Born on this day in 1859 AE Housman was too old to serve in Flanders Field but he was a poet ahead of his time. The sentimentality of his poetry conjures up the nostalgia of a bucolic idyll of an England that never was. His verse was the poetic equivalent of the chocolate box art of John Constable and Myles Birket Foster. His nostalgia for a simpler and more wholesome life is reflected in JRR Tolkien’s image of the Shire from Lord of the Rings. I like the lyric from the Kinks “Muswell Hilbillies” which says “Take me back to the black hills where I ain’t never been”.
World War One began with the Jingoistic and Triumphalist doggerel of music hall verse singing of the glories of adventure: It’s a long way to Tipperary!
It then moved towards sacrificial verse like Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” and of Housman which said “This is what we are fighting for”.
Eventually it descended into the true war poets like Sassoon, Owen and McCrae who expressed the absolute futility of young lives thrown away.
A Shropshire Lad 53; by A.E. Housman
The lad came to the door at night,
when lovers crown their vows,
and whistled soft and out of sight
in shadow of the boughs.
‘I shall not vex you with my face
henceforth, my love, for aye;
so take me in your arms a space
before the east is grey.
‘When I from hence away am past
I shall not find a bride,
and you shall be the first and last
I ever lay beside.’
She heard and went and knew not why;
her heart to his she laid;
light was the air beneath the sky
but dark under the shade.
‘Oh do you breathe, lad, that your breast
seems not to rise and fall,
and here upon my bosom prest
there beats no heart at all?’
‘Oh loud, my girl, it once would knock,
you should have felt it then;
but since for you I stopped the clock
it never goes again.’
‘Oh lad, what is it, lad, that drips
wet from your neck on mine?
What is it falling on my lips,
my lad, that tastes of brine?’
‘Oh like enough ’tis blood, my dear,
for when the knife has slit
the throat across from ear to ear
’twill bleed because of it.’