A.E. Housman’s Legacy

A.E. Housman was born on 26 March 1859 and died on 30 April 1936. He lived through the Crimean War, the Boer War, and the Great War of 1914-18.

A.E. Housman, 1910.

As the author of A Shropshire Lad and Last Poems Housman gained his foothold on immortality. His poems were instantly accessible and memorable. The many dusty volumes he intended as his monument to his work of Latin scholarship are by comparison virtually forgotten – even though rated by himself as more important than his poetry.

An early poem communicated an intense essence – a sort of bitter-sweet nostalgia – destined to become some of his most loved and quoted lines:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content’
I see it shining plain
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Housman served no apprenticeship in the business of poetry – belonged to no poetic school but produced poems with a totally original poetic voice and a complete and unique certainty of expression.

Thomas Hardy’s favourite sums up Housman’s sense of love’s impermanence and the mutability of both love and friendship. Housman thought it possibly his best poem.

‘Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?’

Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

‘Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?’

Ay, the ball is flying
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

‘Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?’

Ay she lies down lightly,
She lies down not to weep;
Your girl is well contented.
Be still my lad and sleep.

‘Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?’

Yes lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.

William Archer a notable critic of the day summed up the impact of Housman’s book of poetry:

You may read it in half an hour but there are things in it you will scarce forget in a lifetime. It tingles with an original, fascinating, melancholy vitality.’

Although published in 1896 A Shropshire Lad speaks to the problems of today, speaks eloquently of the painful mutability of human relationships and speaks in a confronting yet comforting way about the inevitability of death, a subject contemporary man seeks generally to avoid.  When he voices his outrage at the laws of God and Man which deny him the freedom to be as he was made, he speaks to one of today’s most threatening problems – the still lethal effects of intolerance.

– The trial of Oscar Wilde –

The trial of Oscar Wilde provided propulsion for some of Housman’s most pointed poems.  His own inner emotional life provided the stuff for most of the rest. Another profound shock came in 1895 – the trial of Oscar Wilde – Housman knew from his experience of feeling an emotional attachment to Moses Jackson that he was himself sexually different – that he himself was in peril.

Oscar Wilde’s trial in 1895 – sentenced to two years hard labour produced an intense and bitter poem – never published in his own lifetime only later by brother Laurence in his Additional Poems.  It could have been about himself:

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

‘Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time ‘twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he’d taken and a pretty price he’s paid
To hide his poll or die it of a mentionable shade;
But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they’re haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now ‘tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair

This poem demonstrates how threatened and vulnerable Housman felt. Yet there is no evidence that Housman identified with Wilde either as a man or as a writer; Wilde’s flamboyant and extrovert behaviour and mannered flowery poetry were the antithesis of Housman. He did not at any time send Wilde a copy of this poem. Common sense told him that his newly minted career would end if he came to Wilde’s defence. But he did make a gesture. In 1928 he told Seymour Adelman, an American bibliophile, ‘A Shropshire Lad was published while Mr Wilde was in prison, and when he came out I sent him a copy. Robbie Ross [Wilde’s friend and literary executor] told me that when he visited his friend in jail he had learnt some of the poems by heart and recited them to him’ (1).

This guest article was written by Edgar Vincent who read English at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. His first biography Nelson Love & Fame was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2004. A.E. Housman: Hero of the Hidden Life by Edgar Vincent is available from Boydell Press.

A.E. Housman: Hero of the Hidden Life
by Edgar Vincent

Hardback / 9781783272419 / £18.75 or $26.21
ebook for Handhelds / 9781787440999 / £14.99 or $18.74
eBook / 9781787440982 / £14.99 or $18.75
  1. A.E.H. to Seymour Adelman, 21 Jun. 1928, Burnett, A., The Letters of A.E. Housman, 2 vols, Oxford, 2007, p. 77

Subscribe to the Boydell & Brewer blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

* indicates required

Recent Posts