A Poetry of Opposites

C.H. Sisson

  • Housman’s Poems by John Bayley
    Oxford, 202 pp, £25.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 19 811763 9

Whatever may now be the state of the market for A Shropshire Lad, the poetry of A.E. Housman has certainly been among the most read of the 20th century. Or in the 20th century, for the earlier poems belong to the end of the nineteenth. When A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, it was at the author’s own expense; presumably it did not then look like work that would attract the public. It was not in the drift of the times: Housman was not the man to be a ‘companion of the Cheshire Cheese’. It was not quite the thing for the Yellow Book. Housman was six years older than Yeats and eight years older than Lionel Johnson, but they were much more dependent than he was on the work of the Victorian era, and it was the novelty of his tone which set him apart. The moment of the break-up of existing verse-forms, with Pound and his associates, still lay ahead. Housman was not that kind of innovator; he felt rather for the relatively straightforward rhythms of Heine and the Border Ballads, but he imported into them an entirely individual content.

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