Housman was born in Burton-On-Trent, England, in 1865, just as
the US Civil War was ending. As a young child, he was disturbed by the
news of slaughter 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 conspired against mankind. This is evident not only in his
poetry, but also in his short stories. For example, his story, "The
Child of Lancashire," published in 1893 in The London Gazette, is
about an child who travels to London, where his parents die, and he
becomes a street urchin. There are veiled implications that the child
is a homosexual (as was Housman, most probably), 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 by the same gang (who don't
recognize him) and is thrown off London Bridge into the Thames, which
is unfortunately frozen over, and is killed on the hard ice below.
Housman's poetry is similarly pessimistic. In fully half the poems the
speaker is dead. In others, he is about to die or wants to die, or his
girlfriend is dead. Death is a really important stage of life to
Housman; without death, Housman would probably not have been able to
be a poet. (Housman, himself, died in 1937.) A few of his poems show
an uncharacteristic optimism and love of beauty, however. For example,
in his poem "Trees," he begins:
"Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Hung low with bloom along the bow
Stands about the woodland side
A virgin in white for Eastertide"
"Poems are made by fools like me
But 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 had
trouble reconciling conventional Christianity with his homosexuality
and his deep clinical depression. In "Apologia pro Poemate Meo" he
"In heaven-high musings and many
Far off in the wayward night sky,
I would think that the love I bear you
Would make you unable to die [death again]
Would God in his church in heaven
Forgive us our sins of the day,
That boy and man together
Might join in the night and the way."
I think that the sense of hopelessness and homosexual longing is
unmistakable. However, these themes went entirely over the heads of
the people 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
More Poems, 1928. Unsurprisingly, most collections have the same sense
and style. They could easily be one collection, in terms of stylistic
content. All show a sense of the fragility of life, the perversity of
existence, and a thinly veiled homosexual longing, in spite of the
fact that many of the poems apparently (but subliminally?) speak of
young women. It is clear from these works that women were only a
metaphor for love, which in Housman's case usually did not include the
female half of society. More Poems contains perhaps the best statement
of Housman's philosophy of life, a long, untitled poem (no. LXIX) with
oblique references to the town of his birth, Burton-on-Trent, and
"And while the sun and moon endure
Luck'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, the bulk of his manuscripts were lost in a disastrous
fire in his office at Oxford, 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 at the time, and therefore did not see the
fire in his own office until it was too late to extinguish it. The
Trustees of the college, however, managed to squelch the rumors, and
Housman's academic tenure was not threatened by the incident.
Now only a few gems of his poetic translation remain. One of the
finest is from Sophocles' Alcestis, which begins:
"Of strong things I find not any
That 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 rhyme and meter, and frequent and effective use of imagery and
symbolism. (It is generally accepted that major twentieth-century
poetry must inevitably go beyond the strictures of late-nineteenth
century styles, so any poet using such styles can only be classed as
minor.) Nonetheless, I like him. I can forgive his sexual orientation,
especially since my own father and brother share it (and sometimes I
wonder about myself!) His wonderful poetry and other writings stand
apart, by themselves, in their unique and special splendor.