Housman Country: Into the Heart of England by Peter Parker (Little, Brown, £25)
No publisher cared to take on AE Housman’s slim book of poetry, so in 1896 the author himself paid for the printing of its first edition. After initially poor sales, its reputation soon grew. Within five years A Shropshire Lad was both a critical and popular success and has never been out of print since. In plain, unadorned language, young men’s disappointments and early deaths are depicted, high emotion in an ideal but unconsoling English countryside. Housman was one of the greatest Classical scholars of his time, but beneath the constructed carapace of the meticulous textual critic and reticent bachelor don lay his unrequited love for a fellow Oxford undergraduate. The persistence of this adolescent despair produced poetry in occasional, though intense, spasms.
Peter Parker’s fascinating cultural history takes A Shropshire Lad from its particular origins to its wider emergence as a creative touchstone for rural nostalgia, doomed youth and barely concealed homo-eroticism. The tender austerity of its pessimistic pastoral first caught the public mood after the deaths of young soldiers in the Boer War and even more so in the First World War. Ralph Vaughan Williams’s song-cycle On Wenlock Edge (1909) is only the most famous setting of the poems, which inspired many other English composers, George Butterworth, Ivor Gurney and John Ireland among them. And it comes as no surprise to discover that Morrissey of The Smiths, the house band of introverted teenage angst, acknowledges the inspiration of Housman’s melancholy and powerful work.