A. E. Housman

A E Housman

Alfred Edward Housman was born in Bromsgrove on the 26th of March 1859, usually known as A.E. Housman, he was a classical scholar and English poet best known for his cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad. Lyrical and almost epigrammatic in form, the poems were mostly written before 1900. Their wistful evocation of doomed youth in the English countryside, in spare language and distinctive imagery, appealed strongly to late Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian taste, and to many early twentieth century English composers both before and after the First World War. Through their song-settings the poetry therefore became closely associated with that era, and with Shropshire itself.

Housman was counted one of the foremost classicists of his age, and ranks as one of the greatest scholars of all time. He established his reputation publishing as a private scholar and on the strength and quality of his work was appointed Professor of Latin at UCL and later, at Cambridge.

Housman published scholarly articles and many of his editions are still considered authoritative today. He gradually acquired such a high reputation that in 1892 he was offered the professorship of Latin at UCL, which he accepted. The UCL Academic Staff Common Room was dedicated to his memory as the Housman Room.

Although Housman's sphere of responsibilities as professor included both Latin and Greek, he put most of his energy into the study of Latin classics. In 1911 he took the Kennedy Professorship of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his life. It was unusual at the time for an Oxford man such as Housman to be appointed to a post at Cambridge.

Many of his colleagues were unnerved by his scathing critical attacks on those whom he found guilty of shoddy scholarship. To his students he appeared as a severe, reticent, remote authority. However, quite contrary to his usual outward appearance, he allowed himself several hedonistic pleasures: he enjoyed gastronomy and flying in aeroplanes and frequently visited France, where he read "books which were banned in Britain as pornographic". A fellow don described him as being "descended from a long line of maiden aunts".

Housman found his true vocation in classical studies and treated poetry as a secondary activity. He never spoke about his poetry in public until 1933 when he gave a lecture, 'The Name and Nature of Poetry', in which he argued that poetry should appeal to emotions rather than to the intellect.

During his years in London, A E Housman completed his cycle of 63 poems, A Shropshire Lad. After several publishers had turned it down, he published it at his own expense in 1896. The volume surprised both his colleagues and students. At first selling slowly, it rapidly became a lasting success, and its appeal to English musicians had helped to make it widely known before World War I, when its themes struck a powerful chord with English readers. A Shropshire Lad has been in print continuously since May 1896.

AE Housman died in 30th April 1936 in Cambridge. His ashes are buried near St Laurence's Church, Ludlow, Shropshire. The county he immortalised in 'A Shropshire Lad'. There is a plaque in the church to acknowledge his works.