Sunday, 4 October 2015

On Wenlock Edge

In my previous blog, I perhaps neglected to mention that, when Siegfried Sassoon drove from Ludlow to the “Hydro” at Church Stretton, he did so by way of Wenlock Edge, a section of the Shropshire landscape made famous by A E Housman in his 1896 collection A Shropshire Lad.  Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney were among those inspired to write music by these poems, which gradually came to be regarded as a prophesy of the disruption of the rural way of life by the effects of the First World War.
Nowadays, the Edge is designated a site of special scientific interest for its limestone outcrops, whilst remaining a popular route for walkers.  Neither of the two best-known hills in the area (sometimes known as Little Switzerland), the Long Mynd and the Wrekin, is actually part of Wenlock Edge.  Although quite different from Sassoon’s beloved Weald of Kent, we can immediately see the appeal of this rolling - and sometimes rather pointy - countryside for him, and no doubt he also enjoyed pushing his little car to its mechanical limits on the quiet rural roads.  Automotive performance would seem to have improved little since 1924, however; on arrival at Lichfield he boasts in his diary of having done 200 miles on four gallons of petrol. Perhaps this is because cars in the 1920s, although capable of high speeds, were not really built for them, and the roads in Shropshire certainly would not have lent themselves to fast driving.
What associations Wenlock Edge may have had for Sassoon are not entirely clear from his diary entries. “Went across Wenlock Edge by Roman Bank to Church Stretton” is about all he tells us of the journey. Housman himself is mentioned three times in the published diaries for 1921-25, but never with any clue as to what Sassoon thought of his verse. However, we know that (in addition to Lionel Johnson's Essays, which brought him Robert Graves' friendship), he had taken a copy of A Shropshire Lad to the trenches with him. Housman was one of the poets Sassoon approached when he was planning the birthday tribute to Thomas Hardy in 1919. Although his best-known work was twenty years in the past, Housman was still very active as a lecturer, and was one of the names Sassoon's agent complained were dominating the post-war speaker circuit. In 1933, he would publish his lecture on the subject of "The Name and Nature of Poetry", which struck a chord with Siegfried; they shared the view that poetry should appeal to the emotions. There are already signs of Housman's influence in many of the war poems. Whether Housman had any admiration for Sassoon's work is less certain, since he wrote to an associate in 1931, complaining that Heinemann wanted to print one of his poems in "a wretched selection containing, for instance, six pieces of Sassoon's".
Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was a native of Worcestershire, studied Classics at Oxford, and worked at the Patent Office in London.  Like Sassoon, he failed to complete his degree course, though he was undoubtedly more academically-inclined and spent the last 25 years of his life as a Cambridge professor.  Also like Sassoon, Housman had homosexual proclivities, and became very attached to a fellow-student at Oxford who, sadly, did not return his feelings.  The book that made him famous, A Shropshire Lad, was written while he lived in London, and published privately after Housman had failed to interest a publisher; this was another experience he shared with Sassoon.  
Yet the selection of Shropshire as a setting for his great work seems almost accidental.   The evocative phrases “blue remembered hills” and “land of lost content” both originate from Housman’s poems, but, although his ashes are buried at Ludlow, he spent little time in the county, and once confessed that the settings for the poems were “not exactly a real place”.  The hills of southern Shropshire, neighbouring his home county, evidently held some fascination for him. Perhaps precisely because they were not his home, they provoked a longing that could not be satisfied, a kind of Shangri-La that could never be achieved.

The A E Housman Society has been going for 43 years. This is not surprising, given the continued popularity and apparently timeless appeal of A Shropshire Lad. Long may it continue.

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