*** DEBUG END ***

From lads to the Spartan Dreggs  

25 November 2016

Roderic Dunnett finds out new things about A. E. Housman

Housman Country: Into the heart of England
Peter Parker
Little, Brown £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50



THERE is a healthy existing body of Housmaniana: books that explore both the man and his poetry. In this valuable and extensive new offering, however, Peter Parker treads new ground. The book is, in a sense, a successful anthology: there are several tangential areas that he embraces and instructively makes his own.

His first chapter (almost 160 pages) explores fresh, informed connections among the 63 poems of A Shropshire Lad. He usefully details the numerous editions: a tentative start, rising to 13,500 in 1911, and 16,000 in 1918. By the outbreak of the First World War, there was one “in every pocket”, the poet Robert Nichols said.

Views on the man varied. The American writer Robert Lowell observed: “The one poet who most moves me to tears is Housman.” John Berryman commented: “A detestable and miserable man. Arrogant, unspeakably lonely, cruel, but an absolutely marvellous minor poet and a great scholar.”

Some saw Housman as “austere, unapproachable, aloof, impenetrable, taciturn, morose, rude, morbid, misogynistic, self-pitying, even self-loathing”; others, as “clubbable, amusing, a good conversationalist, generous, loyal”. Was he, perhaps, all of these?

In boyhood, he was nicknamed “Mouse”. A. C. Benson, though an admirer, said that he “looked as if he were descended from a long line of maiden aunts”. He was a passionate walker. Curiously, he learned much about Shropshire countryside from a walking colleague from London’s Patent Office. Not Shropshire (”the coldest of English counties”) but Hampstead Heath gave birth to much of A Shropshire Lad.

In one chapter, “English Music”, Parker points to some intriguing rare offerings, including Bernard Herrmann’s A Shropshire Lad for speaker and orchestra; Ernest Farrar’s Three Part Songs; or Wor­cestershire-born Julius Harr­ison’s Bredon Hill: A rhapsody for violin and orchestra.

Britten thought John Ireland’s song cycles “the best of Housman settings”. Parker admits popular music, too, and notes that Housman was set by the band Wild Billy Childish and the Spartan Dreggs. The musician, it is suggested, who most embodies the poet’s spirit is Morrissey, who sympathetically observed: “He lived a solitary ex­istence of monastic pain”.

Brooke, Sassoon, Graves, Owen — all admired Housman (Owen, too, employed the word “lads” to denote vulnerable young men). Although “the faint note of sup­pressed homosexual desire . . . sounds like a muffled drumbeat throughout ASL”, and Auden held him “perfectly to express the sensibility of the male adolescent”, Parker dismisses as unproven sundry biographies that aver that Housman had a demonstrably active sexual life, in France or Italy. The evidence, he asserts, is simply not there.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)