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).