Essay, Research Paper: Alfred Housman


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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 Housman’s poems were written in the 1890’s 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 Housman’s
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 mother’s 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. The only way to relieve himself from this state of melancholy was by
writing (Magill 1409). As a result of Housman’s 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 it’s connection with death. Another
frequent theme in Housman’s 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: Housman’s poetic characters fail to find divine
love in the universe. They confront the enormity of space and realize that they
are victims of Nature’s blind forces. A number of Housman’s 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 Housman’s 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 Housman’s poetry were
viewed as faults. Many critics view Housman’s 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 Housman’s 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 Housman’s own definition of poetry, “more physical that
intellectual (Untermeyer 609).” The poems in A Shropshire Lad, Housman’s
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 innocent’s 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 it’s 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 death’s 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 “death’s 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 lad’s ills even though she is not in love with him.
Consequently, she should exchange her happiness and love for his suffering, thus
“lie down forlorn; But the lover will be well.” The metaphor ‘‘Lover’s
ills are all to buy....Buy them, buy them” is suggesting that the lad’s
happiness is at the maiden’s expense (Hoagwood 51). Terence Hoagwood claims:
The dualized pairs- buy and sell, well and forlorn, lad and maiden- remain
opposed (rather than resolved or reconciled) at the poem’s end, helping to
account for the considerable tension that the poem sustains: the contradictions
survive, rather than disappearing (as in sentimentalized love poetry) into a
happy illusion at the end (Hoagwood 51). In Housman’s poetry, he often
concentrates on the loss of youthful dreams, the isolation of adolescence, and
the sorrows of love. In the poem When I was One-and-Twenty the love theme is
treated critically and insincerely. The theme of the poem is that only
experience itself can correct the illusions held by the innocent youth (Leggett
65). Terence Hoagwood states “The poem uses the device of a speaker quoting
another speaker to exhibit the problem of different viewpoints, and it uses the
change of one single person’s viewpoint, over time, to suggest and even more
powerful reason for skepticism (Hoagwood 56).” When I was one-and-twenty I
heard a wise man say, “Give crowns and pounds and guineas But not your heart
away; Give pearls away and rubies But keep your fancy free.” But I was
one-and-twenty, No use to talk to me. When I was one-and twenty I heard him say
again, “The heart out of the bosom Was never given in vain; ‘Tis paid with
sighs a plenty And sold for endless rue.” And I am two-and twenty, And oh,
‘tis true, ‘tis true. In the first stanza Housman is equating the age of
twenty-one to inexperience and innocence. The advice of the “wise man” on
love to give “crowns and pounds and guineas” is overlooked by the man of
one-and-twenty. The wise man is suggesting that it is harmless to give a woman
jewels and money, but it is foolish to give one’s heart away or not to “keep
your fancy free.” The transition from innocence to experience occurs in the
second stanza. The speaker is given advice from the wise man a second time, but
he still does not listen, which results in a broken heart. B.J. Leggett states:
The heart differs from pearls and crowns precisely because it cannot be
physically given away. It is always sold because the giver receives something in
return, and what he receives consists of the sorrows of love which inevitably
entails. The fancy can be free only by being kept (Leggett 66). The speaker of
the poem relates his age, “two-and-twenty”, with experience and knowledge.
When the speaker stated “tis true, tis true” he came to the realization that
the wise man was giving useful advice and that he should not have given his
heart away after all. Another technique that Housman uses in his poetry is shift
of tone and mood. Usually the poems begin in a blithe manner and end in a
negative and dismal mood. One of Housman’s poems that employs a shift in
perspective is Bredon Hill . Housman also incorporates the love and death theme
in this poem. In summertime on Bredon The bells sound so clear ; Round both the
shires they ring them In steeples far and near, A happy noise to hear. Here of a
Sunday morning My love and I would lie; And see the coloured counties, And hear
the larks so high About us in the sky. The bells would ring to call her In
valleys miles away: “Come all to church, good people; Good people, come
pray.” But here my love would stay. And I would turn and answer Among the
springtime thyme, “Oh, peal upon our wedding, And we will hear the chime, And
come to church in time.” But when the snows at Christmas On Bredon top were
strown, My love rose up so early And stole out unbeknown And went to church
alone. They tolled the one bell only, Groom there was none to see, The mourners
followed after, And so to church went she, And would not wait for me. The bells
they sound on Bredon, And still the steeples hum. “Come all to church, good
people,”- Oh, Noisy bells, be dumb; I hear you, I will come. In stanzas one
and two the speaker is explaining how him and his lover spend many of their
Sunday mornings on Bredon Hill listening to the church bells ring through the
valleys. The church bells put him in a cheerful mood and are pleasant to listen
to. The third stanza suggests that the bell’s are summoning the woman to
church, but instead of making it to the church on time she decides to stay with
her lover (Ricks 72). In the fourth stanza the speaker and his love view the
church bells as wedding bells. He states “And we will hear the chime, And come
to church in time.” He is suggesting that they will be at the church when it
is time for them to get married. In the fifth and sixth stanzas the shift in
tone and mood is apparent. His lover has died “and went to church alone.”
Therefore, she has “rose up so early” and gone to the church before their
time. The “happy” tone that was displayed in the beginning of the poem has
transformed into a morbid and dark tone. It is rather obvious that his lover has
died when the phrases such as “tolled one bell only,” “Groom there was
none to see, and “mourners followed after” are used. When the speaker states
“And so to church went she, And would not wait for me,” he makes her death
seem willing. He uses “would not wait” instead of “could not wait,” as
if her failure to wait for him were a matter of her own choice (Ricks 73).
Cleanth Brooks states “He views the girl’s death as if it were an act of
conscious will, as if he has been betrayed by his lover, who ‘stole out
unbeknown,’ to meet another suitor (Leggett 64).” In the last stanza the
speaker notes that the bells are still ringing, but they now represent funeral
bells. Cleanth Brooks claims: All come to death; he will come to the churchyard
too; but now that his sweetheart has been stolen from him, what does is matter
when he comes. the bells whose sound was once a happy noise to hear have become
a needless and distracting noisiness. The lover shuts them up as he might the
disturbing prattle of a child: “Oh, noisy bells, be dumb; I hear you, I will
come (Ricks 73).” Another recurring theme in Housman’s poetry is the loss of
youth and beauty. Housman’s youth’s sometimes die into nature and become
part of the natural surroundings (Discovering Authors 8). The poem With Rue my
Heart is Laden deals with the fading away of youth and beauty and their burial
in nature. With rue my heart is laden For golden friends I had, For many a
rose-lipped maiden And many a lightfoot lad. By brooks too broad for leaping The
lightfoot boys are laid; The rose-lipped girls are sleeping In fields where
roses fade. In the first stanza the speaker is explaining how his heart is full
of sorrow because all of his friends that were once “golden”, youthful, and
beautiful are all dead. The adjective “rose-lipped maiden” is describing the
speaker’s lady friends that were attractive, youthful, and vibrant. The term
“lightfoot lad” is describing the speaker’s male friends that were
handsome, athletic, and strong. In the second stanza the speaker is describing
how the “lightfoot boys” now lay next to the “brooks to broad for
leaping” that they could once leap in their youth. The “rose-lipped” girls
are now “sleeping” in the “fields where roses fade.” These fields used
to be beautiful and alive like the maidens once were, but the fields are also
getting old and fading away (Discovering Authors 8). “In his roles as a
classical scholar and poet, Housman exhibited an unswerving integrity. While
this integrity served him well in his classical endeavors, in his poetry it may
have relegated him to a rank below that of the major poets of his age
(Discovering Authors 4). Housman never has been a fashionable poet, yet he
continues to maintain an audience and his reputation remains steady. The
melancholy and pessimism in Housman’s poems capture the attention of readers
and is perhaps the reason why his poetry is still read and studied today. A.E.
Housman was a human figure whose life and career were often moving as well as

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