A. E. Housman

For other people named Housman, see Housman (surname).
A. E. Housman

A. E. Housman photographed by E. O. Hoppé
Born Alfred Edward Housman
26 March 1859 (1859-03-26)
Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, England
Died 30 April 1936 (1936-05-01) (aged 77)
Cambridge, England
Pen name A. E. Housman
Occupation Classicist and poet
Nationality British
Alma mater St John's College, Oxford
Genre Lyric poetry

Alfred Edward Housman (/ˈhsmən/; 26 March 1859 – 30 April 1936), 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 wistfully evoke the dooms and disappointments of youth in the English countryside.[1] Their beauty, simplicity and distinctive imagery appealed strongly to late Victorian and Edwardian taste, and to many early 20th-century English composers both before and after the First World War. Through their song-settings, the poems became closely associated with that era, and with Shropshire itself.

Housman was one of the foremost classicists of his age and has been ranked as one of the greatest scholars who ever lived.[2][3] 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 then at Cambridge. His editions of Juvenal, Manilius and Lucan are still considered authoritative.


The eldest of seven children, Housman was born at Valley House in Fockbury, a hamlet on the outskirts of Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, to Sarah Jane (née Williams, married 17 June 1858 in Woodchester, Gloucester)[4] and Edward Housman (whose family came from Lancaster), and was baptised on 24 April 1859 at Christ Church, in Catshill.[5][6][7] His mother died on his twelfth birthday, and his father, a country solicitor, remarried, to an elder cousin, Lucy, in 1873. Housman's brother Laurence Housman and their sister Clemence Housman also became writers.

Housman was educated at Bromsgrove School, where he revealed his academic promise and won prizes for his poems.[7] In 1877 he won an open scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, where he studied classics.[7] Although introverted by nature, Housman formed strong friendships with two roommates, Moses Jackson and A. W. Pollard. Jackson became the great love of Housman's life, but he was heterosexual and did not reciprocate Housman's feelings.[8] Housman became an atheist while attending Oxford.[9][10] Housman obtained a first in classical Moderations in 1879, but his dedication to textual analysis, particularly of Propertius, led him to neglect the ancient history and philosophy that formed part of the Greats curriculum. Accordingly, he failed to obtain a degree.[7] Though some attribute Housman's unexpected failure in his final exams directly to his rejection by Jackson,[11] most biographers adduce more obvious causes. Housman was indifferent to philosophy and overconfident in his exceptional gifts; he felt contempt for inexact scholarship; and he enjoyed idling away his time with Jackson and others. He may also have been distracted by news of his father's desperate illness.[12][13][14] He felt deeply humiliated by his failure and became determined 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 too.[7] The two shared a flat with Jackson's brother Adalbert until 1885, when Housman moved to lodgings of his own, probably after Jackson responded to a declaration of love by telling Housman that he could not reciprocate his feelings. Moses Jackson moved to India in 1887, placing more distance between himself and Housman. When Jackson returned briefly to England in 1889, to marry, Housman was not invited to the wedding and knew nothing about it until the couple had left the country. Adalbert Jackson died in 1892 and Housman commemorated him in a poem published as "XLII – A.J.J." of More Poems (1936).

Meanwhile, Housman pursued his classical studies independently, and published scholarly articles on such authors as Horace, Propertius, Ovid, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.[7] He gradually acquired such a high reputation that in 1892 he was offered and accepted the professorship of Latin at University College London (UCL).[7]

When R. W. Chambers discovered an immensely rare original Coverdale Bible of 1535 in the UCL library he presented it to the Library Committee, where Housman remarked that it would be better to sell it to "buy some really useful books with the proceeds".[15] Many years later UCL's academic common room was dedicated to his memory as the Housman Room.

In his private life Housman enjoyed gastronomy, flying in aeroplanes and making frequent visits to France, where he read "books which were banned in Britain as pornographic".[16] A. C. Benson, a fellow don, described him as being "descended from a long line of maiden aunts".[17]

Housman's grave at St Laurence's Church in Ludlow. The cherry tree, on the right, was planted in his memory (see A Shropshire Lad, II), but now is just a stump in the ground (a new cherry tree was planted nearby in 2003 by the A. E. Housman Society).

Although Housman's early work and his responsibilities as a professor included both Latin and Greek, he began to specialise in Latin poetry. When asked later why he had stopped writing about Greek verse, he responded, "I found that I could not attain to excellence in both."[18]

In 1911 he took the Kennedy Professorship of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his life. G. P. Goold, Classics Professor at University College, wrote of Housman's accomplishments: "The legacy of Housman's scholarship is a thing of permanent value; and that value consists less in obvious results, the establishment of general propositions about Latin and the removal of scribal mistakes, than in the shining example he provides of a wonderful mind at work. … He was and may remain the last great textual critic." [3] Between 1903 and 1930 Housman published his critical edition of Manilius's Astronomicon in five volumes. He also edited works by Juvenal (1905) and Lucan (1926). Many colleagues were unnerved by his scathing attacks on those he thought guilty of shoddy scholarship.[7] In his paper "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism" (1921) Housman wrote: "A textual critic engaged upon his business is not at all like Newton investigating the motion of the planets: he is much more like a dog hunting for fleas." He declared many of his contemporary scholars to be stupid, lazy, vain, or all three, saying: "Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head." [3][19] His younger colleague A. S. F. Gow quoted examples of these attacks, noting that they "were often savage in the extreme".[20] Gow also related how Housman intimidated his students, sometimes reducing them to tears. According to Gow, Housman could never remember his students' names, maintaining that "had he burdened his memory by the distinction between Miss Jones and Miss Robinson, he might have forgotten that between the second and fourth declension". One notable pupil was Enoch Powell.[21] Housman found his true vocation in classical studies and treated his poems as secondary. He did not speak 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.

Housman died, aged 77, in Cambridge. His ashes are buried just outside St Laurence's Church, Ludlow, Shropshire.[7]


Housman statue in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire


A Shropshire Lad

Main article: A Shropshire Lad

A Shropshire Lad II:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

from A Shropshire Lad (1896)[23]

During his years in London, A. E. Housman completed A Shropshire Lad, a cycle of 63 poems.[7] After several publishers had turned it down, he published it at his own expense in 1896. The emotion and vulnerability revealed in the book surprised both his colleagues and his students.[7] At first selling slowly, it rapidly became a lasting success. 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.[7] A Shropshire Lad has been in print continuously since May 1896.[17]

The poems are marked by deep pessimism and preoccupation with death, without religious consolation.[7] Housman wrote most of them while living in Highgate, London, before ever visiting that part of Shropshire (about thirty miles from his boyhood home), which he presented in an idealised pastoral light, as his 'land of lost content'.[24] 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.

Later collections

Housman began writing a new set of poems after the First World War. He was an influence on many British poets who became famous by their writing about the war, and wrote several poems as occasional verse to commemorate the war dead. This included his Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries, honouring the British Expeditionary Force, an elite but small force of professional soldiers, 'a rapier amongst scythes'[25] sent to Belgium at the start of the war. Fighting a well-equipped and much larger German army, they suffered heavy losses.

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.[7] 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), feeling that his inspiration was exhausted and that he should not publish more in his lifetime. After his death Housman's brother, Laurence, published further poems in More Poems (1936), A. E .H.: Some Poems, Some Letters and a Personal Memoir by his Brother (1937), and Collected Poems (1939). A. E. H. includes humorous verse such as a parody of Longfellow's poem Excelsior. Housman also wrote a parodic Fragment of a Greek Tragedy, in English, published posthumously with humorous poems under the title Unkind to Unicorns.[26]

John Sparrow quoted a letter written late in Housman's life that described the genesis of his poems:

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.[27]

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."[27]

De Amicitia (Of 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 Moses Jackson.[28] Despite the conservative nature of the times and his own caution in public life, Housman was quite open in his poetry, and especially in A Shropshire Lad, about his deeper sympathies. Poem XXX 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 are not reciprocated and must be carried unfulfilled to the grave:[29]

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.[1]

  1. ^ A. E. Housman, More Poems, Jonathan Cape, London 1936 p.48

His poem "Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?", written after the trial of Oscar Wilde, addressed more general attitudes towards homosexuals.[30] In the poem the prisoner is suffering "for the colour of his hair", a natural quality that, in a coded reference to homosexuality, is reviled as "nameless and abominable" (recalling the legal phrase peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non-nominandum, "the sin so horrible, not to be named amongst Christians").

Housman in other art forms

Housman's poetry, especially A Shropshire Lad, was set to music by many British, and in particular English, composers in the first half of the 20th century.[3] The national, pastoral and traditional elements of his style resonated with similar trends in English music. In 1904 the cycle A Shropshire Lad was set by Arthur Somervell, 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,[31] 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.[32]

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)[33] experienced emotional breakdowns which were popularly (but wrongly) believed to have originated from shell-shock. The fatalism of the poems and their 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[34]) died in a horrific accident in 1921. Elwes had worked hard to maintain morale during the war, 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.[35]

Among other composers who set Housman songs were John Ireland (song cycle, The Land of Lost Content (192021)), 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 began several settings, but never finished them. 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.[36]

Housman is the main character in the 1997 Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love.[37] Many titles for novels and films have been drawn from Housman's poetry. The 2009 novel Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy takes its title from Housman's poem "Reveille";[38] Blue Remembered Hills, a television play by Dennis Potter, takes its title from "Into My Heart an Air That Kills" from A Shropshire Lad;[39] the title of Ursula Le Guin's short story collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters is taken from Housman's "From far, from eve and morning".[40]


Poetry collections

Classical scholarship

Published lectures

These lectures are listed by date of delivery, with date of first publication given separately if different.

Prose collections

Selected Prose, edited by John Carter, Cambridge University Press, 1961

Collected letters

See also


  1. A E Housman, The Poetry Archive
  2. 'a man who turned out to be not only the great English classical scholar of his time but also one of the few real and great scholars anywhere at any time'. Charles Oscar Brink, English Classical Scholarship: Historical reflections on Bentley, Porson and Housman, James Clarke & Co, Oxford, Oxford University Press, New York, 1986 p.149
  3. 1 2 3 4 Poetry Foundation profile
  4. "England Marriages, 1538–1973 for Edward Housman", Baptism record via Family Search.org
  5. "England Births and Christenings, 1538–1975 for Alfred Edward Housman", Baptism record via Family Search.org
  6. Christ Church Catshill
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Profile at Poets.org
  8. Summers (1995) p. 371
  9. Blocksidge, Martin. A.E. Housman: A Single Life. N.p.: n.p., 2016. Print. "Housman became an atheist whilst at Oxford..."
  10. Page, Norman. A.E. Housman, a Critical Biography. New York: Schocken, 1983. Print. "He became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one."
  11. Cunningham (2000) p. 981.
  12. Norman Page, Macmillan, London (1983) A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography pp. 43–46
  13. Richard Perceval Graves, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet Charles Scribners, New York (1979) pp. 52–55.
  14. Charles Oscar Brink, English Classical Scholarship pp.152
  15. Ricks, Christopher (1989). A. E. Housman. Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 18.
  16. Graves (1979) p155.
  17. 1 2 Critchley (1988).
  18. Gow (Cambridge 1936) p5
  19. "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism," (1921) Housman
  20. Gow (Cambridge 1936) p. 24
  21. Gow (Cambridge 1936) p. 18
  22. http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/a.e.housman
  23. A Shropshire Lad
  24. A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, XL
  25. Liddell Harte, B. H. (1930). The Real War, 19141918, p.42. Republished by Wildside Press, LLC, 2012. ISBN 978-1479412150
  26. J. Roy Birch and Norman Page, ed. (1995). Unkind to Unicorns. Cambridge: Silent Books.
  27. 1 2 Collected Poems Penguin, Harmondsworth (1956), preface by John Sparrow.
  28. Summers ed. 1995, 371.
  29. Summers (1995) p372.
  30. Housman (1937) p213.
  31. W. and R. Elwes, Gervase Elwes, The Story of his Life (Grayson and Grayson, London 1935), p195-97.
  32. Arthur Eaglefield Hull, A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians Dent, London (1924), 73.
  33. Eaglefield-Hull (1924) p205.
  34. W. and R. Elwes (1935) p156-166.
  35. W. & R. Elwes (1935) pp244-55.
  36. Palmer and Banfield 2001.
  37. Guardian article"Hades and gentlemen" 5 October 1997
  38. Poets' Corner – A. E. Housman – A Shropshire Lad
  39. Bartleby.com
  40. Archipelago, World. "The Wind's Twelve Quarters | Paperback". HarperCollins US. Retrieved 2016-03-06.


Further reading

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