On the Trail of ‘A Shropshire Lad’

Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images
A.E. Housman, circa 1900

In the summer of 1902 the American novelist Willa Cather set off from Pittsburgh for Europe with her friend Isabelle McClung. Soon after docking at Liverpool they excitedly embarked on a literary pilgrimage to an English county that had hitherto rarely featured in Americans’ European itineraries. “When we got into Shropshire,” she wrote to her friend Dorothy Canfield from Ludlow on July 6, “we threw away our guide books and have blindly followed the trail of the Shropshire Lad and he has led us beside still waters and in green pastures.” From Ludlow they visited other locations mentioned in A Shropshire Lad (1896), the celebrated cycle of sixty-three poems by the English classicist and poet A.E. Housman. They went to Shrewsbury and Knighton, as well as the rivers Ony and Teme and Clun, invoked in the opening lines of the fiftieth poem in the sequence (“In valleys of springs of rivers,/By Ony and Teme and Clun”).

Housman’s lyrics ringing in her head, Cather was delighted to find boys playing soccer on the banks of the Severn, as they do in poem XXVII (“Is football playing/Along the river shore,/With lads to chase the leather,/Now I stand up no more?”); also to note that the jail in Shrewsbury was indeed close to the railway tracks, as indicated in poem IX:

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.

One afternoon she and McClung rented bikes and pedaled happily off to the forested limestone escarpment known as Wenlock Edge—“On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble” (XXXI); “Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,/Gold that I never see” (XXXIX). She was even inspired to write a sub-Housman set of quatrains herself, about the poppies growing on the top of “Ludlow keep.” “I’ll not quit Shropshire till I know every name he uses,” she exclaimed to Canfield. “Somehow it makes it all the greater to have it all true.”

Cather, alas, decided it might also prove rewarding to seek out in person the author of the poems that had so enchanted her. As Peter Parker notes in Housman Country, his new study of the poet’s work and influence, Housman (born and bred in neighboring Worcestershire) didn’t in fact know Shropshire particularly well; he had quarried the details so admired by Cather from Murray’s Handbook, which was perhaps one of the guidebooks that Cather had discarded in favor of A Shropshire Lad. While staying in London she “battered on the doors” of Housman’s publishers until they reluctantly furnished his address, then triumphantly set off in pursuit of her idol.

Housman’s residence at this time was 1 Yarborough Villas in far-flung Pinner, which Cather discovered to be “an awful suburb” toward the end of the Metropolitan…

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