Alfred Edward Housman (26 March 1859 30 April 1936), usually known as A. E. Housman, was an English classical scholar and 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, Edwardian and Georgian taste, and to many early twentieth 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 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 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. Although by nature rather withdrawn, Housman formed strong friendships with two roommates, Moses Jackson and A. W. Pollard.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.
 

Moses JacksonAfter 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 19031930, 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, 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 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 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.