A. E. Housman: Poems Summary

A. E. Housman: Poems Summary

A Shropshire Lad

Housman entered Oxford University in 1877 and did very well at first before confounding everyone by failing his examinations in 1881. As a result, he did not actually graduated with a degree until 1892 and this disappointing college experience fueled one of his most famous works, A Shropshire Lad. Four years after finally attaining that degree, Housman self-published this work comprising 63 verses in mostly ballad-form that permeate with the halcyon scent of nostalgia situated in a mostly fictional reimagining of Shropshire. The semi-fictionalizing continues with Housman’s invention of a persona standing in for himself named Terence Hearsay. The verses in “A Shropshire Lad” are short with many lasting little longer than a single stanza overlaid with a rigid symmetrical rhyming on alternative lines.

To An Athlete Dying Young

The poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” is, as might be suspected, addressed to a young man whose death is celebrated primarily on account of his having achieved the ultimate in local glory by winding up a victorious in a race that, as these things do, is co-opted by the townsfolk as confirmation of their own glory. The youth’s death results in that rarest of events: honor of the same level through the act of mourning his premature passing. The narrator of the verse even goes so far as to suggest that the athlete chose to go out while the fires of the memory of his glory was still burning at its brightest; in this way, he even managed to beat out death by using it to avoid the inexorably probability of suffering the hero’s predictably tragic fall from grace.

Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now

The second verse in A Shropshire Lad, “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” is a meditation upon the brief burning candle that is the human life span. Housman manages to utilize a remarkable control of allusion within this short expanse of verse to create the very definition of poetry through a tightly controlled comparison of the fragility of human life to the fragility of the natural world around them.

When I was One and Twenty

This poem is actually a dramatic monologue in which the speaker admits to having failed to take to heart the advice of a more experienced man on the issue of protecting himself from heartbreak. The verse details with exquisite emotional tenor the universal misery that comes with having lost in love at a tender age. What is especially unique about this work is the way that the pain of heartbreak is couched in the almost musical mood of a lighter approach to using verse to express emotional turmoil.

Shake Hands, We Shall Never Be Friends

Diaries made public after Housman’s death revealed that one of the causes behind his delayed graduation from Oxford emotional turmoil resulting from the awakening awareness of his homosexuality and the subsequent rejection by a student named Moses Jackson. The bittersweet result of that unhappy period were poems like “Shake Hands, We Shall Never Be Friends” which exhibits Housman trying to make sense of a relationship coming part at the seams for reasons he seemingly isn’t yet fully capable of understanding.

Because I Liked You Better

This is another poem directed toward Moses Jackson and although the rhyming scheme lends it a certain musical quality, the eloquent choice of understated words to cover up the emotional intensity underlying them becomes almost a textbook demonstration of how Victorian morality regulated homosexual desire during the period covered by the remembrance and the composition and publication of that remembrance.


Obviously not quite over Moses Jackson, this poem which is found in the collection Last Poems was written on the occasion of Jackson’s wedding. The emotional depth of the poem is enhanced with the realization that Housman was pointedly not extended an invitation to attend the ceremony.

Hell Gate

This poems also found in Last Poems is notable for its atypical length in a Housman verse. The poem also leaves behind the Victorian distancing by taking up the issues of homosexuality full throttle through an allegorical background pitting the poems’ two protagonists as warriors taking up arms in a rebellion against the authority of Sin and Death in a battle pitched before the very gates of hell.

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

Another poem found in Last Poems that presents a battle in allegorical form, this poem essentially examines what happens when God decides to abandon His creations. The answer may be surprising to some and obvious to others: mercenaries must be entrusted to take over the duties which God can no longer be depended upon to complete.

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