Study Guide

A. E. Housman

A. E. Housman Biography

Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Alfred Edward Housman was born on March 26, 1859, in Fockbury, Worcestershire, into an ancient family of preachers and farmers whose English roots extended back to the fourteenth century. His great-grandfather on his father’s side, an evangelical preacher who lived out his life with a wife and eight children in genteel poverty, was shy and unassertive in manner but inwardly tough, capable of bearing up under the hardships of life with manly fortitude. Housman was able to observe at first hand that stoicism, which informs so much of his mature poetry, in his own mother, Sarah, whose prolonged suffering and death after bearing seven children was a model of quiet courage. In the words of George L. Watson, “With his grimly stoical demeanor, Housman often recalled some ancestral farmer, glowering at the inclement weather” (A. E. Housman: A Divided Life, 1957). No such family precedent exists for Housman’s career as a scholar unless it be a distant cousin on his father’s side who was a lecturer in Greek and Divinity at Chichester College, and still less exists for the poet’s rejection of the Church within a year of his mother’s death.

The death of Housman’s mother on his twelfth birthday brought a traumatic end to his childhood and left him with a profound sense of loss from which he never fully recovered. He had adored the witty, intelligent woman who took pride in her descent from Sir Francis Drake, and her death created a vacuum that could not be filled by his father, Edward, a lackluster solicitor who took increasingly to drink during Sarah’s illness and who, two years after her death, married his cousin Lucy and began a long slide into poverty, dying after many years of broken health in 1894. Alfred was never close to his father. He regarded his drunkenness and general improvidence as intolerable weaknesses and held him in barely concealed contempt. He was, however, close to his six brothers and sisters during his early life and, as the oldest, conducted literary parlor games for them, taking the lead in writing nonsense verse, a practice that continued during summer vacations through his college years.

Sarah’s death was not permitted to interrupt for long Housman’s studies at nearby Bromsgrove School, where he had enrolled on a scholarship in the fall of 1870. Bromsgrove was an old and reputable public school and provided an excellent foundation in the classics, English, and French. As a student, Housman was introspective and shy and was known as Mouse by his classmates. Throughout his childhood, he was afflicted with a nervous disorder, and while a student at Bromsgrove, he had violent seizures that the headmaster attributed to Saint Vitus’s dance (chorea). Later in life this nervous condition took the form of occasional facial contortions that might “incongruously reappear in the course of the most impersonal lectures, as he read aloud one of the odes of Horace, leaving his astonished students ’afraid the old fellow was going to cry,’” in the words of George L. Watson. His nervous affliction notwithstanding, Housman seemed to thrive on the rigorous eleven-hour-a-day regimen at Bromsgrove School. In 1874, he appeared for the first time in print with a poem in rhymed couplets about the death of Socrates for which he won the prize for composition in English verse and which he delivered on Commencement Speech Day. It was published in the Bromsgrove Messenger on August 8, 1874, much to his later chagrin. In adult life, Housman was always jealous of his reputation and forbade the publication of his juvenilia and occasional addresses, which he felt did not meet the high standards he set for himself.

Housman’s career at Bromsgrove School ended in triumph as he won the Lord Lyttelton prize for Latin verse, the honorarium for Greek verse, and the Senior Wattell prize, along with a generous scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford. At least some of Housman’s success at this time can be attributed to Herbert Millington, who became headmaster at Bromsgrove School in 1873. A man of keen intellect, Millington presented a formidable figure to the students, and Housman felt some hero-worship for him, referring to him much later as a good teacher for a clever boy. Millington was the most important role model of Housman’s youth.

In the fall of 1877, Housman entered Oxford and, within a few days, was writing irreverently to his stepmother about the solemn Latin ceremony of matriculation. He joined the Oxford Union, and although he was inactive, he was “an avowed member and staunch champion of the Conservative faction” (Watson). Generally, however, Housman remained uninvolved in the life of the university. He was unimpressed by its professors and attended only one lecture by the illustrious Benjamin Jowett. Housman came away disgusted by Jowett’s disregard for the “niceties” of scholarship. A lecture by John Ruskin also left Housman unimpressed. Housman later wrote that “Oxford had not much effect on me.” This was not entirely the case, for it was at Oxford that he began to develop in earnest his capacity for classical...

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A. E. Housman Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Alfred Edward Housman (HOW-smuhn) was born on March 26, 1859, the eldest of seven children born to Sarah and Edward Housman. Although Housman was born in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England, he grew up in Bromsgrove, near Birmingham, where the Housman family moved when he was still in infancy. Bromsgrove is in close proximity to the Shropshire hills that would become the central setting in Alfred’s most famous collection of poems, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896.

Housman’s childhood was mostly unhappy. He was frail, often sickly, very devoted to his mother, and alienated from his father. His mother’s death in 1871 on young Housman’s twelfth birthday further served to alienate his father, a masculine, sporting, practicing attorney who fancied himself as a country squire and who displayed some disappointment that his eldest son did not share these same characteristics or inclinations. The elder Housman soon remarried a cousin, however, and young Housman found in his stepmother, Lucy Housman, a devoted and supportive person who helped make the remainder of his early life bearable, if not altogether happy.

Housman’s education began at the Bromsgrove School, where he distinguished himself in his studies from the outset. In fact, at Bromsgrove, Housman was at the top of his class and upon graduation won a scholarship to Oxford in 1877. At Bromsgrove, he developed a taste for classical languages and excelled in both Latin and Greek. He continued these studies at Oxford, becoming especially interested in the Roman poet Sextus Propertius. In addition, Housman read the works of English writers Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy, both contemporaries, whose ideas and forms influenced much of Housman’s poetry.

While Housman was matriculating at Oxford, he met Moses Jackson, a classmate who would have a profound effect on the rest of Housman’s life. Although Jackson and Housman were from similar backgrounds, Jackson was everything that Housman was not—tall, handsome, well built, athletically inclined, and confident in his own abilities. Jackson and Housman became not only fast friends but also roommates for most of their college careers, along with A. W. Pollard, another Oxford undergraduate. Housman, however, desired more than simply Jackson’s companionship; in...

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A. E. Housman Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A. E. Housman’s poetry has many enduring qualities, among them the intensity of feeling, the fastidious care with which the setting is etched, the careful maintenance of tone and mood, and the poignancy of the moments of experiences captured and preserved in time. Housman has frequently been accused of being bitterly critical and even sardonic in his poetry. The careful reader, however, will recognize Housman’s sincere presentation of actual experiences, experiences that he or she perhaps would rather not confront but that are almost certain to occur. That is perhaps Housman’s chief contribution to poetry—the strong medicine that the world needs to immunize it against the ills of life.

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A. E. Housman Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201555-Houseman.jpgA. E. Housman Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Despite the title of his most famous volume, Alfred Edward Housman (HOW-smuhn) came not from Shropshire but from Fockbury in the neighboring county of Worcestershire. He was born the son of Edward Housman, a solicitor and the elder brother of the author and artist Laurence Housman. A. E. Housman was educated at St. John’s College, Oxford, between 1877 and 1881, but when he failed his examination in Greats he returned to his home in humiliation. He went back to Oxford in the fall of 1881, working as a tutor in Greek and Latin and studying for the Civil Service Examination. When he left Oxford the following year with a lowly “pass” degree, he obtained a position in the Patent Office in London and devoted his evenings to...

(The entire section is 617 words.)