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Alfred Edward Housman

born: 26 March 1859
died: 30 April 1936
country: United Kingdom

Alfred Edward Housman was born at Fockbury, near Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, on 26 March 1859, the eldest of Sarah and Edward Housman’s seven children. The most significant event of his childhood was the death of his mother on his twelfth birthday. The anguish he felt, made infinitely deeper by the cruel coincidence, led him to doubt the Christian Revelation. Though he did not abandon the idea of a God, he could only think of Him as indifferent to the sufferings of the world. The gradual realization of his own homosexuality only deepened his pessimism. In a situation without rhyme or reason, all that was left for the man of honour was to endure and do what must be done, even though the doing would be in vain. It was this stoic philosophy that was to give his poems much of their appeal.

The facts of Housman’s life are simple enough. After taking a poor degree in Classics at St John’s College, Oxford (1882), he spent ten years (1882 to 1892) working as a civil servant in Her Majesty’s Patent Office. During this time a series of brilliant papers established him as an outstanding Classical scholar and in 1892 he was appointed Professor of Greek and Latin at University College, London. In 1911 he became Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge University where, as a Fellow of Trinity College, he remained for the rest of his life. He died on 30 April 1936, famous both as a Classical scholar (particularly for his work on the poet Manilius) and as the author of A Shropshire Lad and Last Poems (1922). A third volume, More Poems, was garnered from his manuscripts and published posthumously in 1936.

That Housman’s poems are singularly apt for music is beyond question. Influenced by the powerful simplicities of Shakespeare’s songs, the clear, precise forms of the Border Ballads, and the melancholy irony of Heinrich Heine’s lyrics, they combine deeply-felt emotions with a classical elegance and simplicity of form and language. They are short and to the point; and, though subtle, the thought-patterns are never so impacted as to make it difficult for music to function at its own level. Next to Shakespeare and Robert Herrick they are one of the greatest gifts an English poet ever made to English composers. (A Shropshire Lad is recorded complete – in verse and song – on Hyperion CDD22044; musical settings are by Butterworth, Orr, Ireland, Moeran, Horder, Berkeley and Barber.)

from notes by Michael Hurd 1990

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