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Housman, Alfred Edwardfree

(1859–1936)
  • Norman Page

Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936)

by Francis Dodd, 1926

Housman, Alfred Edward (1859–1936), poet and classical scholar, was born on 26 March 1859 at Valley House, Fockbury, a hamlet near Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, the first of the seven children (born within the space of ten years) of Edward Housman (1831–1894), solicitor, and his wife, Sarah Jane (1828–1871), daughter of the Revd John Williams, rector of Woodchester, Gloucestershire. Shortly afterwards the family moved to Perry Hall, Bromsgrove (later a hotel), where Housman spent his childhood. Of his siblings, Laurence Housman (1865–1959) became a successful writer and his brother's literary executor, while Clemence Annie Housman was a noted illustrator and suffragette campaigner. Though he came to be popularly associated with the neighbouring county of Shropshire, Housman insisted that he did not know Shropshire well and freely admitted that his poems contained topographical errors: the fact that in his early years 'its hills were our western horizon' (letter to Maurice Pollet, 5 Feb 1933, Letters) qualified it as a territory that dreams are made of.

Childhood and schooling

A happy childhood was terminated by the death of Housman's mother, after a long illness, on his twelfth birthday. Towards the end of his life he told Pollet that he 'became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one' and that reading Lemprière's Classical Dictionary from the age of eight 'attached my affections to paganism' (Letters, 328). His father subsequently married a cousin, Lucy Housman (on 26 June 1873), and Housman quickly formed a good relationship with his stepmother, as is evident from his earliest surviving letter, written to her during a visit to London (probably his first) in January 1875. Following his second marriage Edward Housman moved back to Fockbury, settling at Fockbury House (also known as Clock House), Catshill. After receiving his first lessons from a governess, Housman attended a dame-school in Bromsgrove, winning a scholarship to Bromsgrove School in July 1870. Under Herbert Millington, headmaster from 1873 and an enthusiastic teacher of Latin and Greek, he was groomed for an Oxford classical scholarship. Unsuccessful at his first attempt, he was awarded a scholarship at St John's College in June 1877 and went into residence in October.

Oxford and the civil service

In two different though possibly related ways Housman's time at Oxford profoundly affected his subsequent life. It began promisingly: in his second term he was among the top six candidates for the Hertford scholarship and in 1879 was placed third in the competition for the Newdigate prize, as well as obtaining a first class in honours moderations. There were, however, symptoms of an intellectual self-assurance hazardously verging on arrogance: after attending one lecture given by Benjamin Jowett, regius professor of Greek, he declined to waste his time on another, and he spoke contemptuously of the classical attainments of his college tutors. The passion for accurate learning and the unconcealed, and often gleeful, scorn for those who failed to live up to the highest standards—attributes that proved to be characteristic of the mature scholar—were already evident in the undergraduate. In practical terms, his disrespect for his mentors and for the official course of study led him to pursue private enthusiasms, specifically the text of Propertius, when he should have been reading the philosophers and historians assigned in the Greats syllabus.

At some stage Housman fell in love with Moses Jackson, a college contemporary who had come up with a science scholarship, and whose interests were athletic rather than literary. This love—intense, lifelong, and seemingly unrequited—came to exert a deep influence on Housman's poetry, as well as on his personal life. In his fourth year he moved out of college and shared rooms with Jackson and another friend, Alfred Pollard (later a distinguished bibliographer), in a house, now demolished, in St Giles'. His infatuation with Jackson may well have led him further to neglect the prescribed studies, and the outcome was as uncompromising as it was startling to those who knew him: in the finals examinations that began on 27 May 1881 the examiners had no choice but to fail him outright. In October he returned to Oxford for one term in order to satisfy the residence requirement for a pass degree: he was successful in the examination the following summer but waited ten years before proceeding to the degree.

At the end of 1881 Housman returned to Bromsgrove to prepare for the civil service entrance examination, held in June. His success led to the offer of a post in Dublin, which he declined; a clerkship in the Patent Office in London, at an annual salary of £100, proved less unattractive, for Moses Jackson was already employed in the same institution, though in a considerably less humble capacity than Housman was now to fill. He promptly found lodgings at 15 Northumberland Place, Bayswater, and began a ten-year period of servitude as a higher division clerk in the trade marks registry. Early in the following year he moved to 82 Talbot Road, Bayswater (where he is now commemorated by a plaque), sharing a home with Moses and his younger brother Adalbert, a classics student at University College. Adalbert, the 'A.J.J.' of poem 42 in More Poems, died of typhoid fever in 1892 at the age of twenty-seven. There is no evidence to support the suggestion that Housman formed a romantic, and perhaps a sexual, relationship with Adalbert, though it is by no means impossible. What is known is that towards the end of 1885 Housman left the shared home in dramatic circumstances (he disappeared for a week) and did not return. In 1887 Moses Jackson took up a teaching position in India, and in later years his meetings with Housman were very infrequent. After quitting the Jacksons and spending a brief period in lodgings at 39 Northumberland Place, Bayswater, Housman moved to Byron Cottage, 17 North Road, Highgate (the site of another commemorative plaque), where he remained for nineteen years. When in 1905 his landlady moved to 1 Yarborough Villas, Pinner, Middlesex, he moved with her.

The classical scholar

Very soon after settling in London Housman had begun to work in the evenings in the British Museum Library, and as early as 1882 had begun to publish in important journals a series of papers on textual criticism, at this stage working on both Greek and Latin authors. On 11 December 1885 he offered Macmillan his edition of Propertius: the offer was declined and the edition never published, but by 1892 he had twenty-five papers to his credit. On the strength of this record he applied in April 1892 to University College, London, where chairs of Latin and Greek had been advertised, expressing an interest in both, with a preference for the Latin chair. His letter of application noted, perhaps uniquely, that he had 'failed to obtain honours in the Final School of Literae Humaniores', and added, pointedly, that for the past ten years 'the study of the Classics has been the chief occupation of my leisure'; he enclosed a printed booklet containing seventeen testimonials from some of the most distinguished classical scholars of the day. He was offered the chair of Latin on 24 May and took up his duties in the autumn.

For nearly nineteen years Housman served University College well, contributing to its administration and its social life, as well as being responsible, at first almost single-handedly, for the teaching of Latin, and playing a significant role in improving the college's academic reputation, at a low ebb on his arrival. He formed particularly happy relationships with W. P. Ker, who had become professor of English in 1889, and Arthur Platt, who became professor of Greek in 1894. Housman was active in the college literary society, delivering witty addresses on various English poets. A very early example of his skill as a public speaker is the introductory lecture delivered on 3 October 1892 (published 1937).

A Shropshire Lad and public acclaim

From 1897 Housman frequently took holidays on the continent, especially in France and Italy, where he was able to indulge his enthusiasm for ecclesiastical architecture and fine food and wine. Despite a heavy burden of teaching, most of it at an elementary level, he continued his researches, producing during his years in Gower Street not only a number of learned papers, but also editions of Ovid (1894) and Juvenal (1905; 2nd edn, 1931), as well as the first instalment of his edition of Manilius (1903), dedicated to Jackson. But the most celebrated as well as the most inexplicable production of this period was his collection of sixty-three lyrics, A Shropshire Lad (1896). In the important letter to Pollet already cited Housman states that his 'most prolific period' as a poet was 'the first five months of 1895' (Letters, 329), and it is striking that this period coincided with the arrest, trials, and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced on 25 May and was the unnamed subject of one of Housman's most compelling poems (Additional Poems, 18). Originally titled Poems by Terence Hearsay, the volume was refused by Macmillan, but published by Kegan Paul in March 1896 at Housman's expense. A second edition, in September 1898, was issued by another publisher, Grant Richards, who became a close friend. Though not an instant success, the little volume gradually won a large audience through the universality of its dominant themes (nature, love, war, and death) and the directness of its language and rhythms. In a period of war, uneasy peace, and rapid social change, Housman was one of the most familiar and most highly regarded of the poets of his time. His celebration of landscapes and a rural life distinctively and traditionally English contributed to his poetry's appeal.

By that time Housman had moved from London to Cambridge, where he spent the remainder of his life. The chair of Latin there fell vacant in December 1910, and in the following month Housman accepted the post (shortly afterwards renamed the Kennedy professorship), as well as a fellowship at Trinity College, while his old Oxford college, St John's, elected him to an honorary fellowship on 1 May. He took up residence in Cambridge in May and, after living briefly in lodgings at 32 Panton Street, moved into rooms in a distant corner of Trinity (Whewell's Court, K staircase). His inaugural lecture, published only in 1969 (as The Confines of Criticism), was given promptly on 9 May and judged ‘brilliant’ by its audience. During the next quarter of a century, and almost until the day of his death, Housman lectured on textual criticism and pursued studies that resulted in a large body of articles, as well as an edition of Lucan (1926; 2nd edn, 1927), and the remaining four books of the astronomer–poet Manilius (completed 1930). The latter, a task in which his predecessors included Scaliger and Bentley, was conceived by its editor as his monument.

While Housman enjoyed the conveniences, and especially the gastronomic delights, available to a bachelor don in the period, his rooms were spartan and his devotion to his work unremitting. Although addicted to solitary walks, and with a reputation for unapproachability, he could also be convivial, and had a considerable reputation as a raconteur and an after-dinner speaker. He continued until very near the end of his life to travel to France for holidays, one Paris restaurant naming a dish after him (barbue Housman). It seems likely that these visits also provided opportunities for homosexual adventures. In his later years he took great pleasure in making his journeys to Paris by aeroplane.

The growing popularity of A Shropshire Lad produced many enquiries concerning a successor—all firmly discouraged by Housman, who affected pride in his own poetic 'barrenness', until, towards the end of 1920, he displayed a sudden interest in publishing a further volume. The result was the defiantly titled Last Poems, published on 19 October 1922 to considerable acclaim: a leader in The Times was devoted to its author on the day of publication, and 21,000 copies had been printed by the end of year. The impetus for its publication was perhaps provided by the knowledge that Moses Jackson, now retired and living in Vancouver, was suffering from stomach cancer. On the day of publication a copy was dispatched to Jackson, who died on 14 January 1923. Despite its title, Last Poems was supplemented by the posthumous More Poems (1936), selected, 'by his permission, not by his wish' (preface), by Laurence Housman, and by the 'Additional Poems' included in Laurence's A.E.H. (1937). Published in the same year as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Last Poems remains resolutely traditional in subject matter and style, reflecting a pastoral England that moved rapidly towards extinction during Housman's lifetime. However, the poems' distinctive blend of lapidary phrasing, musicality (there is considerable variety and subtlety in the handling of metrical forms), and sentiments evoking a universal response guaranteed him a continuing public. On Housman's own admission, his poetic manner owes less to the mainstream traditions of Victorian or Georgian verse than to the border ballads, Shakespeare's songs, and Heine.

Later years and reputation

It was as poet rather than as classical scholar that Housman, in his later years, enjoyed considerable fame, but attempts to turn the conversation towards his poetry were discouraged, sometimes peremptorily, and honorary degrees from a number of universities (including, twice, Oxford) were all declined, as was, in 1929, the Order of Merit. Although unwilling to accept the Clark lectureship at Cambridge, he delivered the Leslie Stephen lecture in 1933: the result was The Name and Nature of Poetry, which includes some unexpectedly personal reflections on poetic composition, as well as a thinly veiled attack on the new Cambridge critics, and was in printed form a best-seller. By this time, though still carrying out his academic duties, Housman was a tired and ailing man. Only a week before his death he gave the first two lectures advertised for the Easter term of 1936, but was too weak to continue. He died from myocarditis in the Evelyn Nursing Home, Trumpington Road, Cambridge, on 30 April 1936, and on 25 July his ashes were interred against the north wall of St Laurence's, Ludlow, Shropshire. On 22 March 1985 a statue was unveiled at Bromsgrove in his honour, and in 1996 a memorial was housed in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. Housman is the central character in Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love (1997).

Slight of build, precise of speech, and conservative in dress, Housman acquired a reputation for dryness and even severity of manner that represented only one aspect of a complex nature. Notorious for withering sarcasms, employed to admirable effect in his castigation of incompetent fellow editors, he also possessed a strong sense of fun and was a gifted writer of comic verse and parodies. His letters have an epigrammatic wit and an unfailing elegance of phrasing. While making no secret of his unwillingness to suffer fools gladly, he was capable of lasting friendships with such diverse figures as Grant Richards, Gilbert Murray, William Rothenstein, and Witter Bynner.

Housman would probably have wished to be remembered primarily as a textual editor in the great tradition of Bentley and Porson—and he retains an awed respect among classical scholars—but the poems whose authorship he was not eager to acknowledge have achieved a more widespread and more enduring fame. They continue to find readers worldwide and have been a source of inspiration for many composers. At the same time Housman merits recognition as a prose stylist in the tradition of Dr Johnson and as an epigrammatist in that of Oscar Wilde.

Sources

  • The letters of A. E. Housman, ed. H. Maas (1971)
  • N. Page, A. E. Housman: a critical biography (1983)
  • A. S. F. Gow, A. E. Housman: a sketch (1936)
  • L. Housman, A. E. H. (1937)
  • P. Withers, A buried life (1940)
  • G. Richards, Housman, 1897–1936 (1941)
  • L. Housman, The unexpected years (1937)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.

Archives

  • BL, diaries, Add. MSS 45861, 54349
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Society for the Protection of Science and Learning
  • Bryn Mawr College Library, Pennsylvania, corresp., diaries, and papers
  • Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, corresp. and literary MSS
  • CUL, lecture notes
  • FM Cam., MS poems and corresp.
  • Indiana University, Bloomington, Lilly Library, MSS and letters
  • L. Cong., poetical notebooks and papers
  • Ransom HRC, MSS and papers
  • UCL, letters to his stepmother
  • University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, letters
  • BL, corresp. mainly with E. H. Blakeney, Add. MS 48980
  • BL, corresp. with The Richards Press, Add. MSS 44923–44924
  • BL, letters to F. M. Cornford, Add. MS 58427
  • BL, literary MSS
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Robert Bridges
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Gilbert Murray
  • CUL, letters to Sir Sydney Roberts
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to Witter Bynner
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., letters to Sir William Rothenstein
  • NL Scot., letters to Richards and Ashbourne families
  • Somerville College, Oxford, letters to Percy Withers and family
  • Trinity Cam., letters to his sister, Katherine Symons
  • U. St Andr. L., letters to Sir D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson
  • UCL, letters to Mildred Platt

Film

  • BFINA, Poetry in motion, Channel 4, 13 June 1990

Likenesses

  • W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1903, Man. City Gall.
  • W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1906, NPG
  • H. Lamb, pencil drawing, 1909, Trinity Cam.
  • E. O. Hoppé, print, 1911, NPG
  • T. Spicer-Simson, plasticine medallion, 1922, NPG
  • F. Dodd, drawing, 1926, St John's College, Oxford
  • F. Dodd, pencil drawing, 1926, NPG [see illus.]
  • R. E. Gleadowe, pencil drawing, 1926, Trinity Cam.
  • statue, 1985, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire
  • F. Dodd, pencil drawing, UCL
  • W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, Trinity Cam.

Wealth at Death

£7969 14s. 9d.: resworn probate, 4 Aug 1936, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]