- THE laws of God, the laws of man,
- He may keep that will and can;
- Not I: let God and man decree
- Laws for themselves and not for me;
- And if my ways are not as theirs
- Let them mind their own affairs.
- Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
- Yet when did I make laws for them?
- Please yourselves, say I , and they
- Need only look the other way.
- But no, they will not; they must still
- Wrest their neighbour to their will,
- And make me dance as they desire
- With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
- And how am I to face the odds
- Of man's bedevilment and God's?
- I, a stranger and afraid
- In a world I never made.
- They will be master, right or wrong;
- Though both are foolish, both are strong.
- And since, my soul, we cannot fly
- To Saturn nor to Mercury,
- Keep we must, if keep we can,
- These foreign laws of God and man.
- A.E. Housman (1859-1936)
A selection from his book Last Poems
(1922) Housman views himself as a “stranger and afraid in a world I never made,”
he sent these and other verses to Reading Gaol as Oscar Wilde
started his two year's sentence on the 25th of May in 1895.
A protest about the repression and intolerance of homosexuality that was a hot topic in Britain where at the peak of his career Wilde became the central figure in one of the most sensational court trails of the century. The ends of which scandalized the Victorian middle class; Wilde had been the friend of young Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), was convicted of sodomy. Sentenced to two years of prison, he emerged financially bankrupt and spiritually downcast.
The Ballad of Reading Goal (1896) was written after his release and published anonymously and for years after his death his name bore the stigma attached to it by Victorian prudery. You may be interested in what poet Lionel Pigot Johnson (1867-1902) wrote about his personal conflicts and anger about his event in his The Destroyer of a Soul.
Housman was an English poet and classical scholar and best known as the author of a few slim volumes of poetry remarkable for their simplicity of diction, lyric beauty, and gentle ironic pessimisms. A favorite topic was that of 'fleeting youth' and the frustrations and regrets of young men, especially soldiers. His technique here is one of his usual style of putting together elements of the classical ode and the English ballad. Last Poems was widely appreciated when it first appeared for its individuality and quality.
In his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse, W.H. Auden defines light verse in a rather unusual way which he thought was applicable to this work since it's included.
"When the things in which the poet is interested, the things which he sees about him, are much the same as those of his audience, and that audience is a fairly general one, he will not be conscious of himself as an unusual person, and his language will be straightforward and close to ordinary speech. When, on the other hand, his interests and perceptions are not readily acceptable to society, or his audience is a highly specialized one, perhaps of fellow poets, he will be acutely aware of himself as the poet, and his method of expression may depart very widely from the normal social language.
"In the first case his poetry will be 'light' in the sense of which it is used in this anthology. Three kinds of poetry have been included:
(1) Poetry written for performance, to be spoken or sung before an audience (e.g. Folk-songs, the poems of Tom Moore).
(2)Poetry intended to be read, but having for its subject-matter the everyday social life of its period or the experiences of the poet as an ordinary human being (e.g. the poems of Chaucer, Pope, Byron.
(3)Such nonsense poetry as, through its properties and technique, has a general appeal (Nursery rhymes, the poems of Edward Lear).
"Light verse can be serious. It has only come to mean vers de sociètè , triolets, smoke-room limericks, because, under the social conditions that produced the Romantic Revival, and which have persisted, more or less, ever since, it has been only in trivial matters that poets have felt in sufficient intimacy with their audiences to be able to forget themselves and their singing-robes."
Many of Housman's poems set together opposites: death and love, classical form and romantic spirit, lyricism and ominous foreboding. This theme is about laws and helplessness of man and seems to convey that he has thrown up his hands at both man and God saying it would be easier to not believe in either. Many of the poems are about his homosexuality, which was a source of torment to him.
A Shropshire Lad is considered to be one of the most popular volumes of English verse ever written, which has never been out of print since its first publication in 1896.
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Housman, A.E.", Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Wilde, Oscar", Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
Introduction to The Oxford Book of Light Verse, WH Auden:
Public domain text taken from The Poets’ Corner: