Alfred Edward Housman
(26 March 1859 – 30 April 1936), usually known as A.E. Housman, was a classical scholar
and English poet
best known for his cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad
. Lyrical and almost epigrammatic in form, the poems were mostly written before 1900. Their wistful evocation of doomed youth in the English countryside, in spare language and distinctive imagery, appealed strongly to late Victorian
taste, and to many early twentieth century English composers (beginning with Arthur Somervell
) both before and after the First World War
. Through their song-settings the poetry therefore became closely associated with that era, and with Shropshire
Housman was counted one of the foremost classicists of his age, and ranks as one of the greatest scholars of all time. He established his reputation publishing as a private scholar and on the strength and quality of his work was appointed Professor of Latin at UCL and later, at Cambridge. His editions of Juvenal, Manilius and Lucan are still considered authoritative.
Housman was born in Fockbury, a hamlet
on the outskirts of Bromsgrove
, the eldest of seven children of a country solicitor
. His mother died on his twelfth birthday, and subsequently her place was taken by his stepmother Lucy, an elder cousin of his father's whom the latter married in 1873. His brother Laurence Housman
and sister Clemence Housman also became writers.
Housman was educated first at King Edward's School, Birmingham, then Bromsgrove School, where he acquired a strong academic grounding and won prizes for his poetry. In 1877 he won an open scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, where he studied classics. By nature rather withdrawn, Housman formed however strong friendships with his roommates Moses Jackson and A. W. Pollard. Jackson was the great love of Housman's life, though the latter's feelings were not reciprocated, as Jackson was heterosexual. He obtained a first class in classical Moderations in 1879, but his immersion in textual analysis, particularly with Propertius, led him to neglect ancient history and philosophy, which formed part of the Greats curriculum, and thus failed to obtain even a pass degree. Though some explain Housman's unexpected failure in his final exams as due to Jackson's rejection., most biographers adduce a variety of reasons, indifference to philosophy, overconfidence in his praeternatural gifts, a contempt for inexact learning, and enjoyment of idling away his time with Jackson, conjoined with news of his father's desperate illness as the more immediate and germane causes.. The failure left him with a deep sense of humiliation, and a determination to vindicate his genius.
After Oxford, Jackson got a job as a clerk in the Patent Office in London and arranged a job there for Housman as well. They shared a flat with Jackson's brother Adalbert until 1885 when Housman moved in to lodgings of his own. Moses Jackson married and moved to Karachi, India in 1887 and Adalbert Jackson died in 1892. Housman continued pursuing classical studies independently and published scholarly articles on such authors as Horace, Propertius, Ovid, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. He gradually acquired such a high reputation that in 1892 he was offered the professorship of Latin at UCL, which he accepted. The UCL Academic Staff Common Room was dedicated to his memory as the Housman Room.
Although Housman's sphere of responsibilities as professor included both Latin and Greek, he put most of his energy into the study of Latin classics. In 1911 he took the Kennedy Professorship of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his life. It was unusual at the time for an Oxford man such as Housman to be appointed to a post at Cambridge. During 1903–1930, he published his critical edition of Manilius's Astronomicon in five volumes. He also edited works of Juvenal (1905) and Lucan (1926). Many colleagues were unnerved by his scathing critical attacks on those whom he found guilty of shoddy scholarship. To his students he appeared as a severe, reticent, remote authority. However, quite contrary to his usual outward appearance, he allowed himself several hedonistic pleasures: he enjoyed gastronomy and flying in aeroplanes and frequently visited France, where he read "books which were banned in Britain as pornographic". A fellow don described him as being "descended from a long line of maiden aunts".
Housman found his true vocation in classical studies and treated poetry as a secondary activity. He never spoke about his poetry in public until 1933 when he gave a lecture, 'The Name and Nature of Poetry', in which he argued that poetry should appeal to emotions rather than to the intellect. He died three years later in Cambridge. His ashes are buried near St Laurence's Church, Ludlow, Shropshire.
A Shropshire Lad
During his years in London, A E Housman completed his cycle of 63 poems, A Shropshire Lad.
After several publishers had turned it down, he published it at his own expense in 1896. The volume surprised both his colleagues and students. At first selling slowly, it rapidly became a lasting success, and its appeal to English musicians (see below) had helped to make it widely known before World War I
, when its themes struck a powerful chord with English readers. A Shropshire Lad
has been in print continuously since May 1896.
The poems are pervaded by deep pessimism and preoccupation with death, without religious consolation. Housman wrote most of them before ever visiting that part of Shropshire (about thirty miles from his home), which he presented in an idealised pastoral light, as his 'land of lost content'. Housman himself acknowledged the influence of the songs of William Shakespeare, the Scottish Border Ballads and Heinrich Heine, but specifically denied any influence of Greek and Latin classics in his poetry.
In the early 1920s, when Moses Jackson was dying in Canada
, Housman wanted to assemble his best unpublished poems so that Jackson could read them before his death. These later poems, mostly written before 1910, show a greater variety of subject and form than those in A Shropshire Lad
but lack the consistency of his previously published work. He published them as Last Poems
(1922) because he felt his inspiration was exhausted and that he should not publish more in his lifetime. This proved true.
After his death Housman's brother, Laurence, published further poems which appeared in More Poems (1936) and Collected Poems (1939). Housman also wrote a parodic Fragment of a Greek Tragedy, in English, and humorous poems published posthumously under the title Unkind to Unicorns.
John Sparrow found statements in a letter written late in Housman's life which describe how his poems came into existence:
Poetry was for him ...'a morbid secretion', as the pearl is for the oyster. The desire, or the need, did not come upon him often, and it came usually when he was feeling ill or depressed; then whole lines and stanzas would present themselves to him without any effort, or any consciousness of composition on his part. Sometimes they wanted a little alteration, sometimes none; sometimes the lines needed in order to make a complete poem would come later, spontaneously or with 'a little coaxing'; sometimes he had to sit down and finish the poem with his head. That .... was a long and laborious process ...
Sparrow himself adds, "How difficult it is to achieve a satisfactory analysis may be judged by considering the last poem in A Shropshire Lad
. Of its four stanzas, Housman tells us that two were 'given' him ready made; one was coaxed forth from his subconsciousness an hour or two later; the remaining one took months of conscious composition. No one can tell for certain which was which."
De Amicitia (about friendship)
In 1942 Laurence Housman also deposited an essay entitled "A. E. Housman's 'De Amicitia'" in the British Library
, with the proviso that it was not to be published for twenty-five years. The essay discussed A. E. Housman's homosexuality and his love for Jackson. Despite the conservative nature of the times, Housman, as distinct from the prudence of his public life, was quite open in his poetry, and especially his A Shropshire Lad
, about his deeper sympathies. In poem 30 of that sequence, for instance, we read that
Others, I am not the first
- have willed more mischief than they durst
as the voice speaks of how Fear contended with desire
. In More Poems
, he buries his love for Moses Jackson in the very act of commemorating it, as his feelings of love break his friendship, and must be carried silently to the grave. :-
- Because I liked you better
- Than suits a man to say
- It irked you, and I promised
- To throw the thought away.
- To put the world between us
- We parted, stiff and dry;
- Goodbye, said you, forget me.
- I will, no fear, said I
- If here, where clover whitens
- The dead man's knoll, you pass,
- And no tall flower to meet you
- Starts in the trefoiled grass,
- Halt by the headstone naming
- The heart no longer stirred,
- And say the lad that loved you
- Was one that kept his word.
His poem, 'Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?', written after the trial of Oscar Wilde, addressed more general social injustice towards homosexuality. In the poem the prisoner is suffering 'for the colour of his hair', a natural, given attribute which, in a clearly coded reference to homosexuality, is reviled as 'nameless and abominable' (recalling the legal phrase 'peccatum horribile, inter christianos non nominandum', 'the horrible sin, not to be named amongst Christians').
Housman in other art forms
Music and art song
Housman's poetry, especially A Shropshire Lad
, provided texts for a significant number of British - and in particular English - composers in the first half of the 20th century. The national, pastoral and traditional elements of his style resonated with similar trends in English music
The first was probably the cycle A Shropshire Lad
set by Arthur Somervell
in 1904, who had begun to develop the concept of the English song-cycle
in his version of Tennyson
a little previously. Ralph Vaughan Williams
produced his most famous settings of six songs, the cycle On Wenlock Edge
, for string quartet
(dedicated to Gervase Elwes
) in 1909, and it became very popular after Elwes recorded it with the London String Quartet
and Frederick B. Kiddle
in 1917. Between 1909 and 1911 George Butterworth
produced settings in two collections or cycles, as Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad
, and Bredon Hill and other songs
. He also wrote an orchestral tone poem
on A Shropshire Lad
(first performed at Leeds
Festival under Arthur Nikisch
Butterworth's death on the Somme in 1916 was considered a great loss to English music; Ivor Gurney, another most important setter of Housman (Ludlow and Teme, a work for voice and string quartet, and a song-cycle on Housman works, both of which won the Carnegie Award) experienced emotional breakdowns which were popularly (but wrongly) believed to have arisen from shell-shock. Hence the fatalistic strain of the poems, and the earlier settings, foreshadowed responses to the universal bereavement of the First World War and became assimilated into them. This was reinforced when their foremost interpreter and performer, Gervase Elwes (who had initiated the music festivals at Brigg in Lincolnshire at which Percy Grainger and others had developed their collections of country music) died in a horrific accident in 1921. Elwes had been closely identified with English wartime morale, having given six benefit performances of The Dream of Gerontius on consecutive nights in 1916, and many concerts in France in 1917 for British soldiers.
Among other composers who set Housman songs were John Ireland (song cycle, Land of Lost Content), Michael Head (e.g. 'Ludlow Fair'), Graham Peel (a famous version of 'In Summertime on Bredon'), Ian Venables (Songs of Eternity and Sorrow), and the American Samuel Barber (e.g. 'With rue my heart is laden'). Gerald Finzi repeatedly began settings, though never finished any. Even composers not directly associated with the 'pastoral' tradition, such as Arnold Bax, Lennox Berkeley and Arthur Bliss, were attracted to Housman's poetry. A 1976 catalogue listed 400 musical settings of Housman's poems. Housman's poetry impacted on British music in a way comparable to that of Walt Whitman in the music of Delius, Vaughan Williams and others: Housman's works provided song texts, Whitman's the texts for larger choral works.
The impact in music of Housman's poetry has not been limited in time, place or style. The contemporary New Zealand composer David Downes includes a setting of "March" on his CD The Rusted Wheel of Things.
References to and quotations from Housman are frequent in English language literature.
- Housman is the main character in the 1998 Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love.
- A Shropshire Lad is mentioned in E.M. Forster's A Room with a View: one of the characters, Reverend Beebe, picks up the book from a stack whilst visiting the Emerson home, and remarks, "Never heard of it", perhaps lamenting the son's "unconventional" - if not sacrilegious - literary taste.
- There is a reference to Housman in Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, when Robbie, an English literature graduate from Cambridge, glances at his copy of Poems and A Shropshire Lad.
- Housman's poetry ("There's this to say for life and breath, it gives a man a taste for death") supplies the title and is quoted in Peter O'Donnell's 1969 Modesty Blaise thriller, A Taste for Death.
- The same phrase is used by P.D. James in her 1986 crime novel, A Taste for Death, the seventh in her Adam Dalgliesh series.
- The last words of the poem "On Wenlock Edge" is used by Audrey R. Langer for the title of the 1989 Ashes Under Uricon.
- The Nobel Prize winning novelist Patrick White named his 1955 novel "The Tree Of Man" after a line in A Shropshire Lad.
- Housman's poem "From far, from eve and morning" (Shropshire Lad XXXII) is included and heavily referenced in Roger Zelazny's short story "For a breath I tarry" in The Last Defender of Camelot collection.
- Housman is mentioned and quoted several times by Diana Gabaldon in her popular historical fiction series, starting with Outlander.
- In The Secret History by Donna Tartt, "With Rue My Heart Is Laden" is recited by Henry during the burial ceremony of Bunny.
- In Drover's Road by New Zealand writer Joyce West, "With Rue my Heart is Laden" is quoted by the narrator, Gay.
- In Chinua Achebe's novel No Longer At Ease the main character Obi frequently refers to Housman's poetry, particularly "Easter Hymn".
- In John Dos Passos' novel Three Soldiers, A Shropshire Lad is quoted by the educated Andrews in part four, chapter one, "mocking" Andrews as it jingles through his head.
- Patrick O'Brian has a minor character quote from one of Housman's poems (Poem AP IX "When the bells justle in the tower") in his novel The Thirteen Gun Salute.
- On the first chapter of Alan Watts´s Tao of Philosophy (1995), The Myth and I, he quotes one of Housman's poems.
- There are several references to Housman in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. One character quotes A Shropshire Lad: "The loveliest of trees, the cherry now...."
- Denise McCluggage, a noted automotive journalist and pioneer sports car racer in the 1950s and 1960s, used a line from A Shropshire Lad ("With Rue My Heart Is Laden . . .") as the title for a collection of her columns ("By Brooks Too Broad for Leaping")
A wall hanging of A Shropshire Lad
was created and now hangs prominently in the St Laurence Church, Ludlow
, England. A plaque honouring the poet is also installed on the church grounds.
's 1971 film Walkabout
concludes with lines from A Shropshire Lad
, spoken by a narrator.
John Irvin's (1981) film The Dogs of War ends with Epitaph for an Army of Mercenaries being sung over the end titles.
Meryl Streep, portraying Karen Blixen, quotes "To an Athlete Dying Young" at the gravesite of Denys Finch Hatton in Out of Africa (1985). Toward the end of the film, she accepts a drink from the exclusive all men's club in Nairobi, and toasts "rose-lipped maidens, lightfoot lads" -- an allusion to Housman's "With Rue My Heart Is Laden".
A line from Housman's poem XVI "How Clear, How Lovely Bright", was used for the title of the last episode of the television movie series "Inspector Morse" (The Remorseful Day). Morse also quotes the last stanza of the poem 27 minutes into the episode.
Blue Remembered Hills, a television play by Dennis Potter, takes its title from A Shropshire Lad and features Potter reading part of the poem.
A fragment of his poem is quoted in The History Boys by Hector.
In Episode 193, Season 9 of The Simpsons, "The Last Temptation of Krust", Krusty calls a press conference to announce his retirement, and quotes from "To an Athlete Dying Young".
The 2002 sci fi film "Firestarter 2: Rekindled" (based on a Steven King novel, the villain Rainbird recites the second and third stanzas of "Others, I'm not the first" as the protagonist, Charlie, destroys a town with her pyrokinetic abilities. The lines "Ice and Fire, fear contended with desire" are used by Rainbird to describe the relationship between him and Charlie.
- A Shropshire Lad (1896)
- Last Poems (1922)
- More Poems (1936)
- Collected Poems (1939); the poems included in this volume but not the three above are known as Additional Poems. The Penguin Edition of 1956 includes an Introduction by John Sparrow.
- Manuscript Poems: Eight Hundred Lines of Hitherto Un-collected Verse from the Author's Notebooks, ed. Tom Burns Haber (1955)
- Unkind to Unicorns: Selected Comic Verse, ed. J. Roy Birch (1995; 2nd ed. 1999)
- The Poems of A. E. Housman, ed. Archie Burnett (1997)
- M. Manilii Astronomica (1903-1930; 2nd ed. 1937; 5 vols.)
- D. Iunii Iuuenalis Saturae: editorum in usum edidit (1905; 2nd ed. 1931)
- M. Annaei Lucani, Belli Ciuilis, Libri Decem: editorum in usum edidit (1926; 2nd ed. 1927)
- The Classical Papers of A. E. Housman, ed. J. Diggle and F. R. D. Goodyear (1972; 3 vols.)
- ''William White, "Housman's Latin Inscriptions", CJ (1955) 159 - 166, reports also a Latin elegiac poem, dedicating Manilius to M. J. Jackson, a Latin address to the University of Sydney signed by "The President of University College, London", and "Hendecasyllables", a translation of John Dryden's "King Arthur", printed in the Bromsgrovian (1882) over the signature "A. E. H." White's article includes the text of eight Latin inscriptions written by Housman for various memorial brasses.
These lectures are listed by date of delivery, with date of first publication given separately if different.
- Introductory Lecture (1892)
- "Swinburne" (1910; published 1969)
- Cambridge Inaugural Lecture (1911; published 1969 as "The Confines of Criticism")
- "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism" (1921; published 1922)
- "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (1933)
- The Letters of A.E. Housman, ed. Henry Maas (1971)
- The Letters of A.E. Housman, ed. Archie Burnett (2007)
- Critchley, Julian, 'Homage to a lonely lad', Weekend Telegraph (UK), 23 April 1988.
- Cunningham, Valentine ed., The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000)
- Graves, Richard Perceval, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 155
- Housman, Laurence, A.E.H.: Some Poems, Some Letters and a Personal Memoir by his Brother (London: Jonathan Cape, 1937)
- Page, Norman, ‘Housman, Alfred Edward (1859–1936)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
- Palmer, Christopher and Stephen Banfield, 'A. E. Housman', The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (London: Macmillan, 2001)
- Summers, Claude J. ed., The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1995)
- Holden, A. W. and J. R. Birch, A. E Housman - A Reassessment (Palgrave Macmillan, London 1999)
- Shaw, Robin, "Housman's Places" (The Housman Society, 1995)
On Housman in general and his life
A Shropshire Lad