Gale of life

A Shropshire Lad

A E Housman <em>Penguin Poetry First Editions, 88pp, £3.99 </em>

ISBN 014043720

What if we had never heard of Housman or Keats but came to them for the first time through these books? This seems to be the spirit in which these editions are intended. They are produced "in the form in which they originally appeared", without introduction or annotation, just endnotes by Michael Schmidt that concentrate on their publication. These works are now entrenched in the canon, so it is good to have the dust blown off and to be reminded of the precarious and turbulent circumstances in which they were realised. We learn that Housman stumped up £30 toward this, his first collection, and eventually made "a small profit". Keats endured battles with both publishers and critics, but Lamia, his final and greatest work, was relatively handsomely produced (although Schmidt points out that it was not until 27 years after his death that Keats "earned gilt lettering on his spine").

It is also good to have access to these poems outside of unwieldy anthologies and not in extracted form; and it's no mean thing these days to be able to buy a book of great poetry for £4. My only complaint about these editions (which include, among others, Lawrence, Byron and Yeats) concerns their covers, in which murky or pallid details from contemporary paintings have been superimposed with the titles in pastel blocks. The dowdy results are at odds with the life and fire these covers contain.

Read free of any biographical or literary trappings, A E Housman's A Shropshire Lad is a disturbing and fascinatingly anachronistic book. Although the title locates the poems, and they are threaded with place names, the landscape is, above all, psychic. This is hardly the solid England with which Housman has become associated. The shadowy trees and hills are the haunting irrecoverable past. The landmarks, the towers and spires stand out like points of light in an unnavigable darkness. Each human connection makes another frail light, always on the verge of being extinguished by death and its infinite isolation: "Lovers lying two by two/Ask not whom they sleep beside,/And the bridegroom all night through/ever turns him to the bride."

The poems are mostly in ballad form, with an orderly iambic or trochaic beat. Their language is musical, even conventional. What they contain, however, is an expression of the human condition that is radical in its extremity and lack of consolation. The subsequent tension between traditional form and explosive content prefigures that found in the work of Robert Frost and Charlotte Mew, both of whom also straddled the turn of the century.

Housman's world is one of men, of "lads" and, in particular, "the lads that never will be old". The glimpses he gives us of farming, football, boozing and the courting of wholly abstract girls are a sketchy backdrop for the troubled emotions on display: desire, fear and a self-protective insistence on futility. A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896, the year after the trial of Oscar Wilde, a contemporary who might be seen as Housman's alter ego. Housman was then, at last, making a career for himself as a classicist after years as a civil servant. He trod carefully but, for all his reticence, it is clear that "like the wind through woods in riot,/Through him the gale of life blew high".

The most stunning thing about this book is how it presages the huge psychological shift brought about by the first world war. From its opening riposte to Victoria's golden jubilee, the book is full of lives belittled, overtaken and erased by history - for no ultimate good. Housman follows this conclusion to its logical end: "Oh why did I awake? When shall I sleep again?" A Shropshire Lad reached the height of its popularity in 1914-18. Let's hope that, then at least, Housman felt in some way understood.

Lamia . . ., John Keats's final book, was published in 1820, less than a year before his death. One could be forgiven for thinking of it not as a collection but a "best of", containing as it does so many of his most famous works. In addition to the three eponymous poems, there are the great odes and his tantalising fragment, "Hyperion". All those phrases that have become such common currency that one half expects them to turn up on T-shirts and beer-mats are here: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty"; "Was it a vision, or a waking dream?"; "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . . " The poems from which they come, though, are undiminished by such overfamiliarity.

The modern, truncated attention span makes it a challenge to read a single poem over 22 pages - all the more reason for giving it a go. The reward of "Lamia" et al is the impact and satisfaction of a slowly built, pressurised narrative in which each scene engages all the senses to propel the reader forward into what comes next. Keats's meter is as lively as it is correct, keeping you moving and interested, and barely aware of its regularity.

Keats is one of the most physical poets I can think of. Lamia in her snake incarnation is a nauseating excess of exotic beauty: "Vermillion spotted, golden, green and blue", "Striped like a zebra", "Eyed like a peacock", all chilly, chimerical moons and fire. But when she speaks, her voice is "bubbling honey", and even though we've not yet seen her guise as a woman, we know Lycias doesn't stand a chance. This change of temperature is as sudden as that in "The Eve of St Agnes", where the icy scene gives way to Madeleine's chamber and "the honey'd middle of the night". Here, Keats seduces us with voluptuous (a word he seems to have liked) descriptions of their feast: "With jellies soother than the creamy curd,/And lucent sirops, tinct with cinnamon."

Keats achieved so much and died so young that we read this collection both as a culmination and an arrested start. If you knew nothing about him, Lamia . . . would communicate his acuity and intensity, as well as his gift for high pitched, vivid drama that moves and breathes. Keats is an excited presence in his poems, but his ego dissolves in his relish of language, the depth of what he experiences and the extent to which he probes. He is a joy to read, however much trouble his publishers found him.

Lavinia Greenlaw is poetry critic of the "New Statesman"