebrating the names of rural England when they need a tug at the emotions—think of Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester, or Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop, where the slow train stops!
Peter Parker explores far more profoundly than I can the personal, historical and intellectual impulses that created A Shropshire Lad. However, from the vantage point of my own 90 years, I can testify to the poem’s impact upon a generation that has watched with mingled hope, affection, despair, wonder and nostalgia what has happened since Housman’s day to his Shropshire England, its lads and its lasses. Clunton and Clunbury, I learn from my computer, still tranquilly survive the tourists, and anyway, whatever happens in the harsh world of reality, the abstraction that is England itself still lives on in art, pride and affection.