A. E. 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 Land 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. He attended Oxford only to fail after he fell “irreparably in love” with Moses Jackson, a heterosexual. Housman lived a life of un-returned 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.
He published only two collections of poetry although further collections were published posthumously.
Though 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.
Leonard Cohen’s late-in-life collection of poetry and musings on longing echoes the longing of Housman. The English countryside seems a nurturing soil of prose and poetry. Read 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.