AE Housman Scholar And Poet Essay Research

A.E. Housman: Scholar And Poet Essay, Research Paper

A.E. Housman: Scholar and Poet

Alfred Edward Housman, a classical scholar and poet, was born in

Fockbury in the county of Worcestershire, England on March 26, 1859. His

poems are variations on the themes of mortality and the miseries of human

condition (Magill 1411). Most of Housman?s poems were written in the 1890?s

when he was under great psychological stress, which made the tone of his

poems characteristically mournful and the mood dispirited (Magill 1411). ?In the

world of Housman?s poetry, youth fades to dust, lovers are unfaithful, and death

is the tranquil end of everything (Magill 1412).?

Throughout his life, Housman faced many hardships. The loss of his

mother at age 12 shattered his childhood and left him with tremendous feelings

of loneliness, from which he never fully recovered. His father began to drink as

a result of his mother?s death and began a long slide into poverty. When

Housman went to college, he had a deep and lasting friendship with Moses

Jackson. He had developed a passionate attachment and fallen in love with

him. When the relationship did not work out, Housman plunged into a suicidal

gloom which was to persist at intervals for the rest of his life. His declaration

that ?I have seldom written poetry unless I was rather out of health,? seems to

support the opinion that emotional trauma greatly influenced his work. The only

way to relieve himself from this state of melancholy was by writing (Magill 1409).

As a result of Housman?s poor childhood and misfortunes, he devoted

most of his life to erudition and poetry. He was educated at Bromsgrove school

and won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied classical literature

and philosophy. After graduating from Oxford, he became a professor of Latin,

first at University College and later at Cambridge University. He was a

knowledgeable and scholarly individual who was fluent in five languages (Magill

1405). Over a period of fifty years, Housman gave many enlightening lectures,

wrote numerous critical papers and reviews, and three volumes of poetry.

In all of his poetry, Housman continually returns to certain preferred

themes. The most common theme discussed in the poems is time and the

inevitability of death. He views time and aging as horrible processes and has

the attitude that each day one lives is a day closer to death Cleanth Brooks

stated, ?Time is, with Housman, always the enemy.? The joy and beauty of life

is darkened by the shadow of fast approaching death (Discovering Authors 7).

He often uses symbolism to express death, therefore the reader has to look into

the true meaning of the poem to see it?s connection with death.

Another frequent theme in Housman?s poetry is the attitude that the

universe is cruel and hostile, created by a god who has abandoned it. R.

Kowalczyk summed up this common theme when he stated:

Housman?s poetic characters fail to find divine love in the

universe. They confront the enormity of space and realize that

they are victims of Nature?s blind forces. A number of Housman?s

lyrics scrutinize with cool, detached irony the impersonal

universe, the vicious world in which man was placed to endure

his fated existence (Discovering Authors 8).

Housman believed that God created our universe and left us in this unkind

world to fend for ourselves.

The majority of Housman?s poems are short and simple. It is not difficult

to analyze his writing or find the true meaning of his poems. However, the

directness and simplicity of much of Housman?s poetry were viewed as faults.

Many critics view Housman?s poetry as ?adolescent?, thus he is considered a

minor poet.

The range of meter that Housman uses varies from four to sixteen

syllables in length. John Macdonald claims ?What is remarkable about

Housman?s poetry is the amount and the sublety variation within a single stanza,

and the almost uncanny felicity with which the stresses of the metrical pattern

coincide with the normal accents of the sentence (Discovering Authors 11).?

Housman uses monosyllabic and simple words in his poetry, but the words that

he chooses to use fit together rhythmically and express the idea with a clear


To express his vivid images Housman uses epithets, which are words or

phrases that state a particular quality about someone or something (English

Tradition 1399). Housman uses epithets sparingly, but when he uses them they

are creative and original: such phrases as ?light-leaved spring,? the bluebells of

the listless plain,? and ?golden friends? make his poetry decorative and filled with

imagery (British Writers 162).

In 1896, A Shropshire Lad was published at the expense of Housman

himself. At the time, it made little impression on the critics, but the public took to

the bittersweet poems which were, according to Housman?s own definition of

poetry, ?more physical that intellectual (Untermeyer 609).?

The poems in A Shropshire Lad, Housman?s most famous collection of

verse, are generally simple, brisk, written in precise language, and contain

regular rhythms. The appealing, facile rhymes in his poems contrast sharply

with his despondent themes, which reflect both the pessimism of the late

Victorian age and the grief in his own life (English Tradition 849).

The collection of poems that went into A Shropshire Lad were first written

because Housman felt compelled to express his emotions at this time. Many of

his poems relate directly or indirectly to his desire for Moses Jackson. A variety

of the poems include images that refer to the landscape, the changing of

seasons, the blossoming of trees and flowers, youth fading away, and death.

Other poems were written at moments of fierce anger and revolt about certain

social injustices (Hawkins 144). Five of his poems that display his harsh and

morose feelings towards love and life are Loveliest of Trees, When the Lad for

Longing Sighs, When I Was One-and-Twenty, Bredon Hill, and With Rue my

Heart is Laden.

In addition, numerous poems in A Shropshire Lad deal with insight and

discovery. B.J. Leggett claims ?The poems show an ongoing structure which

carries the persona from innocence to knowledge or from expectation to

disillusionment.? Most of these are found in the first half of the volume, which

concentrates on the innocent?s encounter with the unfamiliar world of death and

change (Leggett 63). In The Loveliest of Trees, the speaker discovers human

mortality, fading youth, and therefore moves from innocence to knowledge.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

In the first stanza the speaker describes the cherry tree as ?Wearing white

for Eastertide.? White is the ritual color for Easter, and thus the tree and it?s

blossoms represent the rebirth of Christ along with the rebirth of the year. In this

stanza, the speaker appears innocent and optimistic. He does not posses the

realization that he is mortal. However, the rebirth is contrasted by the

awareness that the blossoms of cherry trees may be beautiful, but they are

fragile and short-lived, just as his life is (Leggett 47). The understanding of his

mortality leads the speaker from his innocence to knowledge.

In the second stanza the speaker grasps the concept that he will die and

in actuality his life is very short. He begins to calculate his age and how much

time he has before he dies. He explains how he will live ?threescore years and

ten? which is seventy years. He then subtracts twenty years from the threescore

which makes him twenty years of age. He comes to the conclusion that he only

has fifty more springs to live (Discovering Authors 3).

B.J. Legett states ?In the last stanza ?Things in Bloom? now suggest

something of the vitality of life which has become more precious. The limitation

of life is carried by the understatement of ?little room? (Discovering Authors 3).?

His vision of a springtime world of rebirth is altered by his sudden sense of his

own transience, so he can only see the cherry as ?hung with snow,? an obvious

suggestion of death (Hoagwood 31). The view of the poem is shifted from a

world of spring and rebirth to one of winter and death. Terence Hoagwood


The connotations of Easter contradict the connotations of

?snow?-the one implies rebirth, the other death. The fact that the

liveliness of youth will not return contradicts the conventional

content of the Easter symbolism ,and likewise the theme of the

seasons (Hoagwood 49).

In the poem When the Lad for Longing Sighs, Housman reveals his talent

of using monosyllabic words to express his ideas in a clear and imaginative

manner. All of the words in the poem are monosyllabic with the exception of

?longing,? ?Maiden,? ?Lovers,? ? and forlorn.? Terence Hoagwood claims ?This

simplicity of diction is characteristic of Housman, coinciding as it does with

considerable complexity of effect (Hoagwood 51). He concentrates on the

theme of longing for love and love being the cure for illnesses.

When the lad for longing sighs,

Mute and dull of cheer and pale,

If at death?s own door he lies,

Maiden, you can heal his ail.

Lovers? ills are all to buy:

The wan look, the hollow tone,

The hung head, the sunken eye,

You can have them for your own.

Buy them, buy them: eve and morn

Lovers? ills are all to sell.

Then you can lie down forlorn;

But the lover will be well.

In the first stanza the lad who is sighing for love is miserable and

unhealthy to the point that he is lying at ?death?s door,? or his death bed. He

believes that the maiden can ?heal his ail? and put him in a cheerful mood. The

remainder of the poem focuses on how the maiden should ?buy? or accept the

lad?s ills even though she is not in love with him. Consequently, she should

exchange her happiness and love for his suffering, thus ?lie down forlorn; But the

lover will be well.? The metaphor ??Lover?s ills are all to buy….Buy them, buy

them? is suggesting that the lad?s happiness is at the maiden?s expense

(Hoagwood 51). Terence Hoagwood claims:

The dualized pairs- buy and sell, well and forlorn, lad and

maiden- remain opposed (rather than resolved or reconciled) at

the poem?s end, helping to account for the considerable tension

that the poem sustains: the contradictions survive, rather than

disappearing (as in sentimentalized love poetry) into a happy

illusion at the end (Hoagwood 51).

In Housman?s poetry, he often concentrates on the loss of youthful

dreams, the isolation of adolescence, and the sorrows of love. In the poem

When I was One-and-Twenty the love theme is treated critically and insincerely.

The theme of the poem is that only experience itself can correct the illusions

held by the innocent youth (Leggett 65). Terence Hoagwood states ?The poem

uses the device of a speaker quoting another speaker to exhibit the problem of

different viewpoints, and it uses the change of one single person?s viewpoint,

over time, to suggest and even more powerful reason for skepticism (Hoagwood


When I was one-and-twenty

I heard a wise man say,

?Give crowns and pounds and guineas

But not your heart away;

Give pearls away and rubies

But keep your fancy free.?

But I was one-and-twenty,

No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and twenty

I heard him say again,

?The heart out of the bosom

Was never given in vain;

?Tis paid with sighs a plenty

And sold for endless rue.?

And I am two-and twenty,

And oh, ?tis true, ?tis true.

In the first stanza Housman is equating the age of twenty-one to

inexperience and innocence. The advice of the ?wise man? on love to give

?crowns and pounds and guineas? is overlooked by the man of one-and-twenty.

The wise man is suggesting that it is harmless to give a woman jewels and

money, but it is foolish to give one?s heart away or not to ?keep your fancy free.?

The transition from innocence to experience occurs in the second stanza.

The speaker is given advice from the wise man a second time, but he still does

not listen, which results in a broken heart. B.J. Leggett states:

The heart differs from pearls and crowns precisely because it

cannot be physically given away. It is always sold because the

giver receives something in return, and what he receives consists

of the sorrows of love which inevitably entails. The fancy can

be free only by being kept (Leggett 66).

The speaker of the poem relates his age, ?two-and-twenty?, with

experience and knowledge. When the speaker stated ?tis true, tis true? he came

to the realization that the wise man was giving useful advice and that he should

not have given his heart away after all.

Another technique that Housman uses in his poetry is shift of tone and

mood. Usually the poems begin in a blithe manner and end in a negative and

dismal mood. One of Housman?s poems that employs a shift in perspective is

Bredon Hill . Housman also incorporates the love and death theme in this poem.

In summertime on Bredon

The bells sound so clear ;

Round both the shires they ring them

In steeples far and near,

A happy noise to hear.

Here of a Sunday morning

My love and I would lie;

And see the coloured counties,

And hear the larks so high

About us in the sky.

The bells would ring to call her

In valleys miles away:

?Come all to church, good people;

Good people, come pray.?

But here my love would stay.

And I would turn and answer

Among the springtime thyme,

?Oh, peal upon our wedding,

And we will hear the chime,

And come to church in time.?

But when the snows at Christmas

On Bredon top were strown,

My love rose up so early

And stole out unbeknown

And went to church alone.

They tolled the one bell only,

Groom there was none to see,

The mourners followed after,

And so to church went she,

And would not wait for me.

The bells they sound on Bredon,

And still the steeples hum.

?Come all to church, good people,?-

Oh, Noisy bells, be dumb;

I hear you, I will come.

In stanzas one and two the speaker is explaining how him and his lover

spend many of their Sunday mornings on Bredon Hill listening to the church

bells ring through the valleys. The church bells put him in a cheerful mood and

are pleasant to listen to. The third stanza suggests that the bell?s are

summoning the woman to church, but instead of making it to the church on time

she decides to stay with her lover (Ricks 72). In the fourth stanza the speaker

and his love view the church bells as wedding bells. He states ?And we will hear

the chime, And come to church in time.? He is suggesting that they will be at the

church when it is time for them to get married.

In the fifth and sixth stanzas the shift in tone and mood is apparent. His

lover has died ?and went to church alone.? Therefore, she has ?rose up so

early? and gone to the church before their time. The ?happy? tone that was

displayed in the beginning of the poem has transformed into a morbid and dark

tone. It is rather obvious that his lover has died when the phrases such as

?tolled one bell only,? ?Groom there was none to see, and ?mourners followed

after? are used. When the speaker states ?And so to church went she, And

would not wait for me,? he makes her death seem willing. He uses ?would not

wait? instead of ?could not wait,? as if her failure to wait for him were a matter of

her own choice (Ricks 73). Cleanth Brooks states ?He views the girl?s death as if

it were an act of conscious will, as if he has been betrayed by his lover, who

?stole out unbeknown,? to meet another suitor (Leggett 64).?

In the last stanza the speaker notes that the bells are still ringing, but

they now represent funeral bells. Cleanth Brooks claims:

All come to death; he will come to the churchyard too; but now

that his sweetheart has been stolen from him, what does is

matter when he comes. the bells whose sound was once a

happy noise to hear have become a needless and distracting

noisiness. The lover shuts them up as he might the disturbing

prattle of a child: ?Oh, noisy bells, be dumb; I hear you, I will

come (Ricks 73).?

Another recurring theme in Housman?s poetry is the loss of youth and

beauty. Housman?s youth?s sometimes die into nature and become part of the

natural surroundings (Discovering Authors 8). The poem With Rue my Heart is

Laden deals with the fading away of youth and beauty and their burial in nature.

With rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipped maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipped girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

In the first stanza the speaker is explaining how his heart is full of sorrow

because all of his friends that were once ?golden?, youthful, and beautiful are all

dead. The adjective ?rose-lipped maiden? is describing the speaker?s lady

friends that were attractive, youthful, and vibrant. The term ?lightfoot lad? is

describing the speaker?s male friends that were handsome, athletic, and strong.

In the second stanza the speaker is describing how the ?lightfoot boys?

now lay next to the ?brooks to broad for leaping? that they could once leap in

their youth. The ?rose-lipped? girls are now ?sleeping? in the ?fields where roses

fade.? These fields used to be beautiful and alive like the maidens once were,

but the fields are also getting old and fading away (Discovering Authors 8).

?In his roles as a classical scholar and poet, Housman exhibited an

unswerving integrity. While this integrity served him well in his classical

endeavors, in his poetry it may have relegated him to a rank below that of the

major poets of his age (Discovering Authors 4). Housman never has been a

fashionable poet, yet he continues to maintain an audience and his reputation

remains steady. The melancholy and pessimism in Housman?s poems capture

the attention of readers and is perhaps the reason why his poetry is still read

and studied today. A.E. Housman was a human figure whose life and career

were often moving as well as extraordinary.


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