During his lifetime, A. E. Housman was the foremost classicist of Great Britain. He was a professor of Latin, first at the University of London and then at Cambridge University, until his death. During his tenure, he prepared celebrated scholarly editions of Manilius, Juvenal, and Lucan. He achieved these academic posts through his singular perseverance while working in the civil service, for he had failed his honors examinations at Oxford University. Normally, this failure would have disqualified him for an academic career. Some Housman biographers assert that the unrequited homosexual love he had for a fellow student caused a depression that had resulted in Housman’s disappointing performance.
After his death, Housman’s fame came to rest on two slim collections of poems, A Shropshire Lad and Last Poems (1922). Both collections deal with life’s brevity and the indifference of nature and history to human tragedy. The Boer War (1899) and two world wars, as well as clues left by Housman’s continual revisions of his poems, have encouraged an anti-imperial political reading of the poet’s work, likely to a far greater degree than Housman himself intended when he wrote.
Housman’s general pessimism and disillusionment locates his style closer to that of his contemporaries Thomas Hardy and Matthew Arnold than to Rudyard Kipling, and he is miles apart from the optimism of William Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Within Housman’s poetic domain—comprising themes of youth cut short by war, of love disallowed by history, and of peaceful landscapes threatened by turmoil—no poet can compete. The distinctive feature that underpins all of Housman’s poetry is the resigned dispassion, quite distinct from cynicism, with which his narrator portrays his reaction to the human situation.
A Shropshire Lad comprises sixty-three poems. The introductory poem, “1887,” is named for the fiftieth anniversary of Victoria’s accession to the monarchy and introduces the political irony that critics have often assigned to the whole collection. Read superficially, it celebrates God’s preservation of the queen, but it borrows its dominant image, that of the beacons that illuminate the landscape of the empire, from a Greek tragedy: Aeschylus’s Agamemnn (458 b.c.e.; Agamemnon, 1777). In that play, a series of signal fires extends across the Aegean from Troy to Argos to announce Troy’s fall and Agamemnon’s return. Paradoxically, the beacons parallel the flames of the hecatomb that Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra offers to achieve success in her plan to murder him. Housman’s narrator observes that when the flames go out “we” will remember “friends of ours/ who shared the work with God” of saving the queen. Proof of these friends’ contributions exists on the tombstones of Asia and Africa that bear “Shropshire names.”
“Loveliest of Trees” notes the cherry blossoms that appear at Easter. Humanity has a mere seventy years to witness this annual resurrection of...
(The entire section is 1264 words.)