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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 92

Shropshire is the biggest of England’s land locked counties, and it is the most sparsely populated. And I’m more than happy about that. I want to cover as many miles as I can and I want to enjoy every pedal stroke; and that is just what I’m able to do in this first stretch of England. This is an England that has drawn poets and painters  from afar, but few others. It’s a forgotten county in many ways. It is beautiful and peaceful and has retained something that places nearer to the beating heart have lost. I feel I am passing through an England that Houseman and Edward Thomas would still recognise. I don’t see many people: there aren’t all that many to see, but those I meet are friendly and gracious, and more than willing to pass the time of day with a stranger on an old steel framed bicycle.

The Herberts were landowners hereabouts at the time that Tudors gave way to Stuarts. Many were wealthy and powerful, yet the one we remember was one who liked to study, served his country for a while, before serving the poor and needy as a parish priest and writing poems along the way. George Herbert, one of the Metaphysical poets, was by all accounts a man of great kindness and one whose remembrance is fading as less and less of us sing hymns as children. Times change and most of the people, I’ve known and worked with, think this is probably a good thing. I’m not so sure. It was a huge cultural reference point; a huge source of poetic knowledge that we picked up in an early morning lung bust at school. Herbert wrote Let all the World in Every Corner Sing, and Teach Me My God and King. Izaac Walton, who I also love, and who has influenced the planning of this section of my English journey, said they were “such hymns and anthems as he and the angels now sing in heaven”.

The air moves with evening warmth, the birds sing and sheep call in the fields. My heart is alive to it all. In this corner of England, all the world that I can breathe in, feel, touch, see and hear is singing. There’s a cyclist on a country lane in the twenty first century thinking of a priest and poet from the seventeenth who was born hereabouts and feeling a much better man for it.

Wilfred Owen was a Shropshire lad who barely had time to grow up. If the First War hadn’t happened maybe he wouldn’t have done. His early poems show a great deal of earnest ambition without ever attaining gravity. Once among the bombs and bullets and rat holes of Flanders he reached maturity faster than most, found a poetic voice and taught the next century the meaning of pity.

Young soldiers in the trenches sought out poetry as a way of trying to comprehend the enormity of what was happening around them. Up until this point in human development, prayer was the place to find understanding of something so vast, so powerful: so frightening. But, God had died on the Somme. How could a God who was supposed to be what God is supposed to be; omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent allow such carnage to take place? How could God survive in a shell hole flooded with with muddy winter’s deluge and the blood of farm boys taken from places like rural Shropshire and placed on the front line to have their life drained by a sniper from some German Shropshire? So young men turned to poetry. And left behind a body of work that resounds through history, despite a recent attempt by those who find the truth unpalatable and in need of revision, to the souls of believers and the hearts of atheists; to those who read poetry and those who tend to let it go by.

The poetry of war has always worked at the point where horror meets glory. Where duty and honour contend with writhing bodies and lives full of hope left cold and gone. Owen encapsulates it all; the quest for glory, the horror and above all the loss and the pity. He came of age in weeks and wrote verses that speak of war in a way that has changed its aspect. He was invalided out on more than one occasion, was treated as a mental patient; shell shocked and frightened. He recovered each time, writing verses and refining them in Craiglockhart in Edinburgh, at the Clifton Hotel in Scarborough and he went back to face the guns. And tragically and heroically; and remember this you revisionists who wish to make out these poets to be liars, cowards and slanderers for daring to point out the criminal incompetence of the generals and politicians; he was shot dead by a sniper while helping his men cross a canal just seven days before the guns fell silent.

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

And these are those fields. These summer fields, at home, now sown and in the middle of harvest. I ride on with a heart full of joy and sorrow. We were asked in philosophy classrooms if an ugly thing could ever be considered beautiful. War is an ugly thing but in the caring hands of Wilfred Owen, it is touched with true beauty.

And to my right the hills of Shropshire. The blue remembered hills of A Shropshire Lad. Published privately in 1896 Houseman’s poems deal with mortality. There is no hope of salvation or balming assistance of religion. There is a tremendous beauty in the verse and these poems have become a part of what it is to be English. And this is in spite of the fact that Houseman’s rural England is a poetic device and never existed. The poet had actually written most of the verses before he had even visited the county.

There are a huge number of reasons for not liking A Shropshire Lad. But read them and you will find one over-riding reason to like them. They are extraordinarily lovely. They create a world that is of its very nature a lost world; so the fact that it was made up as a poetic conceit is all the more forgivable. I’m not usually a great one for the sort of poems that get into “The Nation’s Greatest” anthologies. But I do like A Shropshire Lad and will stop and listen when one of the poems gets read out on Poetry Please or to mark one of the country’s moments of passing sadness.

Into my heart an air that kills.

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,.

What spires, what farms are those?

And those hills away in the direction of Ludlow are the hills invoked in the verse. These fields are the fields of the farms and the distant spires are the spires of the verse. And though so much of the poetry is about loss, a great deal still remains of what makes rural England very special, and more of it has been retained in Shropshire than in any other English county.