Alfred Edward Housman, the eldest son of a Bromsgrove solicitor, was born in 1859. He attended Bromsgrove School as a dayboy, but soon after he started there his mother fell ill and his father sank into helpless despondency; as the eldest child, Housman was closest to his mother and spent many hours with her in her final illness. As the school holidays approached it was decided that he should go away for a while to visit family friends; he was with them when he heard the news of his mother’s death. He later said that this bereavement at the age of twelve, which shadowed his whole life, cost him his belief in any kind of religious faith.

In 1877 he went to St John’s College, Oxford, having won a scholarship to read Classics. Here he formed a passionate attachment to Moses Jackson, an outstanding student of science and a natural athlete; Jackson had good looks and, in the phrase of the time, manly bearing. Housman lived in a time when he could not reveal his deepest feelings for Jackson, and he may even not have admitted them to himself. Many years later, those suppressed feelings found expression at last in his verse.

At the end of his second year, Housman gained a First in Moderations and was expected to perform brilliantly in his final examination, Greats. Perhaps distracted by inner turmoil, or because he had followed his own academic interests and avoided the reading required by the syllabus, he failed outright. He left Oxford without a degree.

For the next ten years he worked as a clerk in the Patent Office, spending his leisure hours in the British Museum continuing his studies in Latin and Greek. For a while he shared rooms in London with Moses Jackson, but in 1887 Jackson married and emigrated to India. Housman began writing poems in his notebook; eventually, in 1896, he published, at his own expense, a collection of 63 of them under the title A Shropshire Lad.

At first the poems attracted little notice, though one reviewer praised their ‘exquisite simplicity’. Their themes – the loss of youth, violent death, the parting of friends – are well suited to the ballad form in which most of them are written. Set in a half-imaginary Shropshire, a nostalgic ‘land of lost content’, they are often addressed to, or spoken by, a soldier or a boy farmer. At the outbreak of war in 1914 Housman’s poems suddenly became popular, striking a powerful emotional chord with a nation losing its young men to the trenches.

Meanwhile his growing reputation as a brilliant Classics Scholar had led to Housman’s appointment in 1892 as Professor of Latin at London University, and later at Cambridge. Moses Jackson died overseas in 1923 and, from that date, Houseman wrote no more poems. His teaching and scholarship continued, however, until 1936, the year he died in his Trinity Great Court rooms.

Poems by A E Housman

Tell Me Not Here, It Needs Not Saying - A E Housman - Read by Andrew Motion
A Shropshire Lad II: Loveliest of trees, the cherry now - A E Housman - Read by Alan Brownjohn
A Shropshire Lad XXXI: On Wenlock Edge - A E Housman - Read by Alan Brownjohn
A E Housman in the Poetry Store

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