Biography of A. E. Housman

The poet and scholar Alfred Edward Housman was born in Worcestershire, England in 1859 as the eldest of seven children. His father was a solicitor and tax accountant who supported Housman’s education despite being of only moderate means. Alfred was a strong student and was accepted into St. John’s College, Oxford, where he studied Classics. Despite being one of the strongest students in his course, he unexpectedly failed his final exams. Some have attributed this failing to his falling in love with his roommate, Moses Jackson—feelings that would stay with Housman throughout his life.

Despite his poor results, Housman still successfully graduated from Cambridge and went on to become a clerk at a London patent office. However, during this time he continued to study Greek and Roman classics, and in 1892 he was hired by University College, London as a professor of Classics. Twenty years later, in 1911, he moved to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained a professor until his death.

Housman’s scholarly career was primarily devoted to textual editing. Many classical texts survive only as fragments, and others exist in multiple, differing versions. Housman used meticulous standards and attempted to reconstruct the original text as close to the author’s intentions as possible. He was also a notoriously hostile academic, who would openly attack his peers.

Housman’s poetry, however, reveals a different side of his personality. He saw poetry as a tool for transferring an author’s feelings to the reader, and was skeptical of poets who prioritized ideas and meaning over feeling and effect. He self-published his first collection of poetry, A Shropshire Lad, in 1896, after no publishing house was willing to print the work. Its themes included the beauty of the countryside, the fleeting nature of youth, the nobility of the common soldier, as well as grief, death, and unrequited love. The speaker in A Shropshire Lad is usually a simple rural individual. Many people who know Housman only from his poems would be surprised to learn about the acerbic academic behind the poetry!

At first, the book achieved little popularity, but following the tragedy of World War I its themes became newly relevant. Since then, A Shropshire Lad has never gone out of print, although its poems remain more popular with everyday readers than with scholars. In the early 1920s, having learned that his old friend Moses Jackson was dying, Housman decided to assemble what he felt were his best unpublished poems into a second book, Last Poems, which was an immediate success. Housman died in Cambridge in 1936, having achieved both academic and poetic success, yet remaining out of the spotlight. In the same year, a third collection of his poems, entitled More Poems, was released posthumously by his brother Laurence.

Study Guides on Works by A. E. Housman

Alfred E. Housman was born in 1859 in England. Housman grew up under his mother's tender care at the Perry Garden until age 12, when she died. While growing up, Housman developed a good relationship with the cherry tree outside their garden....

“To an Athlete Dying Young” is one of the most famous poems by the English poet A. E. Housman. Houseman wrote at the tail end of the nineteenth century. He wrote poetry as a hobby, and his primary occupation was as a scholar of the classics, with...

“When I Was One-and-Twenty” is a characteristically witty poem by the English poet and scholar A.E. Housman. Housman was born in 1859, and wrote most of his poetry in the late nineteenth century. Although today he is best known for his poetry,...