This article is an updated version of the one first published at The Master’s Artist.
A.E. Housman (1859-1936) achieved poetic fame in 1896 with the publication of 63 poems in a volume entitled A Shropshire Lad. His next volume of poetry, Last Poems, was published in 1922. Two additional posthumous collections were published by his brother Laurence.
His career didn’t start on an auspicious note. He failed to graduate with honors from Oxford, which denied an immediate academic career. And so he trained for the Civil Service, passing the examination and becoming a minor clerk in the U.K. Patent office from 1882 to 1892.
But during these years he maintained his love for classical scholarship. He continued his studies in his spare time and published articles in scholarly journals. In 1892 he became a professor of Latin at University College, London; in 1911 he joined the faculty at Cambridge.
His poetic output, while comparatively small, has an enormous impact, influencing two generations of poets and critics on both sides of the Atlantic, including Thomas Hardy, W.H. Auden, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, T.S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks, among others. On the fictional influence side, Housman was the favorite poet of Inspector Morse in the BBC mystery series.
By the time I was in high school, Housman was enshrined in the literary canon, firmly placed in the Late Victorian/Edwardian section of textbooks and anthologies. It was in such a high school textbook that I first met his poetry, with a poem taken from A Shropshire Lad:
To an Athlete Dying Young
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut.
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The Fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
Many of Housman’s poems reflect the influence or inspiration of Scottish ballads, songs and even aphorisms. He wrote about love, both requited and unrequited; soldiers (one can see the echoes of Housman in the World War I poets like Owen and Rupert Brooke; homesickness; and his love of Shropshire.
And he wrote about memory and death.
His poems are carefully cut and chiseled, honed and polished like fine jewels. They are full of what we might call “poetic lines,” memorable words and phrases and ideas that reflect the beauty of the language and a rather intense emotion in the poet.
Poem 54 (from A Shropshire Lad)
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
Photograph: A view of the Shropshire countryside.