“With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
These lines capture perfectly the mood and tone of A. E. Housman’s remarkably beautiful “A Shropshire Lad” (1896), which I’ve just finished after reading it twice through. I have seldom been as moved by a book of poems.
Housman’s poems are overwhelmingly elegiac. Unrequited love, early death, melancholy, aching homesickness for a rural paradise lost – these are his subjects. And yet we’re not in Sylvia Plath territory here. The mood is much more akin to Shakespeare’s gorgeous “Dirge” from “Cymbeline” – in fact, the influence of that poem permeates “A Shropshire Lad.”
The poems are so deceptively simple and straightforward that, at first, they seem almost the work of a minor poet. Housman is not interested in being a visionary – a Blake or a Shelley. His matter is home-spun, rustic, and the form he uses is the rural ballad, more often than not. Aside from the greatness of some of the individual poems (“To An Athlete Dying Young” is perhaps the most famous of the poems here), the power of the book is its focus and accumulative effect – the reader is left with a vision of rural life that is full of loss and sorrow, yes, but full of beauty and the chance for wisdom. ”