by A. E. Houseman
Alfred Edward Housman was born March 26, 1959 in Worcestershire, England. His mother died when he was twelve, a traumatic and deeply influential event in his life and his poetry. He had great knowledge of the classics but, because he refused to answer, or didn’t know how to answer, certain questions on the written examination, he was refused graduation with honors from Oxford, another traumatic and influential event.
He took a job in the Patent Office in London, registering trademarks, continuing his studies, publishing scholarly papers. He was appointed professor of Latin at University College in London, then moved on to Cambridge, where he remained until his death in 1936. His poetry published during his lifetime consisted of the proverbial “two slim volumes”: A SHROPSHIRE LAD (a printing of only 500 copies–Housman had to pay the publisher to print a second edition), in 1896, and LAST POEMS, in 1922. Two posthumous volumes appeared: MORE POEMS and ADDITIONAL POEMS. By the time of his death, he was a scholar of world-wide renown, having published volumes of Manilius, Juvenal, and Lucan, and over a hundred scholarly papers.
Housman’s poetry, though praised by the critics, was not a “best-seller” until the coming of World War I, when its “militant masculine spirit” (Dr. Joseph Mersand, supplementary material to Avon’s 1950 edition of ASL) made it immensely popular. Lawrence Durrell, another poet, calls Housman’s poetry new, the work of an ironist in a time of sentimental melancholy. In the poem I’m going to read, you’ll see him take a dig at that sentimentality. Housman’s poetry is simple, sharp, tight, and both pungent and poignant.
Nesca A. Robb says, in his book FOUR IN EXILE, that A SHROPSHIRE LAD is not just a collection of random poems, but almost one whole poem. “They are arranged with extreme deliberateness, so that not only does one theme follow another in logical sequence, but the themes prophesy, recall, and intertwine with each other…”
Here is one of my favorite poems ever:
Poem LXII from A SHROPSHIRE LAD by A. E. Housman
Housman originally intended to call the book THE POEMS OF TERENCE HEARSAY, but an Oxford friend persuaded him to change it.
In the first section, we hear a friend scolding and teasing the poet, asking him why he writes such sad poetry, when he’s obviously in excellent health. He urges “Terence” to write happy poems instead.
In the next section, Terence replies that, if you want to be happy, get drunk. Of course, he says, he’s tried that himself and the next morning, apart from a hangover, everything (including himself) was the same as it had been before.
In the third section, he says that it’s wiser to inoculate yourself against the world’s troubles, and poetry is better for that than liquor.
Finally, he tells the story of King Mithradates, who lived in a time and place where poisoning monarchs was a common occurrence. The story illustrates Terence’s point.