A.E. Housman: 150th birth anniversary
PUBLISHED: 21:04 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:54 20 February 2013
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of A.E. Housman whose best-loved work, A Shropshire Lad was inspired by the Shropshire hills.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of A.E. Housman whose best-loved work, A Shropshire Lad was inspired by the Shropshire hills. Chris Mowbray tells the story of the writer whose unrequited yearning for illicit love helped to create poetry that still has the power to move modern-day readers
Photographs of Shropshire by John Snowdon
Photographs of Bromsgrove by Stuart Purfield
As the long reign of Queen Victoria entered its final days, a rather dry and austere classics lecturer startled his students and fellow academics by publishing a book of romantic poetry exuding the nostalgia felt by a young man for his native rural county from which he is exiled by his job.
The year was 1896, the writer was A.E. Housman, a bachelor of staid and unremarkable habits, and the book was a cycle of poetry called A Shropshire Lad.
From the start, both Housman and his work were an enigma because the man, who would eventually become recognised as one of England's greatest poets, seemed a galaxy removed from the severe Professor of Latin at University College, London, renowned for his brilliant articles in scholarly journals. In addition, as a growing number of admiring readers started undertaking literary pilgrimages to see the places about which he wrote, it became apparent that he had written a number of the poems before even setting foot in Shropshire.
For the fact was that, in the interests of artistic licence, he often moved places around or described one place under another's name if it suited his purpose. For example, that well known vane on Hughley steeple in his poem is not actually there because the church does not even have a steeple and he had another church in mind.
Many years later, it was discovered that Housman was wracked by secret insecurities and unhappiness which had kindled the brilliant imagination that enabled him to recreate a land in which he had not set foot and to do so in the most beautiful verse.
The causes of his hidden fragility were twofold. Having lost his Christian faith because of an event which left him deeply scarred during childhood, his adult life was similarly unhappy because he had loved someone and his love had not been reciprocated. The object of his affections was another man and, in the society and time in which he lived, such a love - if expressed physically - was a criminal offence and had already led to the ruin and imprisonment of another great writer of the age, Oscar Wilde.
Yet these tensions and torments which made Housman feel as if he were being torn apart, engendered in him a creative spark of genius not granted to writers with more contented backgrounds.
"It is an extraordinarily interesting story and was what caused him to write A Shropshire Lad and his later poetry," said Jim Page, Chairman for the past 20 years of the Housman Society which is based in the poet's native town of Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, and which is now organising celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth.
"Housman always said that it was the job of poetry to harmonise the sorrows of the world and he himself had just such a sorrow and he brought it out through his extraordinary poems. He was as dull as ditch water just pursuing his 'trade as a classical scholar', as he described it, and was not very sociable, yet this man wrote this incredibly enduring poetry because of the heartbreak he had suffered."
Alfred Edward Housman was born at Valley House in the village of Fockbury, near Bromsgrove, in 1859, the eldest of seven children. He entered Bromsgrove School at the age of 11 and walked to school every day across the fields. A 'thinker' from his earliest childhood, his imagination was captured by the fact that he could see the hills of Shropshire from the elevated Worm's Ash Lane near his home. When he was effectively in exile in London many years later, these memories came to his aid when writing A Shropshire Lad:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
The start of the lifetime's unhappiness which made such verses possible, came a year after he first went to Bromsgrove School. His mother was found to be suffering from cancer and, to lessen the load on the family, he was sent away from home to stay with relatives. He received the telegram informing him of her death on his 13th birthday and, from that moment, started renouncing the Christian faith which he had been taught at Church of England services and as the grandson of a clergyman.
Despite his bereavement, he continued to receive a sound academic education at Bromsgrove School and won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, in 1877. There, he gained a First Class Honours in Classical Moderations but, because he failed his 'Greats', the Final School, in 1881, he faced the ignominy of leaving Oxford without a degree. After teaching for a short time at his old school, he returned to Oxford for a term to take a pass degree and the following year started working in the Patent Office, in London, where his great friend from Oxford days, Moses Jackson, was also working.
However, he continued studying the classics and writing scholarly articles in his spare time and the name he made for himself led to his appointment in 1892 at University College, London. In 1911, he secured the post of Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge University and he moved to Trinity College. In 1922, a long awaited second volume of verse, Last Poems, was published and after his death in 1936, his brother, Laurence Housman, arranged the posthumous publication of More Poems and Additional Poems.
And there at last, for all the world to see, was a record of the unrequited passion which had been his muse. Two sections of More Poems contained all the evidence that was needed of the tortured soul beneath Housman's gruff exterior. Poem XXX declared:
Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all's over;
I only vex you the more I try.
All's wrong that ever I've done or said,
And nought to help it in this dull head:
Shake hands, here's luck, good-bye.
But if you come to a road where danger
Or guilt or anguish or shame's to share,
Be good to the lad that loves you true
And the soul that was born to die for you,
And whistle and I'll be there.
Then Poem XXXI continued:
Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.
To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
`Good-bye,' said you, `forget me.'
`I will, no fear', said I.
It was Housman's enormous personal tragedy that, despite these good intentions which he expressed in his work, he had clearly been unable to forget. It transpired that the unwitting and unwilling object of his affections had been Moses Jackson, his old friend from Oxford days alongside whom he later worked at the Patents Office before embarking on his feted academic career.
"At some point, something was said by Housman about his feelings, we do not know what or when, and Jackson said 'No'," added Jim Page.
"There was never any physical relationship between them. Housman admired Jackson aesthetically, but in his day you simply didn't talk openly about homosexuality. This did cull his poetry - this was what caused him to write A Shropshire Lad and a lot of his other poems.
"But thank heavens he did not call that first book The Poems of Terence Hearsay as he originally intended. That is a really dull title and the book would have sunk without trace. The idea of calling it A Shropshire Lad came from another old friend of his from his Oxford days."
After Housman's death, his ashes were buried against the north wall of St Laurence's Church, Ludlow, but, although his poetry continued to delight generations of literary enthusiasts, the writer himself was largely forgotten. It seemed that the apparent dullness of his outward life was not sufficient to kindle any interest in the man as a person. That state of affairs was rectified in 1973 when the Housman Society was formed in Bromsgrove largely due to the enthusiasm of businessman, Joe Hunt, and local solicitor, John Pugh, and 12 years later a statue of the poet was erected in Bromsgrove High Street.
In 1996, a memorial to him was dedicated at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey and the former Perry Hall Hotel, which was the first home of Housman's parents before they moved out to Fockbury, is now part of Bromsgrove School and is named after him.
Despite the unfortunate deaths of the two main founder members in recent years, the Housman Society has enjoyed a stable and healthy membership for the past 15 years and is responsible for organising a number of events every year celebrating the poet's life and work.
The Society is planning several special events during the coming months to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth. One of these is participation in a War Poets Concert in St James', Piccadilly, London, in April. Although not a war poet himself, soldiers from Shropshire often took books of his poems with them to the trenches in World War I.
However, probably the most important event of the lot is the Birthday Commemoration at his statue in Bromsgrove High Street on 26th March which includes the official launch of a new edition of A Shropshire Lad with photographs of the places about which he wrote. Two of Housman's poems are being read by Nick Owen, anchorman on BBC Television's Midlands Today, and one is being sung by Graham Trew, Chairman of the Association of English Speakers and Singers.
It will be a fitting tribute to a remarkable writer.
Housman events in 2009
Wednesday 4th March 7.30pm
80 New Road, Bromsgrove B60 2LA
Annual General Meeting
followed by a practical demonstration of the Society's Shropshire Lad Hypertex by Andrew Maund.
Thursday 26th March 12.30pm
The Statue, High Street, Bromsgrove
Nick Owen, Presenter of Midlands Today and Graham Trew, Chairman of the Association of English Speakers and Singers, are joint guests of the day.
Saturday 4th April
St John's College Oxford
Special Event to Commemorate the 150th anniversary of A.E.H.'s birth
Professor Christopher Ricks, President of the Society, and Professor Archie Burnett, a Vice President, lead a day of celebration with a presentation, A.E. Housman - A Life in Letters.
Saturday 25 April 2009 7.30pm St James', Piccadilly, London
War Poets Concert
A concert of poems by War Poets set to music, with Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), William Coleman (baritone) and Anna Tilbrook (piano). In association with Wilfred Owen Association, the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, Ivor Gurney Society and Rupert Brooke Society.
Wednesday 29th April 11am
Ludlow - by the plaque on the North Wall of St Laurence's
A.E.H. Ludlow Commemoration
The ceremony by the tablet on the north wall of St Laurence's will be followed by a presentation in the Assembly Rooms from Peter Sisley on his Housman Book Collection.
Friday 1st May 7.45pm
Artrix, Slideslow Drive, Bromsgrove B60 1PQ
A Shropshire Lad
An evening of words and music from Andrew Bannerman (speaker), Richard Frewer (tenor) and David Price (piano) as part of the Bromsgrove Festival.
Wednesday 27th May
The Housman Lecture at The Hay Festival of Literature - The Name and Nature of Poetry by Lavinia Greenlaw, poet and author.
Sunday 5th July
A Walk In Housman Country
David and Marjorie Cashmore will lead a walk in the Clun area.
Thursday 2nd July 7.30pm
St Laurence's, Ludlow
James Gilchrist (tenor) and The Schubert Ensemble
A special programme, to include Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge and Gurney's Ludlow and Teme.
Friday to Sunday 23rd-25th October 2009
Housman Hall, Kidderminster Road, Bromsgrove
Society Weekend Conference
Participating will be Colin Dexter, Richard Perceval Graves, Linda Hart, Elizabeth Oakley, David Parsons, Robin and Kate Shaw, Peter Sisley, Graham Trew and Gabriel Woolf. There will be a symposium and a recital of Housman settings by Roderick Williams (baritone) and Susie Allan (piano) in Bromsgrove's arts centre, Artrix. Tours of Bromsgrove School and the Catshill area will be led by Jeremy Bourne and Robin Shaw and the launch of Elizabeth Oakley's book, Inseparable Siblings, will also take place during the weekend.
Further details from