A.E. Housman

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Alfred Edward Housman, (1859 – 1936), universally referred to as A.E. Housman, was an English poet and classical scholar. A Worcestershire lad, he went to grammar school there, before entering St John's College, Oxford where, although initially successful, he ultimately failed the final exam. He got a job in the Patents Office.

He began spending his free time in the British Museum Reading Room. In 1882 he published a paper on Horace which gained him attention; in the next ten years he wrote emendations of other Classical writers that earned him acceptance as a Professor of Latin at the University of London, before, some years later, accepting a Fellowship at Trinity College, Oxford. There, he worked on editing the works of an obscure Latin writer, Manilius. His editions of these works – all five volumes of them - became more notable for Housman's “pungent” commentaries in the footnotes than the words of the poor chap himself.

Meanwhile, he wrote poetry; for which we know him - and are thankful for - today. His volume of poems, A Shropshire Lad, was published in 1896. Its dark and pessimistic mood was completely at odds with 1890s British imperial optimism and vigour, but struck a chord with the reader all the same, with the simplicity of the emotions expressed and its lyricism.

It is hard to believe, reading some of these poems, that the Great War was still eight years away. (See an example at Ludlow) His constant expressions of love unfulfilled, of life ended before its time, of living a normal life with a painful heart, of general pessimism, said with an often off-hand mien struck a chord with the reader. The poems have been favourites in anthologies ever since.

His poetry also affected the composers of the “English musical renaissance” of the twentieth century. From early in the century, Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, William Walton, Ivor Gurney, and many others found musical inspiration in the lyricism, the emotional severity and economical simplicity of the poetry. At present there are over forty CDs featuring song settings of Housman poems in catalogues. There has been no English poet since Shakespeare that has so stirred the juices of art-song composers.

Last Poems appeared in 1922; similar but showing even more stoicism and, perhaps, more bitter than A Shropshire Lad. Another collection More Poems was released by his brother in the year of Housman's death, 1936. Housman was homosexual in a culture unwilling to understand it. He was loved and admired by his pupils, but ignored by his academic peers who were afraid of guilt by association to give him the time of day. He is still revered in the halls at Cambridge. He is certainly revered by the music loving public.

He was never a “Shropshire Lad” but visited and loved the area and is buried in the grounds of St. Laurence's Church Ludlow.