A classic poem of parting
A. E. Housman (1859-1936) remains a popular poet with many readers not least because he so poignantly captures the feelings of heartbreak and hopeless love in his work. Technically, his poetry was not innovative: he once named the old ballads and the songs from Shakespeare’s plays as among his chief influences. But in English literature he is perhaps the Laureate of the Broken Heart: nobody has said it better. His short poem ‘Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over’ is about parting from somebody we love, because we know they don’t return our love.
Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over;
I only vex you the more I try.
All’s wrong that ever I’ve done or said,
And nought to help it in this dull head:
Shake hands, here’s luck, good-bye.
But if you come to a road where danger
Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share,
Be good to the lad that loves you true
And the soul that was born to die for you,
And whistle and I’ll be there.
Like virtually all of Housman’s poetry (except, perhaps, his nonsense-verse), this poem was inspired by Housman’s own hopeless affection for Moses Jackson, an athlete whom Housman met when they were both studying at Oxford in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Jackson later married and emigrated to Canada, but Housman remained loyal, nurturing an impossible love for Jackson until the day Jackson died in 1923. After that, Housman didn’t write any further poems: his muse had gone.
‘Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over’ is reminiscent of Michael Drayton’s famous sonnet, ‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part’. It would be flippant to suggest that Housman’s poem is ‘a gay rewriting of Drayton’s poem’, but it’s noteworthy that Housman does follow the rough ‘thread’ of Drayton’s argument in his poem: ‘let’s part company,’ the speaker announces in both with more than a touch of melodramatic annoyance, ‘as we can obviously never get on the way things are. But if you have a change of heart and fancy objecting to this arrangement, just say the word…’
It’s also worth noting that Drayton’s poem contains the line: ‘Shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows’. ‘Shake hands, we shall never be friends…’