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A Morning with the Royal Family, a youthful fantasy printed without his permission in 1882 in the Bromsgrovian and unpublished elsewhere.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.
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...
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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?
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...
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