03 April 2012

April is for Poetry: A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman


To my knowledge, I’d never intentionally read any A.E. Housman so I was surprised that some of his poems were already familiar to me -- "1887 (I)" and "When I was one-and-twenty (XIII)" were both poems I had encountered before, though I couldn’t tell you where. In one of those chunkster Norton anthologies we used in college, perhaps? I want to blame it on Anne Shirley, but she can't be responsible for all the old-school poetry cluttering up my head!

A Shropshire Lad is a collection of sixty-three poems, many of which deal with death and/or the loss of love. A Shropshire Lad has a distinctly pastoral setting and features some rather beautiful language, but there's little sweetness or lightness to it:

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.

Wadsworth’s “Daffodils” these aren't.

Unfortunately, there’s a certain numbing repetition to the collection, beautiful language or no, and I found my attention wandering at points: "Yes, youth is transitory. Yes, death is a sad business. I wonder if I should do some laundry? 'But here and there will flower / The solitary stars.' Oh, that’s a pretty image! What poem is this again?"

Now, of course, I didn’t actually read any of these poems, but listened to them on audio. I find it harder, now that I am years out of school, to seamlessly slide into a poem “just” by reading it, but audio books work really well for me. I have no idea if Samuel West's accent is properly Shropshire, but his voice and reading style suit the poems well. He reads easily, cleanly, and with conviction -- he doesn’t sound like he’s reading someone else’s poems so much as speaking from his own heart. Is it any wonder he was an Earphones Award Winners in 2011 for A Shropshire Lad?

I couldn't find any samples of West reading Housman to post here, but do want to share this reading by Diana Dors of "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" (II).

A Shropshire Lad - Housman - read by Diana Dors by TheChrisGregory

A Shropshire Lad written by A.E. Housman & read by Samuel West (Naxos AudioBooks, 2011)