A.E. Housman: Biography & Poems

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  • 0:01 Background
  • 1:08 Poetry
  • 3:02 Excerpts from Poems
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Although A.E. Housman was pretty antisocial and pessimistic, he became a successful scholar and poet who was known for his lyrical poetry. Learn more about this interesting man's background and work in this lesson.


Alfred Edward Housman, better known as A.E. Housman, was a British author best known for his lyrical poetry, which often conveyed his pessimistic views.

Dealing with his mother's death at the age of 12 undoubtedly impacted his negative perspective, as did the emotional turmoil he experienced as a young adult. While studying at Oxford, Housman struggled with his homosexuality, falling for his friend Moses Jackson, a young athlete who was unable to reciprocate Housman's love.

From 1882 to 1892, Housman worked as a clerk in London's Patent Office. He spent his evenings in the British Museum reading room, studying Greek and Roman classics as well as Latin texts. He wrote articles for various journals, which led to attention from scholars.

In 1892, he was appointed as a professor of Latin at University College in London. Despite his success in academia, Housman became quite the recluse. However, his antisocial behavior pushed him to write poetry, which gave him solace and comfort.


A collection of his poetry called A Shropshire Lad was published in 1896 and slowly became popular over time. Through his poetry, Housman was able to express himself, though he kept his feelings at a distance by taking on the role of a farm worker in his poems. He also set them in Shropshire, a county he started writing about before he had even been there. These poems contained themes such as pastoral beauty, the patriotism of the common soldier, grief, death, and unrequited love.

In 1911 he became a professor at Cambridge and taught Latin there for many years. In 1922, 11 years into his career at Cambridge, Housman's book of poetry entitled Last Poems was published. It was very successful, which came as quite a surprise. It is believed that Last Poems was written for his old friend Moses Jackson, who was able to read the book before he died.

After Housman died in 1936, his brother, Laurence, published two volumes of his work. More Poems was published in 1936, and Complete Poems was published in 1939.

Poetic Style

A.E. Housman was known for writing lyric poetry. A lyric is a verse or poem that has a musical, rhythmic quality and expresses the poet's feelings. Elegies, odes, and sonnets are all types of lyric poetry.

A Shropshire Lad contains 63 poems and directly expresses Housman's romantic pessimism. Some of the most well-known poems in this collection are 'To an Athlete Dying Young,' 'With Rue My Heart Is Laden,' and 'When I Was One and Twenty.'

'To an Athlete Dying Young' is also considered an elegy, which is a lyric poem or song that expresses grief over the death of a public person, friend, or loved one.

Excerpts from Poems

Let's take a closer look at Housman's poems so that we can really appreciate his lyrical style, while recognizing his often negative perspective. In the aforementioned elegy, 'To an Athlete Dying Young,' the speaker of the poem expresses his thoughts and feelings in seven sorrowful stanzas, reflecting on the burial of a young athlete. A couple of important ideas are expressed in this poem:

  • A life, even a brief one, should be celebrated if lived to the fullest
  • Dying at the height of glory is better than dying old and forgotten

The poem begins with the lines:

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down

Immediately, we understand how the speaker is feeling, and we know that this successful athlete was carried through town and is now being carried home by pallbearers. This image of glory in life and being honored in death shows how brief this young athlete's life was, and the line 'the road all runners come' reminds readers that we will all be carried to our final resting place and that death is inevitable.

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