Authors: A. E. Housman

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English poet and critic

Author Works

Poetry:

A Shropshire Lad, 1896

Last Poems, 1922

More Poems, 1936

Collected Poems, 1939

Long Fiction:

A Morning with the Royal Family, 1882

Nonfiction:

The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism, 1922

The Name and Nature of Poetry, 1933

Introductory Lecture, 1937

Selected Prose, 1961 (John Carter, editor)

The Confines of Criticism, 1969

The Letters of A. E. Housman, 1971 (Henry Maas, editor)

The Classical Papers of A. E. Housman, 1972 (J. Diggle and F. R. D. Goodyear, editors)

Edited Texts:

M. Manilii Astronomicon Liber Primus, 1903

Ivnii Ivvenalis Satvrae, 1905

M. Manilii Astronomicon Liber Secundus, 1912

M. Manilii Astronomicon Liber Tertius, 1916

M. Manilii Astronomicon Liber Quartus, 1920

M. Annaei Lvcani Belli Civilis Libri Decem, 1926

M. Manilii Astronomicon Liber Quintus, 1930

Biography

Despite the title of his most famous volume, Alfred Edward Housman (HOW-smuhn) came not from Shropshire but from Fockbury in the neighboring county of Worcestershire. He was born the son of Edward Housman, a solicitor and the elder brother of the author and artist Laurence Housman. A. E. Housman was educated at St. John’s College, Oxford, between 1877 and 1881, but when he failed his examination in Greats he returned to his home in humiliation. He went back to Oxford in the fall of 1881, working as a tutor in Greek and Latin and studying for the Civil Service Examination. When he left Oxford the following year with a lowly “pass” degree, he obtained a position in the Patent Office in London and devoted his evenings to classical studies. In 1888 he published a series of brilliant scholarly articles that won him an international reputation and the chair in Latin at University College, London, a position he retained until 1911, when he was elected Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge University and a fellow of Trinity College. There he remained for the rest of his life.{$I[AN]9810000481}{$I[A]Housman, A. E.}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Housman, A. E.}{$I[tim]1859;Housman, A. E.}

A. E. Housman

(Library of Congress)

Although Housman is known to the general public only as a poet, his poetry represented but a small part of his life’s work. His main efforts were in classical scholarship, particularly Latin, and in this special world he obtained a formidable reputation. He was especially famous for his biting sarcasm when dealing with the productions of less competent scholars, usually Germans. He denied harboring an animus against Germany, but because most of the work in the highly specialized field of classical scholarship was done by Germans, they inevitably became the victims of his satire. It was characteristic that he spent thirty years on the second-rate poet Manilius, whose work afforded interesting problems in Latin usage and textual criticism.

Of all the poets of Housman’s time, none won so great a reputation from such a small body of work. His volumes are slender, and most of the poems consist of but a few quatrains. That twenty-five years should have elapsed between his first book and his second is indicative of his careful workmanship. It has been suggested that the discipline of classical scholarship, as well as the terseness of the Latin language, had an important influence on his highly compressed style.

Housman said that the three great influences on his poetry were William Shakespeare’s songs, the Scottish border ballads, and the poems of Heinrich Heine–all of which achieve their effects with the greatest economy of means. A Shropshire Lad represented a reaction against the linguistic luxuriance of such Victorian poets as Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Robert Browning; and Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Housman kept his themes and their consequent emotions within a very narrow range. Repeatedly he returned to the same ideas: the passing of spring and of youth and the brevity and tragedy of life. The wind will strip the petals from the flowering trees; the boys and girls, now so brave and young, will all too soon be lying in their narrow beds of clay. It is a bitter, uncompromising, tragic view of life, devoid of hope. To contend against the inexorable tragedy of life is vain, yet individuals must make the struggle against hopeless odds–“As I strap on for fighting/ My sword that will not save.”

The criticism brought against Housman’s poetry was twofold, charging that he overindulged in certain mannerisms of language, and that he artificially cultivated a tragic attitude. There is some validity in the first charge; to the second, there is his own answer: “They say my verse is sad: no wonder;/ Its narrow measure spans/ Tears of eternity, and sorrow,/ Not mine, but man’s.”

BibliographyBayley, John. Housman’s Poems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.Graves, Richard Perceval. A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. A fine, balanced biography, drawing on material previously unpublished from public and private sources. Especially significant is Graves’s reconciliation of Housman’s romantic poetry and classical scholarship. Extensive notes and a bibliographical essay make this volume an especially useful study.Holden, Alan W., and J. Roy Birch. A. E. Housman: A Reassessment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A collection of both biographical and critical essays which uncover the deceptive simplicity of Housman’s poetry and life. Includes bibliographical references and index.Leggett, B. J. Housman’s Land of Lost Content: A Critical Study of “A Shropshire Lad.” Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970. Contending that A Shropshire Lad contains most of Housman’s enduring poems, Leggett provides a painstaking analysis of its structure and its theme (“the problem of change”). Leggett aims to shift discussion away from Housman’s personality. The bibliography is especially helpful in bringing together the fragmentary and scattered commentary on Housman.Leggett, B. J. The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978. A useful study divided by topics: the use of metaphor, nature poetry, structural patterns, Housman, T. S. Eliot, and “critical fashion in the thirties.” Leggett devotes two chapters to Housman’s theory and practice of poetry because this has been a contested point in literary criticism. Supplemented by extensive notes but no bibliography.Naiditch, P. G. Problems in the Life and Writings of A. E. Housman. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Krown & Spellmam, 1995. A lucid and readable biographical account with lasting contributions to knowledge of a great and controversial scholar. Includes a bibliography and index.Page, Norman. A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography. New York: Schocken Books, 1983. A succinct account drawing on published and unpublished sources, with separate chapters on Housman’s classical scholarship and the development of his poetry. The introduction is especially helpful on the biographer’s method, on his evaluation of previous biographies, and on his decision to separate discussions of the life and the work.
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