Alfred Edward Housman (1859 – 1936):
- English classical scholar and poet.
- His cycle of poems, A Shropshire Lad wistfully evoke the dooms and disappointments of youth in the English countryside. Their 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.
The apparent discrepancies in this man who became both a first-rate scholar and a celebrated poet should be a reminder that, whatever else poetry does, it also records the interior life, a life that has its roots well beneath the academic gown or the business suit. Though Housman aspired to be a great scholar first, a look at his life and work reveals that he valued poetry more highly than he often admitted, and that many of the presumed conflicts between the classical scholar and the romantic poet easily dissolve in the personality of the man.
Houseman lived In an age when being gay was not only hidden, it was also criminal and would result in jail sentences. Houseman, himself gay, took pains to hide that fact but was more open in his poetry. Here are two of his poems dealing with that subject.
“Oh, Who is that Young Sinner” was written after the trial of Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned 1895-1897. In the poem Housman uses the colour of the subject’s hair as a symbolic substitution for the man’s sexuality. The young man is arrested, imprisoned and tortured for the “nameless and abominable” colour of his hair, “a shame to human nature”.
Like Housman hiding his own sexuality, the young man has tried to hide his hair, to dye it and wear a hat, but the hat has been ripped off and the truth revealed. He will now be punished, severely, and in the final lines of the poem, the speaker says that the young man is going to have time, between the pain and punishment, to curse God for having made him the way he is.
Oh Who Is That Young Sinner
A. E. Housman
Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.
Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they're haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.
Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.
Whereas the above poem was written in the abstract, “Because I Liked You Better” is a personal poem about himself. The poem is about doing the noble thing and agreeing to give up chasing the one we love, because we know they can never return our love, causing one reviewer to give him the title the unofficial Laureate of the Broken Heart.
Like virtually all of Housman’s poetry (except, perhaps, his nonsense-verse), this poem was inspired by Housman’s own hopeless affection for Moses Jackson, an athlete whom Housman met when they were both studying at Oxford in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Jackson later married and emigrated to Canada, but Housman remained loyal, nurturing an impossible love for Jackson until the day Jackson died in 1923. After that, Housman didn’t write any further poems: his muse had gone.
Because I Like You Better
A E Housman
Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.
To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Good-bye,’ 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.
Housman’s poem of his unrequited love for Moses Jackson, carried to the grave, was not published during his lifetime but did appear in More Poems, published shortly after his death in 1936.