March 26, 1859 – Alfred Edward Housman:
“In every American there is an air of incorrigible innocence, which seems to conceal a diabolical cunning.”
He had two careers and he excelled in both. Known as A. E. Housman, he was an English classical scholar and poet, now best known for his cycle of poems titled A Shropshire Lad. These poems wistfully take on the dooms and disappointments of youth.
I am feeling all Edwardian these days and the beauty, simplicity and distinctive imagery of his works appeal strongly to Edwardian taste. His work was a favorite of many early 20th-century English composers both before and after World War I. Through their adaptation to songs, the poems are closely associated with the Edwardian era.
Housman was one of the foremost classicists of his age one of the greatest English scholars who ever lived. He was a very popular poet in his own era, if not so well-known in our own.
His mother died of cancer on his 12th birthday, and a few years later Housman became an atheist, and remained so all his life. He won a scholarship to Oxford at the same time that Oscar Wilde was in his last term. It was a very proper place, except for Wilde’s outrageousness.
At Oxford he fell in love for the first and only time. Housman was gay. Beefy rower Moses Jackson was not. He called homosexuality “that beastliness”, and for poor Housman, that meant a lifetime of loneliness.
Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you and I promised
To throw the thought away.
For the first eleven years after graduating, he was a clerk in the Patent Office, at first, because Jackson also worked there. They shared a flat until Jackson sailed to India to become the headmaster of a school. 18 months later he came home to get married, but Housman was not asked to the wedding, and in fact, he knew nothing about it until bride and groom were on their way back to India. They rarely met again, and never after Jackson retired to British Columbia where he died of cancer in 1922.
Housman had been busy making a name for himself doing articles for the British Museum review. In 1892, he was offered the Chair of Latin at University College, London.
In 1896, he published A Shropshire Lad, a book of 63 poems about loss and loneliness. He became known as “the poet of unhappiness”. Fellow gay poet W. H. Auden complained he was acting like an adolescent. His poetry is notable for its simplicity, clarity and brevity, yet there is a depth to it.
His students claimed that he was scathing, yet remote; a man who never troubled to remember the faces of the young women in his classes, just the young men. At least one student later wrote he never spoke to anybody individually. With the other teachers, he was more fun and particularly good at dinner conversation. He finally had a salary and he became bit of a foodie and a wine snob, vacationing in France for the food and Italy for culture.
In 1911 he became a Professor of Latin in Cambridge, and a fellow at Trinity College. There he dined with seven Nobel Laureates, four presidents of the Royal Society, the great philosophers Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, as well as Ernest Rutherford, the gentleman who split the atom. He hobnobbed with queers André Gide, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
When World War I broke out, he gave most of his money to the war effort. Yet, then he seems to have largely ignored wounded soldiers when much of Trinity College was converted into hospital, as the British say. He did contribute poems to The Blunderbuss, a magazine produced for troops, but they were silly pieces that ignored what was happening on the front.
In 1915, he went on holiday on the Riviera because, he said, the usual appalling people weren’t there. In 1916 he refused to make the crossing to France, not out of fear of U-boats, he claimed. He wrote that a U-boat had more to fear from being rammed by a ship than the ship had of being torpedoed, at time when German U-boats were bringing England to within days of defeat.
He did send his sister a poem when his nephew was killed in action. He said that poetry is made to harmonize the sadness of the universe. The war changed nothing, he claimed. But, of course it did. Nothing was ever the same again. His kind of writing was one of the casualties.
Last Poems was published in 1922, the year that Moses Jackson died of cancer in Canada. It’s very likely the book was written just for him. Jackson read it before he died.
Housman lived alone in the same three bleak Victorian rooms until he was too frail to climb the stairs. He died alone in a nursing home 1936.
His scandalous brother, Laurence Housman, also gay, published his found unpublished works. That L. Housman was a playwright, writer and illustrator, a committed socialist and pacifist, and founder the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage in 1907. He was also a member of the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology.
In 1909, Laurence and sister Clemence founded the Suffrage Atelier, an arts and crafts society that worked closely with the Women’s Freedom League. They encouraged non-professional female artists to submit work, and paid them a small percentage of the profits. In 1911 The Anti-Suffrage Alphabet, written by Laurence Housman was published in London.
In 1945, he opened Housman’s Bookshop in London. It is still there, although not open today because of the new plague. It is a source of literature on pacifism and other radical approaches to living. Laurence Housman and his sister lived together the last 35 years of his life.
All the books by both Housmans are still in print. In England the venerated Housman Society is dedicated to the three of them. Composers such as Vaughan Williams and dozens of others set Housman poems to music. The music is still played, the songs are still sung.
To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
Goodbye, said you, forget me.
I will, no fear, said I
If here, where clover whitens
The dead man’s knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,
Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word