Housman was born in Burton-On-Trent, England, in 1865, just as the USCivil War was ending. As a young child, he was disturbed by the news ofslaughter from the former British colonies, and was affected deeply.
This turned him into a brooding, introverted teenager and a misanthropic,pessimistic adult. This outlook on life shows clearly in his poetry.Housman believed that people were generally evil, and that life conspiredagainst mankind.
This is evident not only in his poetry, but also in hisshort stories. For example, his story, “The Child of Lancashire,”published in 1893 in The London Gazette, is about an child who travels toLondon, where his parents die, and he becomes a street urchin. There areveiled implications that the child is a homosexual (as was Housman, mostprobably), and he becomes mixed up with a gang of similar youths,attacking affluent pedestrians and stealing their watches and gold coins.Eventually he leaves the gang and becomes wealthy, but is attacked bythe same gang (who don’t recognize him) and is thrown off London Bridgeinto the Thames, which is unfortunately frozen over, and is killed on thehard ice below.Housman’s poetry is similarly pessimistic. In fully half the poems thespeaker is dead.
In others, he is about to die or wants to die, or hisgirlfriend is dead. Death is a really important stage of life toHousman; without death, Housman would probably not have been able to be apoet. (Housman, himself, died in 1937.) A few of his poems show anuncharacteristic optimism and love of beauty, however.
For example, inhis poem “Trees,” he beginsLoveliest of trees, the cherry nowHung low with bloom along the bowStands about the woodland sideA virgin in white for Eastertideand endsPoems are made by fools like meBut only God can make a tree.(This is a popular quotation, yet most people don’t know its source!)Religion is another theme of Housman’s. Housman seems to have hadtrouble reconciling conventional Christianity with his homosexuality andhis deep clinical depression. In “Apologia pro Poemate Meo” he statesIn heaven-high musings and manyFar off in the wayward night sky,I would think that the love I bear youWould make you unable to die death againWould God in his church in heavenForgive us our sins of the day,That boy and man togetherMight join in the night and the way.I think that the sense of hopelessness and homosexual longing isunmistakable.
However, these themes went entirely over the heads of thepeople of Housman’s day, in the early 1900s.The best known collection of Housman’s poetry is A Shropshire Lad,published in 1925, followed shortly by More Poems, 1927, and Even MorePoems, 1928. Unsurprisingly, most collections have the same sense andstyle. They could easily be one collection, in terms of stylisticcontent. All show a sense of the fragility of life, the perversity ofexistence, and a thinly veiled homosexual longing, in spite of the factthat many of the poems apparently (but subliminally?) speak of youngwomen. It is clear from these works that women were only a metaphor forlove, which in Housman’s case usually did not include the female half ofsociety.
More Poems contains perhaps the best statement of Housman’sphilosophy of life, a long, untitled poem (no. LXIX) with obliquereferences to the town of his birth, Burton-on-Trent, and statements likeAnd while the sun and moon endureLuck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure..
.Indeed, how much more pessimistic can one be?Not only a poet and storyteller, Housman was a noted classical scholar.He is known for his extensive translations of the Greek classics,especially Greek plays by Euripides and Sophocles. Unfortunately, thebulk of his manuscripts were lost in a disastrous fire in his office atOxford, which was caused by a lit cigar falling into a stack of papers.There were rumors that Housman was hidden in a closet with a young boy atthe time, and therefore did not see the fire in his own office until itwas too late to extinguish it. The Trustees of the college, however,managed to squelch the rumors, and Housman’s academic tenure was notthreatened by the incident.Now only a few gems of his poetic translation remain.
One of the finestis from Sophocles’ Alcestis, which beginsOf strong things I find not anyThat is as the strength of Fate…Indeed, a comment on Housman’s sense of fatalism.Housman is considered a minor poet, primarily because of his use of rhymeand meter, and frequent and effective use of imagery and symbolism. (Itis generally accepted that major twentieth-century poetry must inevitablygo beyond the strictures of late-nineteenth century styles, so any poetusing such styles can only be classed as minor.
) Nonetheless, I likehim. I can forgive his sexual orientation, especially since my ownfather and brother share it (and sometimes I wonder about myself!) Hiswonderful poetry and other writings stand apart, by themselves, in theirunique and special splendor.Category: English