A Shropshire Lad

Shropshire: A Place of Imagined Sexual Contentment
Published in 1869, A.E. Housman?s A Shropshire Lad stands as one of the most socially acclaimed collections of English poetry from the Victorian age. This period in British history, however, proves, by judiciary focus (the Criminal Law Amendment of 1885), to be conflictive with Housman?s own internal conflicts concerning the homoerotic tendencies which he discovered in his admiration of fellow Oxford student Moses Jackson. Housman, much unlike other English literary figures such as Oscar Wilde and Thomas hardy, was not an artist who found it necessary to directly confront Britain with any political dissention imposed by is works. Instead, "for Housman the discovery of self was so disturbing and disconcerting that poetry came as a way of disclosing it" (Bayley 44). The county of Shropshire is central to much of his poetry, but it is employed merely as "a personification of the writer?s memories, dreams and affections;" meanwhile, Housman?s central character is one "who could at once be himself and not himself" (Scott-Kilvert 26). In what Housman himself regarded to be one of his best poems, "XXVII: Is my team ploughing," the focus is placed upon a conversation between a dead man and one of his friends from his previous life (Housman 18). "XXII: The street sounds to the soldiers? tread;" meanwhile, expresses an emotional wonder discovered in the eyes of a passing soldier (Housman 15). Both the ambiguous quality of the dead man?s last question (18 ll. 25-26) in poem XXVII and the nature of the chance encounter in XXII stand to exemplify the subtle undercurrent of Housman?s own enigmatic sexuality.
"Is my team ploughing" is in the form of "the primitive ballad metres, which Housman revived," and primarily "employed for a poetry not of action but of introspection" (Scott-Kilvert 25). The piece begins by the dead man?s questioning of such trivialities as his "team" (l. 1) that he "used to drive" (l. 2), and "football" (l. 9) being played "Along the river shore" (l. 10). The other speaker responds to the dead man?s questions with a partially abrasive tone as can be interpreted by lines 7-8 in which he reminds the dead man of his present position, and then in lines 15-17 with the repetition of "stands up. . . Stands up" in describing the football game while the man is of course lying down. Then in the sixth stanza the quatrain is consistent with this tone as the speaker informs the dead ma that his girl is no longer mourning his death (l. 22) and that "the act of love he had enjoyed with his sweetheart" much like everything else "is also repeated without him" (Hoagwood 63). The speaker meanwhile becomes somewhat evasive by imploring his old friend to "Be still. . . and sleep" (l.24). Finally the dead man inquires (ll. 25-28):
?Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine??
To which the speaker?s response in the last stanza presumably indicates that he is involved with the "dead man?s sweetheart" (l. 32).
The question posed in the poem?s penultimate stanza is one of various interpretation concerning the last line. The initial response tends to be that the dead man is asking if his old friend is sleeping in a "better bed" than the coffin in which he is buried; thus, stands as an example of the colloquial speech Housman employs throughout A Shropshire Lad. Other interpretations suggest that the dead man is asking his friend of his financial status, happiness, or even that the dead man is intimating knowledge that his friend was sleeping with his sweetheart prior to his death. What seems more plausible is that the dead man is referring to a previous romantic affair that existed between he and his friend. In this case the fact that the friend is now lying with his old lover?s sweetheart leads the listener/reader to interpret that the man has become a heterosexual, and perhaps so as a manifestation of guilt by their previous relationship.
"The street sounds to the soldier?s tread," similarly whispers the same message. As "a single redcoat turns his head/He turns and looks at me," Housman creates the effect of the transcendentally personal nature of such an impersonal meeting (15 ll. 3-4). Though "leagues apart" (l. 7) and will "meet no more" (l. 10),