We know what the most famous poem to come out of World War I was, “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. But what poems did the soldiers themselves read?
The answer is both surprising and not surprising. If you know British military history, the answer is not surprising. But the answer is surprising for the sheer volume of poetry that was created in and about the war. At one point, the Times of London was receiving 100 poems a day for possible publication. It seemed that everyone was writing poetry – officers and soldiers in the field, families back home, government officials, retired military people, doctors and nurses, and even well established authors like Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling.
Today we associate the poetry of World War I with a relatively small number of poets, some 10 to 15, who fought and wrote poems. Many of them, like Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, died in the conflict. Others, like Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, survived and eventually died of old age.
And while many of these poets were publishing while they were still alive, and being read in the trenches, there was one volume of poetry that was the most popular. It was A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman.
Housman (1859-1936) was not originally a poet; he was a Latin scholar. Born in Worcestershire, the oldest of seven children, he showed academic promise in school and actually won several school poetry prizes. But the biggest prize was an open scholarship for St. John’s College, Oxford, where he studied classics. He did not get a degree, however, and went to work in the U.K. Patent Office. But he continued to pursue Classics studies, focusing on Latin poetry, and his reputation grew to the point where he was offered a position at University College, London. In 1911, he accepted a Latin professorship at Trinity College, Cambridge. He is still considered to be one of the finest Classics scholars ever.
But that’s not his popular reputation. In 1896, he published A Shropshire Lad, containing 63 poems, including this poem that continues to be read and studied in school and college literature classes:
To An Athlete Dying Young
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
A Shropshire Lad contains numerous poems relating to soldiers and military life (although Housman himself was never in the military). The very first poem in the collection was written in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s jubilee, and memorialized the military men who had died in her service.
The poems slowly grew in popularity, until the Boer War (1899-1902), when the collection became popular with the soldiers in the field. Many of the Boer War veterans fought in World War I as well, and thus A Shropshire Lad was carried forward to a new conflict, the one that would for all time be associated with poetry more than any other war.
This is not poetry that would necessarily remind a soldier of home, although it is that. What it is more is poetry to read when you are facing death on the battlefield. The poems are not patriotic paeans to the glory of war; they are paeans to sacrifice. The Latin scholar who never went to war wrote poetry that touched the hearts of thousands of soldiers, because he understood the sacrifice they had been called upon to make.
Housman continued to write poetry during and after World War I. Some of these were included in Last Poems, published in 1922. After his death, his brother collected a number of his unpublished poems and published them as More Poems (1936) and Collected Poems (1939). But it was A Shropshire Lad than spoke to the soldiers and ensured his fame.
Housman died in 1936 in Cambridge. His ashes were buried in Shropshire.
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