As I read, ‘A Shropshire Lad’, with some verses so familiar that they seemed like recalled memories, others totally new, but all refined to simply spoken truths, I thought about how I used to listen to music when I was young, way back in the last century, when vinyl wasn’t a retro affectation and speakers were attached to my Hi-Fi by wire.
Back then, I bought albums, not tracks. I judged the album as a whole, not song by song. It was an entity where the tone of the entire thing mattered and how I felt about it could be affected by the sequence of the songs. It seemed to me that ‘A Shropshire Lad’ is like those old albums, the individual verses stand up but some of them are obviously the ones you’d release as singles.
II Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough, captures the urgent hunger for beauty that comes from understanding that life passes quickly and is soon over, so time must be made at Easter ‘to see the cherry hung with snow’ What an image that is, combining spring and winter, showing how every life carries with it a death.
XIX TO AN ATHLETE DYING YOUNG which goes not to the tragedy of dying but the good fortune of not outliving your glory days so that you don’t become another one of those
‘Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.’
XL Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
that shows us ‘the blue remembered hills’, names them ‘the land of lost content’ and tells us it’s a place where ‘I cannot come again’.
While these verses are the ones the will earwig their way into your memory, becoming a shorthand for your emotions, the book as a whole has a weight that is more than the sum of the individual verses. This is a life seen whole, with foolishness and wisdom, fear and hope, love and death walking side by side. It doesn’t struggle for meaning or sell a message. It simply shows a life’s journey and lets us all see how similar the paths we walk are.
I put the final verse LXIII in full at the top of this post because I think it shows how Houseman saw what he had written. Here’s the text:
LXIII I Hoed and trenched and weeded, And took the flowers to fair: I brought them home unheeded; The hue was not the wear. So up and down I sow them For lads like me to find, When I shall lie below them, A dead man out of mind. Some seed the birds devour, And some the season mars, But here and there will flower The solitary stars, And fields will yearly bear them As light-leaved spring comes on, And luckless lads will wear them When I am dead and gone.
To me. this says that he understood that not all the verses in the book would be seen as shining stars. I think he also implies that which ones are seen to shine will vary over time as fashion changes. His hope is that some of them will always shine for ordinary people, that the seeds he’s planted will blossom
‘And luckless lads will wear them
When I am dead and gone.’
I like that he ends not with death in life as in ‘the cherry hung with snow’ but with life coming from his death ‘As light-leaved spring comes on,’