Alfred Edward Housman
Biography of Alfred Edward Housman
Usually known as A. E. Housman, was an English classical scholar and poet, best known to the general public 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 and Edwardian taste, and to many early 20th century English composers (beginning with Arthur Somervell) both before and after the First World War. Through its song-setting the poetry became closely associated with that era, and with Shropshire itself.
Housman was counted one of the foremost classicists of his age, and has been ranked 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 University College London 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 in Worcestershire, 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 he 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. Although by nature rather withdrawn, Housman formed strong friendships with two roommates, Moses Jackson and A. W. Pollard. Jackson became the great love of Housman's life, though the latter's feelings were not reciprocated, as Jackson was heterosexual. Housman 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 he 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 moved to India in 1887. When Jackson returned briefly to England in 1889 to marry, Housman not only was not invited to the wedding but knew nothing about it until the couple had left the country. Adalbert Jackson died in 1892. Housman continued pursuing classical studies independently and published scholarly articles on such authors as Horace , Propertius, 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. Many years later, 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 airplanes 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, aged 77, 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 A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of 63 poems. 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 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 while living in Highgate, London, 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 25 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. Poem 30 of that sequence, for instance, speaks of how "Fear contended with desire": "Others, I am not the first / have willed more mischief than they durst". 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
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's Maud a little previously. Ralph Vaughan Williams produced his most famous settings of six songs, the cycle On Wenlock Edge, for string quartet, tenor and piano (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 in 1912).
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 originated 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 influenced 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 contemporary New Zealand composer David Downes includes a setting of "March" on his CD The Rusted Wheel of Things.
Works titled after Housman
Housman is the main character in the 1997 Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love. Many titles for novels and films have been drawn from Housman's poetry. The line "There's this to say for blood and breath,/ they give a man a taste for death" supplies the title for Peter O'Donnell's 1969 Modesty Blaise thriller, A Taste for Death, also the inspiration for P. D. James' 1986 crime novel, A Taste for Death, the seventh in her Adam Dalgliesh series. The last words of the poem "On Wenlock Edge" are used by Audrey R. Langer for the title of the 1989 novel 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 and Arthur C. Clarke's first novel, Against the Fall of Night, is taken from a work in Housman's More Poems. The 2009 novel Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy takes its title from Housman's poem "Reveille", and a line from Housman's poem XVI "How Clear, How Lovely Bright", was used for the title of the last Inspector Morse book The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter. Blue Remembered Hills, a television play by Dennis Potter, takes its title from "Into My Heart an Air That Kills" from A Shropshire Lad, the cycle also providing the name for the James Bond film Die Another Day: "But since the man that runs away / Lives to die another day".
Alfred Edward Housman's Works:
A Shropshire Lad (1896)
Last Poems (1922)
A Shropshire Lad: Authorized Edition: Henry Holt and Company (1924)
More Poems (1936)
Collected Poems: Henry Holt and Company (1940)
Collected Poems (1939)
Manuscript Poems: Eight Hundred Lines of Hitherto Un-collected Verse from the Author's Notebooks (1955)
Is My Team Ploughing
Unkind to Unicorns: Selected Comic Verse (1995; 2nd ed. 1999)
The Poems of A.E. Housman (1997)
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- Here Dead We Lie
- Be Still, My Soul, Be Still
- To an Athlete Dying Young
- Along The Field as We Came By
- The Carpenter's Son
- When I Was One-and-Twenty
- Into My Heart an Air that Kills
- Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now
- Terence, This is Stupid Stuff
- With Rue My Heart Is Laden
- Eight O'Clock
- Epitaph On An Army of Mercenaries
- Could Man Be Drunk Forever
- If Truth in Hearts That Perish
He stood, and heard the steeple
Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
One, two, three, four, to market-place and people
It tossed them down.
Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour,
He stood and counted them and cursed his luck;
And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength, and struck.