A.E. Housman may well cast a longer shadow over the history of poetry than any other writer who published just thin collections during his lifetime. Those two collections link the 19th century to 20th century. The 1896 release of A Shropshire Lad failed to ignite the interest of critics and left it to commercial popularity among mere readers to transform Housman into a major regional voice of his era.
Across the course of 63 poems, Housman cast the lads of Shropshire as unquestionably human within a pastoral setting described by a man who never stepped foot there until he himself was past the age appropriate for being called a lad. Perhaps what made his first book of poetry so popular was that placed his characters within a setting that was more evocative and dreamlike than the prosaic and mundane reality could possibly have afforded.
Housman’s lack of prodigious output in verse was not the result of laziness, but rather that his ambition was in the field of scholarly analysis and critical interpretation of the classics. The result of a college scholarship followed by intense study of ancient texts of the Greek and Roman gods of literature doubtlessly contributes to his portrayal of Shropshire as an idealized state of nature more appropriate to a population of shepherds than a population of contemporary late 19th-century British men.
His second volume, Lost Poems, would not be published until 1922 and offers more insight into the man himself. Housman never married and it is universally assumed he was homosexual. Many of the poems found in this second collection confirm this assumption and even identify the man who may well have been considered the great love of his life. The irony of the profound depth of unrequited affection expressed toward the graceful and athletic Moses Jackson (who would go on to marry and notably not invite his friend to the ceremony) is that despite his homosexuality and even despite his public defense of Oscar Wilde during his infamous trial for being a homosexual, Housman was notoriously conservative in his political views. That strict adherence to tradition and convention extended into the manner of conducting himself in daily life. Another irony to be found in the verse within the pages of Lost Poems is the stark contrast it draws between the sensual and sensitive poet and the aloof academic with a reputation for being coldly unemotional.
A third collection was published posthumously in 1936 titled More Poems. Housman’s first collection gained new popularity through the early decades of the 20th century when a number of musicians found the poems particularly suitable for adapting into song. Tom Stoppard’s play, The Invention of Life, presents a biographical portrait of Housman from the time he entered college, through his relationship with Moses Jackson, and to his death at age 77.
The timelessness of Housman’s work has been evidenced over the years by the numerous adaptations of his poetry and stories from the stage, to film and to the recording studio. Most recently, the singer/songwriter, Sting, released an album of Housman’s poetry set to music. In addition, many of the poems of A Shropshire Lad have been translated into a multitude of languages and are taught in classrooms around the world. This universal appeal is a testament to the genius of A.E. Housman and his ability to capture the human condition in an era more than a century ago.