A. E. Housman aged 35. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]A.E. Housman was appointed Professor of Latin at University College London in 1892. It was an unconventional choice on the college's part. As Dick Sullivan explains, Housman was only a clerk in the London Patent Office at the time, and had been working there for ten years after failing in classics at Oxford in 1881. But it was, after all, an inspired choice — and one which turned out greatly to the college's advantage as well as to Housman's.
There are several theories about why such a brilliant undergraduate as Housman should have performed so disastrously in his finals at Oxford. Despite having gained a scholarship to St John's, he had not toed the line as a student, apparently out of a sense of intellectual superiority. Moreover, he had been distracted by his relationship with the athletic Moses Jackson ("the love affair of his life," Page, A. E. Housman, 41). In the immediate run-up to the examination, he had also been seriously alarmed about his father's state of health. Nevertheless, it was an extraordinary result. He then had to suffer the ignominy of returning to Oxford in the Michaelmas term of 1881 to satisfy the requirements of a mere pass degree. (The same fate would befall another poet, John Betjemann, nearly fifty years later).
The failure devastated Housman and condemned him to a humdrum job. Though he was remembered later as a conscientious employee of the Patent Office, and even a sociable colleague, this was not how he wanted to spend his life. He had never dropped his classical studies entirely, and now devoted much of his free time to them. As a result, when he applied for the vacancy at University College, he had amassed a grand total of twenty-five scholarly papers and could summon a galaxy of distinguished referees. Later, he thanked the college for having pulled him out of the gutter (see Page, A. E. Housman 64). This sounds unnecessarily melodramatic; perhaps he had in mind Wilde's famous line from Act III of Lady Windermere's Fan (1891), "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" — a line which suggests not only the general human predicament but also the undefeated ambition of people like Housman himself.
The appointment, when it came, "permanently changed the course of [his] life" (Page, A. E. Housman 64). In the first place, it slotted him into an ambience to which he was much more suited. Admittedly, the college was still small when Housman arrived: in 1891- 2, there were only 559 students, in total, in the faculties of Arts, Sciences and Laws. "One man departments were the rule," Page explains in his critical biography, "the Professor of Latin was the Department of Latin, and only in his last few years there did Housman have even the part-time assistance of a junior colleague" (64-5). So the change in his fortunes might not have been quite as dramatic as it sounds, especially as teaching standards seem not to have been very high then: this was after Oxford and Cambridge had abolished their religious requirements, and most of the better classic students would doubtless have applied to Oxbridge colleges. However, at least Housman now found himself in the wonderful academic atmosphere created by the other University College stars of his time. One was W. P. Ker, the genial Professor of English who had been chairman of his selection committee, and who was also a good friend of the scientist William Ramsay, and an inspiration to G. K. Chesterton. Another was Arthur Platt, who joined the college in 1894 as the Professor of Greek, and became his particular and lifelong friend.
Housman blossomed in this congenial context, and began to produce his highly scholarly edition of Manilius, the first century poet and astrologer. Something was happening in his emotional life as well. It was as if some constraint had been lifted. In 1896 he published at his own expense five hundred copies of a slim volume of nostalgic ballads entitled A Shropshire Lad, which a few years later made him "In a period of war, uneasy peace, and rapid social change ... one of the most familiar and most highly regarded of the poets of his time" (Page, "Alfred Edward Housman").
Whatever the precipitating factors (including family bereavements and the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1894), at first it seems remarkable that such a punctilious textual critic should have written these limpid, subtly-layered and poignant lyrics whilst so fully engaged in the minutiae of research. He himself referred variously in "The Immortal Part" (one of the poems in A Shropshire Lad), to the "dust" or "smoke" of thought, and, in his lecture "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (1933), to poetry as the product of feeling rather than intellect. But it might be wrong to distinguish so sharply between his scholarly and his creative sides. John Lucas, for example, finds echoes in the poems of Lucretius's De Rerum Naturae, as well as FitzGerald's version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and argues that they are not as personal as they seem. "Yes, there are poems about defeated, unreturned or deadly love-affairs," he agrees, "but this is because the cast of the volume, you might almost say its strategy, is to evoke, ceaselessly, the days that are no more." Another way of putting it, Lucas suggests, is that "the poems brood in lapidary manner on the inevitability of time passing, of civilizations going under" (65). Thus there may well be a vein here that has fed through from his present academic life. Lucas feels that the result is poetry lacking in living people and a living voice, a reservation which some subsequent critics have echoed: John Powell Ward, for example, complains of a "vacuum" in Housman's poetry, a lack of "small domestic detail," the absence of a "real Shropshire" (132). But one could also argue for a gain in resonance and universality.
No longer isolated from his peers in academe, Housman was taking a very active part in college life as well. Soon after joining the college, he became Vice-Dean of Arts and Laws, and then Dean. Professors Ker, Housman and Platt were, together, a huge boost for the humanities at University College, so that an 1897 inspection found the college to be "a place of learning of some considerable prestige and tradition"(qtd. in Page, A. E. Housman 66). Housman seems to have been too much of a stickler for accuracy, and too dry and withdrawn with his students, to be widely popular. Indeed, he was apt to make his women students cry. But the skills he had learned in the civil service served him and the college well, for he proved to be an excellent administrator as well as an impressive and often entertaining public speaker. In his critical biography, Page cites the example of a speech he made at a dinner in celebration of William Ramsay's discovery of argon. Apparently, Housman rather cheekily "seized the opportunity, in a manner which maintained a delicate balance between jocularity and seriousness, to ridicule science and scientists," almost making Ramsay wish he had never discovered the gas at all (73)!
Housman went on to become Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge in 1911. His poetic style in Last Poems (1922) and More Poems (1936) did not change; it remained as it was when his rescue from the Patent Office first allowed him to express, indirectly but still publicly — and perhaps not without some input from his reading while at University College — his disappointment in love as a young man.
Lucas, John. Modern English Poetry from Hardy to Hughes: A Critical Survey. London: Batsford, 1986.
Page, Norman. A. E. Housman: A Critical Biography. London: Macmillan, rev. ed. 1996.
_____. "A. E. Housman (1859-1836)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 20 April 2006.
Ward, John Powell. The English Line: Poetry of the Unpoetic from Wordsworth to Larkin. London: Macmillan, 1991.
Last modified 7 May 2007