A Shropshire Lad: XIII
The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There’s men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.
There’s chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.
I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.
But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.
Some sixty years before this poem was written by Alfred Edward Houseman, Alfred Tennyson had written a lengthy poem entitled Locksley Hall which included a relatively well known line
In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.
Locksley Hall, 1836
Ludlow remains to this day a charming market town a bit off the beaten track near Shropshire’s border with Wales. It’s still dominated by a medieval castle that was an essential part of English defences against the Welsh. It retains many historic buildings and has avoided much of the retail madness that has made many small town high streets indistinguishable from each other. There is still a Ludlow Fair each spring, but that has changed and these days it’s pretty much the same as the other traditional urban fairs, like Goose Fair in Nottingham, St Giles Fair in Oxford, or Pinner Fair in Harrow. You’ll find big and powerful fairground rides, a background roar of diesel generators partly masked by blaring pop tunes, the smell of hot oil and fried onions, the taste of candyfloss and ketchup. In the daylight it’s for the children; after dark it takes on quite a different character. And just as in Houseman’s time in the late 19th century, and Tennyson’s time in the early 19th century, and all the way back to Robin Hood winning the archery competition and the heart of Marion way back when, the annual fair remains at one level a labyrinth of love and intrigue, flirtation and seduction, lust and envy for the three or four days the fair is in the town.
Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was from Bromsgrove, a small industrial town in Worcestershire. He won a scholarship to Oxford to study classics and was a talented student but did not do well in the formal examinations and went to work in the patents’ office after he graduated. There’s some ambiguity about the reasons for this: it’s possible that he was distracted by an unrequited love for a fellow undergraduate, but others suggest that he was too arrogant and over confident in his own abilities and neglected the technical detail of his subjects thereby preventing him from getting a better degree.
However, he continued to study the classics privately and went on to publish several studies of Greek poets and playwrights and in 1892 he secured a post at University College London. In 1911 he was appointed to a post at Trinity College Cambridge where he remained until his death in 1936.
A Shropshire Lad is a collection of 63 untitled poems that describe provincial life in rural England at the end of 19th century. Written in an accessible and unpretentious style they celebrate a more innocent time when “the lads” – the young farm labourers – could either choose to stay locally and settle down to family life, of be lured by the prospects of adventure by joining the army or navy and travelling to distant parts of the Empire. It’s in XIII that Houseman reflects on the sombre reality that some of the young men he sees at the fair are destined labour to die young in an Imperial war, perhaps in South Africa, perhaps in India, and yet we can’t tell who will return to the fair each year while others will fall in service and never return; Houseman considers the last group to have a degree of luck as they will always be remembered as virile young men – a sentiment subsequently repeated in many memorial services on Remembrance Day each year.
It’s perhaps no surprise that a small pocket edition of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad was one of the most popular books to be taken into the trenches in the First World War. The poems had became more popular when some of them were set to music by composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney in the early 20th century folk music movement.
The younger and the older AE Houseman, with Boer War era soldiers
Header: Ludlow Castle by Gavin Allanwood on Unsplash
Aerial photo of Ludlow Castle by Colin Watts on Unsplash