A. E. Housman (1859–1936)

A Shropshire Lad XL:

Into my heart an air that kills

From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?/

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

Image: The Wrekin, a hill in east Shropshire.

From the website poets.org:

“Alfred Edward Housman was born in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England, on March 26, 1859, the eldest of seven children. A year after his birth, Housman’s family moved to nearby Bromsgrove, where the poet grew up and had his early education. In 1877, he attended St. John’s College, Oxford and received first class honours in classical moderations.

Housman became distracted, however, when he fell in love with his roommate Moses Jackson. He unexpectedly failed his final exams, but managed to pass the final year and later took a position as clerk in the Patent Office in London for ten years.

During this time he studied Greek and Roman classics intensively, and in 1892 was appointed professor of Latin at University College, London. In 1911 he became professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, a post he held until his death. As a classicist, Housman gained renown for his editions of the Roman poets Juvenal, Lucan, and Manilius, as well as his meticulous and intelligent commentaries and his disdain for the unscholarly.

Housman only published two volumes of poetry during his life: A Shropshire Lad (1896) and Last Poems (1922). The majority of the poems in A Shropshire Lad, his cycle of 63 poems, were written after the death of Adalbert Jackson, Housman’s friend and companion, in 1892. These poems center around themes of pastoral beauty, unrequited love, fleeting youth, grief, death, and the patriotism of the common soldier. After the manuscript had been turned down by several publishers, Housman decided to publish it at his own expense, much to the surprise of his colleagues and students.

While A Shropshire Lad was slow to gain in popularity, the advent of war, first in the Boer War and then in World War I, gave the book widespread appeal due to its nostalgic depiction of brave English soldiers. Several composers created musical settings for Housman’s work, deepening his popularity.

Housman continued to focus on his teaching, but in the early 1920s, when his old friend Moses Jackson was dying, Housman chose to assemble his best unpublished poems so that Jackson might read them. These later poems, most of them written before 1910, exhibit a range of subject and form much greater than the talents displayed in A Shropshire Lad. When Last Poems was published in 1922, it was an immediate success. A third volume, More Poems, was released posthumously in 1936 by his brother, Laurence, as was an edition of Housman’s Complete Poems (1939).

Despite acclaim as a scholar and a poet in his lifetime, Housman lived as a recluse, rejecting honors and avoiding the public eye. He died on April 30, 1936, in Cambridge.”

From Wikipedia:

“…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. 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, “that horrible sin, not to be named amongst Christians”).

Among the more notable students at his Cambridge lectures was Enoch Powell, one of whose own Classical emendations was later complimented by Housman.

Housman died, aged 77, in Cambridge. His ashes are buried just outside St Laurence’s Church, Ludlow, Shropshire. A cherry tree was planted there in his memory (see A Shropshire Lad II) and replaced by the Housman Society in 2003 with a new cherry tree nearby.

The blue plaques in Worcestershire were set up on the centenary of A Shropshire Lad in 1996. In September of the same year a memorial window lozenge was dedicated at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The following year saw the première of Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love, whose subject is the relationship between Housman and Moses Jackson.

As the 150th anniversary of his birth approached, London University inaugurated its Housman lectures on classical subjects in 2005, initially given every second year then annually after 2011. The anniversary itself in 2009 saw the publication of a new edition of A Shropshire Lad, including pictures from across Shropshire taken by local photographer Gareth Thomas. Among other events, there were performances of Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge and Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme at St Laurence’s Church in Ludlow.”

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