A.E. Housman: Scholar And Poet Essay, Research Paper
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
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 forlorn; But the
lover will be well.? The metaphor ??Lover?s ills are all to buy….Buy them, buy
them? is suggesting that the lad?s happiness is at the maiden?s expense
(Hoagwood 51). Terence Hoagwood claims:
The dualized pairs- buy and sell, well and forlorn, lad and
maiden- remain opposed (rather than resolved or reconciled) at
the poem?s end, helping to account for the considerable tension
that the poem sustains: the contradictions survive, rather than
disappearing (as in sentimentalized love poetry) into a happy
illusion at the end (Hoagwood 51).
In Housman?s poetry, he often concentrates on the loss of youthful
dreams, the isolation of adolescence, and the sorrows of love. In the poem
When I was One-and-Twenty the love theme is treated critically and insincerely.
The theme of the poem is that only experience itself can correct the illusions
held by the innocent youth (Leggett 65). Terence Hoagwood states ?The poem
uses the device of a speaker quoting another speaker to exhibit the problem of
different viewpoints, and it uses the change of one single person?s viewpoint,
over time, to suggest and even more powerful reason for skepticism (Hoagwood
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
?Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.?
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and twenty
I heard him say again,
?The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
?Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.?
And I am two-and twenty,
And oh, ?tis true, ?tis true.
In the first stanza Housman is equating the age of twenty-one to
inexperience and innocence. The advice of the ?wise man? on love to give
?crowns and pounds and guineas? is overlooked by the man of one-and-twenty.
The wise man is suggesting that it is harmless to give a woman jewels and
money, but it is foolish to give one?s heart away or not to ?keep your fancy free.?
The transition from innocence to experience occurs in the second stanza.
The speaker is given advice from the wise man a second time, but he still does
not listen, which results in a broken heart. B.J. Leggett states:
The heart differs from pearls and crowns precisely because it
cannot be physically given away. It is always sold because the
giver receives something in return, and what he receives consists
of the sorrows of love which inevitably entails. The fancy can
be free only by being kept (Leggett 66).
The speaker of the poem relates his age, ?two-and-twenty?, with
experience and knowledge. When the speaker stated ?tis true, tis true? he came
to the realization that the wise man was giving useful advice and that he should
not have given his heart away after all.
Another technique that Housman uses in his poetry is shift of tone and
mood. Usually the poems begin in a blithe manner and end in a negative and
dismal mood. One of Housman?s poems that employs a shift in perspective is
Bredon Hill . Housman also incorporates the love and death theme in this poem.
In summertime on Bredon
The bells sound so clear ;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear.
Here of a Sunday morning
My love and I would lie;
And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.
The bells would ring to call her
In valleys miles away:
?Come all to church, good people;
Good people, come pray.?
But here my love would stay.
And I would turn and answer
Among the springtime thyme,
?Oh, peal upon our wedding,
And we will hear the chime,
And come to church in time.?
But when the snows at Christmas
On Bredon top were strown,
My love rose up so early
And stole out unbeknown
And went to church alone.
They tolled the one bell only,
Groom there was none to see,
The mourners followed after,
And so to church went she,
And would not wait for me.
The bells they sound on Bredon,
And still the steeples hum.
?Come all to church, good people,?-
Oh, Noisy bells, be dumb;
I hear you, I will come.
In stanzas one and two the speaker is explaining how him and his lover
spend many of their Sunday mornings on Bredon Hill listening to the church
bells ring through the valleys. The church bells put him in a cheerful mood and
are pleasant to listen to. The third stanza suggests that the bell?s are
summoning the woman to church, but instead of making it to the church on time
she decides to stay with her lover (Ricks 72). In the fourth stanza the speaker
and his love view the church bells as wedding bells. He states ?And we will hear
the chime, And come to church in time.? He is suggesting that they will be at the
church when it is time for them to get married.
In the fifth and sixth stanzas the shift in tone and mood is apparent. His
lover has died ?and went to church alone.? Therefore, she has ?rose up so
early? and gone to the church before their time. The ?happy? tone that was
displayed in the beginning of the poem has transformed into a morbid and dark
tone. It is rather obvious that his lover has died when the phrases such as
?tolled one bell only,? ?Groom there was none to see, and ?mourners followed
after? are used. When the speaker states ?And so to church went she, And
would not wait for me,? he makes her death seem willing. He uses ?would not
wait? instead of ?could not wait,? as if her failure to wait for him were a matter of
her own choice (Ricks 73). Cleanth Brooks states ?He views the girl?s death as if
it were an act of conscious will, as if he has been betrayed by his lover, who
?stole out unbeknown,? to meet another suitor (Leggett 64).?
In the last stanza the speaker notes that the bells are still ringing, but
they now represent funeral bells. Cleanth Brooks claims:
All come to death; he will come to the churchyard too; but now
that his sweetheart has been stolen from him, what does is
matter when he comes. the bells whose sound was once a
happy noise to hear have become a needless and distracting
noisiness. The lover shuts them up as he might the disturbing
prattle of a child: ?Oh, noisy bells, be dumb; I hear you, I will
come (Ricks 73).?
Another recurring theme in Housman?s poetry is the loss of youth and
beauty. Housman?s youth?s sometimes die into nature and become part of the
natural surroundings (Discovering Authors 8). The poem With Rue my Heart is
Laden deals with the fading away of youth and beauty and their burial in nature.
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipped maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipped girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
In the first stanza the speaker is explaining how his heart is full of sorrow
because all of his friends that were once ?golden?, youthful, and beautiful are all
dead. The adjective ?rose-lipped maiden? is describing the speaker?s lady
friends that were attractive, youthful, and vibrant. The term ?lightfoot lad? is
describing the speaker?s male friends that were handsome, athletic, and strong.
In the second stanza the speaker is describing how the ?lightfoot boys?
now lay next to the ?brooks to broad for leaping? that they could once leap in
their youth. The ?rose-lipped? girls are now ?sleeping? in the ?fields where roses
fade.? These fields used to be beautiful and alive like the maidens once were,
but the fields are also getting old and fading away (Discovering Authors 8).
?In his roles as a classical scholar and poet, Housman exhibited an
unswerving integrity. While this integrity served him well in his classical
endeavors, in his poetry it may have relegated him to a rank below that of the
major poets of his age (Discovering Authors 4). Housman never has been a
fashionable poet, yet he continues to maintain an audience and his reputation
remains steady. The melancholy and pessimism in Housman?s poems capture
the attention of readers and is perhaps the reason why his poetry is still read
and studied today. A.E. Housman was a human figure whose life and career
were often moving as well as extraordinary.
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