A timely Maytime poem by A.E. Housman, from A Shropshire Lad. The relationship between cricket and melancholy is, I think, a complex one, but this is one side to it.
Twice a week the winter thorough
Here stood I to keep the goal:
Football then was fighting sorrow
For the young man’s soul.
Now in Maytime to the wicket
Out I march with bat and pad:
See the son of grief at cricket
Trying to be glad.
Try I will; no harm in trying:
Wonder ’tis how little mirth
Keeps the bones of man from lying
On the bed of earth.
I recently came across an intriguing reference to this poem in David Kynaston’s W.G.’s Birthday Party, about the Gentlemen v Players match of 1898 (I believe the book has just been reissued).
“For W.G.’s vice-captain, however, the outbreak of war and appalling loss of life were the last straw. “That Son of Grief”, the poet Francis Thompson had called ‘Drew’ Stoddart back in 1898 (in a review of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad), and so it proved.”
In 1898, Stoddart was a great popular idol, the epitome of the dashing Golden Age amateur and a double international (though at Rugby rather than Association football). As Kynaston puts it –
“In appearance he was strikingly handsome, in character modest and kindly, and not surprisingly he enjoyed enormous popularity”.
It is true that in 1897-8 he had led an unhappy and unsuccessful tour to Australia. The results were poor, he was personally affected by the death of his mother, and upset by some of the barracking his side received from the Australian crowds.
I haven’t been able to trace the review, so I’m not sure whether Thompson was being facetious in some way (a thing he was perfectly capable of when writing about cricket), or unusually perceptive.
As Kynaston puts it –
“The Edwardian years were a depressing struggle for this most beloved of cricketers … By the first winter of war he was suffering from poor nerves, financial problems and a loveless marriage. The end came on Easter Saturday 1915, when at the age of fifty-two, he shot himself through the head at his home in Maida Vale.”