A.E. Housman: Poet, Scholar, Atheist

Gary Sloan

Though his poetry comprises but four slender volumes—A Shropshire Lad (ASL), Last Poems, More Poems (MP), and Additional Poems (AP), the last two published posthumously—Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936) belongs in the pantheon of English poets. Born in Worcestershire, in the environs of the Shropshire hills, Housman liked to amble through highland, field, and dale. As he wandered, lines of poetry spontaneously welled up within him. Fleshed out, these lines sprouted into haunting poems about nature, death, love, youth, aspiration, betrayal, transience, and oblivion. Written in spare, simple language, the poems include such popular pieces as “Loveliest of Trees,” “When I Was One-and-Twenty,” “With Rue My Heart Is Laden,” “To an Athlete Dying Young,” and “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff.”

Housman was a redoubtable scholar as well as poet. In 1892, he was appointed a professor of Latin at University College, London, and, in 1911, he was named a professor of Latin at Cambridge, a position he held until his death. Possessed of keen intellect, capacious memory, and adamantine persistence, he became the foremost Latinist of his era. In his university lectures, he was all scholar; the Shropshire lad never emerged.

Housman was often perceived as aloof, daunting, and enigmatic. Yet, as his friend Percy Withers noted, the foreboding exterior belied an inward warmth: “[H]is sardonic quips, his biting satire, his easy resort to mockery and scoffing: of such was the outward vestment composed. And it was a grim deceit. Underneath beat as warm and as generous a heart . . . as I have ever known” (Richard Graves, A.E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet, p. 243).

Because he outwardly conformed to the idols of the tribe, few contemporaries knew that Housman was an atheist. Only in his waning years did he divulge that fact and then only to a handful. In a letter written to his sister Katharine, a devout Anglican, six months before he died, Housman wrote: “I abandoned Christianity at thirteen but went on believing in God till I was twenty-one, and towards the end of that time I did a good deal of praying for certain persons and for myself. I cannot help being touched that you do it for me, and feeling rather remorseful, because it must be an expenditure of energy, and I cannot believe in its efficacy” (Henry Maas, ed., The Letters of A.E. Housman, p. 381).

Although Housman left the church when he became an atheist, he remained, says biographer Richard Graves, “emotionally attached to a past in which he had believed in God, but the intellectual break with any form of religious faith was complete” (p. 51). Geoffrey Morris, the classical tutor of Corpus Christi, recorded a comment by Housman that underscored his ambivalent attitude toward the religion of his boyhood. When, in 1920, at a college dinner, Morris asked him about his religion, Housman described himself as a “High-Church atheist.” He said “the qualification ‘High-Church’ was a tribute to his mother’s memory and his own early upbringing” (Graves, p. 187).

While Housman left no explicit defense of atheism, his poetry and prose teem with observations palatable to atheists. In his introductory lecture at University College, London, Housman limned a race stripped of its cosmic centrality, divine provenance, and grand inheritance, a species shrunk to Lilliputian proportions:

Man stands today in the position of one who has been reared from his cradle as the child of a noble race and the heir to great possessions, and who finds at his coming of age that he has been deceived alike as to his origin and expectations; that he neither springs of the high lineage he fancied, nor will inherit the vast estate he looked for, but must put off his towering pride, and contract his boundless hopes, and begin the world anew from a lower level. [Graves, p. 80]

In “Easter Hymn,” Housman juxtaposes a human Jesus with a heavenly savior. If mortal, Jesus is now supremely oblivious to the sectarian animosities he unwittingly fanned. If divine, he should get off his celestial throne and fulfill his promises:

If in that Syrian garden, ages slain,
You sleep, and know not you are dead in vain,
Nor even in dreams behold how dark and bright
Ascends in smoke and fire by day and night
The hate you died to quench and could but fan,
Sleep well and see no morning, son of man.

But if, the grave rent and the stone rolled by,
At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat,
Your cross and passion and the life you gave,
Bow hither out of heaven and see and save.
(MP, 1)

In “New Year’s Eve,” Housman offers his own rendition of the twilight of the gods. Acknowledging their obsolescence and acquiescing in their demise, the gods worship the secular ideals of the West:

We are come to the end appointed
With sands not many to run;
Divinities disanointed
And kings whose kingdom is done.

The peoples knelt down at our portal,
All kindreds under the sky;
We were gods and implored and immortal
Once: and today we die.

They turned them again to their praying,
They worshipped and took no rest,
Singing old tunes and saying
“We have seen his star in the west,”

Old tunes of the sacred psalters,
Set to wild farewells;
And I left them there at their altars
Ringing their own dead knells.
(AP, 21)

Influenced by Epicurus and Lucretius, Housman attributed his existence to the fortuitous configuration of randomly moving particles. Death was a dispersal of the particles. Though fleeting, life was meaningful:

From far, from eve and morning

And yon twelve-winded sky,

The stuff of life to knit me

Blew hither: here am I.

Now—for a breath I tarry

Nor yet disperse apart—

Take my hand quick and tell me,

What have you in your heart.

Speak now, and I will answer;

How shall I help you, say;

Ere to the wind’s twelve quarters

I take my endless way.

(ASL, 32)

In step with his rejection of immortality, Housman adopted a carpe diem philosophy. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, his favorite book of the Bible, he was preoccupied with the passage of time. He tried to live each moment to the full since, as the biblical author noted, “there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave.”

Despite occasional nostalgia for the religion of his childhood, Housman abhorred illusions. Like Sophocles, he saw life steadily and saw it whole. “The house of delusions,” he wrote, “is cheap to build, but droughty to live in, and ready at any instant to fall; and it is surely truer prudence to move our furniture into the open air” (Graves, p. 82). Housman preferred the spacious abode of science to the ramshackle dwelling of metaphysics and mysticism. In an annotation to a book on Greek philosophy, he wrote: “Plato’s doctrine of Forms or Universals is useless as a way of explaining things—it is up to Science to show what is the reality of the world” (Graves, p. 48).

In a poem he wrote while still a student at St. John’s College, Housman mused that reason and science, properly exercised, lead to atheism (Graves, pp. 45–46). To his credit, our Shropshire
lad declined to prostitute reason to the allure of desire.

Gary Sloan

Gary Sloan is a retired English professor in Ruston, Louisiana.

Though his poetry comprises but four slender volumes—A Shropshire Lad (ASL), Last Poems, More Poems (MP), and Additional Poems (AP), the last two published posthumously—Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936) belongs in the pantheon of English poets. Born in Worcestershire, in the environs of the Shropshire hills, Housman liked to amble through highland, field, and dale. As …

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