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Personal Choice 58

A.E. Housman

On Wenlock Edge the Wood's in Trouble

from A Shropshire Lad. 31

On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble;

His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger

When Uricon the city stood:

'Tis the old wind in the old anger,

But then it threshed another wood.

Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman

At yonder heaving hill would stare:

The blood that warms an English yeoman,

The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,

Through him the gale of life blew high;

The tree of man was never quiet:

Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,

It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:

To-day the Roman and his trouble

Are ashes under Uricon.

A.E. Housman

Alfred Edward Housman (1859 – 1936) was an English classical scholar and poet. After an initially poor performance while at university, he took employment as a clerk in London and established his academic reputation by publishing as a private scholar at first. Later Housman was appointed Professor of Latin at University College London and then at the University of Cambridge. He is now acknowledged as one of the foremost classicists of his age. In 1896 he emerged as a poet with A Shropshire Lad, a cycle in which he poses as an unsophisticated and melancholy youth. After a slow start, this captured the imagination of young readers, its preoccupation with early death appealing to them especially during times of war. In 1922 his Last Poems added to his reputation, which was further enhanced by the large number of song settings drawn from these collections. Following his death, further poems from his notebooks were published by his brother, Laurence. It was then too, though Housman had made no admission himself, that his sexual orientation began to be questioned.

I have read extensively over the years the lives of poets. Some I am drawn to others I am not. Some have deeply affected my own writing and others have not. Some I have liked and others I have felt a distinct antipathy toward. I am not fond of Housman. We would not have got on at all. All we have in common is what lies above, superb poetry. There has been a debate for as long as I can remember: love the art – love the artist? For me the answer is only sometimes ambivalence. Housman was not a bad person at all, I just know instinctively we would not have liked each other at all. However, the canon is replete with some very abhorrent and quite felonious individuals. Readers are often quite unconcerned or oblivious of the ‘life’ of the writer they engage with. Some are not. And it is a vexed issue.


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