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
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 stand apart, by themselves, in their
unique and special splendor.