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A. E. Housman: Poet, Scholar, Atheist

Though his poetry comprises but four slender volumes–A Shropshire Lad (ASL), Last Poems (LP), More Poems (MP), and Additional Poems (AD)–Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) belongs to the pantheon of English poets. Born in Worcestershire, in the environs of the Shropshire hills, Housman liked to amble through field, dale, and highland. As he wandered, usually alone, lines of poetry spontaneously welled up within him. Fleshed out, these lines sprouted into haunting poems about nature, death, love, youth, aspiration, disappointment, betrayal, transience, oblivion. Written in spare, simple language, the poems include such popular pieces as “Loveliest of Trees,” “When I Was One-and-Twenty,” “With Rue My Heart Is Laden,” “To an Athlete Dying Young,” “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff,” and “Is My Team Plowing?”

The poetry is suffused with a brooding fatalism. Sometimes chided for his pessimism, Housman defended his bleak canvas in “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff.” Grousing that Terence’s poetry “gives a chap the bellyache,” a friend tells Terence he should “pipe a tune to dance to,” not rhyme his friends to death with dark musings on the human condition. In retort, Terence-Housman says his verse provides a better antidote than ale and song to the pricks and stings of fortune:

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale;
Out of a stem than scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it-if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.
      (ASL 62)

Housman’s own life was a proving ground for ill. His mother and beloved confidante died on his twelfth birthday, and, in a close-knit family, four of his six siblings died long before he did though he was the eldest. His father, a wastrel and impractical schemer, squandered the family fortune, compelling Housman to help support the family. The poet was also a victim of unrequited love. A latent homosexual, he fell in love with a fellow student, Moses Jackson, at St. John’s College, Oxford. After Jackson, a heterosexual, had rebuffed Housman and moved abroad, the disconsolate poet spent years mourning his loss. His poetry contains veiled references to the unhappy plight of homosexuals in Victorian England, where, as the Oscar Wilde case vividly dramatized, sodomy was a felonious offense. Housman, it seems, channeled his sexual desires into his scholarly work, which was prodigious.

As an adult, Housman was subject to bouts of nostalgia for his childhood, a serene period when he was unassailed by the slings and arrows of time. In several poems, he vents an unappeasable longing for yesteryear. Here is one:

Into my heart an air that kills
  From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
  What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
  I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
  And cannot come again.
      (ASL 40)

Notwithstanding the buffets of fortune, Housman flourished as both scholar and poet. After a ten-year stint in the London patent office subsequent to obtaining a pass degree from St. John’s College, Housman was appointed professor of Latin at University College, London, in 1892. Later, in 1911, he was named professor of Latin at Cambridge, a position he retained until his death. Endowed with rare intellect, capacious memory, and adamantine stamina, he became the foremost Latinist of his era. Ironically, given his international fame as a poet, Housman prized his Latin studies more than his poetry, which he scanted. For each hour spent on poetry, he devoted ninety-nine, he said, to his classical studies. In his university lectures, he was all scholar. The Shropshire lad never emerged.

By both students and colleagues, Housman was generally perceived as aloof, daunting, and enigmatic. Yet, as his friend Dr. Percy Withers noted, the foreboding exterior belied an inward warmth: “His chiseled speech, his stern and rather obdurate physiognomy in repose, his sardonic quips, his biting satire, his easy resort to mockery and scoffing: of such was the outward vestment composed. And it was a grim deceit. Underneath beat as warm and as generous a heart, as willing for self-sacrifice, if the cause were true, as I have ever known” (Richard Perceval Graves, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet, p. 243). Housman’s displays of arrogance and sarcasm cloaked native shyness and insecurity. Among intimates, he was convivial, witty, and unpretentious.

Because he outwardly conformed to the idols of the tribe, few contemporaries knew Housman was an atheist. Only in his waning years did he divulge the fact and, then, but to a handful. In 1934, two years before his death, as he and his brother Laurence discussed religion while revisiting their childhood haunts, Housman averred he was an atheist, not an agnostic (Graves, p. 258). In a letter to his sister Katharine, a devout Anglican, written six months before he died, Housman wrote: “I abandoned Christianity at thirteen but went on believing in God till I was twenty-one, and towards the end of that time I did a good deal of praying for certain persons and for myself. I cannot help being touched that you do it for me, and feeling rather remorseful, because it must be an expenditure of energy, and I cannot believe in its efficacy” (Henry Maas, ed., The Letters of A. E. Housman, p. 381). The proximity of his renunciation of Christianity and his mother’s death (she died of breast cancer) is no coincidence. During her long illness, he prayed earnestly but fecklessly for her recovery. The Christian god, he concluded, did not exist, or, if he did, he reneged on promises.

Although Housman left the church when he became an atheist and, later, refused to attend chapel at Cambridge, he remained, says biographer Richard Graves, “emotionally attached to a past in which he had believed in God, but the intellectual break with any form of religious faith was complete” (p. 51). Geoffrey Grant Morris, the classical tutor of Corpus Christi, recorded a comment by Housman that underscored his ambivalent attitude toward the religion of his boyhood. When in 1920, at a college dinner, Morris mustered the courage to ask the formidable scholar-poet about his religion, Housman replied: “‘I think I should describe myself as a High-Church atheist,’ and explained that the qualification ‘High-Church’ was a tribute to his mother’s memory and his own early upbringing” (Graves, p. 187). His upbringing included regular church attendance and family Bible readings, befitting this scion of a string of clerical ancestors.

While Housman left no explicit defense of atheism, his poetry and his prose teem with observations palatable to atheists. Examples follow.

In his introductory lecture at University College, London, Housman limned a human race stripped of its cosmic centrality, divine provenance, and grand inheritance, a species shrunk to Lilliputian proportions:

Man stands today in the position of one who has been reared from his cradle as the child of a noble race and the heir to great possessions, and who finds at his coming of age that he has been deceived alike as to his origin and expectations; that he neither springs of the high lineage he fancied, nor will inherit the vast estate he looked for, but must put off his towering pride, and contract his boundless hopes, and begin the world anew from a lower level (Graves, p. 80).

In Last Poems no. 40, Housman muses on the pitiless indifference of nature to human life. After his death, nature will not care a jot who trods the fields he once trod:

For nature, heartless, witless nature,
  Will neither care nor know,
What stranger’s feet may find the meadow
  And trespass there and go,
Nor ask amid the dews of morning
  If they are mine or no.

In several poems, Housman denies immortality to the soul. In “The Immortal Part,” in a wry twist, he says our bones alone are everlasting. When flesh and soul and thought have passed away, the bones, once “sullen slaves” to the will, shall remain:

Therefore they shall do my will
  Today while I am master still,
And flesh and soul, now both are strong,
Shall hale the sullen slaves along,

Before this fire of sense decay,
This smoke of thought blow clean away,
And leave with ancient night alone
  The steadfast and enduring bone.
      (ASL 43)

In step with his rejection of immortality, Housman adopted a carpe diem philosophy. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, his favorite book of the Bible, he was preoccupied with the passage of time. He tried to live each moment to the full since “there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave.” Natural beauty was an inexhaustible fount of pleasure to this self-professed Cyrenaic:

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.
      (ASL 2)

Housman wrote two poems on Jesus. In “Easter Hymn,” he juxtaposes a human Jesus with a heavenly Savior. If mortal, Jesus is now supremely oblivious to the sectarian animosities he unwittingly fanned. If divine, he should get off his celestial haunches and act on his promises:

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
      (MP 1)

In “The Carpenter’s Son,” slyly blasphemous, Jesus is unequivocally human, shorn of all divinity. As he awaits execution, he tells his disciples he should have “left ill alone.” Paradoxically, the ill is love, probably homosexual love. Before he dies, he exhorts his disciples not to do as he has done:

“Comrades all, that stand and gaze,
Walk henceforth in other ways;
See my neck and save your own:
Comrades all, leave ill alone.
  “Make some day a decent end,
Shrewder fellows than your friend.
Fare you well, for ill fare I:
Live, lads, and I will die.”
      (ASL 47)

In “New Year’s Eve,” Housman offers his own rendition of the twilight of the gods. Acknowledging their obsolescence and accepting their demise, the gods worship the secular ideals of the West:

“We are come to the end appointed
  With sands not many to run;
Divinities disanointed
  And kings whose kingdom is done.

“The peoples knelt down at our portal,
  All kindreds under the sky;
We were gods and implored and immortal
  Once: and today we die.”

They turned them again to their praying,
  They worshipped and took no rest,
Singing old tunes and saying
  “We have seen his star in the west,”

Old tunes of the sacred psalters,
  Set to wild farewells;
And I left them there at their altars
  Ringing their own dead knells.
      (AP 21)

Influenced by Epicurus and Lucretius, Housman attributed his existence to the fortuitous configuration of randomly moving atoms. Death was a dispersal of particles. Though fleeting, life was meaningful:

From far, from eve and morning
  And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
  Blew hither: here am I.

Now-for a breath I tarry
  Nor yet disperse apart–
Take my hand quick and tell me,
  What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;
  How shall I help you, say;
Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters
  I take my endless way.
      (ASL 32)

Despite occasional nostalgia for the religion of his childhood, Housman abhorred illusions. Like Sophocles, whom he admired, he saw life steadily and saw it whole. “The house of delusions,” he said, “is cheap to build, but droughty to live in, and ready at any instant to fall; and it is surely truer prudence to move our furniture into the open air” (Graves 82). Housman preferred the spacious abode of science to the ramshackle dwelling of metaphysics and mysticism. In an annotation to a book on Greek philosophy, he wrote: “Plato’s doctrine of Forms or Universals is useless as a way of explaining things–it is up to Science to show what is the reality of the world” (Graves 48).

In a poem he wrote while still a student at St. John’s College, Housman noted that reason and science, properly exercised, lead to atheism (Graves 45-46). To his credit, our Shropshire lad declined to prostitute reason to the allure of desire.