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VALLEY WEEKEND | WORDS AND IMAGES

Housman's Verse Went to War, Brought Peace at Home

Lines from the English scholar's 'A Shropshire Lad' were a shared joy for a girl and her father. England marks the book's centennial.

May 30, 1996|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A century ago, the man who would become England's finest Latin scholar, A. E. Housman, published a slim volume of poems called "A Shropshire Lad."

Several publishers had rejected the manuscript, and so Housman paid 30 pounds to underwrite the first edition of some 500 copies. Despite its inauspicious launch, the book eventually found a huge audience. Housman wasn't the greatest poet in the world, Lord knows. Even the current head of the Housman Society ranks the poet no higher than "at the top of the second division." But Housman's themes are as durable as time--unrequited love, the athlete dying young, the consolations of drink, the enviable obtuseness of youth and the onerous wisdom of age.

And there is something about Housman's tone--nostalgic, but knowingly nostalgic--that makes his poems irresistible to adolescents of a certain sort. If only because of the eternal persistence of bookish teens, "A Shropshire Lad" has never been out of print. Thousands of lightfoot lads packed the book in their kits and carried it with them into the hellish trenches of the Great War.

This year, England is celebrating the centenary with festivals, symposia, concerts, pilgrimages to Housman's grave in a Ludlow churchyard and the publication of a book of his comic verse, called "Unkind to Unicorns."

Thanks to lobbying by Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney and others, Housman will finally get a spot in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, where he'll share a window with Oscar Wilde. Sixty years after Housman's death in 1936, he has a niche in a pantheon even he could not have imagined, his own site on the World Wide Web, just like Traci Lords and Keanu Reeves. Needless to say, Housman was not assumed into cyberspace heaven because of the enduring popularity of his definitive edition of the works of the Roman poet-astronomer Manilius.

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Unlike the rare first edition owned by a private collector in Encino, my copy of "A Shropshire Lad" is poor in everything but resonance. Published in New York in 1932, it has handsome, Rockwell Kent-ish woodcut illustrations by Elinore Blaisdell. But my book is so worn and battered, it looks as if it, too, spent time in the trenches. And it may indeed have gone to war. One of my father's favorite books, it is slight enough to have been tucked into a duffel bag when he was shipped off to the Pacific, where he was so bored between bombing runs that he once fashioned a hula skirt for his infant daughter out of parachute cords.

My father is to blame for the fact that great chunks of "A Shropshire Lad" pop into my memory at certain verbal and sensory cues.

The word "rue," for instance. The first time I heard that odd little word was during a tumultuous family dinner, our only kind. As I sat next to my tiresome little sister, silently plotting a way to capture the last corn fritter, my father began to declaim:

With rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

To this day, I have no idea what happened at that crowded, noisy table to set my father off. But Housman was often on his lips. Mowing the backyard in our suburban tract house, he liked to recite the poem that begins "Terence, this is stupid stuff" from beginning to end:

Oh I have been to Ludlow fair

And left my necktie God knows where

He would reach the end of the row, swing the mower around and recite in the opposite direction:

And carried half way home, or near,

Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer.

Housman quickly became one of the few things we had in common. I learned only recently that the unrequited love that inspired "A Shropshire Lad" was Housman's unconsummated passion for a straight young man with whom he worked in the London Patent Office. My father and I were almost as problematical a pair. Housman was the rare cease-fire in the protracted battle of my adolescence, a respite from the anger that usually crackled between my father and his eldest. But joined by Housman, we went to Ludlow fair together, playing at the poems the way people play at badminton. My father's serve:

Oh, when I was in love with you,

Then I was clean and brave.

My return:

And miles around the wonder grew

How well did I behave.

It was wonderful.

My father died of emphysema in 1982, at the age of 63. A priest who looked barely out of his teens came to the house to help us plan the graveside service. A tall young man, he looked as if he would be more comfortable with a basketball in those huge hands than with a chalice. I showed him the poem I wanted to read at the funeral, my father's beloved "Terence."

Who knows what put the young priest off? Perhaps Housman's observation "And malt does more than Milton can/To justify God's ways to man." The cleric suggested, quite gently really, that something else might be more appropriate.

And so my father was laid to rest with other lines from "A Shropshire Lad," the poem that begins, "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with blooms along the bough." My father liked that one, too, but he never chanted it when he mowed the grass.

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