Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2089
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 scholarship. Passively resisting the conventional curriculum, Housman early in his Oxford career decided to devote his energies to the text of the Latin poet Sextus Propertius, whose garbled works required extensive editorial attention. He continued to work on Propertius for the remainder of his time at Oxford. Watson writes that Housman was already “embarking on those problems of conjectural emendation which are the acme of classical learning.” It was also at this time that Housman began keeping a commonplace book of his favorite quotations, which tended toward the sepulchral, as one might expect of a young man whose only adornments for his college rooms were Albrecht Dürer’s “Melancholia” and “The Knight, Death and the Devil.” Housman’s favorite poem during his early Oxford years was Arnold’s “Empedocles on Etna” (1852), which he said contained “all the law and the prophets.” He was attracted to Thomas Hardy’s early novels for their gloomy stoicism. For a time, Housman flirted with the poetry of Swinburne and wrote an antiecclesiastical poem, “New-Year’s Eve,” modeled on Swinburne’s style.
Clearly the most important thing that happened to Housman during these years was his friendship with Moses Jackson, which had a deep and lasting effect on him. Among the first people he met at Oxford were A. W. Pollard and Jackson. He liked them both, but he was especially attracted to the latter. Jackson was everything that Housman was not: sociable, handsome, athletic, and charismatic. A brilliant student of engineering, he excelled with ease at everything he did. The three became fast friends, and in 1879, Housman won a first class in Moderations but his failure to win either the Hertford Classical Scholarship or the Newdigate Prize for English verse was an omen of worse to come. In his last year at Oxford, Housman shared rooms with Pollard and Jackson, and according to Watson, this “was to be the most perturbed and momentous period of his life.” There is convincing evidence that at this time Housman developed a passionate attachment for Jackson, which he kept hidden from everyone at great psychic cost to himself. He became irritable and moody, but his friends apparently suspected nothing. He failed his examination in Greats, and in the summer of 1881, he returned to his family in disgrace. Andrew S. Gow in his A. E. Housman: A Sketch (1936) attributes Housman’s failure to the nature of the curriculum, which emphasized history and philosophy at the expense of literature, but the weight of later opinion places the blame on Housman’s changed feelings for Jackson.
Housman returned to Oxford in the fall of 1881 to qualify for the lowly pass degree. He worked occasionally as a tutor in Greek and Latin at his old school and studied intensively for the Civil Service Examination. In December, 1882, he moved to London to share lodgings with Jackson and Jackson’s younger brother, Adalbert, and went to work in the Patent Office, where he spent the next ten years registering trademarks. From this point until 1885, not one letter emerged from Housman, and not even a brother and sister could gain access to him when they came to live in London. In 1886, Housman, seeking the peace of solitude, took private rooms in Highgate, and from this time on, his “invariable mode of life,” according to Watson, would be “monastic seclusion.” Only the Jackson brothers were encouraged to intrude on his privacy.
In 1888, Housman broke on the scholarly world with an avalanche of brilliant critical articles that won for him an international reputation (and would secure for him the chair in Latin at University College, London, in 1892). Given that these early scholarly publications were researched in the evenings at the British Museum after a full day at the Patent Office, his accomplishment must be seen as nothing short of heroic. His Introductory Lecture (1937) was given on October 3, 1892, at University College and earned for him the lasting respect of his colleagues. Housman’s scholarly writing continued unabated during his years there. He continued to work on the manuscripts of Propertius, edited works by Ovid and Juvenal, and in 1897 came out with a brilliant series of papers on the Heroides. In the meantime, Moses Jackson had gone to live in India and Adalbert had died, plunging Housman into near suicidal gloom that was to persist at intervals for the rest of his life and that could be relieved only by creative activity. In 1896, A Shropshire Lad appeared, published at his own expense, and 1899 saw the first paper on Manilius, the poet who was to become the object of Housman’s most important work of scholarship. His edition of Manilius appeared in five books over a twenty-seven-year period, “a monument of incomparable skill and thankless labour.”
The eventual success of A Shropshire Lad and Housman’s recognized position as a scholar of the first rank made him something of a celebrity, and during his last ten years at University College, he would dine at the Café Royal with a select circle of friends that included his brother Laurence, his publisher Grant Richards, his faculty colleague Arthur Platt, and a few others. By now Housman was a connoisseur of fine food and wine and an accomplished dinner conversationalist. He remained aloof from the London literary scene, however, and had little appreciation for the serious writers of his day, including the poet William Butler Yeats. On a lesser level, he intensely disliked the novels of John Galsworthy, and when James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was published, Housman sniffed, “I have scrambled and waded through and found one or two half-pages amusing.” Nor did he display any interest in music or painting. About such composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Butterworth, who set some of his poems to music, Housman remarked, “I never hear the music, so I do not suffer.”
In October, 1911, Housman was elected Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge University and a fellow of Trinity College. His brilliant inaugural lecture on The Confines of Criticism remained unpublished during his lifetime because he was unable to verify a reference in it to Percy Bysshe Shelley. At the university, Housman became a member of a select group of the faculty known as The Family, which met twice a month for dinner. At these ritual banquets, Housman proved a good raconteur and was a well-accepted member of the group, but he held himself back from intimate friendships with his colleagues for fear of rejection or disappointment. He was equally distant toward his students; and his lectures, which he gave twice weekly in all three academic terms, were sparsely attended both because of the highly technical nature of his subject matter and the coldness of his demeanor on the platform. Throughout his twenty-five years at Cambridge, Housman continued to publish widely, directing his major efforts to the edition of Manilius. He was both respected as a great scholar and feared as a devastating polemicist. Last Poems, which appeared in 1922, was a great success. In the spring of 1933, Housman was prevailed on to give the Leslie Stephen Lecture. He delivered The Name and Nature of Poetry on the twenty-second anniversary of his inaugural lecture as Kennedy Professor of Latin. In the summer of 1935, an ill Housman rallied enough strength for one last trip to France, where he had vacationed regularly since 1897. Weakened by heart disease, he died in Cambridge on April 30, 1936. In the words of Watson, he “wore in absolute repose a look of ’proud challenge.’”