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Alfred Housman

Alfred Housman Alfred Edward Housman, a classical scholar and poet, was born in Fockbury in the county of Worcestershire, England on March 26, 1859. His poems are variations on the themes of mortality and the miseries of human condition (Magill 1411). Most of Housmans poems were written in the 1890s when he was under great psychological stress, which made the tone of his poems characteristically mournful and the mood dispirited (Magill 1411). “In the world of Housmans poetry, youth fades to dust, lovers are unfaithful, and death is the tranquil end of everything (Magill 1412).” Throughout his life, Housman faced many hardships. The loss of his mother at age 12 shattered his childhood and left him with tremendous feelings of loneliness, from which he never fully recovered.

His father began to drink as a result of his mothers death and began a long slide into poverty. When Housman went to college, he had a deep and lasting friendship with Moses Jackson. He had developed a passionate attachment and fallen in love with him. When the relationship did not work out, Housman plunged into a suicidal gloom which was to persist at intervals for the rest of his life. His declaration that “I have seldom written poetry unless I was rather out of health,” seems to support the opinion that emotional trauma greatly influenced his work.

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The only way to relieve himself from this state of melancholy was by writing (Magill 1409). As a result of Housmans poor childhood and misfortunes, he devoted most of his life to erudition and poetry. He was educated at Bromsgrove school and won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied classical literature and philosophy. After graduating from Oxford, he became a professor of Latin, first at University College and later at Cambridge University. He was a knowledgeable and scholarly individual who was fluent in five languages (Magill 1405).

Over a period of fifty years, Housman gave many enlightening lectures, wrote numerous critical papers and reviews, and three volumes of poetry. In all of his poetry, Housman continually returns to certain preferred themes. The most common theme discussed in the poems is time and the inevitability of death. He views time and aging as horrible processes and has the attitude that each day one lives is a day closer to death Cleanth Brooks stated, “Time is, with Housman, always the enemy.” The joy and beauty of life is darkened by the shadow of fast approaching death (Discovering Authors 7). He often uses symbolism to express death, therefore the reader has to look into the true meaning of the poem to see its connection with death. Another frequent theme in Housmans poetry is the attitude that the universe is cruel and hostile, created by a god who has abandoned it.

R. Kowalczyk summed up this common theme when he stated: Housmans poetic characters fail to find divine love in the universe. They confront the enormity of space and realize that they are victims of Natures blind forces. A number of Housmans lyrics scrutinize with cool, detached irony the impersonal universe, the vicious world in which man was placed to endure his fated existence (Discovering Authors 8). Housman believed that God created our universe and left us in this unkind world to fend for ourselves.

The majority of Housmans poems are short and simple. It is not difficult to analyze his writing or find the true meaning of his poems. However, the directness and simplicity of much of Housmans poetry were viewed as faults. Many critics view Housmans poetry as “adolescent”, thus he is considered a minor poet. The range of meter that Housman uses varies from four to sixteen syllables in length. John Macdonald claims “What is remarkable about Housmans poetry is the amount and the sublety variation within a single stanza, and the almost uncanny felicity with which the stresses of the metrical pattern coincide with the normal accents of the sentence (Discovering Authors 11).” Housman uses monosyllabic and simple words in his poetry, but the words that he chooses to use fit together rhythmically and express the idea with a clear image.

To express his vivid images Housman uses epithets, which are words or phrases that state a particular quality about someone or something (English Tradition 1399). Housman uses epithets sparingly, but when he uses them they are creative and original: such phrases as “light-leaved spring,” the bluebells of the listless plain,” and “golden friends” make his poetry decorative and filled with imagery (British Writers 162). In 1896, A Shropshire Lad was published at the expense of Housman himself. At the time, it made little impression on the critics, but the public took to the bittersweet poems which were, according to Housmans own definition of poetry, “more physical that intellectual (Untermeyer 609).” The poems in A Shropshire Lad, Housmans most famous collection of verse, are generally simple, brisk, written in precise language, and contain regular rhythms. The appealing, facile rhymes in his poems contrast sharply with his despondent themes, which reflect both the pessimism of the late Victorian age and the grief in his own life (English Tradition 849). The collection of poems that went into A Shropshire Lad were first written because Housman felt compelled to express his emotions at this time. Many of his poems relate directly or indirectly to his desire for Moses Jackson.

A variety of the poems include images that refer to the landscape, the changing of seasons, the blossoming of trees and flowers, youth fading away, and death. Other poems were written at moments of fierce anger and revolt about certain social injustices (Hawkins 144). Five of his poems that display his harsh and morose feelings towards love and life are Loveliest of Trees, When the Lad for Longing Sighs, When I Was One-and-Twenty, Bredon Hill, and With Rue my Heart is Laden. In addition, numerous poems in A Shropshire Lad deal with insight and discovery. B.J.

Leggett claims “The poems show an ongoing structure which carries the persona from innocence to knowledge or from expectation to disillusionment.” Most of these are found in the first half of the volume, which concentrates on the innocents encounter with the unfamiliar world of death and change (Leggett 63). In The Loveliest of Trees, the speaker discovers human mortality, fading youth, and therefore moves from innocence to knowledge. Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough, And stands about the woodland ride Wearing white for Eastertide. Now, of my threescore years and ten, Twenty will not come again, And take from seventy springs a score, It only leaves me fifty more. And since to look at things in bloom Fifty springs are little room, About the woodlands I will go To see the cherry hung with snow. In the first stanza the speaker describes the cherry tree as “Wearing white for Eastertide.” White is the ritual color for Easter, and thus the tree and its blossoms represent the rebirth of Christ along with the rebirth of the year.

In this stanza, the speaker appears innocent and optimistic. He does not posses the realization that he is mortal. However, the rebirth is contrasted by the awareness that the blossoms of cherry trees may be beautiful, but they are fragile and short-lived, just as his life is (Leggett 47). The understanding of his mortality leads the speaker from his innocence to knowledge. In the second stanza the speaker grasps the concept that he will die and in actuality his life is very short. He begins to calculate his age and how much time he has before he dies.

He explains how he will live “threescore years and ten” which is seventy years. He then subtracts twenty years from the threescore which makes him twenty years of age. He comes to the conclusion that he only has fifty more springs to live (Discovering Authors 3). B.J. Legett states “In the last stanza Things in Bloom now suggest something of the vitality of life which has become more precious. The limitation of life is carried by the understatement of little room (Discovering Authors 3).” His vision of a springtime world of rebirth is altered by his sudden sense of his own transience, so he can only see the cherry as “hung with snow,” an obvious suggestion of death (Hoagwood 31).

The view of the poem is shifted from a world of spring and rebirth to one of winter and death. Terence Hoagwood claims: The connotations of Easter contradict the connotations of “snow”-the one implies rebirth, the other death. The fact that the liveliness of youth will not return contradicts the conventional content of the Easter symbolism ,and likewise the theme of the seasons (Hoagwood 49). In the poem When the Lad for Longing Sighs, Housman reveals his talent of using monosyllabic words to express his ideas in a clear and imaginative manner. All of the words in the poem are monosyllabic with the exception of “longing,” “Maiden,” “Lovers,” ” and forlorn.” Terence Hoagwood claims “This simplicity of diction is characteristic of Housman, coinciding as it does with considerable complexity of effect (Hoagwood 51).

He concentrates on the theme of longing for love and love being the cure for illnesses. When the lad for longing sighs, Mute and dull of cheer and pale, If at deaths own door he lies, Maiden, you can heal his ail. Lovers ills are all to buy: The wan look, the hollow tone, The hung head, the sunken eye, You can have them for your own. Buy them, buy them: eve and morn Lovers ills are all to sell. Then you can lie down forlorn; But the lover will be well.

In the first stanza the lad who is sighing for love is miserable and unhealthy to the point that he is lying at “deaths door,” or his death bed. He believes that the maiden can “heal his ail” and put him in a cheerful mood. The remainder of the poem focuses on how the maiden should”buy” or accept the lads ills even though she is not in …


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