Taken from A. E. Housman’s first, and best-known, collection, A Shropshire Lad (1896), ‘You smile upon your friend to-day’ is a short lyric in which the ‘lad’ of the collection’s title, who was originally named Terence Hearsay,
You smile upon your friend to-day,
To-day his ills are over;
You hearken to the lover’s say,
And happy is the lover.
’Tis late to hearken, late to smile,
But better late than never:
I shall have lived a little while
Before I die for ever.
‘You smile upon your friend to-day’: we begin with an address in the second person, with Housman’s Shropshire Lad talking to his friend and acknowledging that this friend is now, finally, returning his friendship and listening to him. It is better that this other person’s friendship comes later rather than never, because at least the speaker will have lived a little before death closes over him forever.
There is some ambiguity, however, in the various parts of the poem when they we attempt to bring them together as a whole. For if Housman’s Lad is addressing his (male?) friend, and thanking him for being friendly to him at last, then is this male addressee also the one who ‘hearken[s] to the lover’s say’, i.e., listens to what the lover has to say? And if so, is Housman’s speaker referring to himself as a lover (i.e. of a third person, e.g. a woman – as Housman’s original readers would mostly have assumed), or is he implying that the addressee of the poem is both his friend and his lover? Housman, who was homosexual at a time when it was illegal to be openly so and to engage in acts branded by the law as ‘gross indecency’, had to be careful, but the lines are subtly ambiguous rather than suggestive. The final two lines lend credence to this reading: ‘I shall have lived a little while / Before I die for ever.’ I shall have lived because I shall have loved.
The ‘lad’ of the collection’s title, A Shropshire Lad, was originally named Terence Hearsay, and although Housman thought better of his initial plan to name the volume Poems of Terence Hearsay, the name survives in the penultimate poem from the collection, with its opening line: ‘Terence, this is stupid stuff’.
‘You smile upon your friend to-day’ is one of many fine lyrics from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. You can find more of his classic poems in this selection here.