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
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Although by nature rather withdrawn, Housman formed strong friendships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.
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 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
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.
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.