Thursday, September 27, 2012

"A Shropshire Lad" Reread

Deceptively simplistic, this collection ranges along the varied experiences and nuances of life itself. Love, death, defeat, fleeting victory, eventual demise and a general feeling of transience, A.E. Housman reminds us continually that we are but a page in a book we can never see entirely. Housman's Shropshire, in all its pastoral idyllic beauty, never existed any more than Margaret Mitchell's romanticized South, or even Hardy's Wessex. No matter. His themes are universal and readily accessible to us all. Substitute Shropshire for wherever you hold your dearest childhood memories, and you've got your own "fields and men we know by heart." Your own youthful loves and devotions become Rose Harland, who "walked with a better man" while "stock still lies Fred, and sleeps." And even if you never served a day of military duty in your life, just the very act of getting up Monday morning to go to work is enough to give certain lines an alternative, dare I say preferable, flavor:

Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,
Trampled to the floor it spanned,
And the tent of night in tatters
Straws the sky-pavilioned land.

Housman is at his best, I think, when he touches on the universality of human suffering. The figures in his poetry sometimes clash, sometimes are victorious, very often are defeated and dark, and yet the countryside continues. One poem points out that the struggles that inflamed the Roman breast ("now ashes under Uricon") are still present in the Englishman's breast today, and doubtless will be in the souls of whoever is (un)lucky enough to be standing on the ashes of his own existence. "The tree of man was never quiet," he reprimands us. "Then 'twas the Roman, now tis I." It's a mistake to see all this as a downer. Rather, it gives the sense of solidarity--we're going through what many have gone through; we are not alone in our solitude. In fact, Housman effectively disarms this criticism in the penultimate poem, where in his alter ego of Terence, he is accused by a friend of "moping melancholy mad" with "the verse you make." Terence refutes this criticism with a reminder that there are more effective ways to prepare for what must be endured than by avoiding it:

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
uck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

Indeed, he follows his own advice. At the very end of the book, the "ashes" of the Roman he refers to earlier in the collection transcend into his own verse (this is how I see it, anyway). Our struggles are forgotten, yet since they're relived, they're always remembered, and so are we. In LXIII, he turns his advice (good advice, for the record) into "flowers" that he "hoed and trenched and weeded," giving some sense of the sheer efforts of creation:

And fields will yearly bear them
As light-leaved spring comes on,
And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.

In Why Read? Mark Edmundson wrote that "vital options" for the individual quest for truth in art "may be found for this or that individual in painting, in music, in sculpture, in teh arts of furniture making or gardening. Thoreau felt he could derive a substantial wisdom by tending his bean field." Add to this Housman's invented countryside, set in opposition to (or perhaps even mirroring) a world of war, work, weariness and eventual defeat, and you've got your truth, and then some.

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