Published at the author’s expense in 1896, A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad did not at first attract many readers. It was only after it had been taken up by an ambitious young publisher called Grant Richards that it began to sell. The poems’ popularity increased further when English composers, deciding that they had found their own Heine or Müller, began setting them individually or as song cycles. Between 1906 and 1911 the average annual sale rose to more than 13,500, and by the time the first world war broke out the book was reputed to be ‘in every pocket’. Its themes of love and loss, of nostalgia for a ‘far country’ to which one could never return, and of ‘lads that will die in their glory and never be old’ seemed suddenly and poignantly of the moment.
Housman’s personal reputation, however, remained that of a dour and unapproachable bachelor don who devoted his professional life to emending often obscure Latin texts. ‘So Alfred has a heart after all,’ a member of his family commented after reading A Shropshire Lad, and he certainly seemed an unlikely author of this plangent little volume of 63 poems. When questioned, he claimed that the book came about as the result of ‘a relaxed sore throat’ he suffered in 1895.
As is now well known, its deeply buried mainspring was in fact his unreciprocated love for a man called Moses Jackson with whom he had shared lodgings at Oxford in 1879 — hence the title of Henry Maas’s new book. Although the two men rarely saw each other after Jackson took up a teaching post in India in 1887, ‘dear old Mo’ remained the focus of Housman’s emotional life. ‘Now I can die myself,’ he told a mutual friend when news of Jackson’s death reached him in 1923: ‘I could not have borne to leave him behind me in a world where anything might happen to him.’ As Maas notes, it was almost certainly news of Jackson’s terminal illness that persuaded the hitherto reluctant Housman to assemble a second volume, to which he gave the decisive (but, as it turned out, inaccurate) title Last Poems.
Maas was editor of the first and still very useful edition of Housman’s letters in 1971, and his new book, though as slim as A Shropshire Lad itself, comes from a thoroughgoing knowledge of its subject. It neatly lays out the principal biographical facts and makes a very good case for the work, which may appear artless but was often the result of frequent revisions over long periods.
Maas notes that the poems achieve part of their effect by a determination to find precisely the right word — which is of course what Housman spent his time doing as an editor of classical texts. He may be overstating the case when he writes that the posthumously published More Poems (compiled from the surviving notebooks by Housman’s brother Laurence in 1936) ‘contains as many of Housman’s best poems as either A Shropshire Lad or Last Poems’, but he is right to draw attention to work that is less well known.
While his observation about the relationship in the poems between the ‘compression of language’ and ‘the compression of emotion’ is acute, some of his biographical assertions should be treated with caution: Jackson may well have been ‘revolted by the mere notion’ of homosexuality, but there is no actual evidence for this, and while Housman may have been ‘bitter’, was he really ‘self-loathing’?
This is nevertheless a succinct and lively introduction to the man and his work, further enriched by some ingenious suggestions as to the significance of the number 63 and the reason A Shropshire Lad was originally titled ‘The Poems of Terence Hearsay’.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 8 December 2012