Shropshire Essay, Research Paper
Shropshire: A Place of Imagined Sexual Contentment
Published in 1869, A.E. Housman s A Shropshire Lad stands as one of the most socially acclaimed collections of English poetry from the Victorian age. This period in British history, however, proves, by judiciary focus (the Criminal Law Amendment of 1885), to be conflictive with Housman s own internal conflicts concerning the homoerotic tendencies which he discovered in his admiration of fellow Oxford student Moses Jackson. Housman, much unlike other English literary figures such as Oscar Wilde and Thomas hardy, was not an artist who found it necessary to directly confront Britain with any political dissention imposed by is works. Instead, for Housman the discovery of self was so disturbing and disconcerting that poetry came as a way of disclosing it (Bayley 44). The county of Shropshire is central to much of his poetry, but it is employed merely as a personification of the writer s memories, dreams and affections; meanwhile, Housman s central character is one who could at once be himself and not himself (Scott-Kilvert 26). In what Housman himself regarded to be one of his best poems, XXVII: Is my team ploughing, the focus is placed upon a conversation between a dead man and one of his friends from his previous life (Housman 18). XXII: The street sounds to the soldiers tread; meanwhile, expresses an emotional wonder discovered in the eyes of a passing soldier (Housman 15). Both the ambiguous quality of the dead man s last question (18 ll. 25-26) in poem XXVII and the nature of the chance encounter in XXII stand to exemplify the subtle undercurrent of Housman s own enigmatic sexuality.
Is my team ploughing is in the form of the primitive ballad metres, which Housman revived, and primarily employed for a poetry not of action but of introspection (Scott-Kilvert 25). The piece begins by the dead man s questioning of such trivialities as his team (l. 1) that he used to drive (l. 2), and football (l. 9) being played Along the river shore (l. 10). The other speaker responds to the dead man s questions with a partially abrasive tone as can be interpreted by lines 7-8 in which he reminds the dead man of his present position, and then in lines 15-17 with the repetition of stands up. . . Stands up in describing the football game while the man is of course lying down. Then in the sixth stanza the quatrain is consistent with this tone as the speaker informs the dead ma that his girl is no longer mourning his death (l. 22) and that the act of love he had enjoyed with his sweetheart much like everything else is also repeated without him (Hoagwood 63). The speaker meanwhile becomes somewhat evasive by imploring his old friend to Be still. . . and sleep (l.24). Finally the dead man inquires (ll. 25-28):
Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?
To which the speaker s response in the last stanza presumably indicates that he is involved with the dead man s sweetheart (l. 32).
The question posed in the poem s penultimate stanza is one of various interpretation concerning the last line. The initial response tends to be that the dead man is asking if his old friend is sleeping in a better bed than the coffin in which he is buried; thus, stands as an example of the colloquial speech Housman employs throughout A Shropshire Lad. Other interpretations suggest that the dead man is asking his friend of his financial status, happiness, or even that the dead man is intimating knowledge that his friend was sleeping with his sweetheart prior to his death. What seems more plausible is that the dead man is referring to a previous romantic affair that existed between he and his friend. In this case the fact that the friend is now lying with his old lover s sweetheart leads the listener/reader to interpret that the man has become a heterosexual, and perhaps so as a manifestation of guilt by their previous relationship.
The street sounds to the soldier s tread, similarly whispers the same message. As a single redcoat turns his head/He turns and looks at me, Housman creates the effect of the transcendentally personal nature of such an impersonal meeting (15 ll. 3-4). Though leagues apart (l. 7) and will meet no more (l. 10), the speaker and the soldier have an understanding of thought at heart (l. 9). Everyone recognizes the context. The meeting of eyes across the crowded room: the woman or man who might have been loved, and such stands to represent what apparently can be deemed as a metaphor for Housman s own life as it is not recorded that he actually ever had any actual relationships (Bayley 32). It can best be said of both the piece and Housman s life that the eroticism of such a moment depends on the acceptance of non-fulfillment; and the achievement, in words, of fulfillment by other means (Bayley 32).
In both the conversation with the dead man and the chance encounter with the soldier, who in context seems to be marching to war, Housman personifies Shropshire as a place in which he is constantly reminded of the limitations of mortality (Scott-Kilvert 27). The fact that Housman knew that obtaining what one longed for was not in fact the point can easily be witnessed in The street sounds to the soldiers tread (Bayley 57). It seems that Housman believed that true love is everlasting and will not allow the lover s attention to be replaced in his case from Moses Jackson. Is my team ploughing thus stands to represent his ultimate discontent with this personal truth. In context poetry can give intense personal expression to individuality and it seems that the persona established by the speaker in XXII is a hope that perhaps the poet will be able to stumble upon such fortune as to find the death of his emotions, or at least some fickleness therein. It must be said in conclusion if these works do in fact mirror the thoughts at heart within Housman, that his sexuality combined with his philosophy of love culminate in an intensely masochistic lifestyle. Such is reflected by the guilt that is obviously associated by the speaker of Is my team ploughing deciding to take his dead friend s sweetheart. In poem XXII the speaker relays the contentment which he finds in the mutual emotions of love between he and the redcoat, but at the same time XXVII relays the frustrations ultimately found in being alone. To invest such emotional intensity only to knowingly find unrequited perspectives manifests itself as personified hope in both poems of which speak of experiences of intimate gratification and internal content.
Bayley, John. Housman s Poems. Clarendon s Press, Oxford. 1992.
Hoagwood, Terrence Allen. A.E Housman Revisited. Twayne Publishers, N.Y. 1995.
Housman, A.E. A Shropshire Lad. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum. General Publishing Co., Ltd., Toronto. 1990.
Scott-Kilvert, Ian. A.E. Housman: Writers and Their Work No. 69. Longmans, Green and Co., London. 1965.