A. E. Housman

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 118

A. E. Housman (HOWS-muhn) created a single work of prose fiction, A Morning with the Royal Family, a youthful fantasy printed without his permission in 1882 in the Bromsgrovian and unpublished elsewhere. His translations total 102 lines from Aeschylus’s Hepta epi Thbas (467 b.c.e.; Seven Against Thebes), Sophocles’ Oidipous epi Kolni (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus), and Euripides’ Alkstis (438 b.c.e.; Alcestis) and first appeared in A. W. Pollard’s Odes from the Greek Dramatists in 1890. They have since been included in the Collected Poems. Henry Maas has collected more than eight hundred of Housman’s letters, which, though not in the great tradition of English letter-writing, shed considerable light on the poet’s enigmatic personality.


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Although A. E. Housman’s fame today rests on a handful of poems, it was to classical scholarship that he devoted most of his life. For nearly fifty years, he was a professor of Latin, first at University College, London, and later at Cambridge University. A profound and prolific scholar fluent in five languages, he published in that time approximately two hundred critical papers and reviews spanning the entire spectrum of classical literature from Aeschylus to Vergil. This work consists mainly of textual emendations of corrupt manuscripts and is highly technical, providing a stark contrast to the lucid simplicity of his poetry. Titles such as “Emendationes Propertianae,” “The Codex Lipsiensis of Manilius,” and “Adversaria Orthographica” abound in The Classical Papers of A. E. Housman (1972), collected and edited by J. Diggle and F. R. D. Goodyear in three volumes. In addition, Housman has left behind editions of Ovid, Juvenal, Lucan, and Marcus Manilius and several major lectures, including The Confines of Criticism (1969) and The Name and Nature of Poetry (1933).

Housman held no illusions either about the power of classical knowledge to influence human character or the extent of its appeal, but he nevertheless placed the highest premium on learning for its own sake and was a relentless seeker after truth using the method of textual criticism, which he defined in The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism (1922) as “the science of discovering error in texts and the art of removing it.” This was for him “an aristocratic affair, not communicable to all men, nor to most men.” The one thing most necessary to be a textual critic “is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head.” He applied to others the same rigorous standards of scholarship that he set for himself, and he had no sympathy for incompetence in any form. He was particularly annoyed by the practice of modern criticism of following one manuscript whenever possible instead of weighing the relative merits of alternative manuscripts, a practice, he writes in his preface to Juvenal (1905), designed “to rescue incompetent editors alike from the toil of editing and from the shame of acknowledging that they cannot edit.” His harshest words are reserved for self-complacent and insolent individuals masquerading as sane critics. His vituperative attacks on Elias Stoeber and Friedrick Jacob in his 1903 preface to Manilius may be taken as typical: “Stoeber’s mind, though that is no name to call it by, was one that turned as unswervingly to the false, the meaningless, the unmetrical, and the ungrammatical, as the needle to the pole,” and “Not only had Jacob no sense for grammar, no sense for coherency, no sense for sense, but being himself possessed by a passion for the clumsy and the hispid he imputed this disgusting taste to all the authors whom he edited.” The extent of Housman’s learning and the unbridled candor of his judgments made him a respected and feared polemicist and perhaps the most formidable classicist of his age. W. H. Auden called him “The Latin Scholar of his generation.”

Throughout his career Housman repeatedly denied having any talent for literary criticism, and he turned down the Clark Lectureship in English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, on the ground that he did not qualify as a literary critic, who, he wrote in The Confines of Criticism, is rarer than “the appearance of Halley’s comet.” When he was at University College, London, he delivered papers on various English poets including Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, but he refused to allow them to be published and apparently resented the demands the Literary Society made on him, writing in his preface to Arthur Platt’s Nine Essays (1927) that “Studious men who might be settling Hoti’s business and properly basing Oun are expected to provide amusing discourses on subjects of which they have no official knowledge and upon which they may not be titled even to open their mouths.” Nevertheless, Housman’s several excursions into literary criticism reflect a great sensitivity to such central concerns as the integrity of literary texts and the debasement of language. In its emphasis on the numinous intractability of great poetry, The Name and Nature of Poetry is an oblique repudiation of the intellectualism of T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards. Housman’s criticism shows the influence of Matthew Arnold, but the importance he attached to the undergirding of impressionistic judgments with sound scholarship goes beyond that Victorian sage.

As a poet, Housman was successful to the point of celebrity. A Shropshire Lad was initially slow to catch on with the reading public, but after Grant Richards took over as Housman’s publisher, it became a great success on both sides of the Atlantic. Its moody Weltschmerz caught the fin de siècle state of mind, just as Last Poems captured the ennui of a war-weary generation. Today the inevitable reaction has set in, and Housman’s poetry is not as highly regarded as it once was. The melancholy of his poems too often seems uninformed by spiritual struggle, but the plaintive lyricism of his best work has a universal and enduring appeal.

Discussion Topics

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 107

Why might a teacher of poetry writing recommend A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad to a highly articulate would-be poet?

Does reading Housman make a reader melancholy? If not, why not?

What is Housman’s attitude toward the athlete dying young? Is the athlete seen as an individual, as a typical athlete, or as representative of a larger class of people?

Comment upon A Shropshire Lad’s unusual sense of unity and coherence.

What does referring to Housman’s poems as “strong medicine” mean?

Housman was a Latin and Greek scholar. In what ways do his poems reflect that interest? In what ways do they not?


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Bayley, John. Housman’s Poems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. An analysis of the poetic works of Housman.

Bloom, Harold, ed. A. E. Housman. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Collection of essays on Housman that covers topics such as masculine relationships and the gay subtext and Housman’s divided persona. Contains considerable analysis of A Shropshire Lad.

Corcoran, Neil, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Contains a chapter discussing Housman’s poetry and comparing it with that of Hardy, Charlotte Mew, and Edward Thomas Peter Howarth.

Efrati, Carol. The Road of Danger, Guilt, and Shame: The Lonely Way of A. E. Housman. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002. This examination of Housman’s life and works focuses on the effect of his presumed homosexuality on his poetry and lifestyle.

Graves, Richard Perceval. A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. A fine, balanced biography, drawing on material previously unpublished from public and private sources. Especially significant is Graves’s reconciliation of Housman’s romantic poetry and classical scholarship. Extensive notes and a bibliographical essay make this volume an especially useful study.

Holden, Alan W., and J. Roy Birch. A. E. Housman: A Reassessment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A collection of both biographical and critical essays that uncover the deceptive simplicity of Housman’s poetry and life. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Leggett, B. J. Housman’s Land of Lost Content: A Critical Study of “A Shropshire Lad.” Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1970. Contending that A Shropshire Lad contains most of Housman’s enduring poems, Leggett provides a painstaking analysis of its structure and its theme (“the problem of change”). Leggett aims to shift discussion away from Housman’s personality.

_______. The Poetic Art of A. E. Housman. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978. A useful study divided by topics: the use of metaphor, nature poetry, structural patterns, Housman, T. S. Eliot, and “critical fashion in the thirties.” Leggett devotes two chapters to Housman’s theory and practice of poetry because this has been a contested point in literary criticism. Supplemented by extensive notes but no bibliography.

Naiditch, P. G. Problems in the Life and Writings of A. E. Housman. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Krown & Spellmam, 1995. A lucid and readable biographical account with lasting contributions to knowledge of a great and controversial scholar. Includes a bibliography and index.

Page, Norman. A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography. New York: Schocken Books, 1983. A succinct account drawing on published and unpublished sources, with separate chapters on Housman’s classical scholarship and the development of his poetry. The introduction is especially helpful on the biographer’s method, on his evaluation of previous biographies, and on his decision to separate discussions of the life and the work.

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