A. E. Housman was a classical scholar who started to write his own poetry. His subject matter were the young men of the Shropshire countryside, invoking themes of the young shepherds pining away for lovers from bucolic poetry and hints of nature-oriented Romanticism, but with a modern and pessimistic touch. The modern world, British imperialism, and warfare encroach upon these country scenes. Many of these poems deal with young men leaving the countryside to serve their country and Queen in the military only to die. The poems call into question the lives these young men gave up at home and the pointlessness of their sacrifices.
In relation to this, one theme Housman returns to throughout his poetry is the inevitability of death, the fleeting time we have on earth, and carpe diem.
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
The beginning of the poem could have been written by any Romantic poet, focused on the beauty of nature, but suddenly the poem shifts into various repetitions of time and age as they relate to the speaker, emphasizing how quick life goes by and how little time we have to spend with such beauty.
In contrast to this theme of carpe diem, in other poems he sometimes suggests putting in the hard work and struggling to accomplish something in life is futility.
Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.
Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what’s to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I’ve done my best
And all’s to do again.
The speaker of this poem seems caught in a tiresome and repetitive existence in which he struggles and did his “best” only to have accomplished nothing. In many of his poems, Housman switches between using death as a warning to enjoy this life while you can and using death as a salvation, a final rest, from all the struggles and terrors of life. This demonstrates his flexibility as a poet.
Death is not the only theme he explores, but he also examines more traditional poetic themes such as the foolishness of young love.
“When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
‘Tis paid with sighs a plenty
and sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.”
Young men and women often act like they know everything. I certainly remember when I was teenager my mom reminding me, my brother, and my sister that we didn’t know everything. This poem explores this common attitude perfectly, while also showing the reaction many of us have after our first failures with love.
Sometimes Housman combines the two themes: death’s inevitability and the joys of youthful love. In the poem, a dead young man worries about his responsibility and cares from a former life.
‘Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?
Ay, he lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
‘Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.
The ironic ending is a powerful twist in which the friend of the dead lad is now comforting the dead young man’s former lover by sleeping with her. Housman reminds us the world and life goes on without us.
In some of his poems, Housman has the denizens of his poetry question why the creator of the universe would create such a state of affairs.
We are for a certainty not the first
Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled
Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed
Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.
Here again we find the theme of all our well-laid plans and efforts failing. Housman seems to be saying we live in an impersonal universe that cares nothing for our little lives and precisely for this reason we should strive to achieve our pleasures and fulfill our dreams while we can, but we will inevitably fail at achieving our goals and joys as well even if we do spend our time doing that. Underneath the sing-songy lyrics and images of nature’s beauty there is a dark vision of the world.