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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