World Literature

A. E. Housman

 

BORN: 1859, Worcestershire, England

DIED: 1936, Cambridge, England

NATIONALITY: English

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

A Shropshire Lad (1896)

Last Poems (1922)

More Poems (1936)

The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman (1939)

Manuscript Poems: Eight Hundred Lines of Hitherto Uncollected Verse from the Author’s Notebooks (1955)

 

 

A. E. Housman. E. O. Hoppe / Mansell / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

 

Overview

A. E. Housman continues to be a frequently read poet despite the fact that, since the initial publication of his verse, his work has been intermittently praised and rebuffed for what has been called its ‘‘obvious limitations.’’ Although Housman’s creative output consisted of three slim volumes, his first collection, A Shropshire Lad (1896), has become one of the most celebrated and best-selling books of verse in the English language and has secured his standing in literary history as a great but thematically restrained poet. Housman's open investigations of the mysteries of death and the dual nature of humankind have earned him acknowledgment as a precursor to the development of modern poetry. Critic Stephen Spender attempts to identify the elements that make his poetry satisfying: ‘‘At his best, Housman is a poet of great force and passion whose music is quite unforced, combining sensuousness with a cold discipline.’’ Whatever Housman's limitations, his poems, by virtue of their emotional force and classical beauty, continue to attract attention and praise.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Pastoral Childhood and Early Tragedy. Alfred Edward Housman was born in Fockbury in the county of Worcestershire, England, within sight of the Shropshire hills, a place that he would later allegorize in his poems. He was the eldest of seven children in a family that would produce a famous dramatist, Housman’s younger brother, Laurence, and a novelist and short-story writer, his sister Clemence. He attended Bromsgrove School, a notable institution that emphasized Greek and Latin studies, where he worked diligently and developed a talent for precise translation that would later earn him a reputation as a formidable classical scholar. Despite his academic success, Housman’s childhood was not a happy one. In addition to being a small and frail boy who did not easily form friendships, Housman also had to confront the death of his mother when he was twelve years old. This tragedy affected him profoundly and set into motion the slow erosion of his religious faith. Years later, Housman wrote that he ‘‘became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one.’’ This religious disillusionment was reflected in his poetry in the form of stoic despair and a fatalistic view of life.

Housman grew up in a time known as the Victorian era, during which Queen Victoria ruled England and its territories. Queen Victoria sat on the throne longer than any other British monarch, from 1837 until 1901. This period saw significant changes for both Britain and Europe as a whole, with industrialization leading much of the population to jobs in factories instead of on farms as in the past. The era also saw an extended period of peace and prosperity, leading many free to pursue intellectual interests and occupy themselves with the complex rules of behavior found in ‘‘proper’’ society.

University and A Shropshire Lad. Housman entered Oxford University in 1877. He continued to immerse himself in his favorite subjects, Latin and Greek, and also helped to found Ye Round Table, an undergraduate magazine featuring humorous verse and satire. Housman’s contributions to this publication demonstrate not only his wit but his talent for nonsense verse, which he kept well-concealed in later years even as his critics were condemning his poetry for being stark and humorless. While at first excelling in his work at Oxford, Housman later inexplicably failed his examinations in 1881 and did not earn his degree until 1892, when he was made professor of Latin at University College in London. The cause for Housman’s failure was for many years a subject of speculation among critics and biographers. Today, it is known from Housman’s diaries that the reason for his failure at Oxford was at least partially caused by his hopelessness over his relationship with a young science student named Moses Jackson. The realization of his own homosexuality and the eventual rejection by Jackson embittered Housman. He became a repressed and melancholy recluse who later declined all honors he was offered, including the poet laureateship of England and the Order of Merit, one of the most prestigious distinctions bestowed by the British government. Housman scholars contend that other than the death of his mother, this rebuff by Jackson was the most determinative event of Housman’s life.

It was shortly after the crisis at Oxford that Housman wrote all of A Shropshire Lad. His declaration that ‘‘I have seldom written poetry unless I was rather out of health’’ seems to substantiate the opinion that emotional trauma greatly influenced his work. Such poems as ‘‘Shake Hands We Shall Never Be Friends, All’s Over’’ and ‘‘Because I Liked You Better’’ make direct reference to his relationship with Jackson, although Housman did not allow them to be published during his lifetime. While Housman wrote an ironic poem on the occasion of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexual acts, stating in part that ‘‘they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair,’’ he nonetheless was an extremely proper and reserved Victorian gentleman and dreaded being associated with homosexuality.

In A Shropshire Lad, Housman adopted the persona of a young Shropshire yeoman, whom he called Terence Hearsay, in order to distance himself from the autobiographical aspects of his work. This technique has caused some commentators to charge that Housman never developed his themes of unrequited love, the oblivion of death, and idealized military life beyond the emotional and intellectual capabilities of his main character. Two well-known poems contained in this volume, ‘‘To an Athlete Dying Young’’ and ‘‘When I Was One-and- Twenty,’’ concentrate solely on the loss of youthful dreams. The thematic limitations of A Shropshire Lad and the lack of emotional development led Cyril Conolly to state that ‘‘many of Housman’s poems are of a triteness of technique equaled only by the banality of thought.’’ However, other critics praise the economy of Housman’s verse and his expertise with the pastoral tradition. Most of the poems included in A Shropshire Lad are short, sometimes not more than one stanza in length, and written in the four-line ballad style with rhyming alternate lines. According to many critics, this stylistic symmetry demands great discipline and sophistication and in this sense Housman’s poems rival the classics in their mastery of conciseness and subtlety. Concentrating on the stylistic elements of his verse, H. P. Collins justifies Housman’s thematic limitations by declaring that ‘‘the greatest poetry does not need complex emotions.’’

Last Poems and More Poems. Housman’s Last Poems (1922) appeared twenty-six years after the first publication of A Shropshire Lad, leading some critics to speculate on the nature of Housman’s poetic talent. While this volume was also praised for its fine craftsmanship, it was noted by many reviewers that the themes presented were mere continuances of those expounded upon in his previous volume. This did not prevent Last Poems, which included ‘‘Epithalamium,’’ a piece commemorating the wedding of Moses Jackson, and ‘‘Hell Gate,’’ which chronicles a successful rebellion against the forces of death, from becoming quite popular. More Poems (1936), published posthumously by Housman’s brother, Laurence, was also a popular success, but since most of the poems included had been omitted from the previous volumes by Housman himself, it is generally considered an inferior body of work.

Housman’s famous lecture at Cambridge University in 1933 represents the only statement that Housman ever made about his personal theories of poetry. Housman cited William Shakespeare’s songs, Heinrich Heine’s poetry, and the Scottish border ballads as his major poetic influences. Metrically, his poems stand midway between the lyric and the quatrain form of the ballad, while thematically the influence of Shakespeare is apparent in Housman’s dismissal of the theological and emphasis on everything mortal. Dramatic irony and surprise endings are important elements in the work of Heine, and Housman uses them in much the same fashion as the German poet. While critics contend that Housman’s comments offer important insights into the motivations behind his own verse, they also speculate that Housman intended to be deliberately vague and misleading to provoke controversy. However, Housman prefaced his lecture with the statement that although he would be attempting to delve into the characteristics of poetry, he was not by nature a critic and preferred instead the discipline of writing verse.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Housman's famous contemporaries include:

Walt Whitman (1819-1892): American poet who wrote with great passion and possessed a love of nature.

Queen Victoria (1819-1901): The ruler of England for most of the Industrial Revolution, from 1837 until her death.

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898): Author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and fellow Oxford scholar.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900): Flamboyant British playwright and novelist known for his wit.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Housman's poetry examines the surprisingly short distance between youth and death. Being an atheist, he believed that life was fleeting and death final. Here are a few other works that explore similar ideas about the finality and inevitability of death.

The Seventh Seal (1957), a film directed by Ingmar Bergman. A medieval knight must play a tense game of chess with Death to determine the outcome of his life.

''Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night'' (1951), a poem by Dylan Thomas. The speaker in this poem fiercely urges an unknown subject to ''rage, rage against the dying of the light.''

''Ozymandias'' (1818), a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley's famous poem treats the subject of mankind's pride and the eradicating forces of nature and time.

Death Be Not Proud (1949), a memoir by John Gunther. This book is about the author's son, who died of a brain tumor at the age of seventeen.

 

Works in Literary Context

In all of his poetry, Housman continually returns to certain favorite themes.

Time and Death. The predominant theme in Housman’s work, according to Cleanth Brooks, is that of time and the inevitability of death. As Brooks states, ‘‘Time is, with Housman, always the enemy.’’ Housman frequently deals with the plight of the young soldier, and he is usually able to maintain sympathy both for the youth who is the victim of war and for the patriotic cause of the nation. Robert B. Pearsall suggested in a 1967 essay that Housman dealt frequently with soldiers because ‘‘the uniform tended to cure isolation and unpopularity, and soldiers characteristically bask in mutual affection.’’

It is not only war but nature, too, that brings on thoughts of death in Housman’s poetry. In the famous lyric beginning ‘‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now,’’ the speaker says that since life is all too short, he will go out ‘‘To see the cherry hung with snow,’’ a suggestion of death. In a well-known verse from Last Poems, a particularly wet and old spring causes the speaker to move from a description of nature—‘‘The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers stream from the hawthorn on the wind away’’—to a sense that his lost spring brings one closer to the grave. To his credit, Housman often does not merely wallow in such pessimistic feelings but counsels a kind of stoical endurance as the proper response: ‘‘Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.’’

The Hostile Universe. Another frequent theme in Housman’s poetry, one that is related to the death motif, is the attitude that the universe is cruel and hostile, created by a God who has abandoned it. In the poem ‘‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’’ in Last Poems, mercenaries must take up the slack for an uncaring deity: ‘‘What God abandoned, these defended, / And saved the sum of things for pay.’’ R. Kowalczyk, in a 1967 essay, summed up this prevalent theme: ‘‘Housman’s poetic characters fail to find divine love in the universe. They confront the enormity of space and realize that they are victims of Nature’s blind forces. A number of Housman’s lyrics scrutinize with cool, detached irony the impersonal universe, the vicious world in which man was placed to endure his fated existence.’’

Furthermore, society sometimes intrudes into Hous- man’s world of nature, and when it does, his rustic youth frequently comes in conflict. As Oliver Robinson noted, ‘‘Housman is especially sympathetic with the man who is at odds with society, the man who cannot keep ‘these foreign laws of God and man.’’’

 

Works in Critical Context

The themes of his poetry and his emotional handling of them mark Housman as an extension of the Romantic movement that flourished in England in the early part of the nineteenth century and had a resurgence in the aesthetic movement of the 1890s. The critical evaluation of Housman’s work in the two decades after his death in 1936 is tinged with the anti-Romanticism of the period.

A Shropshire Lad. As Maude M. Hawkins noted, A Shropshire Lad ‘‘sold so slowly that Laurence Housman at the end of two years bought up the last few copies.’’ Though the volume was better appreciated in the United States than in England, Hawkins called most of the critical reviews ‘‘lukewarm or adverse.’’ A Shropshire Lad did not sell well until it was published by Grant Richards, a man with whom Housman became lifelong friends. Richards’s first edition was five hundred copies in 1897, which sold out; he then printed one thousand copies in 1900 followed by two thousand in 1902. Hawkins summed up the volume’s early public reception: ‘‘After the slow stream of Housman readers from 1896 to 1903, the momentum of popularity increased rapidly.’’

During the twentieth century A Shropshire Lad has been more of a popular than a critical success. In accounting for this popularity, the writer George Orwell spoke of certain elements in the poetry: a snobbism about belonging to the country; the adolescent themes of murder, suicide, unhappy love, and early death; and a ‘‘bitter, defiant paganism, a conviction that life is short and the gods are against you, which exactly fitted the prevailing mood of the young.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. The speaker in ‘‘When I Was Young and Twenty’’ learns a lot in one year. List some more modern works that deal with similar coming-of-age themes and explain what the main character or speaker learns and at what cost. Does the similarity in theme constitute a similarity in the coming-of-age character? Does this universal theme that repeats itself throughout the generations continue to have the same face or does this theme present itself differently in modern times?

2. Read ‘‘To an Athlete Dying Young’’ and determine whether Housman owes more to Greek mythology or to William Shakespeare. What elements in either Greek mythology or Shakespeare support your answer?

3. Using your library and the Internet, find out more about the typical characteristics of Victorianism and Romanticism in literature. In which camp do you think Housman’s poetry belongs? Why?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Aldington, Richard. A. E. Housman and W. B. Yeats. New York: Peacock Press, 1955.

Bourne, Jeremy. The Westerly Wanderer: A Brief Portrait of A. E. Housman Author of ‘‘A Shropshire Lad’’ 1896-1996.

Bromsgrove, England: Housman Society, 1996.

Clemens, Cyril. An Evening with A. E. Housman. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977.

Graves, Richard Perceval. A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet. New York: Scribner, 1979.

Haber, Tom Burns. A. E. Housman. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Hawkins, Maude M. A. E. Housman: Man Behind a Mask. Washington, D.C.: Henry Regnery, 1958.

Housman, Laurence. My Brother, A. E. Housman. New York: Scribner, 1938.

Ricks, Christopher, ed. A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968.