A. E. Housman

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

:: Poet Home :: Poetry :: Short Stories :: Contact ::
(Redirected from Alfred Edward Housman)
Jump to: navigation, search

Alfred Edward Housman (March 26, 1859 – April 30, 1936), usually known as A.E. Housman, was an English poet and classical scholar, now best known for his cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Poetry
  • 3 Housman in other artforms
    • 3.1 Literature
    • 3.2 Visual art
    • 3.3 Film
  • 4 Works
    • 4.1 Poetry
    • 4.2 Classical scholarship
    • 4.3 Published lectures
    • 4.4 Letters
  • 5 External links
    • 5.1 On Housman in general and his life
    • 5.2 Topics
    • 5.3 Texts online
    • 5.4 A Shropshire Lad


portrait photo

Housman was born in Fockbury, Worcestershire, the eldest of seven children of a country solicitor. His brother Laurence Housman and sister Clemence Housman also became writers.

Housman was educated first at King Edward's School, 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. He was a brilliant student, gaining first class honours in classical moderations, but a withdrawn person whose only friends were his roommates Moses Jackson and A. W. Pollard. Though it is not a proven fact, some[attribution needed] believe that Housman may have had romantic feelings towards Jackson but been rejected since Jackson was heterosexual. If this was the case, it could explain Housman's unexpected failure in his final exams (the "Greats) in 1881. Housman took this failure very seriously but managed to take a pass degree the next year, after a brief period of teaching in Bromsgrove School.

After graduating, Jackson got a job as a clerk in the Patent Office in London and arranged a job there for Housman as well. They shared an apartment 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 University College London, which he accepted.

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. His reputation in this field grew steadily, and 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 hired 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 afraid of his scathing critical attacks on those whom he found guilty of unscholarly sloppiness. To his students he appeared as a severe, reticent, remote authority. The only pleasures he allowed himself in his spare time were those of gastronomy which he also practised on frequent visits to France and Italy.[citation needed]

He is thought to have been a member of the Order of Chaeronea, a secret society for homosexuals founded in 1897 by George Ives, which was named after the location of the battle where the Sacred Band of Thebes was finally annihilated in 338 BC. Other members included Charles Kains Jackson, Samuel Elsworth Cottam, Montague Summers, and John Gambril Nicholson.[citation needed]

Housman always 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 intellect. He died two years later in Cambridge. His ashes are buried near St Laurence's Church, Ludlow, Shropshire.


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, much to the surprise of his colleagues and students. At first the book sold slowly, but Housman's nostalgic depiction of brave English soldiers struck a chord with English readers and his poems became a lasting success. Later, World War I had a further increasing effect on their popularity. Several composers, Arthur Somervell first, found inspiration in the seeming folksong-like simplicity of the poems. The most famous musical settings are by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams (the On Wenlock Edge cycle), with others by Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, Michael Head (Ludlow Fair), Janet Hamilton (By Wenlock Town), Graham Peel (In Summertime on Breedon) and Ernest John Moeran.

Housman was surprised by the success of A Shropshire Lad because it, like all his poetry, is imbued with a deep pessimism and an obsession with all-pervasive death, with no place for the consolations of religion. Set in a half-imaginative pastoral Shropshire, "the land of lost content" (in fact Housman wrote most of the poems before ever visiting the place), the poems explore themes of fleetingness of love and decay of youth in a spare, uncomplicated style which many critics of the time found out of date compared with the exuberance of some of his late Victorian contemporaries. 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.

In the early 1920s, when Moses Jackson was dying in Canada, Housman wanted to assemble his best unpublished poems together so that Jackson could read them before his death. These later poems, most of them written before 1910, show a greater variety of subject and form than those in A Shropshire Lad but also a certain lack of the kind of consistency found in the earlier poems. He published them as his Last Poems (1922) because he thought that his poetic inspiration was running out and that he would not publish any more poems in his lifetime. This proved true.

Housman's brother Laurence edited his posthumous poems which appeared in More Poems (1936) and Complete Poems (1939). In these poems, Housman appears more candid about his homosexuality and atheism than in his lifetime, though the essay De Amicitia, published by Laurence Housman in 1967, is even more revealing. Housman also wrote a parodic Fragment of a Greek Tragedy, in English, and humorous poems published posthumously under the title Unkind to Unicorns.

One of Housman's most familiar poems is number XIII from A Shropshire Lad, untitled but often anthologized under the title "When I was one-and-twenty", taken from its first line. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes no fewer than fourteen of its sixteen lines. Another well-known poem from the same volume is number XIX, "To An Athlete Dying Young", which contrasts death with fleeting beauty and physical prowess.

Housman in other artforms


Housman is the main character in the 1998 Tom Stoppard play The Invention of Love.

Housman's poetry ("There's this to say for life and breath, it gives a man a taste for death") supplies the title and is quoted in the Peter O'Donnell Modesty Blaise thriller, A Taste for Death.

"A Taste for Death" is also the title of P.D. James´ 1986 crime novel, the 7th in her Adam Dalgliesh series.

'A Shropshire Lad is mentioned in E.M. Forster's A Room with a View: one of the characters, Reverend Beebe, picks up the book from a stack whilst visiting the Emerson home, and remarks "Never heard of it", perhaps lamenting the son's "unconventional" - if not sacrilegious - literary taste. [1]

Housman is mentioned and quoted several times by Diana Gabaldon in her popular historical fiction series, starting with Outlander.

There is a reference to Housman in Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, when Robbie, an English literature graduate from Cambridge, glances at his copy of Poems and A Shropshire lad.

Another reference to Housman can be found in The Secret History by Donna Tartt. "With Rue My Heart is Laden" is recited by Henry during the burial ceremony of Bunny.

Meryl Streep, portraying Karen Blixen, quotes "To an Athlete Dying Young" at the gravesite of Denis Finch-Hatton in "Out of Africa" (1985). Toward the end of the film, she accepts a drink from the exclusive all men's club in Nairobi, and toasts "rose-lipped maidens, lightfoot lads" -- an allusion to Houseman's "With Rue My Heart Is Laden".

In Chinua Achebe's novel "No Longer At Ease," the main character Obi frequently refers to Housman's poetry, particularly "Easter Hymn."

In John Dos Passos' novel, Three Soldiers a quote from Housman's "A Shropshire lad" is cited by the educated Andrews in part four, chapter one, "mocking" Andrews as it jingled through his head.

Housman's poetry appealed to a significant number of British - and in particular English - composers in the first half of the 20th century. The national, pastoral and traditional elements of his style resonated with similar trends in English music. It is also suggested that the melancholy strain in the poems appealed to a generation of composers deeply influenced by the carnage of the First World War. George Butterworth, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, C.W. Orr, Ethel Smyth, Arthur Somervell, and Ralph Vaughan Williams all wrote Housman settings.[citation needed] Gerald Finzi repeatedly began settings, though never finished any. Even composers not normally associated with the pastoral tradition, such as Arnold Bax, Lennox Berkeley and Arthur Bliss, were attracted to Housman's poetry.

While Housman's poetry had a marked impact on British music, it has not been limited in its appeal by time, place or style. The American composer Samuel Barber set With rue my heart is laden. The contemporary New Zealand composer David Downes includes a setting of March on his CD The Rusted Wheel of Things.

Visual art

A wall hanging of A Shropshire Lad was created and now hangs prominently in the St Laurence Church, Ludlow, England. A plaque honouring the poet is also installed on the church grounds.


Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film Walkabout concludes with lines from A Shropshire Lad, spoken by a narrator.

John Irvin's (1981) Dogs of War (film) ends with Epitaph for an Army of Mercenaries being sung over the end titles.

Meryl Streep, portraying Karen Blixen, quotes "To an Athlete Dying Young" from A Shropshire Lad at the gravesite of Denys Finch Hatton in the film Out of Africa (1985).

A line from Housman's poem XVI "How Clear, How Lovely Bright", was used for the title of the last episode of the television movie series "Inspector Morse" (The Remorseful Day). Morse also quotes the last stanza of the poem 27 minutes into the episode.



  • A Shropshire Lad (1896)
  • Last Poems (1922)
  • More Poems (1936)
  • Collected Poems (1939); the poems included in this volume but not the three above are known as Additional Poems
  • Manuscript Poems: Eight Hundred Lines of Hitherto Un-collected Verse from the Author's Notebooks, ed. Tom Burns Haber (1955)
  • Unkind to Unicorns: Selected Comic Verse, ed. J. Roy Birch (1995; 2nd ed. 1999)
  • The Poems of A. E. Housman, ed. Archie Burnett (1997)

Classical scholarship

  • M. Manilii Astronomica (1903-1930; 2nd ed. 1937; 5 vols.)
  • D. Iunii Iuuenalis Saturae: editorum in usum edidit (1905; 2nd ed. 1931)
  • M. Annaei Lucani, Belli Ciuilis, Libri Decem: editorum in usum edidit (1926; 2nd ed. 1927)
  • The Classical Papers of A. E. Housman, ed. J. Diggle and F. R. D. Goodyear (1972; 3 vols.)

Published lectures

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

  • Introductory Lecture (1892)
  • "Swinburne" (1910; published 1969)
  • Cambridge Inaugural Lecture (1911; published 1969 as "The Confines of Criticism")
  • "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism" (1921; published 1922)
  • "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (1933)


  • The Letters of A.E. Housman, ed. Henry Maas (1971)
  • The Letters of A.E. Housman, ed. Archie Burnett (2007)
  • Housman's Grave
  • Star man: An article in the TLS by Robert Douglas Fairhurst, June 20th 2007
  • Topics

    • [2]"A footnote for Housman" by Brad Leithauser in The New Criterion September 1991
    • English Composers and A.E. Housman

    Texts online

    • Works by Alfred Edward Housman at Project Gutenberg
    • Complete serious poems.
    • A.E. Housman Poetry and Translations at the Open Translation Project sponsored by Bryant H. McGill

    A Shropshire Lad

    • A Shropshire Lad
    • Audio recording of The Shropshire Lad poems, read by Richard Sater - RealAudio
    • Account of the 1996 centenary reading of A Shropshire Lad complete, by The Housman Society, with one audio excerpt
    This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from a Wikipedia article. To access the original click here.
    Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document
    under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
    or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation;
    with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
    A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU
    Free Documentation License".