Alfred Edward Housman (1859—1936) was a renowned classical scholar and a "minor" poet whose brief lyrics captured a certain mood in the First World War and subsequent period, and have been appreciated by some ever since. The incisive and witty prose of his reviews, introductions and other academic papers made him notorious in classical scholarship, and are still entertaining to read.
Housman was born on 26 March 1859 in Worcestershire, where the hills of Shropshire, he said, formed the western horizon. In 1877 he went up to Oxford to read Literae Humaniores (classical and philosophical studies). Here he met the great love of his life, Moses Jackson, who later married and moved to Canada. Although Housman obtained a First in Moderations, the examination taken halfway through the four-year course, he failed in the Finals because of his complete disdain for philosophy. He later took a pass degree.
From the end of 1882 until 1892 Housman was a clerk in the Patent Office. He spent his spare time in the library of the British Museum, producing papers on classical texts, which established him as a great classical scholar. As a result of this reputation he was able to apply for, and obtain, the post of Professor of Latin at University College, London. In 1896 he published his first collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad, which at first made little impact. He became Professor of Latin at Cambridge in 1911. In 1922 he was persuaded to publish another collection of poetry which he named Last Poems. He died on 30 April 1936. His brother Laurence brought out a further collection of poems after his death, "with the permission but not the approval" of the author.
The poems, both those which came out in his lifetime and those published later, show a stoical approach to life
Oh never fear, man, nought's to dread,
- Look not left nor right:
- In all the endless road you tread
- There's nothing but the night.
Their poignancy began to make a particularly strong appeal during and after the slaughter of the first World War, and still speaks to many young people and others who are sensitive to a sort of romantic fatalism. In addition they reveal an atheist fascinated by religion and a homosexual bitter against the condemnations of conventional society.
The poetry is poised and considered. Although Housman was not musical, he was alive to the movement and intonation of his verse. There are many musical settings of his poems, by Vaughan Williams and others.
Housman as critic
Housman considered himself a textual critic, and once described textual criticism as "the science of discovering error in texts and the art of removing it." He did not consider himself a literary critic. "Whether the gift of literary criticism is the best gift that heaven has in its treasuries I cannot say, but heaven seems to think so, for assuredly it is the gift most charily bestowed. His ventures into that field were mostly informal and were destroyed afterwards. The one which was formal was his 1933 lecture on the Name and Nature of Poetry, in which he defied the Leavisite school of criticism then prevailing in Cambridge, by considering poetry solely in relation to its capacity to arouse emotion. His most substantial work was in editing classical texts, a task requiring not only textual criticism but also illumination of the text through commentary and, where necessary, explanation. In this and his papers and reviews, he established a formidable reputation for argument, alongside an equally formidable reputation for vicious wit.
- More Poems 1936
- His brother Laurence Housman thought that Alfred believed in a Supreme Being but not a personal god
- Cambridge Inaugural Lecture (1911)