How A. E. Housman Invented Englishness

In person, A. E. Housman was so shy and furtive that Max Beerbohm once compared him to “an absconding cashier.” For such a crabbed and elusive figure, though, he continues to draw a surprising amount of attention: books, articles, musical tributes, even a Broadway play, Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love.” Academics know him the way he is mostly depicted in that play—as a formidable classicist, probably the greatest of his generation. But the real source of his fame is a single small volume of poetry, “A Shropshire Lad,” which has never been out of print since it was published, in 1896. Somehow, these sixty-three short lyrics, celebrating youth, loss, and early death, became for generations of readers the perfect evocation not merely of what it feels like to be adolescent and a little emotional but of what it means to be English. We don’t have anything remotely like it in American lit. Some of Emily Dickinson’s brief lyrics come closest—tonally, and in their mastery of the short, compressed line—but she has never quite attained Housman’s popularity, and the landscape she wrote about, the one inside her own head, could hardly be said to have created a sense of national identity. “He is a strange phenomenon,” Ted Hughes said of Housman, “but to my mind the most perfect expression of something deeply English and a whole mood of English history.”

Peter Parker’s new book, “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)—which helpfully includes the text of “A Shropshire Lad” in an appendix—is partly a brisk, sensible biography of Housman and partly a study in poetic reputation. It traces the way Housman’s singular vision seized hold of the English imagination, inspiring not just a literary following but a generation of composers, like George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who sought to do musically what Housman had done with verse: to create a new and authentically English kind of song. Parker, the author of very good biographies of J. R. Ackerley and Christopher Isherwood, casts a wide net here, and eventually it unravels in a skein of loose ends and Housmanian magpie-pickings. Parker lists just about all the many authors who ever snatched a title from Housman, for example. He also points out that not only is there an American rock band (formerly Army of Strippers) now called Housman’s Athletes but that the British rocker Morrissey used to quote Housman often and a grateful fan once wrote, “I thought his poems would be drivel about babies and flowers, but it’s really good stuff about suicide.” Parker doesn’t entirely succeed in explaining the great mystery of Housman—why it’s these rueful, corpse-strewn poems and not, say, the heartier ones of John Masefield which continue to resonate within the English soul. But he leaves no doubt about Housman’s lingering attraction. You could conclude from his book that when many people pulled the lever to vote for Brexit they were imagining a return to Shropshire.

To judge from Parker’s account, there were a number of different Housmans, and how you felt about him depended on which one you happened to meet. He was an adventurous eater and a lover of good wine. He liked dirty stories and flying in airplanes. At high table at his Cambridge college, he could be clubbable and amusing, and might even bend your ear about how much he liked the jazz-age novels of Anita Loos. But he could also be rude, aloof, brooding, and difficult. He suffered fools not at all, and was unable to tolerate a compliment. Willa Cather, who so admired his poetry that she made a pilgrimage to meet its author, found him “gaunt and gray, and embittered.” The whole encounter, she said, gave her “a fit of dark depression.” As Housman’s obituary in the London Times put it, “In his attitude to life, there seemed something baffled and even shrinking, as though he feared criticism and emotion alike more than he relished experience. . . . He valued confidence, but held back from intimate relations, and seemed to prefer isolation to giving himself away.”

There was Housman the poet, who actually wrote very little, and Housman the classical scholar, who spent most of his time poring over ancient texts and whose greatest pleasure seemed to come from writing caustic put-downs of other scholars. About an editor of Persius and Juvenal: “Mr. Owen’s innovations, so far as I can see, have only one merit, which certainly, in view of their character, is a merit of some magnitude: they are few.” He sometimes composed these insults in advance, leaving blanks for names he could later plug in. Housman was not a translator or a classical historian. He specialized in the dry-as-dust business of textual criticism, determining the correct version of a classical text by comparing different manuscripts and judging which variant was the most likely—whether in a certain line of Propertius it should be “et” or “aut,” and deciding where the commas belonged in Catullus. His life’s work was a five-volume edition of Manilius, an astrologer poet, who even Housman conceded was third-rate—“facile and frivolous,” he said, remarkable mostly for “doing sums in verse.”

How to square these two, the poet and the pedant, has preoccupied commentators for decades. Edmund Wilson once suggested that what made Housman so adept at textual criticism was his ability to think like a poet, not only like a scholar, and that his fetish for accuracy stemmed from a real passion for his texts. But Wilson also pointed out that in Housman’s choice of Manilius there seems an element of perversity and self-mortification, and that his scholarship sometimes radiated not so much love for literature as hatred for his rivals. The poems in “A Shropshire Lad” are not completely disconnected from Housman’s scholarly work—among other things, they owe something to Horace, Housman’s favorite Latin poet, in particular to Horace’s way of weighting apparently inconsequential words—but they seem to have welled up from another part of him, a spring of emotion that he couldn’t, or didn’t want to, repress. Poetry, he once said, was for him a “morbid secretion,” as the pearl is for the oyster.

Housman never lived in Shropshire, or even spent much time there. He was born in Worcestershire in 1859, the eldest of seven children. His father was a Dickensian figure—a jolly, heavy-drinking lawyer, often broke and given to investing in harebrained schemes. His mother, to whom he was very close, died when Housman was twelve, an experience that turned him into a lifelong atheist. At school, he was an exceptionally gifted student of Latin and Greek, and easily won a classics scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, where he sailed through his first set of exams and then spectacularly botched the second. It’s possible that he was rattled by the news that his father had become seriously ill. It’s also possible that he took his success for granted and didn’t study hard enough. The young Housman was a know-it-all, who refused to have anything to do with his tutor after hearing the man mispronounce a Greek word, and even took a dim view of Benjamin Jowett, the famous master of Balliol and the greatest Greek scholar of the day.

But the more likely cause of Housman’s failure was that he had become emotionally undone over an unrequited yearning for his roommate, Moses Jackson. Jackson was athletic and good-looking, bright enough, but something of a philistine, according to one acquaintance, “quite unliterary and outspoken in his want of any such interest.” Apparently, he had no clue about Housman’s feelings for him. After Oxford, the two men roomed together in London, where they both had jobs at the Patent Office, and where Housman spent every evening at the British Museum, studying on his own, heroically and penitentially, and writing papers that eventually redeemed him as a classicist, landing him professorships first at University College, London, and then at Cambridge. But in 1885 there was a blowup between him and Jackson. Parker speculates that Housman made some sort of declaration and was rejected. Stoppard imagines that it’s Jackson who forces the issue, worried perhaps by the recent passage of a law against acts of “gross indecency” between men. In the play, Jackson is slow to figure things out but finally says, in effect, “You’re not sweet on me, are you?”

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