AE Housman Scholar And Poet

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AE Housman Scholar and Poet

A.E. Housman: Scholar and Poet
Alfred Edward Housman, a classical scholar and poet, was born in
Fockbury in the county of Worcestershire, England on March 26, 1859. His
poems are variations on the themes of mortality and the miseries of human
condition (Magill 1411). Most of Housman’s poems were written in the 1890’s
when he was under great psychological stress, which made the tone of his
poems characteristically mournful and the mood dispirited (Magill 1411). “In the
world of Housman’s poetry, youth fades to dust, lovers are unfaithful, and death
is the tranquil end of everything (Magill 1412).”
Throughout his life, Housman faced many hardships. The loss of his
mother at age 12 shattered his childhood and left him with tremendous feelings
of loneliness, from which he never fully recovered. His father began to drink as
a result of his mother’s death and began a long slide into poverty. When
Housman went to college, he had a deep and lasting friendship with Moses
Jackson. He had developed a passionate attachment and fallen in love with
him. When the relationship did not work out, Housman plunged into a suicidal
gloom which was to persist at intervals for the rest of his life. His declaration
that “I have seldom written poetry unless I was rather out of health,” seems to
support the opinion that emotional trauma greatly influenced his work. The only
way to relieve himself from this state of melancholy was by writing (Magill 1409).
As a result of Housman’s poor childhood and misfortunes, he devoted
most of his life to erudition and poetry. He was educated at Bromsgrove school
and won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied classical literature
and philosophy. After graduating from Oxford, he became a professor of Latin,
first at University College and later at Cambridge University. He was a
knowledgeable and scholarly individual who was fluent in five languages (Magill
1405). Over a period of fifty years, Housman gave many enlightening lectures,
wrote numerous critical papers and reviews, and three volumes of poetry.
In all of his poetry, Housman continually returns to certain preferred
themes. The most common theme discussed in the poems is time and the
inevitability of death. He views time and aging as horrible processes and has
the attitude that each day one lives is a day closer to death Cleanth Brooks
stated, “Time is, with Housman, always the enemy.” The joy and beauty of life
is darkened by the shadow of fast approaching death (Discovering Authors 7).
He often uses symbolism to express death, therefore the reader has to look into
the true meaning of the poem to see it’s connection with death.
Another frequent theme in Housman’s poetry is the attitude that the
universe is cruel and hostile, created by a god who has abandoned it. R.
Kowalczyk summed up this common theme when he stated:

Housman’s poetic characters fail to find divine love in the
universe. They confront the enormity of space and realize that
they are victims of Nature’s blind forces. A number of Housman’s
lyrics scrutinize with cool, detached irony the impersonal
universe, the vicious world in which man was placed to endure
his fated existence (Discovering Authors 8).

Housman believed that God created our universe and left us in this unkind
world to fend for ourselves.
The majority of Housman’s poems are short and simple. It is not difficult
to analyze his writing or find the true meaning of his poems. However, the
directness and simplicity of much of Housman’s poetry were viewed as faults.
Many critics view Housman’s poetry as “adolescent”, thus he is considered a
minor poet.
The range of meter that Housman uses varies from four to sixteen
syllables in length. John Macdonald claims “What is remarkable about
Housman’s poetry is the amount and the sublety variation within a single stanza,
and the almost uncanny felicity with which the stresses of the metrical pattern
coincide with the normal accents of the sentence (Discovering Authors 11).”
Housman uses monosyllabic and simple words in his poetry, but the words that
he chooses to use fit together rhythmically and express the idea with a clear
To express his vivid images Housman uses epithets, which are words or
phrases that state a particular quality about someone or something (English
Tradition 1399). Housman uses epithets sparingly, but when he uses them they
are creative and original: such phrases as “light-leaved spring,” the bluebells of
the listless plain,” and “golden friends” make his poetry decorative and filled with
imagery (British Writers 162).
In 1896, A Shropshire Lad was published at the expense of Housman
himself. At the time, it made little impression on the critics, but the public took to
the bittersweet poems which were, according to Housman’s own definition of
poetry, “more physical that intellectual (Untermeyer 609).”
The poems in A Shropshire Lad, Housman’s most famous collection of
verse, are generally simple, brisk, written in precise language, and contain
regular rhythms. The appealing, facile rhymes in his poems contrast sharply
with his despondent themes, which reflect both the pessimism of the late
Victorian age and the grief in his own life (English Tradition 849).
The collection of poems that went into A Shropshire Lad were first written
because Housman felt compelled to express his emotions at this time. Many of
his poems relate directly or indirectly to his desire for Moses Jackson. A variety
of the poems include images that refer to the landscape, the changing of
seasons, the blossoming of trees and flowers, youth fading away, and death.
Other poems were written at moments of fierce anger and revolt about certain
social injustices (Hawkins 144). Five of his poems that display his harsh and
morose feelings towards love and life are Loveliest of Trees, When the Lad for
Longing Sighs, When I Was One-and-Twenty, Bredon Hill, and With Rue my
Heart is Laden.
In addition, numerous poems in A Shropshire Lad deal with insight and
discovery. B.J. Leggett claims “The poems show an ongoing structure which
carries the persona from innocence to knowledge or from expectation to
disillusionment.” Most of these are found in the first half of the volume, which
concentrates on the innocent’s encounter with the unfamiliar world of death and
change (Leggett 63). In The Loveliest of Trees, the speaker discovers human
mortality, fading youth, and therefore moves from innocence to knowledge.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

In the first stanza the speaker describes the cherry tree as “Wearing white
for Eastertide.” White is the ritual color for Easter, and thus the tree and it’s
blossoms represent the rebirth of Christ along with the rebirth of the year. In this
stanza, the speaker appears innocent and optimistic. He does not posses the
realization that he is mortal. However, the rebirth is contrasted by the
awareness that the blossoms of cherry trees may be beautiful, but they are
fragile and short-lived, just as his life is (Leggett 47). The understanding of his
mortality leads the speaker from his innocence to knowledge.
In the second stanza the speaker grasps the concept that he will die and
in actuality his life is very short. He begins to calculate his age and how much
time he has before he dies. He explains how he will live “threescore years and
ten” which is seventy years. He then subtracts twenty years from the threescore
which makes him twenty years of age. He comes to the conclusion that he only
has fifty more springs to live (Discovering Authors 3).
B.J. Legett states “In the last stanza ‘Things in Bloom’ now suggest
something of the vitality of life which has become more precious. The limitation
of life is carried by the understatement of ‘little room’ (Discovering Authors 3).”
His vision of a springtime world of rebirth is altered by his sudden sense of his
own transience, so he can only see the cherry as “hung with snow,” an obvious
suggestion of death (Hoagwood 31). The view of the poem is shifted from a
world of spring and rebirth to one of winter and death. Terence Hoagwood

The connotations of Easter contradict the connotations of
“snow”-the one implies rebirth, the other death. The fact that the
liveliness of youth will not return contradicts the conventional
content of the Easter symbolism ,and likewise the theme of the
seasons (Hoagwood 49).
In the poem When the Lad for Longing Sighs, Housman reveals his talent
of using monosyllabic words to express his ideas in a clear and imaginative
manner. All of the words in the poem are monosyllabic with the exception of
“longing,” “Maiden,” “Lovers,” “ and forlorn.” Terence Hoagwood claims “This
simplicity of diction is characteristic of Housman, coinciding as it does with
considerable complexity of effect (Hoagwood 51). He concentrates on the
theme of longing for love and love being the cure for illnesses.

When the lad for longing sighs,
Mute and dull of cheer and pale,
If at death’s own door he lies,
Maiden, you can heal his ail.

Lovers’ ills are all to buy:
The wan look, the hollow tone,
The hung head, the sunken eye,
You can have them for your own.

Buy them, buy them: eve and morn
Lovers’ ills are all to sell.
Then you can lie down forlorn;
But the lover will be well.

In the first stanza the lad who is sighing for love is miserable and
unhealthy to the point that he is lying at “death’s door,” or his death bed. He
believes that the maiden can “heal his ail” and put him in a cheerful mood. The
remainder of the poem focuses on how the maiden should “buy” or accept the
lad’s ills even though she is not in love with him. Consequently, she should
exchange her happiness and love for his suffering, thus “lie down

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