|A.E. Houseman--young scholar and poet.|
A.E. Houseman, born March 26, 1859 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, England was one of the great classical scholars of his era and is among the most beloved British poets of the late 19th and early 20h Centuries. His poetry was lauded for its lyricism and emotional intensity.
Acknowledged at an early age as a brilliant scholar and awarded school prizes for his precocious poetry, he won an open scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford, where he studied the classics. To everyone’s amazement and his own humiliation Houseman managed to fail his final examinations and be denied graduation. That made the academic career he had anticipated and coveted impossible.
Instead he went to London where his college roommate and adored friend Moses Jackson got them both minor sinecures in the Patent Office. The two lodged together again until 1885 when Houseman finally took his own rooms.
Despite these circumstances Houseman pursued the difficult path of an independent scholar and published landmark work on Horace, Propertius, Ovid, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles. He became known as the leading practitioner of textual analysis. When the sheer magnitude of his accomplishments became undeniable, University College London offered him a professorship in 1892. He thereafter specialized solely in Latin poetry.
In 1911 he finally made the academic big time when he was given the Kennedy Professorship of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his life.
All the while he continued to write poetry, but considered it a completely secondary to his academic pursuits. Also quite different. Poetry, he believed should appeal to emotions rather than to the intellect. Thus his verse provided an emotional outlet otherwise unavailable to a man described by a friend as “descended from a long line of maiden aunts.”
|A Shropshire Lad, 1932 edition,|
A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896 but has become a British cultural treasure never out of print and rivaling Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese in perineal popularity. He published a second collection Last Poems in 1922 which contained dramatic verse grappling with the huge losses of a generation of young men in the Great War. After his death in 1936 his brother Laurence Housman issued a posthumous collection, More Poems and a few other poems have been found and printed since. Americans know him mostly as the author of the widely anthologized To and Athlete Dying Young and When I Was One and Twenty..
But within Houseman’s poems are clued to two public secrets—either of which could have landed in him in prison, destroyed his reputation, and made him a reviled outcast like Oscar Wilde. Both of those secrets began at Oxford. First, he utterly rejected Christianity and embraced an atheism that was contemptuous to God, clergy, and church. Second was the realization of his homosexuality and his life-long unrequited love for his heterosexual roommate Moses Jackson who eventually decamped to India to avoid his declarations of love.
|Moses Jackson, Houseman's unrequited love and roommate at Oxford and in London.|
Houseman salted his work with subtle—and sometimes not-so-subtle protest verse rooted in these two realities.
This one seems prescient today….
If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.
But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
This protest to the bigotry of Christian presumption to make moral laws for other like him who reject orthodoxy and convention was inspired by the ugly fate of Oscar Wilde.
The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man's bedevilment and God’s?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
And this stark fragment rose from the blood and mud of France.
from More Poems, XXXVI
Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.