Housman, A.E

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A.E. Housman


Born March 26, 1859, in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England; died April 30 (some sources say May 1), 1936, in Cambridge, England; son of Edward (a solicitor) and Sarah Jane (Williams) Housman. Education: St. John's College, Oxford, pass degree, 1882; received M.A. Politics: Tory.


Classicist, educator, and poet. Her Majesty's Patent Office, London, England, civil servant, 1882-92; University College, London, professor of Latin, 1892-1911; Trinity College, Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, Kennedy Professor of Latin, 1911-36. Cofounder, with A. W. Pollard, of undergraduate periodical Ye Rounde Table.

Awards, Honors

Refused many honors, including poet laureateship of England and Order of Merit.



A Shropshire Lad, Kegan Paul (London, England, 1896, J. Lane (New York, NY), 1900, with notes and biography by Carl J. Weber, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1980, reprinted, Penguin (London, England), 1999.

Last Poems, Holt (New York, NY), 1922.

More Poems, edited by brother, Laurence Housman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1936.

The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1939, Holt (New York, NY), 1940, revised edition published as Collected Poems, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1956, Holt (New York, NY), 1965.

Manuscript Poems: Eight Hundred Lines of Hitherto Uncollected Verse from the Author's Notebooks, edited by Tom Burns Haber, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1955.

The Complete Poems: Centennial Edition, introduction by Basil Davenport, commentary by Tom Burns Haber, Holt (New York, NY), 1959.

The Poems of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1997.


(With others) M. Manilii Astronomica, five volumes, Grant Richards (London, England), 1903n— 30, published as Astronomicaon, Georg Olms, 1972.

D. Junii Juvenalis Saturae, Grant Richards (London, England), 1905, revised edition, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1931, published as Saturae, Greenwood Press (Westport, CT), 1969.

M. Annaei Lucani Belli civilis libri decem, Basil Blackwell (London, England), 1926, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1950.


Introductory Lecture, Delivered Before the Faculties of Arts and Laws and of Science in University College, London, October 3, 1892, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1892, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1937.

The Name and Nature of Poetry, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1933.

The Confines of Criticism: The Cambridge Inaugural, 1911, notes by John Carter, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1969.


Thirty Housman Letters to Witter Bynner, edited by Tom Burns Haber, Knopf (New York, NY), 1957.

A. E. Housman to Joseph Ishill: Five Unpublished Letters, edited by William White, Oriole Press, 1959.

The Letters of A. E. Housman, edited by Henry Maas, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1971.

Sir James Frazer and A. E. Housman: A Relationship in Letters, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 1974.

Fifteen Letters to Walter Ashburner, introduction and notes by Alan S. Bell, Tragara Press, 1976.


A Centennial Memento, commentary by William White, Oriole Press, 1959.

A. E. Housman: Selected Prose, edited by John Carter, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1961.

Poetry and Prose: A Selection, edited by F. C. Hor-wood, Hutchinson (London, England), 1971.

The Classical Papers of A. E. Housman, three volumes, collected and edited by J. Diggle and F. R. D. Goodyear, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1972.

Collected Poems and Selected Prose, edited by Christopher Ricks, Allen Lane (London, England), 1988.


A Morning with the Royal Family, prefatory note by Laurence Housman, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1955.

Contributor to scholarly journals, including Classical Review and Journal of Philology; contributor, under pseudonym Tristram, to Ye Rounde Table.


A. E. Housman was an anomaly. When, in 1896, he self-published a collection of verses told from the point of view of a rustic youth, many of his friends and colleagues at University College, London, were amazed. Housman was, up to then, known for his classical scholarship, not for his poetry. A Shropshire Lad, the title of this collection of sixty-three poems that deals with unrequited love and the inevitability of death, lingered in obscurity for a few years, until the Boer War started and readers discovered another thread in Housman's verse: the numerous patriotic as well as military poems in the same collection. In a strange way, war made Housman's fame; during World War I he became one of the most popular English authors of the day, quite an achievement for a man with only one slim volume of verse to his name and whose major output up to then had been focused on establishing reliable texts of such minor Roman authors as Manilius. As William G. Holzberger noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Housman "was the greatest English classical scholar of his time and poet of great ability and mastery within the limitation of his chosen themes and form." The classical scholar is mentioned first, and Housman's contribution to verse is sharply delimited. Such would always be the case with Housman, for whom popular and critical reception were two distinct things.

Even Housman's classical scholarship could be considered a surprise, for at one point, distraught over a failed attempt at love, he failed his final exams at Oxford and had to return the next year for a lowly "pass" degree and a position in a London patent office. Working independently, he published articles in prestigious journals and made his name known well enough in intellectual circles that he was given the chair in Greek and Latin at University College, London, in 1892, and went on to a distinguished career at Trinity College, Cambridge. Only one more volume of poetry appeared within his lifetime: Last Poems, a collection that deals with many of the same themes and in the same manner as had A Shropshire Lad a quarter of a century earlier. This lack of range prompted critics at the time and later to denigrate Housman for shallowness and limited scope, while others found these supposed defects a positive attribute, and praised the simplicity of his form.

One aspect of Housman's verse that most English readers did not discern at the time was that his poems of unrequited love were addressed to another man; Housman was homosexual in an England that in 1895 prosecuted and imprisoned noted Irish writer Oscar Wilde for that very offense. Thus, Housman was careful to keep his sexual identity closeted, appearing the proper Victorian gentleman writing proper late-Victorian verse and maintaining the persona of the classical scholar to his death in 1936. Housman's life-within-a-life masquerade was further continued in the poems themselves, narrated by the fictional Terence Hearsay, the Shropshire youth of the title. A rustic philosopher, Hearsay enabled Housman to distance himself from his own words.

The Early Years

Born Alfred Edward Housman in 1859, the future poet was the oldest of seven children of a solicitor father. The Housman family would turn out to be a very literate one. In addition to A. E., younger brother Laurence was a famous playwright, and sister Clemence became a well-known short story writer and novelist. Attending the Bromsgrove School, the small and rather frail youth became a star at Greek and Latin, though he failed miserably in the social realm. As a twelve year old, he lost his mother, the first of a number of personal setbacks that would impact his life. This loss led to the beginning of Houseman's religious doubts, which grew to full-blown skepticism by the time he was twenty-one. The loss of religion led Houseman to develop a fatalistic view of the world and of life, and his carpe-diem mentality later played a prominent thematic place in his verse.

Housman entered Oxford University in 1877, focusing on the classics, but also dabbling in literature. He was a cofounder of the college magazine Ye Rounde Table, for which he submitted humorous and satirical verse pieces under the name of Tristram. He also fell in love with a science student, Moses Jackson, who did not return his sentiment. This rejection is said to have led to Housman's startling failure at his final examinations; indeed the answer books he turned in were largely empty but for some random scribbling. Housman returned to Oxford the next year to receive a pass degree, but failure to graduate with honors effectively barred him from a life in academia.

In 1882 Housman entered the civil service in a London patent office, the same one in which Jackson was employed. Housman in fact shared lodgings with Jackson and his younger brother, Adalbert Jackson, during his first years in London. During this time Housman continued his studies at the British Museum and also wrote poetry. When Moses Jackson left for India and a teaching position, Housman withdrew even more into himself, concentrating on his work and submitting scholarly writing to journals such as the Journal of Philology and Classical Review. He was eventually accepted as a brilliant and thorough classical scholar, not so much interested in interpreting and giving critical analyses of Latin texts as he was in establishing reliable editions of them. Thus, when a position as professor of Latin opened at London's University College, Housman was offered the position despite his poor degree. That same year, his closest friend died; two years later Housman's father died. These losses further solidified a pessimistic world view in the young writer and spawned a creative period of writing in which he composed many of the poems that make up his first collection.

Shropshire Wisdom

A Shropshire Lad is written in the voice of the rural yeoman Terence Hearsay, and in fact was originally submitted for publication under the title "Poems by Terence Hearsay." When the Macmillan Company rejected the manuscript in 1896, Housman changed the title and submitted it to the publishers Kegan Paul, paying for publication out of his own pocket. It took several years and a second publisher before the poems in the collection began to capture popular interest, but by the turn of the twentieth century, the book of verses had become a favorite with the public (if not the critics) and was influencing the thought of an entire generation of young readers. As George Orwell noted in Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Housman's influence was intensely strong with young readers between 1910 and 1925, though with the benefit of hindsight, Orwell was hard put to understand why. Some of the elements that appealed, though, included an upper-class manner of looking at the countryside, as well as a "bitter, defiant paganism, a conviction that life is short and the gods are against you, which exactly fitted the prevailing mood of the young." Poems in the collection such as the famous "To an Athlete Dying Young," are songs of praise for burning the candle brightly and for dying before one's achievements become tarnished with age. "When I Was One-and-Twenty" also looks at youthful dreams, while other poems praise the sacrifice of soldiers who die in defense of their country, and still others speak of unfulfilled love (such as "Shake Hands We Shall Never Be Friends, All's Over"), of suicide, or look at those who are outsiders to society. Even nature, for Housman, offers no way out of a godless universe. As Cleanth Brooks noted in A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays, the poet's "view of nature looks forward to our time rather than back to that of Wordsworth. If nature is lovely and offers man delight, she does not offer him solace or sustain him as Wordsworth was solaced and sustained. For between Wordsworth and Housman there interpose themselves Darwin and Huxley and Tindallm—the whole achievement of Victorian science."

Written mostly in ballad form with rhyming alternate lines, and mainly short with straightforward language, the poems in A Shropshire Lad speak directly to the reader, and for this reason, in part, became popular with the public but received a good deal of critical approbation. One such scathing bit of criticism came from Cyril Connolly, writing in the New Statesman in 1936 (and reproduced in A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays), who felt that Housman's verses "are of a triteness of technique equaled only by the banality of thought." Such criticism has not ceased, but it is balanced by those critics who find in Housman's spare simplicity real rewards. Holzberger, for example, noted that "Housman's poetry is unique for his time." For this critic, one of the finest characteristics of the poet's style "is its great economy: not a word too many."Holzberger also commended Housman's turn of phrase: "The reader of Housman's poems is repeatedly inspired to admiration by the terse, memorable, and extremely well-put epigrams, pungent one-,

If you enjoy the works of A. E. Housman

If you enjoy the works of A. E. Housman, you may also want to check out the following:

Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, 1975.

Siegfried Sassoon, The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon, 1983.

Rupert Brooke, 1914 and Other Poems, 2000.

two-, or three-line statements that arrest attention." Housman, for his part, noted in his Cambridge University lecture, The Name and Nature of Poetry, that his inspiration was the poetry of Shakespeare and Heinrich Heine, as well as the Scottish border ballads. He also noted in this lecture the intuitional forces at play in his poetry, an unpopular notion at the time.

Later Life

In 1911, Housman became Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge University, where he stayed until his death in 1936. His work there consisted mainly in preparation of a five-volume edition of the work of Roman author Manilius begun in 1903 and finished in 1930. A second volume of Housman's original poems, aptly titled Last Poems, appeared in 1922. Containing perennial favorites such as "Epithalamium" and "Hell's Gate," yet this collection did not tackle new themes and forms so much as it amplified themes already found in Housman's earlier work. His later years appear to be lonely ones of poor health, yet also years in which he remained a steadfast professional classicist. Housman staunchly refused all honors offered him, including the Order of Merit and the poet laureateship. With the death of his old friend Moses Jackson in 1923, inspiration for Housman's poetry also appears to have disappeared. Very few verses remain from his final years. After his death in 1936, Housman's brother, Laurence, published a final collection of poems, which includes such famous works as "Because I Liked You Better," which perhaps too closely portrays the author's anguish at the departure of his friend, Moses Jackson: "Because I liked you better / Than suits a man to say, / It irked you, and I promised / To throw the thought away." These were words that the circumspect classicist could not dare utter during his own lifetime.

Biographical and Critical Sources


Aldington, Richard, A. E. Housman and W. B. Yeats, Peacock Press, 1955.

Bourne, Jeremy, The Westerly Wanderer: A Brief Portrait of A.E. Housman Author of "A Shropshire Lad" 1896-1996, Housman Society, 1996.

Carter, John, editor, A. E. Housman: Selected Prose, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY),1961.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 19: British Poets, 1840-1914, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

Efrati, Carol, The Road of Danger, Guilt and Shames: The Lonely Way of A. E. Housman, Farleigh Dickenson University Press (Rutherford, NJ), 2002.

Empson, William, Some Versions of Pastoral, New Directions (New York, NY), 1960.

Gow, Andrew S. F., A. E. Housman, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1936.

Graves, Richard Perceval, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet, Scribner (New York, NY), 1979.

Haber, Tom Burns, editor, The Making of "A Shrop-shire Lad": A Manuscript Variorum, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1966.

Haber, Tom Burns, A. E. Housman, Twayne (New York, NY), 1967.

Hawkins, Maude M., A. E. Housman: Man behind a Mask, Henry Regnery (Washington, DC), 1958.

Hoagwood, Terence Allan, A. E. Housman Revisited, Twayne (New York. NY), 1995.

Housman, A. E., A Shropshire Lad, Kegan Paul, 1896, Woodstock Books (New York, NY), 1994.

Housman, A. E., Last Poems, Holt (New York, NY), 1922.

Housman, A. E., More Poems, edited by Laurence Housman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1936.

Housman, A. E., Manuscript Poems: Eight Hundred Lines of Hitherto Uncollected Verse from the Author'sNotebooks, edited by Tom Burns Haber, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1955.

Housman, Laurence, My Brother, A. E. Housman, Scribner (New York, NY), 1938.

Leggett, B. J., Housman's Land of Lost Content: A Critical Study of "A Shropshire Lad," University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1970.

Leggett, B. J., The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman: Theory and Practice, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1978.

Marlow, Norman, A. E. Housman: Scholar and Poet, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, England), 1958.

Orwell, George, Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1957.

Page, Norman, A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography, Schocken (New York, NY), 1983.

Richards, Grant, Housman, 1897-1936, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1942.

Ricks, Christopher, editor, A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1968.

Robinson, Oliver, Angry Dust: The Poetry of A. E. Housman, Bruce Humphries, 1950.

Scott-Kilvert, Ian, A. E. Housman, Longman (London, England), 1955.

Sparrow, John, Controversial Essays, Chilmark House, 1966.

Symons, Katharine E., and others, Alfred Edward Housman: Recollections, Holt (New York, NY),1937.

Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 1, 1978, Volume 10, 1983.

Wallace-Hadrill, F., editor, Alfred Edward Housman, Holt (New York, NY), 1937.


English Review, February, 2004, Sarka Kuhnova, "A Shropshire Lad: A Chance Request for a Translation Prompted Sarka Kuhnova to Revisit One of the Most Popular Poets of the First World War," p. 8.

Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, September, 2001, Perry Brass, "Housman England: Empire Had Its Privileges," p. 49.

New Statesman, October 18, 1999, Lavinia Greenlaw, review of A Shropshire Lad, p. 56.

Nineteenth-Century Literature, June, 1999, review of A Shropshire Lad, p. 132.

Sewanee Review, spring, 1997, John W. Stevenson, "The State of Letters: 'A Shropshire Lad' Reappraised," p. 244.

Victorian Poetry, summer, 1969, William R. Brashear, "The Trouble with Housman," pp. 81-90; fall, 1998, Archie Burnett, "Poetical Emendations and Improvisations by A. E. Housman," p. 289; fall, 1999, Clarence Lindsay, "A. E. Housman's Silly Lad: The Loss of Romantic Consolation," p. 333; fall, 2001, Benjamin F. Fisher, "The Poets of the Nineties," p. 475.

Yale Review, October, 1999, Anthony Hecht, "Technique in Housman," p. 55; July, 2000, William Kerrigan, "Emotion in Housman," p. 46.


Academy of American Poets,http://www.poets.org/ (May 4, 2005), "A.E. Housman."

Amherst College,http://www.amherst.edu/ (May 4, 2005), "A. E. Housman, (1859-1936)."

Housman Society,http://www.housman-society.co.uk/ (May 4, 2005).

Literary Heritage,http://www3.shropshire-cc.gov.uk/ (May 4, 2005), "A. E. Housman (1859-1936)."*

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