THE POET A.E. HOUSMAN

A personal reflection by Alan Mason -

 1. Ludlow, Shropshire, a late 19 C painting by Alfred Robert Quinton,

Publication

When A.E. Housman tried to get his poems published in 1895 he found it impossible to find a publisher who was interested, and so he had a limited edition of 500 copies printed privately, at his own expense, in 1896. Since then they have never been out of print. His original title was “The Poems of Terence Hearsay” but a friend, probably Alfred Pollard, persuaded him to use a new title, “A Shropshire Lad”, and so they have remained ever since. For Housman this did not represent a major change, as the persons of “the Shropshire Lad” and “Terence Hearsay”, are one and the same, a young A.E. Housman himself, in a rural disguise.

Historical Shropshire

Housman’s life story is an unusual and interesting one, but before embarking on it there is something to be said about Shropshire first. It is one of the English counties of the Welsh border, rich in history and archaeological remains. The pretty market town of Ludlow (1) is still dominated by the castle. In medieval times it was a lawless region, and order was maintained by a powerful local aristocracy, the “Marcher Lords” (literally the lords of the border) who built a string of strong border fortresses like the one at Ludlow. (2)

2. Ludlow Castle with Barbican Gate (centre) and Round Chapel (left).

Today the county remains largely rural but there is some modern industry in the new built

areas around Shrewsbury, the county capital, and the new town of Telford. The county played a major part in the English Industrial Revolution but that is another story. Much of the prosperity of the county is now based on tourism, because Shropshire is beautiful and interesting with some very dramatic landscapes

A Shropshire of the Mind

However, it needs to be stressed that the Shropshire of Housman’s poems is not the Shropshire of today, nor is it the Shropshire of Housman’s youth in the mid nineteenth century. It is a Shropshire of the mind, a pastoral idyll having little connection with any reality.

Housman did not come from Shropshire; he was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, the adjacent county to the east. He was recorded as saying he had a “sentimental feeling for Shropshire, because its hills were our western horizons.” The Shropshire hills lay in the distance, where the sun went down, near enough to visit, but just far enough away for its distant blue hills to tantalise.

Distant Prospects

Housman records a common human feeling for the distant horizons and what they promise. When driving southwards from my home I love to catch sight of the blue line of the Chiltern Hills. One of my favourite views (3) occurs as one leaves the main road at Wing, near Aylesbury, in Buckinghamshire, to take the minor road to Mentmore. The ground drops away gently and the open fields display a wide prospect on either side, unhindered by hedges or trees. Then the ground rises from the small valley towards extensive woods and the blue Chilterns above them.

3. The Chiltern Hills seen from the road from Wing to Mentmore

When we actually get among the blue hills, some of the magic is lost, and though the region may be beautiful and refreshing to the spirit, it is the distant prospect which lends most enchantment. Artists term this “blueing” to create an impression of distance, “atmospheric perspective”. It is due to a simple physical process whereby the red colours of light are preferentially absorbed by water vapour in the atmosphere. The further away the object is, the more strongly the effect is observed. (4)

Many poets have used the phrase, “blue hills” as in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Sussex”, where he rejoices in “the wooded, dim, blue goodness of the Weald.” Housman’s particular phrase is significant. His “the blue, remembered hills”, are the hills not as they are now, but as he, or we remember them. What Housman did in his poems was to create a landscape of the mind, based on the county of Shropshire, using its town and village names, and landscape features but essentially detached from the reality of the places themselves.

The Promised Land

Housman has explained that, he had a “sentimental feeling for Shropshire, because its hills were our western horizons,” but this rather understates the case, and it appears to be much deeper than that. As children, Housman and his friends often climbed to the top of a knoll on the outskirts of Bromsgrove, which gave a clear, open view of the Shropshire hills. They nicknamed this small hill, “Mount Pisgah”, an Old Testament reference likely to be lost on modern readers, myself included.

4. “From Yell Bank” by Robin Bell Corfield,

The Old Testament records the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt, their ultimate release, and their forty years of wanderings in the desert, under their leader, Moses. They had been promised the Land of Canaan, “flowing with milk and honey”. Moses had shown disobedience to God, and consequently he was not permitted to enter Canaan, but as a special favour he was allowed to see the land once, before he died, from the top of a small hill, Mount Pisgah.

As a boy, Housman, would be well aware of the powerful religious and spiritual significance of the Promised Land, though as an adult he was largely a non-believer. Why should Shropshire be the Promised Land? It could be that this was the land in the distance, always unattainable, always blue, and never contaminated by the reality of the world. It was the land where things were as you would wish them to be, but not as you have to accept them as they are.

Housman knew enough of Shropshire as a visitor, but not as a resident. He knew the beauty and the superficial gloss but not the sheer ordinariness of living there. Think of the couple who loved the magic and romance of Cornwall in the summer time vacations, but who bitterly regretted having retired there, to endure the wind and rain of winter and the isolation from the rest of Britain.

To be fair to Housman, he does not paint a picture in his poems which is all sunshine and roses. Death is an ever-present theme, and his pastoral figures bear their load of heavy work, disappointment, injustice, and misfortune.

“Mount Pisgah” today is heavily fenced, (5) with a BBC TV and communications mast on top, a very narrow access road, and it is virtually impossible to park anywhere. The opening of the site to tourism by means of a small car park would be a blessing to pilgrims on the Housman trail. On old Ordnance Survey maps the site is called “Broom Hill”, but on modern ones it is un-named. The Housman Society is trying to promote the name, “Housman’s Hill”.

5. “Mount Pisgah” or “Housman’s Hill” Today. (The artist’s name is not known.)

A Lost Pastoral Idyll

We need to remember that Housman’s poems were not written in his youth but about his youth, or imagined youth, as the figure Terence Hearsay. He wrote the poems in middle or old age, when he was tired, ill, or depressed. Many of them came to him almost fully formed. They were rather the product of his unconscious mind, than of his intellect. The young Terence Hearsay moves through a bright, visionary landscape, peopled by the creations of his sub-conscious being.

In my opinion, the poem number XI, perhaps best summarises Housman’s view in two verses, especially the last two lines.

Into my heart an air that kills

From yon far country blows;

What are those blue remembered hills,

What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went,

And cannot come again.

This is a theme which is not unique to Housman, and many writers have used the idea of a lost rural idyll as a basis for poetry or novels. H G Wells short story, “The Door in the Wall”, “Le Grand Meaulnes” (The Lost Domain) by Alain-Fournier, John Masefield’s poem, “Reynard the Fox” and his Kay Harker novels, “The Midnight Folk” and “The Box of Delights”, and “Brideshead Revisited” by Evelyn Waugh, all partake of this theme. Might they be harking back to Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden?

Gone from the Land

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the advent of the Agricultural Revolution in Britain was to mechanise many of the processes and to reduce the need for so many workers. (6) Many agricultural labourers were forced to leave the countryside and seek work in the factories of the growing urban areas like London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, and the mill towns of the north.

6. Mechanisation in the late Nineteenth Century

For many of these men and women the countryside was no rural idyll but a place of poverty and hard grinding work out of doors in all weathers. (7) However, the beauties of nature were continually around them, and they were employed to care for domestic animals like horses, cattle, pigs, and sheep. Most grew vegetables and flowers in their cottage gardens as a supplement to food bought through merchants. (8)

            

 7. Ploughing and Haymaking by Rowland Hilder

8. Wyre village, near Pershore, Worcestershire, by A R Quinton,

In the towns the work was equally hard and grinding but it was with machines, not animals, and the workforce saw nothing of the beauties of nature on their way from their tenements and back-to-back housing to the nearby mills and factories. Dore’s engraving shows the crowded bustle of a London labourer’s work. (9) They had little contact with nature and looked back to the lost rural scene with regret. A few had small patches of ground to till and vegetables to raise. Some found consolation in pigeon fancying or whippet racing as a means of contact with the natural world. 

9. At Work in the London Docks – Gustave Dore

 

Exile from the Land of One’s Birth

At the extreme end of this longing for a rural past were the Irish and Scottish poor who not only left the countryside in search of work but left their native land for North America and elsewhere. In Canada the Scots tried hard to preserve their national identity and traditions. The Irish in America also preserved a vision of rural Ireland in dance and song, and strove to keep alive the customs and traditions of their forbears. Housman was tapping into a deep wellspring of human emotion and this is perhaps why his poetry has proved so enduringly popular with ordinary people.

Country and Town – A Personal Recollection

There is another group of people who feel the difference between town and country very deeply. I refer to those who grew up in the country as children but were then transferred to the town in later years. This was a common experience of people now in their seventies. At the outbreak of WW2 the government expected mass bombing and gas attacks and they ordered mass evacuations of children from all the major cities.

I was of that generation, being a two-year-old in London at the outbreak of war, but I was very fortunate in that my mother was a stubborn and determined woman who resented being given orders by the authorities. She would not give her child over to the care of complete strangers as thousands of other trusting mothers did. She left London and sought refuge with her brother who was a village postman in Yorkshire. Eventually, she found independent accommodation in a hamlet of six families on the outskirts of a small Yorkshire town.

 10. Syke House, Yorkshire, in 1997

The first home I knew was surrounded by woods and fields. (10) The local farmers were our immediate neighbours, (11) and their children were my playmates. We had no mains drainage, gas or electricity, and our one luxury was piped water, although we also had our own well in the cellar. When I eventually started school at five, my walk involved climbing stiles, walking through fields, crossing a small wood to the country lane which led to the small town in which my school was situated.

11. Pearce’s Farm, West Yorkshire, 1988

Soon after the war ended I returned to London. Although I was well aware of the shock of the experience, children seem to adjust quite quickly to these changes. It is only on looking back on everything from the vantage point of old age, that I realise that the transition from a hamlet to a great city was

the most formative experience of my whole life. It coloured the qualifications I sought, the profession I chose, the places in which I chose to live, the hobbies I pursued, my tastes in music and literature, and the kinds of holidays I liked.

Most obviously, I was left with an abiding love of the countryside, the woods and fields, the crops and the grazing stock. When I was old enough I began to leave south London to travel into the nearest countryside of Kent, Surrey and Sussex by bus or train. I chose to study biology at university, and later to teach it, so that plants and animals were a part of my everyday life. I preferred to live and work in small country towns which had most of the conveniences of urban life, but where the countryside was on my doorstep. My holidays involved travelling to the countryside in other parts of Britain. Even when I was abroad I was always keen to see the countryside of other nations.

Return to Eden?

It is a commonplace that, “One should never go back,” principally because one will inevitably be disappointed. I did go back, and found that the small town was somewhat modernised but as beautiful as ever, approached from either direction by roads thickly bordered by woods. My old school was still there but now a playgroup centre; the new school was a few hundred yards down the road. The hamlet in which I lived had only two families, compared with six in my day. The country lane and the woods and fields were unchanged.

The farmyard of our nearest farmer neighbour (11) was now immaculate; only smart four-wheel drives parked there; no livestock ever entered it. Several farms had probably been merged and most of the buildings sold purely as residences, so that they were managed from nearby towns, where the farmer’s wife had easy access to all the facilities.

Re-Creation of a Lost Rural Idyll

This was the place of my lost rural idyll, but I have managed to recreate it several times over. I loved living and working in Midhurst in Sussex. It is an attractive and historic town and the walk to work gave me a view of the South Downs every day, before I crossed the River Rother by a medieval stone bridge. I manage to visit Midhurst most years to renew my affection for the town and surrounding country.

 12. The High Street from South Pond, Midhurst, West Sussex

Tonbridge in Kent is a busy and bustling place but it is on the edge of very beautiful countryside and a wealth of pretty villages. I made good friends while working there and again visit the area most years. My workplace was in a tower block, and the view from here of the Ragstone Ridge, towards the North Downs, revived my spirits each day. The enchanting region of the High Weald was only a short drive away.

 

13. The High Weald, East Sussex

Now living in Stony Stratford I am grateful to be on the edge of Milton Keynes, so that the open fields lie within a five minute walk of my front door. However, the new town is quite different from the urban sprawl of London where the streets and houses seemed to go on forever, and one looked eagerly for every patch of green space.

 14. Otto von Bismarck, and the Pomeranian Countryside

Reading a historical essay on the German statesman Bismarck, I was intrigued to discover that his mother, Wilhelmine, had, “sent Otto to a boarding school in the city of Berlin, when he was six, although the gentry as a rule educated their children at home, at least until they were a little older. Bismarck was unenthusiastic about the school he attended, which was one of the best then available, but he…was not especially unhappy there.

Nevertheless, leaving the countryside for school in Berlin was a trauma. Otto’s mother prevented visits to his home, Kniephof, among the fields and trees of Pomerania… and throughout his life he was to reiterate his yearning for the country and the forest. These he identified with masculine Prussian traditions and the warmth of the hearth; they represented the instinctive side of his nature.” (p. 2, “Bismarck” by Bruce Waller, Historical Association Studies, Blackwell, 1985)

But what of poor Housman longing for the “blue, remembered hills” of Shropshire? He remained in cities all his life, first London and then Cambridge. Could he not have recreated a rural idyll for himself? Unfortunately, he made a profession of melancholy, and no recreated idyll could have replaced that which he had lost. It was much more than mere countryside that he was missing as an examination of his life will now show.

Early Life

A E Housman was the eldest of nine children of a well-to-do local solicitor, born in Fockbury, a hamlet then on the edge of the small Midlands town of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire.

15. A E Housman as a Young Man

Although Housman was born in Valley House, in the village of Fockbury, (26 March 1859), which is still a private home, (renamed “Housmans”), he moved at the age of three months to Perry Hall, (16) in the nearby town of Bromsgrove, where his father already had his solicitor’s chambers. Thus, Perry Hall was his childhood’s home. Housman suffered the great tragedy of losing his mother on his twelfth birthday in 1871. His father re-married two years later to his cousin Lucy so that the younger children had a close relative to care for them.

 16. The Two Existing Houses Associated with A E Housman

Perry Hall, the home Housman knew best, is now a small hotel and as such, is accessible to visitors, if they are customers. There were cherry trees around the house and in the grounds of Perry Hall in Housman’s day. Though many of them have gone, there is still a large old cherry tree in the garden behind the hotel, which may date back to Housman’s childhood. Possibly Housman’s best known poem, (ASL II) is in recollection of cherry trees, maybe even those at Perry Hall.

17. Flowering Cherry Tree

 

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Is hung with bloom along the bough,

And stands about the woodland ride

Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,

Twenty will not come again,

And take from seventy springs a score,

It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom

Fifty springs are little room,

About the woodlands I will go

To see the cherry hung with snow.

Housman had been educated at home, by governesses, until the age of eleven, when he entered the Bromsgrove School (18) as one of twelve, “Foundation Scholars” in September 1870. His fees were a very modest five pounds a year, which was very fortunate for his father who was in grave financial difficulties with his legal practice.

The new Headmaster was Dr George Blore, was a classical scholar who had revitalised the old Grammar School, and had brought in the system of Foundation Scholars which so benefitted very clever children like the young Housman. He was an intelligent boy, who was, not surprisingly, heavily influenced by Blore, and became a keen scholar of the classics. 

 18. The Old School House (now Cookes’ House), Bromsgrove

 The Position of the Classics in School and University

 In those days the study of Latin and Greek was seen as the very pinnacle of intellectual achievement and the subject drew all the best minds in the average school. Mathematics was regarded as respectable but the “natural sciences” that is physics and chemistry were held in low esteem and only the most dedicated boys would choose them as their university course.

Within a hundred years this had all changed. In the 1960s I was working in a Sussex version of the Bromsgrove School, also revitalised by a new Headmaster, this time during the 1940s. I realised that the classics were now a minority option, chosen by only a few students, not necessarily the most able. The senior classics master, a very intelligent man and a good friend discussed with me the bleak future he saw ahead. Within a few years there would be no work for him. Should he teach, English or History without a degree in those subjects? Would he be wisest to get another degree, in Russian, perhaps?

I sympathised with him, quite genuinely, because I knew that although the Victorian response of placing the classics on a pedestal was quite ridiculous, here in the twentieth century there was still a place for them. Latin and Greek were a part of western European culture. It is impossible to understand much of the English literature of the last 500 years without some knowledge of the classical world, its stories and mythologies. Historians need some understanding of the classics if they are to study the more distant past. Anyone trying to do original research with contemporary records from the ancient, medieval, Tudor or Stewart periods needs a working knowledge of Latin, and to a lesser extent, Greek.

All this was in the future, and when Housman, at the age of eighteen, in 1877 won an open scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford (19) to study “Greats”, (meaning Latin, Greek, Ancient History, and Philosophy) this was seen by everyone as the overture to a brilliant career.

19. Main Gate, St John’s College, Oxford

Scholarships

The phrase, “won a scholarship” has unfortunately passed into the language, and is employed quite inaccurately 98% of the time by people who use it. A scholarship is a competitive examination for a limited number of places at a college of some kind. There will be only a few winners, generally the most able in that subject. The term “open” means that anyone can enter for it.

Some scholarships may be restricted to certain categories, for example, the sons of naval officers, or sons of Anglican clergymen. This is purely because, in the past, an admiral, or senior cleric had made a major bequest of land or property to the college, to support a scholarship and stipulated the conditions. It was a charitable act to help the children of less fortunate men in the same profession.

At the time of selective education, when grammar schools were widely available, children took an examination for secondary schooling. It was commonly called “the eleven plus”. It was not a competitive examination, and anyone who reached an objective academic standard passed. This was often and erroneously described as “winning a scholarship”, which it was clearly not.

During the same period, if one applied to a university for a conditional place, and successfully achieved the requisite O Level and A Level passes, the local County Council would automatically provide a grant for tuition and maintenance. This was technically known as a “Major County Award”. Again, it was frequently described by parents as “winning a scholarship to University”, which it was not. It was an administrative arrangement based on successfully fulfilling certain criteria.

All this is to place in context A E Housman’s fine achievement in 1877 in winning a place at St John’s in the face of competition from the best classics scholars from the best academic schools in the country. 

20. Quadrangle of St John’s College, Oxford

University Life

Although Housman obtained a First in Classical Moderations, (a preliminary stage) in 1879, he failed his final degree. Much ink has been spilt by commentators in trying to understand why such a brilliant classical scholar as Housman could have failed his Final Examinations. I include below some of the reasons suggested, but abiding by the general principle that the simplest explanation is most likely to be the correct one, I think that the truth is that Housman simply did not do enough work to cover the whole of his examination syllabus.

As explained earlier, the arcane term, “Greats” meant that Housman was to study, and be examined in, Latin, Greek, Ancient History, and Philosophy. Although he was proficient in the two languages and ready to work hard in these studies, he concentrated his energies on textual analysis to the exclusion of all else. He was indifferent to Philosophy and thought the Ancient History was a rather inexact science.

21. Flag of St John’s College showing its Shield of Arms

Some confirmation of this mindset is provided by his later scholarly life which was dedicated solely to textual analysis. Unlike many other classical scholars of the time he showed no interest in trying to promote the history of the classical period to a wider public, although contemporary archaeological research was revealing much of great value to later generations. The German archaeologist Heinrich von Schliemann had successfully located the site of Troy and had revealed much of the civilisation of Mycenae. (22)

Some have suggested that the reasons for his failure lay in his father’s serious illness at the time, or in overconfidence with his ability to breeze through his exams without putting in the work, and possibly in idling away his time with friends.

22. Gold Funerary Mask of Mycenae, Greece, 16 Century BC

Homosexual Love

While he was an undergraduate, Housman formed close friendships with two men in particular, A W Pollard, and Moses Jackson. Pollard has been mentioned earlier as possibly the friend who persuaded Housman some twenty-five years later to call his collection of poems, “A Shropshire Lad”.

At some stage, Housman must have realised that his emotional inclinations were homosexual. The classical writers in whom he was immersed, accepted homosexual activity as part of the everyday life of their times. Dinner parties (23) were often all-male affairs, and the Olympic Games were also all-male and staged in the nude. (24) It was clearly not to everyone’s taste but there were no direct or indirect sanctions against homosexual behaviour in the classical world. Clearly Housman must have thought about this issue during his studies. 

23. Classical Greek Dinner Party (from a cup of the period)

 24. Pentathlon Events at the Classical Greek Olympic Games (from a crater or large cup)

In the England of Housman’s times, Christian morality taught that homosexual acts or thoughts were sinful. Even more so there were strong social conventions which condemned homosexuality in strong terms like, “depravity” or “an abomination”. This meant that homosexuals tended to live in closed societies, accepted among themselves but cut off from the rest of society in general.

25. Moses Jackson as an undergraduate

While Housman knew all this, and although a rather withdrawn and undemonstrative individual, he formed such a strong attachment to Moses Jackson (25) that at some stage he declared his love directly to the man. Jackson was shocked, appalled and promptly rebuffed Housman. We may wonder why Housman had so badly misread the nature of his friend. Given his general social caution, how was it that he then threw caution to the winds? Might it be that Moses Jackson’s behaviour was so free and easy, so open and relaxed that poor Housman had totally misunderstood the heterosexual nature of his friend?

Unrequited love is a common feature of human existence, whether it is homosexual or heterosexual love. We cannot make others love us, or even like us, if they are disinclined. The best we can do is to work away steadily, try to show our good qualities, and hope to catch the interest of the beloved. However, in the end we may have to abandon the attempt and move on. There may be others we can find who are able to love us in return.

Again, all this would be known to a young man of Housman’s age. It seems that Moses Jackson was the great love of his life. He never wanted another. He would not move on and was enmeshed in his hopeless passion. Some have seen the rebuff as the reason for Housman’s failure to obtain a degree. 

26. Two of Housman’s London Addresses

The Patent Office

Though Moses Jackson had rejected Housman it did not lead to the immediate break-up of the friendship. After University, Moses Jackson became a Civil Servant by accepting a job at the Patent Office in London, (26) and persuaded his employers to take on Housman as well. The camaraderie of Oxford continued as the two men shared a flat together, along with Adalbert Jackson, brother of Moses.

It was something like four years before Housman left them and began living in lodgings of his own in 1885. Two years later Moses Jackson moved to India so that further contact could be by letter only. He was only in India for two years before he returned to Britain in 1889 for his wedding, to which Housman was not invited. Indeed Housman only knew of the marriage after the couple had left Britain again. He was bitterly grieved by this snub from his friend.

Jackson’s behaviour is puzzling because although he was aware of Housman’s declared love, and had rebuffed him, the relationship continued to be a close domestic one for several years
afterwards. In this case why had he snubbed Housman over the wedding? He moved with his wife to Canada and kept in touch with Housman by letters, until his relatively early death. The correspondence was destroyed afterwards. Housman continued to see Adalbert Jackson until his death, from typhoid fever, in 1892 three years after his brother’s wedding. Much .later in his rooms in Cambridge, Housman kept photographs of the two brothers on his mantelpiece.

Housman’s Continuing Scholarship

While working at the Patent Office Housman continued his work on textual criticism of classical authors, publishing his findings in learned journals and building up a significant reputation for himself, as a leading classical scholar. The essence of Housman’s labours lay in the fact that the works of the classical authors have come down to us in the form of vellum (thin white leather) manuscripts copied by hand by scribes, who were often monks.

Over the centuries, such manuscripts get damaged, and copying errors spread so that the original source becomes seriously corrupted. When the scribes doing the copying had a weak grasp of Latin their guesswork over puzzling entries was likely to be faulty. Housman acted as a detective trying to spot and eliminate errors by comparing a variety of texts on the same original. In this way he hoped to produce a reasonably accurate version of the original work.

He worked on Latin authors such as Horace, Propertius, Ovid and Manilius, and the Greek writers Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles. Such was Housman’s reputation as a scholar that, after about eleven years at the Patent Office, he was appointed Professor of Latin at University College, London (27) in 1892.

University College, London

Housman described this change in a ridiculously exaggerated manner, as, “being picked up out of the gutter”. Actually, he was a respectable Civil Servant, with a secure job and pension, on an adequate salary to live comfortably, if not well.

27. University College, London, Quadrangle and Main Entrance

Neither was the new job quite as prestigious as it might appear; Housman was the first person ever appointed to the post, and although he was a full Professor it was in a department of one. The appointment was a vindication of Housman’s hard work and scholarship.

The institution which Housman had now joined had a curious history. Oxford and Cambridge Universities had dominated English intellectual life for 700 years. They were the only English universities, unlike Scotland, which had four with universities for a much smaller population.

Despite their world-wide reputation, Oxford and Cambridge (28) had exercised a pernicious and stultifying effect on English higher education for centuries. They discriminated against entrants by the use of religious tests, so that Protestant Dissenters, Catholics and Freethinkers were excluded. A qualification in Latin was also essential for entry until the 1970s and this effectively ruled out most people except those who had been through the conventional grammar and public school system.

28. King’s College, Cambridge, the Lawns and River Cam

All this changed in 1826 when University College was founded. It admitted anyone, who reached the appropriate academic standard, (technically described as “matriculation”) without religious tests of any sort. It also admitted women quite freely. It was to take Oxford and Cambridge another 150 years before they could say the same.

London University soon became a federation of several more or less autonomous constituent colleges, setting their own examinations, but the degrees they awarded were of the University of London. In Housman’s day, the University was a mainly administrative body situated in Malet Street, Bloomsbury. . The most well-known colleges were, King’s College in the Strand, Imperial College in South Kensington, and University College, in Gower Street, Bloomsbury, a few hundred yards away from Senate House, the administrative building of the University.

Victorian Bloomsbury

It is very likely that Housman, as a non-believer appreciated the freer atmosphere of the “Godless College in Gower Street”, as University College was nicknamed, despite his own classical education in Oxford. In those days Bloomsbury was something of a raffish area, with artists, writers and bohemians of every sort occupying the sedate Georgian houses of its squares.

This situation may well have appealed to Housman, who knew that, as a homosexual, he too was part of a group who were set apart from conventional society. There is, however, no direct evidence that the rather taciturn and undemonstrative Housman took any part in the social life of the inhabitants of Bloomsbury.

His lodgings were in Highgate, in the north London suburbs. This is where the bulk of his poems were written, in 1894 to 1895, “in a few months of what he himself described as a period of ‘continuous excitement’, he produced half of the poems” of the Shropshire Lad, “and he began to seriously think about publication.” (Anne Carter, Corfield, op. cit)

29. Two of the Artists of Decadence

The illustration in Figure 29, from an 1894 theatre programme, epitomises the bohemianism of Bloomsbury. This was two years after Housman arrived there, and featured the scandalous, semi-pornographic artist, Aubrey Beardsley, and the playwright and wit, Oscar Wilde. This year, 1894, was the zenith for the career of both men. In the following year the scandal broke. Oscar Wilde faced trial and a two-year imprisonment in 1895, and Beardsley was sacked as an illustrator by his publisher, because of his association with Wilde.

Beardsley died in 1898, from tuberculosis, and Wilde died in exile, in Paris, in 1900. In retrospect, critical social commentators over the next fifty years of the new twentieth century, used the lives of both Beardsley and Wilde as examples of “fin de siècle” (end of century) decadence. No doubt the point was not lost on Housman, that men at the pinnacle of their careers could be destroyed overnight by the charge of homosexuality.

 30. Symbolist Art of the End of the Century

Aubrey Beardsley was part of an artistic movement which came to be called Symbolism, in that it dealt with dreams, imaginings, ideas and emotions by trying to render them as symbolic images in paint. The rather eerie, puzzling quality of Symbolist art is conveyed by this single example of the work of Khnopff, in Figure 30. This is a metaphor of the relationship between the solitary artist and his own imagination. The two faces are the same.

To some extent, Housman could be seen as a Symbolist poet, by trying to render ideas and feelings indirectly, in the form of people within a pastoral convention. Though Housman was a contemporary of this artistic movement there is no evidence he was directly influenced by it.

Housman’s Poetry is Printed

Housman emerged into print as a poet in 1896, no doubt glad that he had veiled his inclinations and desires behind the unreal character of the Shropshire Lad. As John Sparrow says, “A clerk in the Patent Office, even a Professor in Cambridge, could not confess to affections of which a poet could speak openly in ancient Greece… Like Gray, therefore, and for the same reason, Housman ‘never spoke out.’– ‘Ask me no more, for fear I might reply’ For the most part, he held his peace.” (p. 13, Sparrow, op.cit)

He continues by suggesting that, “the theme that runs all through his poems is a protest against the hostility of the universe in which he finds himself –

‘I, a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made.’

Surrounded by that alien world, he never falls a victim to self-pity or to cynicism, the two familiar infirmities of the pessimist. He confronts his destiny with fortitude.” (p.14, Sparrow, op.cit)

Housman’s Contribution to University Standards

An opening introductory lecture by Housman on, “The Aims of Learning” in October 1892 when he began his professorial career, proved extremely popular. The College had the lecture printed and widely distributed. Housman and other professors of the Arts faculties were prominent in trying to raise the overall standards and curriculum breadth of this aspect of the work of the University.

While Housman was teaching at University College, the University itself acted as a midwife in bringing to birth several new provincial university colleges in England. The University set exams and awarded degrees to students who had attended all their lectures and done all their university work in the provinces. These “extra-mural colleges” eventually became full universities in their own right in the early twentieth century. They include the Universities of Exeter, Southampton, Reading, Birmingham and Leicester.

This tutelage of, and oversight by, London University, and the example provided by Professors like Housman, was a guarantee of academic standards and breadth of subjects in these proto-universities. This useful and successful formula was later ignored in the last two decades of the 20 century, when many of England’s newest universities were created, and given total independence, right from the start. Consequently, for the weaker ones, the issue of their academic standards has been a subject of debate ever since their foundation.

Despite his reputation for being somewhat withdrawn and “difficult”, Housman seems to have flourished socially at University College as a popular contributor in debates, and as an after-dinner-speaker. He gained a reputation for good living as Treasurer of the Professors’ Dining Club. Housman not only continued to publish academic papers on textual criticism of classical works, but he also wrote papers on well-known poets like Robert Burns, Matthew Arnold, and Alfred Tennyson, for the College Literary Society. 

31.Robert Burns

A Professorship at Cambridge

Housman’s tenure at University College lasted for nearly twenty years, but he was keen to secure an appointment which gave him more time for research. When the Professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge died in 1910, Housman applied for the job and was accepted, taking up the appointment in the Michaelmas Term (autumn) of 1911. The Kennedy Chair of Latin in the University of Cambridge was an altogether more prestigious recognition of Housman’s gifts as a scholar than the one-man department at University College, London.

 32. Quadrangle of Trinity College, Cambridge

As a result of Housman’s published papers on classical research, he had been invited to become a member of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, while he was still at the Patent Office. Therefore, his regular attendance at its meetings over twenty years meant that, when he took up his appointment at Trinity College, he was already well known to many of the University teachers there.

His fame had also grown with the poems, which had gone into a second edition in 1898, only two years after they were first published. This time they were professionally published as a commercial prospect rather than at Housman’s own expense. The poems had roused the interest of a young publisher, Grant Richards, who became a personal friend of Housman. They frequently dined together and shared continental holidays. Richards was a poor businessman and eventually went bankrupt, but Housman remained with the new owners and was never out of print from then on.

His fame as a poet grew with the circulation of “A Shropshire Lad”, and the aforementioned publication of his writings on poets like Burns, Arnold, and Tennyson. Eleven years after taking up his professorship at Cambridge, Housman published “Last Poems”. This turned him into something of an authority on the creation of poetry, culminating in his lecture on “The Name and Nature of Poetry” delivered in 1933.

 

33. Shield of Arms of Trinity College, Cambridge

While at the Patent Office, and for the whole of his career at University College, Housman had lodged with a Mrs Hunter, initially at Byron Cottage, Highgate. In those days Highgate was still a village, surrounded by farms, fields and common land. Highgate Hill was a high ridge, an old erosion terrace of a once much wider River Thames, which gave wide views of the expanding London conurbation below. Most of his poems were written here.

 In 105, Mrs Hunter moved from Highgate to Pinner and Housman moved with her. She probably found him a quiet, sober and reliable lodger, and he appreciated the fact that she respected his need for privacy and quiet to pursue his academic work. When he left her for Cambridge, Mrs Hunter is recorded as having said that she was pleased for him, “because he did not see enough people while living with her.” (p. 68, Shaw, op. cit) 

34. Whewell’s Court, Trinity College, Cambridge (The artist’s name is not known.)

Now, at Cambridge, he was able to live in residence, within Trinity College, in a suite of rooms he had chosen, close to the College entrance to Sidney Street. (34) His meals would be eaten at High Table in the College Hall, and the college servants would provide all the other domestic services, like dusting and cleaning. “This secluded, cheerless eyrie” was from then on to be his home for the rest of his life, save for a few weeks when he took vacations. (After p. 83, Shaw, op. cit) His main recreation involved long solitary walks among the meadows that surrounded Cambridge.

35. Professor A E Housman

Housman’s teaching programme at Trinity was not onerous. He gave two lectures a week, of fifty minutes duration. We have a record of these lectures from one of Housman’s students, a Classics scholar, who later became an army Brigadier by the end of the Second World War, a University Professor, then a Member of Parliament, and finally a Cabinet Minister.

This student was Enoch Powell, who recalls, “He read his lectures word for word, standing ramrod-straight in the smallest of the lecture-rooms, never apparently looking to see what impression, if any, he was producing upon his hearers…His face, as he read, was expressionless, and the effect, especially with the overhanging moustache and bald cranium, was of a voice proceeding from the mouth of one of those masks which the actors wore on the Greek tragic stage.

The lecture being read -always precisely fifty minutes in length – he donned his mortar-board and stalked impassively back to his fastness above the Jesus Lane entrance to the repellent pile of Whewell’s Court.” (pp. 84-85, Shaw, op. cit)

Housman appears to have enjoyed the social life at High Table among some of the greatest intellects of the time. The philosophers, Luttwig Wittgenstein, G E Moore, and Bertrand Russell were all there. (Readers may recall the wickedly accurate parody by Jonathan Miller, of Russell “While at Great Court, Trinity, trying to trap the young G E Moore into a logical falsehood”.) Other brains included the historian, G M Trevelyan, the anthropologist Frazer, (“The Golden Bough”) the mathematician G H Hardy, and the physicist J J Thompson who discovered the electron, and later became Master of Trinity College.

The yearly round of lecturing, and social visits to friends in England, continued into Housman’s seventies. He still managed to go abroad each summer to France, or to Venice and Rome, but his health was failing and he, according to the doubtful diagnoses of the time, suffered from a weak heart.

36. The Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge

In 1933 at the age of seventy-four he gave the famous Leslie Stephen Lecture, mentioned earlier, on the nature of poetry, which he said, was not about thoughts or ideas, but about emotions. The demands of preparing this lecture weakened him further and he had to spend time in the Evelyn Nursing Home in Cambridge to recuperate. He continued trying to maintain his lecture programme until a few days before his death, at the age of seventy-seven, in the Evelyn Home. (The Evelyn survives to this day, having expanded into a modern Cambridge hospital.)

He died on 30 April 1936, when the cherry trees were in bloom. His coffin was covered in cherry blossoms from the trees in the Avenue of Trinity College, which he had seen planted a few years earlier. His funeral was in the Chapel of Trinity College, a building he never visited during his lifetime, because, as his brother, Laurence, explained, A E Housman “believed in a Supreme Being, but not in a Personal God”, (p. 88, Shaw, op. cit). He was cremated and the ashes were interred with earlier family members in the parish church of the town of Ludlow, in Shropshire. So the “Shropshire Lad” had finally returned to his adopted county.

The Commemoration of A E Housman

A E Housman is commemorated in various ways, with blue plaques on houses associated with his residence there at different times of his life. The statue of Housman, in the pedestrian precinct of the town centre of Bromsgrove, (37) is badly placed, in my opinion. It is framed by modern buildings of a crassness to beggar belief. Had the picture of Housman (37) been taken from the other side, framed by the attractive eighteenth century facade of Lloyd’s Bank, it would have shown the back of the statue’s head.

Some better place could surely have been chosen. A site in the grounds of Perry Hall might have been negotiated with the owners, to allow public access to a limited part of the property. Alternatively, some open-air location, with a view of the Shropshire hills, could have been arranged. This would have appealed to the literary pilgrims of Housman, but it might not have pleased the council in Bromsgrove who wanted to honour “a local boy who made good.”

37. The Statue of A E Housman, in the Centre of Bromsgrove

The pose of Housman in the statue, is of him, in walking attire, on some long ramble in the English countryside. None of this is immediately obvious to the casual observer. To me it gives the impression of an uncomfortable tramp, looking for a suitable place to urinate.

ENVOI

For those who only know the poems, try to visit Shropshire, which is still a breathtakingly beautiful county. For those who only know the county, try to read the poems, which crystallise one man’s response to its beauties. To those who know neither, what undiscovered joy awaits you.

 38. A View of the Shropshire Hills

REFERENCE SOURCES

I have made use of four principal sources.

(A) “A.E. Housman – Collected Poems” foreword by John Sparrow, Penguin Books, 1956

(B) “Housman’s Places” Robin Shaw, The Housman Society, 1995

(C) “A.E. Housman – A Shropshire Lad”, illustrated by Robin Bell Corfield, with a foreword by Anne Carter, Walker Books, 1991

(D) “A.E. Housman – A Collection of Critical Essays” Edited by Christopher Ricks, Spectrum, 1968

ILLUSTRATIONS

1. Ludlow, Shropshire, a painting by Alfred Robert Quinton, (“A R Quinton’s England” by Alan C Jenkins, Webb and Bower, 1997)

2. Ludlow Castle with Barbican Gate (centre) and Round Chapel (left). (google images)

3. The Chiltern Hills seen from the road from Wing to Mentmore (Author)

4. “From Yell Bank” by Robin Bell Corfield, (Corfield, op. cit.)

5. “Mount Pisgah” or “Housman’s Hill” Today. (Shaw, op. cit)

6. Mechanisation in the late Nineteenth Century (“Our Forgotten Past” edited by Jerome Blum, Thames and Hudson, 1982)

7. Ploughing and Haymaking by Rowland Hilder (From “Rowland Hilder’s England” Denis Thomas, Herbert, 1986)

8. Wyre village, near Pershore, Worcestershire, by A R Quinton, (Jenkins, op. cit.)

9. At Work in the London Docks – Gustave Dore

10. Syke House, Yorkshire, in 1997 (Author)

11. Pearce’s Farm, West Yorkshire, 1988 (Author)

12. The High Street from South Pond, Midhurst, West Sussex (google images)

13. The High Weald, East Sussex (google images)

14. Otto von Bismarck, and the Pomeranian Countryside. (google images)

15. A E Housman as a Young Man (google images)

16. The Two Existing Houses Associated with A E Housman (Shaw, op. cit.)

17. Flowering Cherry Tree (“The Victorian World of Helen Allingham” editor J. Marsden, Brockhampton, 1999)

18. The Old School House (now Cookes’ House), Bromsgrove (Shaw, op. cit.)

19. Main Gate, St John’s College, Oxford (google images)

20. Quadrangle of St John’s College, Oxford (google images)

21. Flag of St John’s College showing its Shield of Arms (google images)

22. Gold Funerary Mask of Mycenae, Greece, 16 Century BC (New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Hamlyn, 1959)

23. Classical Greek Dinner Party from a cup of the period (“Classical Greece”, Time-Life, 1966)

24. Pentathlon Events at the Classical Greek Olympic Games -from a large crater or cup (“Classical Greece”, op. cit.)

25. Moses Jackson as an undergraduate (google images)

26. Two of Housman’s London Addresses (Shaw, op. cit.)

27. University College, London, Quadrangle and Main Entrance (google images)

28. King’s College, Cambridge, the Lawns and River Cam (“Cambridge Colleges” Salmon)

29. Two of the Artists of Decadence (“The World’s Greatest Art” Star Fire, 2006)

30. Symbolist Art of the End of the Century (“Symbolism” Michael Gibson, Tashen, 1999)

31. Robert Burns (“The Lion in the North” by John Prebble, Penguin, 1971)

32. Quadrangle of Trinity College, Cambridge (google images)

33. Shield of Arms of Trinity College, Cambridge (after Salmon, op. cit)

34. Whewell’s Court, Trinity College, Cambridge (Shaw, op. cit)

35. Professor A E Housman (google images)

36. The Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge (Salmon, op. cit)

37. The Statue of A E Housman, in the Centre of Bromsgrove (google images)

38. A View of the Shropshire Hills (google images)

FINIS

 

 

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8 Responses to THE POET A.E. HOUSMAN

  1. Phil Krause says:

    Another amazing post written so well about an incredible life. Also nice to hear a little of the author’s personal side.

  2. Deskarati says:

    An excellent piece as usual – thank you. Whilst looking into Housman a little I found an interesting quote of his:

    ‘When the meaning of a poem is obscure, it is due to one of three causes. Either the author through lack of skill has failed to express his meaning; or he has concealed it intentionally; or he has no meaning either to conceal or express. In none of these cases does he like to be asked about it. In the first case it makes him feel humiliated; in the second it makes him feel embarrassed; in the third it makes him feel found out. The real meaning of a poem is what it means to the reader.’

  3. jamesmmartin says:

    Being only an occasional reader of poetry, I knew virtually nothing about Housman’s life, though I was stimulated by a recording of Vaughn Williams’s “On Wenlock Edge” and googled this site, among others. I must say, Mr. Mason’s short biography is superb and makes me want to know more about Housman. While googling I learned that Tom Stoppard wrote a play about Housman’s relationships with Wilde and others, a drama that drew hostile criticism from “The New York Review,” the writer claiming Stoppard only wished to diminish Housman and elevate his acquaintance at Gower. Thanks in great part to Mason, I’ve ordered the complete works of Housman as well as the play. I will bookmark this fine website.

  4. An extraordinary mind brought to bear on diverse subjects.

  5. alfy says:

    My thanks to James M Martin for his generous comments. I do hope the purchase of Housman’s works proves rewarding. As i said, Housman continues to be popular with “ordinary” people who do not regard themselves as “literary”.
    With reference to Stoppard’s play on Housman, called “Arcadia” if I remember correctly, I saw this in a West End theatre some years ago. As you might expect, I was looking forward to seeing this play, given my enthusiasm for Housman. In addition I was a great admirer of Stoppard’s plays, having enjoyed “Jumpers”, “Night and Day” among others.
    Unusually for me, I was so irritated by the first half that I did not bother to stay for the rest of it. After the passage of time I can’t now remember the basis of my annoyance, and I rather regret I did not see the whole play. I do remember the “revolve” which was rather worked to death as a theatrical effect.
    The play begins with classicist Housman being carried across the River Styx to Hades by Charon the Ferryman using that bloody “revolve”.

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