A.E. Housman

A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems

“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.”

Alfred Edward Housman (1859 – 1936) was a superb classics scholar and amateur poet. He taught at Cambridge University from 1911 until his death. His poetry was less well-known (and received less critical acclaim) than his translations. His few published poems are included in this collection: A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems.

Now dreary dawns the eastern light,
And fall of eve is drear,
And cold the poor man lies at night,
And so goes out the year.

Little is the luck I’ve had,
And oh, ’tis comfort small
To think that many another lad
Has had no luck at all.

Housman’s poetry is oft criticized as sentimental. It is certainly grounded in sorrow. It is also lyrical, rhythmic.

Housman attended Oxford only to fail after he fell “irreparably in love” with Moses Jackson, a heterosexual. Housman lived a life of unreturned love and a lifetime longing for the impossible.

You smile upon your friend to-day,
To-day his ills are over;
You harken to the lover’s say,
and happy is the lover.

‘Tis late to harken, late to smile,
But better late than never:
I shall have lived a little while
Before I die forever.

John Constable's "The Hay Wain" featured in A.E. Housman's "A Shropshire Lad" in the Examined Life Library.
“The Hay Wain” by English naturalist painter John Constable, 1821. Learn more.

The poems that include love or lovers often end in bitterness, death, and disappointment. From “A Shropshire Lad”:

Along the field as we came by
A year ago, my love and I,
The aspen over stile and stone
was talking to itself alone.
‘Oh who are these that kiss and pass?
A country lover and his lass;
Two lovers looking to be wed;
And time shall put them both to bed,
But she shall lie with earth above,
And he beside another love.’

Housman published only two collections of poetry although further collections were published posthumously. His talent crested during periods of deep pain, the loss of Moses Jackson first to India and then to death.

Like his contemporary T.S. Eliot, who wrote “The Waste Land” in the midst of his failed marriage, Housman wrote from a position of intense emotion.

A. E. Housman by E. O. Hoppé. Featured in Housman's "A Shorpshire Lad" in the Examined Life Library.
A. E. Housman. Photograph by E. O. Hoppé.

Through his unending and deeply buried emotional pain, Housman finds an ear for truth. “A Shropshire Lad,” his most famous poem, is about longing to return to an innocent place before death inevitably claims us.

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.

John Constable’s “Hampstead Heath with a Rainbow,” 1836, one of Constable’s many Heath pictures that captured the value of the space as a London escape. Learn more.

Accompany Housman’s unique ballads with Leonard Cohen’s late-in-life collection of poetry and musings on longing, which echoes Housman’s.

The English countryside is such a nurturing soil of prose and poetry. Like Romantic poet John Clare’s celebration of the land and sadness at its irreversible change or Laurie Lee’s lesser-known but equally exquisite reminiscences of pre-War England.