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Alfred Edward Housman was born in Frockbury, Worcestershire, in 1859. Educated at Bromsgrove School, he won a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford. He became a distinguished classical scholar and in 1892 was appointed professor of Latin at University College, London.
In 1896 he published A Shropshire Lad. The 63 poems recall the innocence, the pleasures and the tragedies of the countryside. He also published critical editions of Manilius (1903) and Juvenal (1905). In 1911 Housman became Professor of Latin at Cambridge University. His brother, Laurence Housman, was also a successful writer and illustrator.
During the First World War Housman published several poems about the conflict including Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries (1914).
Housman continued to write poetry and his Last Poems (1922) met with great acclaim. Praefanda (1931) was a collection of bawdy and obscene passages from Latin authors. Alfred Edward Housman died in 1936.
These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth's foundations stay;
When God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
Here we dead lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is, and we were young.
Biography of Alfred Edward Housman
Alfred Edward Housman (/ˈhaʊsmən/ 26 March 1859 – 30 April 1936), usually known as A. E. Housman, was an English classical scholar and poet, best known to the general public for his cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad. Lyrical and almost epigrammatic in form, the poems wistfully evoke the dooms and disappointments of youth in the English countryside. Their beauty, simplicity and distinctive imagery appealed strongly to Edwardian taste, and to many early 20th-century English composers both before and after the First World War. Through their song-settings, the poems became closely associated with that era, and with Shropshire itself.
Housman was one of the foremost classicists of his age and has been ranked as one of the greatest scholars who ever lived. He established his reputation publishing as a private scholar and, on the strength and quality of his work, was appointed Professor of Latin at University College London and then at the University of Cambridge. His editions of Juvenal, Manilius and Lucan are still considered authoritative.
Conservatism and Creativity in A.E. Housman
As Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love begins, A. E. Housman “aged seventy-seven, . . . stands on the bank of the Styx watching the approach of the ferryman, Charon,” who tells him they have to wait for another passenger. 1
Charon A poet and a scholar is what I was told.
AEH I think that must be me.
Charon Both of them?
AEH I’m afraid so.
Charon It sounded like two different people.
AEH I know.
Stoppard begins with the public division between the poet, the “true” poet of A Shropshire Lad, and the scholar, severe and often caustic, who held chairs of Latin at University College, London, and at Cambridge University. Stoppard also explores an even bigger hiatus in Housman’s life, one that appears in his poetry:
He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand and tore my life in sunder
And went with half my life about my ways. 2
To put the world between us
We parted stiff and dry
“Farewell,” said you, “forget me.”
“Fare well, I will,” said I. 3
We do not know the details of that parting, recreated in Tom Stoppard’s imagination, 4 but the scene echoes through the poetry Housman wrote in his notebooks which was published after his death by his brother, Laurence. Many see the difference between the Shropshire Lad’s mournful strains and the cold cruelty of the Latin professor’s reviews emerging from the chasm that separated Housman from the man he loved.
Alfred Edward Housman 5 was born on March 26, 1859, “in Worcestershire, not Shropshire.” 6 He enjoyed academic success, winning scholarships to King Edward VI Grammar School, Bromsgrove, in his hometown, and to St. John’s College, Oxford, where he received a First Class in “Mods,” examinations on classical Greek and Latin language and literature. Two years later he was “ploughed in Greats,” that is, his examiners denied him even a passing grade in his final examinations on ancient history and philosophy. As Housman wrote, “In 1879 I was placed in the first class in the Honour School of Classical Moderations in 1881 I failed to obtain honours in the Final School of Litterae Humaniores.” 7
Housman left Oxford without a degree. Biographers have attributed the failure to many reasons, 8 including arrogance 9 or a possible religious crisis. 10 (He lost his Christian faith at thirteen, when his mother died, and became an atheist at twenty-one, the year before he failed Greats.) 11 Others suspect a romantic cause. 12 He later wrote, “Oxford did not have much influence on me, except that there I met my greatest friend,” 13 Moses John Jackson (1858–1923), 14 “the man who had more influence on my life than anybody else,” 15 and one source of “the great and real problems of my early manhood.” 16 Housman, once the playful leader of his family’s seven children, moved to London where he avoided them. He earned a Pass degree and went to work in Her Majesty’s Patent Office, where Jackson was also employed.
Housman roomed with Moses from 1883–1885. Moses’ brother Adalbert lived with them until December 1884. In Fall 1885 something happened. Housman disappeared for a week. Moses wrote anxiously to Housman’s father, but Housman showed up again and each moved to separate accommodations. In 1887 Jackson moved to Karachi, India, to become principal of a technical school, Sind College. When he returned to marry in 1889, he kept the news from Housman until he and his bride had sailed. (Housman wrote in his diary on 7 January 1890, “I heard he was married.”) When Jackson retired, he moved to Canada, where he died of cancer in 1923.
Adalbert remained Housman’s friend until his death in 1892, the year Housman was elected to the Chair of Latin at University College, London, the reward for a decade of articles in classical journals, written in evening hours after his work at the Patent Office. In 1911 Housman was elected Professor of Latin at Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College, where he lived and lectured until his death in 1936. For those twenty-five years pictures of Moses and Adalbert hung above the fireplace in his rooms at Trinity.
It was as a Professor, after “the really emotional part of my life was over,” 17 that Housman composed the poetry published by himself as A Shropshire Lad (1896) and Last Poems (1922) and by his brother, Laurence, as More Poems (1936) and Additional Poems (1937). Despite favorable reviews, A Shropshire Lad did not sell well at first, but by the time of the Great War it had become a popular favorite. Last Poems was an instant bestseller. During these years Housman produced enough scholarly articles and reviews to fill three large volumes and critical editions of Ovid’s Ibis, Juvenal, Lucan, and Manilius. 18
Neither poet nor scholar believed that human desires can change the world:
Ay look: high heaven and earth ail from the prime foundation
All thoughts to rive the heart are here and all are vain. 19
—To think that two and two are four
And neither five nor three
The heart of man has long been sore
And long ’tis like to be. 20
Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault
It rains into the sea
And still the sea is salt. 21
In the verse this gloomy insight is accepted with stoic resignation or avoided by drinking. In his scholarly prose it appears as the ironic dance of satire:
Chance and the common course of nature will not bring it to pass that the readings of a MS are right whenever they are possible and impossible whenever they are wrong: that needs divine intervention and when one considers the history of man and the spectacle of the universe I hope that I may say without impiety that divine intervention might have been better employed elsewhere. 22
This enduring theme of Housman’s poetry and scholarly prose, that there is an objective world, which must be lived in despite the fact that it does not answer to human desires, may give a clue to the unity of his life’s work.
“I am a conservative, and do not like changing anything without due reason.” 23 In 1914 he refused a request to sign a petition to reform English spelling by writing, “I confess I am attached to the current forms of words, and also I am what you have often heard of but perhaps not often seen, a real conservative, who thinks change an evil in itself. ”24 The unity or disunity of Housman’s poetry and prose has often been sought in his unhappy love life, his homosexuality, or his loss of faith. The most consistent trait in his life, however, was his political and social conservatism. Here, therefore, it may be worthwhile to consider his conservatism in politics, art, and scholarship.
The Housmans were Conservatives and their favorite family toast was “Up with the Tories and out with the Radicals!” 25 His letters home make politics the best-documented aspect of his college years. 26 At Oxford he participated in student debates and demonstrations. A strong Conservative in a Conservative stronghold, he objected to the way his fellow Conservatives shouted down and threw out Liberal opponents. He had no objection, however, to burning Gladstone in effigy and was quite put out by the Liberal victory of 1880. 27 Later in life he professed indifference to party politics, but “generally welcomed a Conservative victory at a bye-election, ‘because,’ he said, ‘it will vex the kind of people I don’t like.’” 28 Several of his letters reveal a detailed knowledge of the leaders and politics of the Conservative Party and a healthy disdain for “the fetish” of Free Trade. 29 He went out of his way to tell the leftist Gilbert Murray that he would not vote for him 30 and made fun of Murray’s pacifism. “I rather doubt if man really has much to gain by substituting peace for strife, as you and Jesus Christ suggest.” 31
Housman professed “his youthful admiration of Napoleon III, and that the Franco-Prussian War was a great shock and grief to him (then aged 11),” to A.C. Benson at Trinity College almost two generations later. 32 He proclaimed it publicly, along with his contempt for the hypocritical attitude towards the Emperor of English Liberals, in his review of F.A. Simpson’s Louis Napoleon and the Recovery of France:
Queen Victoria had ascended the throne without saying by your leave or with your leave one house of Parliament was hereditary, and five-sixths of the adult male population had no voice in electing either. These were the people who talked about despotism when a neighboring nation, by universal suffrage and enormous majorities, had settled its own form of government. Though in truth it was not the English people but the enlightened English Liberals, then at the beginning of their long ascendancy, to whom the Emperor was odious and the reason why they called him a despot was that he had put a despotism down, and delivered France from the tyranny of Paris. The divine right of 2,000,000 Radicals to govern 30,000,000 Conservatives had been trampled underfoot and Napoleon’s chief offence in this country was this great service he had rendered his own. 33
Leftists have misinterpreted the emotion in his many poems on soldiers. The poems in A Shropshire Lad precede the death of his brother, Herbert, in the Boer War in 1901, which confirmed but did not alter his attitudes. One day “a ‘Pro-Boer’ Professor made some disrespectful remarks about the English private soldier. The result was a display of Housman’s invective which surprised even” his colleagues. 34 Frank Harris, in a vain effort to win him over, lauded the poet’s “bitter sarcasm,” which, according to Harris, “poked fun” at patriotism and “made splendid mockery of it.” Housman angrily repudiated the compliment: “I can only reject and resent your—your truculent praise.” 35 Housman later said that “Frank Harris’s recollections are not accurate,” 36 but there is no reason to deny that Harris interpreted A Shropshire Lad as mockery of patriotism and that he was mistaken.
The finest of these poems, “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” (Last Poems 37), is a bitterly ironic defense of British soldiers, who were attacked on the continent because they were not a drafted citizen army, precisely because they were professionals and did not need loud slogans to do their job: 37
What God abandoned, these defended
And saved the sum of things for pay.
Percy Withers asserted that Housman “had been careful to avoid imitation” in his poetry. 38 As Norman Marlow showed, however, “Housman was not in fact careful to avoid imitation—indeed on several occasions the imitation is so direct that he seems to be making explicit allusion to the earlier passage.” 39 His extensive use of earlier authors, such as the Bible (especially Ecclesiastes and Psalms), Shakespeare, and Matthew Arnold, shapes his language and adds depth to his simplicity of meter and theme. Although Housman’s sensibility is Romantic, his poetics is Classical, based on clear and direct imitatio, which is meant to be observed and admired.
Housman’s “Introductory Lecture” delivered at University College, London, in 1892, 40 was in part ideologically Conservative, since he used the occasion to attack the views of two famous Liberals, Herbert Spencer and Matthew Arnold. Bright undergraduates admired Spencer, 41 who maintained the Utilitarian creed of the early Liberals. Housman mocked Spencer’s vision of education, noting how little science is needed to satisfy physical needs. He also repudiated Matthew Arnold’s idea that reading great literature makes you a better person. Knowledge, like virtue, “is good in itself simply” and “has happiness indissolubly bound up with it.” “The pursuit of knowledge, like the pursuit of righteousness, is part of man’s duty to himself.” He later called the lecture “rhetorical and not wholly sincere,” 42 but his reminder that pure research is indispensable for human fulfillment and should be free from the restrictions of either philistine or sentimental utilitarianism is still relevant.
The 1911 Cambridge Inaugural was explicitly conservative. The new Professor of Latin attacked two faults of contemporary philology: efforts to make the study of language and literature purely esthetic (mainly a British heresy) and attempts to make it too purely a science (a typical German mistake.) There is no foolproof way to avoid the two extremes, but Housman suggests a touchstone, reverence for the past:
I spoke just now of servility shown towards the living and I think it significant that this is so often found in company with lack of due veneration towards the dead. My counsel is to invert this attitude, and to think more of the dead than of the living. The dead have at any rate endured a test to which the living have not yet been subjected. If a man, fifty or a hundred years after his death, is still remembered and accounted a great man, there is a presumption in his favour which no living man can claim and experience has taught me that it is no mere presumption. It is the dead and not the living who have most advanced our learning and science and though their knowledge may have been superseded, there is no supersession of reason and intelligence. Clear wits and right thinking are essentially neither of today nor yesterday, but historically they are rather of yesterday than of today: and to study the greatest of scholars of the past is to enjoy intercourse with superior minds. If our conception of scholarship and our methods of procedure are at variance with theirs, it is not indeed a certainty or a necessity that we are wrong, but it is a good working hypothesis and we had better not abandon it until it proves untenable. Let us not disregard our contemporaries, but let us regard our predecessors more let us be most encouraged by their agreement, and most disquieted by their dissent. 43
Housman’s vision of scholarly progress intimately linked to past achievement is reflected in his editions, in which he evaluates the work of earlier scholars. His college hero, Hugh Munro, wrote of the great German scholar, Karl Lachmann, “His love for merit of all kinds incites in him a zeal to do justice to all the old scholars who have done anything for his author while his honest scorn and hatred of boastful ignorance and ignoble sloth compel him to denounce those whom he convicts of these offences.” 44 These words fit Housman. The vindictive wit that stinks and stings on page after page of his scholarly writings is inspired by the witness of great predecessors like Lachmann and Munro.
The proud conclusion of the preface to the final volume of his Manilius attaches Housman to the moralistic traditions of Roman historiography. “And the deaf adder, though I can hardly say that she has unstopped her own ears, has begun to stifle her hisses for fear that they should reach the ears of posterity.” 45 These words echo Tacitus’s claim: praecipuum munus annalium reor ne virtutes sileantur utque pravis dictis factisque ex posteritate et infamia metus sit. “History’s chief job is to record virtuous acts and ensure that shameful words and deeds fear posterity’s bad opinion.” (Tacitus, Annals 3.65) The similarity of sentiment is reinforced by Housman’s use of the nouns fear and posterity, matching Tacitus’s posteritate and metus.
Housman did mock “conservative scholars.” “It would not be true to say that all conservative scholars are stupid, but it is very near the truth to say that all stupid scholars are conservative.” 46 “Conservative” here, however, is a term of art for literary scholars who accept the text found in manuscripts and printed editions rather than undergoing the discipline of traditional philology: gathering the evidence (recensio), interpreting the resulting text where possible (inter-pretatio), and suggesting corrections when interpretation fails (emendatio). These literary scholars are “conservative,” but not traditionalists, who understand that their first job is to learn the lessons of the past and to think critically about what we have learned—but then finally, if possible, to respond to the current situation with novelty and invention.
There is no better description of the virtues of a good textual critic than “the courage to recognize the inevitable loss that accompanies change and the inquiring intelligence to repair that loss.” 47 The author of these words, the fine literary critic, Guy Davenport, was describing the virtues of political conservatives. As a conservative, Housman approached texts with a disposition to preserve and an ability to reform. A.C. Clark, an editor of Cicero and Latin Professor at Oxford in Housman’s time, recognized the coherence of this view when he said, “I am a conservative, a conservative in all things but textual criticism.” 48
Most commentators do not agree. For Andrew Gow, Housman was “a rebel forced ‘by man’s bedevilment and God’s’ into unwilling conformity with standards which he condemned . . . with his view of life as a ‘long fool’s-errand to the grave.’” 49 Discussing Housman’s poetry and prose, Christopher Ricks emphasizes “the steely knot that most bitingly binds the two: blasphemy. The blasphemy of the poems is their central energy. . . . Last Poems IX joins in cursing ‘Whatever brute or blackguard made the world,’ quivering with the preposterous comedy of (in Samuel Beckett’s words) an atheist chipping at the deity. Last Poems XII scorns equally, levelly, ‘The laws of God, the laws of man.’” 50 Richard Perceval Graves assumes that Last Poems 12 is a confession of Housman’s beliefs. 51 Tom Burns Haber calls Last Poems 12 “a passionate indictment of the ‘ways of God and man’ that had betrayed Housman in his innocence to an existence he hated for its barrenness and loneliness.” Housman’s poetry reveals “the passionate resentment of a proud and unyielding rebel against an ill-ordered universe that had injured him.” 52 Terence Allan Hoagwood thinks that Housman agreed a fellow classical scholar, Friedrich Nietzsche, “that moral systems are hollow fictions, often used by the powerful to repress and oppress deluded people.” 53
These critics rely on two of Last Poems. In Last Poems 9 two young men “are not the first” to have “cursed/ Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.” Last Poems 12, in turn, begins with a gallantly defiant speaker, reminiscent of Milton’s Satan:
The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Biographers and critics hear in these words the voice of a young man who became a deist when his mother died and a resolute atheist at twenty-one and who wrote angry verses saying that Oscar Wilde was jailed “for the colour of his hair.” 54 Housman could be inspired by actual events. A Shropshire Lad 44–45 sprang from newspaper accounts of the suicide of a young cadet. 55 Additional Poems 18 is an angry parody of the charges against Oscar Wilde. Housman also wrote poems in persona. He originally intended to publish A Shropshire Lad as the anonymous Poems of Terence Hearsay. 56 “The Shropshire Lad is an imaginary figure,” he wrote, “with something of my temper and view of life. Very little in the book is biographical.” 57 There are several reasons to think that Last Poems 9 and 12 are also spoken by imaginary characters and do not represent Housman’s philosophy and views.
Last Poems 9, for example, has two twenty-three year old men drinking in a tavern because the rainy weather has spoiled their May plans. They are angry and frustrated:
We for a certainty are not the first
Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled
Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed
Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.
It is in truth iniquity on high
To cheat our sentenced souls of ought they crave,
And mar the merriment as you and I
Fare on our long fool’s-errand to the grave.
Iniquity it is but pass the can.
My lad, no pair of kings our mothers bore
Our only portion is the estate of man:
We want the moon, but we shall get no more.
In stanza after stanza the reader is distanced from the foolish young speaker, who is angry at God for the bad weather and thinks it is unfair (he says “iniquity” twice) if he and his friend are “cheated” of whatever they want when they want it. (“May will be fine next year as like as not/ Oh ay, but then we shall be twenty-four.”) 58 The hyperbole of “whatever brute and blackguard made the world,” therefore fits with his other extreme and silly statements.
The reader is also reminded in every other stanza that the young men are drinking, which is Housman’s most consistent poetic symbol of unthinking refusal to accept the world as it is. It is the dominant image of his Ars Poetica, A Shropshire Lad 62 (“Terence, this is stupid stuff”):
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think.
Last Poems 9’s last stanza possesses an emotional vigor more powerful than the open irony that pervades the earlier stanzas. Housman told Sir Sydney Cockerell that it was written many years after the rest of the poem, just before Last Poems was published in 1922. 59
The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can, we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
The last line is unambiguous and hammers home the theme of drinking to avoid thinking and so to avoid facing the reality that the world is not made to satisfy our desires. It does not seem to be an accident that the next poem, Last Poems 10, clearly contrasts drinking and thinking:
Could man be drunk forever
With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rouse at morning
And lief lie down of nights.
But men at whiles are sober
And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts.
Last Poems 12 begins with ten lines of defiance for “the laws of God, the laws of man,” but it is followed by ten lines of open recognition of the futility of this defiance. In the seventh and eighth lines of the second section, the speaker recognizes his own weakness:
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
In the last four lines, the defeated speaker surrenders his defiant pose:
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
Dramatic development is not usual in Housman’s verse, but in Last Poems 12 we see open defiance changing to hesitation before the facts and culminating in final submission, as the rebel ends up accepting the overwhelming power of social convention and traditional morality. It is a successful and artistically satisfying poem, but there are good reasons not to identify the speaker with A. E. Housman. 60 Professor Housman devoted a public lecture, “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism,” 61 to mocking classical scholars who edit texts without thinking, just as Last Poems 9 mocks thoughtless young men and Last Poems 12 mocks silly rebellion against conventional morality. Housman’s prose pours sarcastic abuse on scholars who are too lazy and thoughtless to find out how manuscripts are really copied and miscopied. “How the world is managed, and why it was created, I cannot tell but it is no feather-bed for the repose of sluggards.” 62
The average man, if he meddles with criticism at all, is a conservative critic. His opinions are determined not by his reason—“the bulk of mankind,” says Swift, “is as well qualified for flying as for thinking”—but by his passions and the faintest of all human passions is the love of truth. 63
[T]he rule is irrational for it involves the assumption that wherever a’s scribes made a mistake they produced an impossible reading. Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time. 64
Naturally there is a sense in which the author of Housman’s scholarly articles, reviews, and prefaces is also a persona, who differed from the A. E. Housman one met at High Table at Trinity College, Cambridge, or having lunch with his publisher, Grant Richards. That persona, at least, could be addressed as A. E. Housman the imaginary speakers of Last Poems 9 and 12 cannot.
Near the end of his life Housman answered a series of questions sent to him by young Houston Martin. “In philosophy I am a Cyrenaic or egoistic hedonist, and regard the pleasure of the moment as the only possible motive of action.” 65 He had been using these terms to describe his philosophy for over twenty years. 66 Andrew Gow said frankly, “If Housman’s philosophy was sound, then the great ambition of his life was unattainable and its pursuit futile,” 67 quoting More Poems 45 (set up in type for Last Poems but rejected at the last minute), where the speaker sees human accomplishment as transitory. “What shall I build or write/ Against the fall of night? . . . Nothing.”
Despite failing his final exams on ancient philosophy, Housman knew enough to understand that his loss of faith led to the Cyrenaic position. Many Victorians felt the tension created by the loss of Christian faith, while still believing in morality and excellence, 68 including figures Housman read and admired, such as Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, and the conservative polemicist, W.H. Mallock. Alfred Pollard, the great English bibliographer who roomed with Housman and Moses Jackson at Oxford, says that Housman enjoyed Mallock’s Is Life Worth Living? (London, 1880). 69 Mallock’s first book, the brilliant roman à clef, The New Republic (London, 1877), provides us with a vivid picture of Oxford in the years just before Housman’s matriculation. Its protagonists are two teachers whose classes we know Housman attended, Jowett and Ruskin. 70 It is Mallock who seems to have taught Housman one of his most characteristic stylistic traits.
The difference between an icicle and a red-hot poker is really much slighter than the difference between truth and falsehood or sense and nonsense yet it is much more immediately noticeable and much more universally noticed, because the body is more sensitive than the mind. I find therefore that a good way of exposing the falsehood of a statement or the absurdity of an argument in textual criticism is to transpose it into sensual terms and see what it looks like then. 71
This trope is used over and over again in Mallock’s Is Life Worth Living?:
We do not call a wild bear tame because it is so well caged that there is no fear of its attacking us nor do we call a man good because, although his desires are evil, we have made him afraid to gratify them.
Social happiness is a mere set of ciphers till the unit of personal happiness is placed before it. . . . If our greatest delight were to see each other dance the can-can, then it might be morality for us all to dance. None the less, would this be a happy world, not because we were all dancing, but because we each enjoyed the sight of such a spectacle.
Mallock taught Housman a characteristic rhetorical device, but his book made an important philosophical point: a life without God ends in a philosophical and moral dead-end. Those who lack Housman’s mental clarity can avoid that conclusion. Housman lost his faith, but not his mind. If there is no God, as he came to believe when he was twenty-one, then logically the pleasure of the moment is the sole motive for human action. He never sought refuge behind social activism to hide from himself the significance of his loss of faith.
Housman’s sister Clemence and brother Laurence were notorious champions of women’s suffrage, 72 but he treated women’s rights with dripping sarcasm. 73 Laurence was a member of the Society of Chaeronea, which worked secretly for “gay rights.” 74 A. E. Housman never discussed the subject with his brother, although Additional Poems 18 revealed that the Oscar Wilde scandal upset him. Laurence published it because “although not of a high standard, it says something that A.E.H. very much wanted to say.” 75 It was Laurence who wanted his brother to say it, and he never did. Although he proclaimed his atheism, he praised High Church Anglicanism as “much the best religion I have ever come across” 76 and wrote a hymn to be sung at his funeral service at Trinity College Chapel (More Poems 47). In our search for the basis of his lifework, his atheism and sympathy for Oscar Wilde are red herrings. His poetry and scholarship were written not by a militant atheist or a gay rights activist like his brother, but by a man who was outraged by failure in the search for truth, and even lapses in accuracy. (“Accuracy is a duty and not a virtue.”) 77 He treated the moral virtues, including patriotism, the love of beauty, the search for truth, and friendship as realities that imposed lifelong obligations. He lived and wrote as though morality and duty were real, not “hollow fictions.”
Before everything else, Housman was a conservative and a traditionalist. He remained loyal to the traditions of his people, his class, and his profession even after he lost his religious faith and the one person he loved above all others. Housman called himself a Cyrenaic, but it was his conservatism, not egoistic hedonism, that makes sense out of his life’s work. Behind the lovely verse, the brilliant conjectures, the searing prose, stood a man who was committed to love, truth, and loyalty to friend and country.
Housman rarely tried to explain the intellectual foundations of his greatness in poetry and scholarship. That greatness itself, however, he recognized. His personal life was frustrated. The poetry published in his lifetime hints at that frustration, which is revealed more completely in his posthumously published verse. The best description of his situation does not come from there, however, or from parallels like Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche, but from his great contemporary, William Butler Yeats, who was more of a conservative revolutionary than a traditionalist.
The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark. 78
Perhaps we concentrate too much on Housman’s raging in the dark. Whatever his personal life was like, Housman’s lifework, poetry and scholarship, was a triumphant unity of beauty and truth. Many can feel this of his poetry. It is true also of his great editions, which juxtapose his own searing prose with great Classical poetry, uniting reverence for (the manuscript) tradition, interpretive understanding of the transmitted text, and an insight which restores our contact with the past in epiphanies of creativity (his best conjectural restorations of the text). Those who work through his Lucan, Juvenal, or Manilius experience that unity of ancient poetry and modern scholarship, of beauty and truth. His poetry lacks a vision of that triumphant interaction of personal sacrifice, rigorous logic, and moving beauty linked to a sense of mystery that surpasses all. Again we need to turn to Yeats and his great ode on education, “Among School Children.”
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
Oh chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
Oh body swayed to music, oh brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? 79
Poetic Career of AE Housman
After studying in Oxford, Housman along with Moses Jackson moved to London. Moses received a job as a clerk at the Patent’s Office where he sorts something out for Housman as well. They lived together until 1885 when Jackson moved to India and Housman took his own lodging in London. All this happened when Housman was still an undergraduate.
While he was on his journey of completing graduation, he decided to gain some Latin proficiency. Moses Jackson’s brother – Adalbert Jackson’s death occurred in 1892. He is remembered by Housman in his ‘More Poems’ in 1936.
A portrait of Moses Jackson when young.
He gained respect and reputation when he published the scholarly works of Quintus Horatius Flaccus who is more commonly known as ‘Horace’ – a Roman lyric poet. He also published works of Ovid, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. He received great recognition across England and was offered Professorship by University College, London.
His area of expertise was Latin and Greek poetry. However, he stopped working on Greek Poetry after a while. In the year 1911, he received Professorship of Latin in Trinity College, Cambridge and remained there for the rest of his life.
In 1921, he published a paper ‘The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism’ where he focused on how Textual criticism is a science as well as an art. According to him, it was the science of discovery of errors and the art of correcting and improving them.
Poem Analysis: Neutral Tones By Thomas Hardy
Neutral Tones Analysis The poem ‘Neutral Tones’ by Thomas Hardy is a dark, solemn poem, reflecting on the termination of a relationship that he had in the late 1860s. It has a very melancholic note and in the duration of the poem, he shows the sadness and emotions in the narrator. The poem was published in 1898, however at the bottom of the poem he marked it as being written in 1867, perhaps he did not want it to be published then, before he met Eliza Nickels. It has a rhyme pattern of ABBA as&hellip
Aldington, Richard. A. E. Housman and W. B. Yeats. New York: Peacock Press, 1955.
Bourne, Jeremy. The Westerly Wanderer: A Brief Portrait of A. E. Housman Author of “A Shropshire Lad” 1896–1996. Bromsgrove, England: Housman Society, 1996.
Clemens, Cyril. An Evening with A. E. Housman. Folcroft, Pa.: Folcroft Library Editions, 1977.
Graves, Richard Perceval. A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet. New York: Scribner, 1979.
Haber, Tom Burns. A. E. Housman. New York: Twayne, 1967.
Hawkins, Maude M. A. E. Housman: Man Behind a Mask. Washington, D.C.: Henry Regnery, 1958.
Housman, Laurence. My Brother, A. E. Housman. New York: Scribner, 1938.
Ricks, Christopher, ed. A. E. Housman: A Collection of Critical Essays. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall,1968.
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Housman, Alfred Edward
Housman, Alfred Edward ( 1859–1936 ), poet and classical scholar , was born on 26 March 1859 at Valley House, Fockbury, a hamlet near Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, the first of the seven children (born within the space of ten years) of Edward Housman (1831–1894) , solicitor, and his wife, Sarah Jane (1828–1871) , daughter of the Revd John Williams , rector of Woodchester, Gloucestershire. Shortly afterwards the family moved to Perry Hall, Bromsgrove (later a hotel), where Housman spent his childhood. Of his siblings, Laurence Housman (1865–1959) became a successful writer and his brother's literary executor, while Clemence Annie Housman was a noted illustrator and suffragette campaigner. Though he came to be popularly associated with the neighbouring county of Shropshire, Housman insisted that he did not know Shropshire well and freely admitted that his poems contained topographical errors: the fact that in his early years ' its hills were our western horizon ' ( letter to Maurice Pollet, 5 Feb 1933, Letters ) qualified it as a territory that dreams are made of.
Childhood and schooling
A happy childhood was terminated by the death of Housman's mother, after a long illness, on his twelfth birthday. Towards the end of his life he told Pollet that he ' became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one ' and that reading Lemprière's Classical Dictionary from the age of eight ' attached my affections to paganism ' ( Letters, 328 ). His father subsequently married a cousin, Lucy Housman (on 26 June 1873), and Housman quickly formed a good relationship with his stepmother, as is evident from his earliest surviving letter, written to her during a visit to London (probably his first) in January 1875. Following his second marriage Edward Housman moved back to Fockbury, settling at Fockbury House (also known as Clock House), Catshill. After receiving his first lessons from a governess, Housman attended a dame-school in Bromsgrove, winning a scholarship to Bromsgrove School in July 1870. Under Herbert Millington , headmaster from 1873 and an enthusiastic teacher of Latin and Greek, he was groomed for an Oxford classical scholarship. Unsuccessful at his first attempt, he was awarded a scholarship at St John's College in June 1877 and went into residence in October.
Oxford and the civil service
In two different though possibly related ways Housman's time at Oxford profoundly affected his subsequent life. It began promisingly: in his second term he was among the top six candidates for the Hertford scholarship and in 1879 was placed third in the competition for the Newdigate prize, as well as obtaining a first class in honours moderations. There were, however, symptoms of an intellectual self-assurance hazardously verging on arrogance: after attending one lecture given by Benjamin Jowett , regius professor of Greek, he declined to waste his time on another, and he spoke contemptuously of the classical attainments of his college tutors. The passion for accurate learning and the unconcealed, and often gleeful, scorn for those who failed to live up to the highest standards—attributes that proved to be characteristic of the mature scholar—were already evident in the undergraduate. In practical terms, his disrespect for his mentors and for the official course of study led him to pursue private enthusiasms, specifically the text of Propertius , when he should have been reading the philosophers and historians assigned in the Greats syllabus.
At some stage Housman fell in love with Moses Jackson , a college contemporary who had come up with a science scholarship, and whose interests were athletic rather than literary. This love—intense, lifelong, and seemingly unrequited—came to exert a deep influence on Housman's poetry, as well as on his personal life. In his fourth year he moved out of college and shared rooms with Jackson and another friend, Alfred Pollard (later a distinguished bibliographer), in a house, now demolished, in St Giles'. His infatuation with Jackson may well have led him further to neglect the prescribed studies, and the outcome was as uncompromising as it was startling to those who knew him: in the finals examinations that began on 27 May 1881 the examiners had no choice but to fail him outright. In October he returned to Oxford for one term in order to satisfy the residence requirement for a pass degree: he was successful in the examination the following summer but waited ten years before proceeding to the degree.
At the end of 1881 Housman returned to Bromsgrove to prepare for the civil service entrance examination, held in June. His success led to the offer of a post in Dublin, which he declined a clerkship in the Patent Office in London, at an annual salary of £100 , proved less unattractive, for Moses Jackson was already employed in the same institution, though in a considerably less humble capacity than Housman was now to fill. He promptly found lodgings at 15 Northumberland Place, Bayswater, and began a ten-year period of servitude as a higher division clerk in the trade marks registry . Early in the following year he moved to 82 Talbot Road, Bayswater (where he is now commemorated by a plaque), sharing a home with Moses and his younger brother Adalbert , a classics student at University College. Adalbert , the ' A.J.J. ' of poem 42 in More Poems , died of typhoid fever in 1892 at the age of twenty-seven. There is no evidence to support the suggestion that Housman formed a romantic, and perhaps a sexual, relationship with Adalbert , though it is by no means impossible. What is known is that towards the end of 1885 Housman left the shared home in dramatic circumstances (he disappeared for a week) and did not return. In 1887 Moses Jackson took up a teaching position in India, and in later years his meetings with Housman were very infrequent. After quitting the Jacksons and spending a brief period in lodgings at 39 Northumberland Place, Bayswater, Housman moved to Byron Cottage, 17 North Road, Highgate (the site of another commemorative plaque), where he remained for nineteen years. When in 1905 his landlady moved to 1 Yarborough Villas, Pinner, Middlesex, he moved with her.
The classical scholar
Very soon after settling in London Housman had begun to work in the evenings in the British Museum Library, and as early as 1882 had begun to publish in important journals a series of papers on textual criticism, at this stage working on both Greek and Latin authors. On 11 December 1885 he offered Macmillan his edition of Propertius : the offer was declined and the edition never published, but by 1892 he had twenty-five papers to his credit. On the strength of this record he applied in April 1892 to University College, London, where chairs of Latin and Greek had been advertised, expressing an interest in both, with a preference for the Latin chair. His letter of application noted, perhaps uniquely, that he had ' failed to obtain honours in the Final School of Literae Humaniores ', and added, pointedly, that for the past ten years ' the study of the Classics has been the chief occupation of my leisure ' he enclosed a printed booklet containing seventeen testimonials from some of the most distinguished classical scholars of the day. He was offered the chair of Latin on 24 May and took up his duties in the autumn.
For nearly nineteen years Housman served University College well, contributing to its administration and its social life, as well as being responsible, at first almost single-handedly, for the teaching of Latin, and playing a significant role in improving the college's academic reputation, at a low ebb on his arrival. He formed particularly happy relationships with W. P. Ker , who had become professor of English in 1889, and Arthur Platt , who became professor of Greek in 1894. Housman was active in the college literary society, delivering witty addresses on various English poets. A very early example of his skill as a public speaker is the introductory lecture delivered on 3 October 1892 (published 1937).
A Shropshire Lad and public acclaim
From 1897 Housman frequently took holidays on the continent, especially in France and Italy, where he was able to indulge his enthusiasm for ecclesiastical architecture and fine food and wine. Despite a heavy burden of teaching, most of it at an elementary level, he continued his researches, producing during his years in Gower Street not only a number of learned papers, but also editions of Ovid (1894) and Juvenal (1905 2nd edn, 1931), as well as the first instalment of his edition of Manilius (1903), dedicated to Jackson . But the most celebrated as well as the most inexplicable production of this period was his collection of sixty-three lyrics, A Shropshire Lad (1896). In the important letter to Pollet already cited Housman states that his ' most prolific period ' as a poet was ' the first five months of 1895 ' ( Letters, 329 ), and it is striking that this period coincided with the arrest, trials, and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde , who was sentenced on 25 May and was the unnamed subject of one of Housman's most compelling poems ( Additional Poems , 18). Originally titled Poems by Terence Hearsay , the volume was refused by Macmillan , but published by Kegan Paul in March 1896 at Housman's expense. A second edition, in September 1898, was issued by another publisher, Grant Richards , who became a close friend. Though not an instant success, the little volume gradually won a large audience through the universality of its dominant themes (nature, love, war, and death) and the directness of its language and rhythms. In a period of war, uneasy peace, and rapid social change, Housman was one of the most familiar and most highly regarded of the poets of his time. His celebration of landscapes and a rural life distinctively and traditionally English contributed to his poetry's appeal.
By that time Housman had moved from London to Cambridge, where he spent the remainder of his life. The chair of Latin there fell vacant in December 1910, and in the following month Housman accepted the post (shortly afterwards renamed the Kennedy professorship), as well as a fellowship at Trinity College, while his old Oxford college, St John's, elected him to an honorary fellowship on 1 May. He took up residence in Cambridge in May and, after living briefly in lodgings at 32 Panton Street, moved into rooms in a distant corner of Trinity (Whewell's Court, K staircase). His inaugural lecture, published only in 1969 (as The Confines of Criticism ), was given promptly on 9 May and judged ‘brilliant’ by its audience. During the next quarter of a century, and almost until the day of his death, Housman lectured on textual criticism and pursued studies that resulted in a large body of articles, as well as an edition of Lucan (1926 2nd edn, 1927), and the remaining four books of the astronomer–poet Manilius (completed 1930). The latter, a task in which his predecessors included Scaliger and Bentley , was conceived by its editor as his monument.
While Housman enjoyed the conveniences, and especially the gastronomic delights, available to a bachelor don in the period, his rooms were spartan and his devotion to his work unremitting. Although addicted to solitary walks, and with a reputation for unapproachability, he could also be convivial, and had a considerable reputation as a raconteur and an after-dinner speaker. He continued until very near the end of his life to travel to France for holidays, one Paris restaurant naming a dish after him (barbue Housman ). It seems likely that these visits also provided opportunities for homosexual adventures. In his later years he took great pleasure in making his journeys to Paris by aeroplane.
The growing popularity of A Shropshire Lad produced many enquiries concerning a successor—all firmly discouraged by Housman , who affected pride in his own poetic ' barrenness ', until, towards the end of 1920, he displayed a sudden interest in publishing a further volume. The result was the defiantly titled Last Poems , published on 19 October 1922 to considerable acclaim: a leader in The Times was devoted to its author on the day of publication, and 21,000 copies had been printed by the end of year. The impetus for its publication was perhaps provided by the knowledge that Moses Jackson , now retired and living in Vancouver, was suffering from stomach cancer. On the day of publication a copy was dispatched to Jackson , who died on 14 January 1923. Despite its title, Last Poems was supplemented by the posthumous More Poems (1936), selected, ' by his permission, not by his wish ' ( preface ), by Laurence Housman , and by the 'Additional Poems' included in Laurence's A.E.H. (1937). Published in the same year as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land , Last Poems remains resolutely traditional in subject matter and style, reflecting a pastoral England that moved rapidly towards extinction during Housman's lifetime. However, the poems' distinctive blend of lapidary phrasing, musicality (there is considerable variety and subtlety in the handling of metrical forms), and sentiments evoking a universal response guaranteed him a continuing public. On Housman's own admission, his poetic manner owes less to the mainstream traditions of Victorian or Georgian verse than to the border ballads, Shakespeare's songs, and Heine .
Later years and reputation
It was as poet rather than as classical scholar that Housman , in his later years, enjoyed considerable fame, but attempts to turn the conversation towards his poetry were discouraged, sometimes peremptorily, and honorary degrees from a number of universities (including, twice, Oxford) were all declined, as was, in 1929, the Order of Merit. Although unwilling to accept the Clark lectureship at Cambridge, he delivered the Leslie Stephen lecture in 1933: the result was The Name and Nature of Poetry , which includes some unexpectedly personal reflections on poetic composition, as well as a thinly veiled attack on the new Cambridge critics, and was in printed form a best-seller. By this time, though still carrying out his academic duties, Housman was a tired and ailing man. Only a week before his death he gave the first two lectures advertised for the Easter term of 1936, but was too weak to continue. He died from myocarditis in the Evelyn Nursing Home, Trumpington Road, Cambridge, on 30 April 1936, and on 25 July his ashes were interred against the north wall of St Laurence's, Ludlow, Shropshire. On 22 March 1985 a statue was unveiled at Bromsgrove in his honour, and in 1996 a memorial was housed in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. Housman is the central character in Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love (1997).
Slight of build, precise of speech, and conservative in dress, Housman acquired a reputation for dryness and even severity of manner that represented only one aspect of a complex nature. Notorious for withering sarcasms, employed to admirable effect in his castigation of incompetent fellow editors, he also possessed a strong sense of fun and was a gifted writer of comic verse and parodies. His letters have an epigrammatic wit and an unfailing elegance of phrasing. While making no secret of his unwillingness to suffer fools gladly, he was capable of lasting friendships with such diverse figures as Grant Richards , Gilbert Murray , William Rothenstein , and Witter Bynner .
Housman would probably have wished to be remembered primarily as a textual editor in the great tradition of Bentley and Porson —and he retains an awed respect among classical scholars—but the poems whose authorship he was not eager to acknowledge have achieved a more widespread and more enduring fame. They continue to find readers worldwide and have been a source of inspiration for many composers. At the same time Housman merits recognition as a prose stylist in the tradition of Dr Johnson and as an epigrammatist in that of Oscar Wilde .
Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936)
The author of A Shropshire Lad was in fact born in Worcestershire, on 26 March 1859. He was brought up as a devout Christian, but the death of his mother on his twelfth birthday would eventually lead him to reject religion altogether. He read classics at St John’s College, Oxford, where he met and fell unrequitedly in love with a fellow-student called Moses Jackson. Having unexpectedly failed his finals, he became a clerk in the Patent Office in London, where Jackson was also employed. The two men shared lodgings for a period, but parted after some kind of quarrel, perhaps because Housman had explained his feelings: several posthumously published poems seem to suggest this. Housman was meanwhile spending his spare time working on classical texts, and the articles he contributed to scholarly magazines gained him such a reputation that in 1892 he was appointed to the Chair of Latin at University College, London. Jackson, meanwhile, had joined the Indian Civil Service, married, and was living in Karachi.
Housman had written poetry since childhood, mostly light verse, but in the late 1880s he began writing the poems that would be published in 1896 as A Shropshire Lad – the majority of them in a sudden burst of creativity in 1895. ‘My chief object in publishing my verses was to give pleasure to a few young men here and there,’ he once said, and although the poems were at first slow to sell, their prevailing mood of romantic melancholy, their depiction of thwarted or unrequited love, and their railing against the injustices of life soon gained him readers, and the book has never once been out of print. Shropshire had been the western horizon of Housman’s childhood, becoming in his adult imagination a ‘land of lost content’, and A Shropshire Lad is suffused with love, loss and longing, alongside affection for the quiet places of the English countryside and for the young men who lived there and all too often would ‘die in their glory and never be old’. This phrase comes from ‘The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair’, one of the poems that prompted Robert Lowell to write: ‘One feels that Housman foresaw the Somme’. Housman indeed wrote most of the poems some twenty years before the outbreak of the First World War and is, if anything, a poet of the Boer War (in which his youngest brother was killed) but poems about ‘soldiers marching all to die’ while bystanders ‘watch them depart on the way that they will not return’ would have a particular resonance for the generation of 1914.
By 1911 A Shropshire Lad was selling an astonishing 13,500 copies a year. The poems were further popularized during this period by English composers such as Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Somervell and Gurney, who in search of an English equivalent of the German Lieder tradition, began setting Housman’s words. According to the poet Robert Nichols, by 1914 A Shropshire Lad was ‘in every pocket’, and there are many stories of young men – Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney and Patrick Shaw-Stewart among them – taking their copies of the book to war with them. Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley and Wilfred Owen also admired and were influenced by the poems, and those about doomed lads, ‘handsome of face and [. . .] handsome of heart’, served as models for many war poets’ elegies for dead friends. The only poem Housman wrote directly about the conflict, ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’, was published in The Times on 31 October 1917 and described by Kipling as ‘the finest lines of poetry written during the war’.
Prose & Poetry - Alfred Edward Housman
Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was born in Bromsgrove on 26 March 1859, the eldest of seven children.
After Bromsgrove School he won a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford, in 1877. Despite gaining a First Class Honours in Classical Moderations Housman failed his Greats and so left Oxford without a degree in 1881.
After leaving Oxford he spent a time teaching at his old school before taking and successfully gaining a pass degree at Oxford. He subsequently took up employment at the London Patent Office.
On the strength of articles published in various classical journals, Housman was appointed Professor of Latin at University College London in 1892 where he remained until 1911. He published what was to become his most famous work, A Shropshire Lad, in 1896, at his own expense after several publishers turned it down. It gained in popularity during the First World War.
In 1911 Housman became Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge he spent the rest of his life as a Fellow at Trinity College. In 1922 he published a second volume of verse, Last Poems, followed posthumously by More Poems and Additional Poems.
During the First World War Housman published several poems about the conflict including Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries (1914), written after the First Battle of Ypres.
Alfred Edward Housman died on 30 April 1936.
Epitaph on Army of Mercenaries (1914)
These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended
They stood, and the earth's foundations stay
When God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
Saturday, 22 August, 2009 Michael Duffy
German losses at Messines were 25,000, of which 7,500 were taken prisoner. British casualties were 17,000 killed or wounded.
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By 1914, A Shropshire Lad was selling upwards of 10,000 copies a year, and it went to war in the packs of many literary-minded soldiers. (Housman commented wryly on this phenomenon: “The advertisement to which I am always looking forward: a soldier is to receive a bullet in the breast, and it is to be turned aside from his heart by a copy of A Shropshire Lad which he is carrying there. Hitherto it is only the Bible that has performed this trick.”) On the Western Front, Housman’s doomed lads and English nostalgia spoke powerfully to young soldiers, and Parker traces the echoes of his poems in the work of war poets such as Edward Thomas and Rupert Brooke. Later, Housman’s poems would be set to music by a wide range of English composers the glum rocker Morrissey was a natural fan.
Today, in the age of Brexit and the renewed movement for Scottish independence, the question of what Englishness means is once again up for debate. For nativist movements like the UK Independence Party, as for xenophobes across Europe, national identity is usually a matter of ethnic exclusivity and economic isolation. Reading Housman suggests an alternative to this kind of aggressive nationalism—an Englishness whose sources are nature and memory, melancholy and reserve. Of course, this poetic vision can encompass only a small part of what England means not everyone can live in Housman country. But after more than a century, his poetry remains one of England’s most humane and appealing reflections.