The Poetry of A. E. Housman Housman was born in Burton-On-Trent, England, in 1865, just as the US Civil War was ending. As a young child, he was disturbed by the news of slaughter from the former British colonies, and was affected deeply. This turned him into a brooding, introverted teenager and a misanthropic, pessimistic adult.
This outlook on life shows clearly in his poetry. Housman believed that people were generally evil, and that life conspired against mankind. This is evident not only in his poetry, but also in his short stories. For example, his story, “The Child of Lancashire,” published in 1893 in The London Gazette, is about an child who travels to London, where his parents die, and he becomes a street urchin. There are veiled implications that the child is a homosexual (as was Housman, most probably), and he becomes mixed up with a gang of similar youths, attacking affluent pedestrians and stealing their watches and gold coins. Eventually he leaves the gang and becomes wealthy, but is attacked by the same gang (who don’t recognize him) and is thrown off London Bridge into the Thames, which is unfortunately frozen over, and is killed on the hard ice below.
Housman’s poetry is similarly pessimistic. In fully half the poems the speaker is dead. In others, he is about to die or wants to die, or his girlfriend is dead. Death is a really important stage of life to Housman; without death, Housman would probably not have been able to be a poet. (Housman, himself, died in 1937.) A few of his poems show an uncharacteristic optimism and love of beauty, however.
For example, in his poem “Trees,” he begins: “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Hung low with bloom along the bow Stands about the woodland side A virgin in white for Eastertide” ..and ends: “Poems are made by fools like me But only God can make a tree.” (This is a popular quotation, yet most people don’t know its source!) Religion is another theme of Housman’s. Housman seems to have had trouble reconciling conventional Christianity with his homosexuality and his deep clinical depression. In “Apologia pro Poemate Meo” he states: “In heaven-high musings and many Far off in the wayward night sky, I would think that the love I bear you Would make you unable to die [death again] Would God in his church in heaven Forgive us our sins of the day, That boy and man together Might join in the night and the way.” I think that the sense of hopelessness and homosexual longing is unmistakable. However, these themes went entirely over the heads of the people of Housman’s day, in the early 1900s. The best known collection of Housman’s poetry is A Shropshire Lad, published in 1925, followed shortly by More Poems, 1927, and Even More Poems, 1928.
Unsurprisingly, most collections have the same sense and style. They could easily be one collection, in terms of stylistic content. All show a sense of the fragility of life, the perversity of existence, and a thinly veiled homosexual longing, in spite of the fact that many of the poems apparently (but subliminally?) speak of young women. It is clear from these works that women were only a metaphor for love, which in Housman’s case usually did not include the female half of society. More Poems contains perhaps the best statement of Housman’s philosophy of life, a long, untitled poem (no. LXIX) with oblique references to the town of his birth, Burton-on-Trent, and statements like: “And while the sun and moon endure Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure..” Indeed, how much more pessimistic can one be? Not only a poet and storyteller, Housman was a noted classical scholar.
He is known for his extensive translations of the Greek classics, especially Greek plays by Euripides and Sophocles. Unfortunately, the bulk of his manuscripts were lost in a disastrous fire in his office at Oxford, which was caused by a lit cigar falling into a stack of papers. There were rumors that Housman was hidden in a closet with a young boy at the time, and therefore did not see the fire in his own office until it was too late to extinguish it. The Trustees of the college, however, managed to squelch the rumors, and Housman’s academic tenure was not threatened by the incident. Now only a few gems of his poetic translation remain. One of the finest is from Sophocles’ Alcestis, which begins: “Of strong things I find not any That is as the strength of Fate..” Indeed, a comment on Housman’s sense of fatalism. Housman is considered a minor poet, primarily because of his use of rhyme and meter, and frequent and effective use of imagery and symbolism.
(It is generally accepted that major twentieth-century poetry must inevitably go beyond the strictures of late-nineteenth century styles, so any poet using such styles can only be classed as minor.) Nonetheless, I like him. I can forgive his sexual orientation, especially since my own father and brother share it (and sometimes I wonder about myself!) His wonderful poetry and other writings ezd apart, by themselves, in their unique and special splendor.