Wednesday 8 March 2017

Beyond the love of comrades: the poetry of AE Housman

A. E. Housman photographed by E. O. Hoppé
A. E. Housman photographed by E. O. Hoppé
AE Housman's poems feature in my song cycle Four Songs to Texts by AE Housman and in my song When Summer's end is nighing. Baritone Johnny Herford and pianist William Vann perform both works on the new disc of my songs, Quickening, for which we are currently crowd-funding.

Housman's most famous poems come for A Shropshire Lad, which was published in 1896. It steadily became well known, with the themes of the poems striking a chord with readers during World War One. Though he lived until 1936, Housman would publish only one further collection of poems. (see also the second part of this article).

Housman was by nature quiet and rather introverted, but at university in Oxford Housman formed a strong relationship with his room-mate, Moses Jackson during the period 1877-1882. Jackson was the great love of Housman's life, though this was not reciprocated and Jackson would eventually put significant distance between himself and Housman.  However, after leaving Oxford (where Housman failed to get a degree), Housman, Jackson and Jackson's younger brother Adalbert shared a flat. Adalbert died in 1896 and would be commemorated in a poem A.J.J - When he's returned from More Poems (1936), a poem which is one of the ones chosen for my song cycle.

In the 1920s, Moses Jackson was dying in Canada and Housman decided to assemble his best unpublished poems into a book so that Jackson could read them. The result is Last Poems which Housman published in 1922. He did not anticipate publishing any more poems and seems to have felt he was written out, but after his death his brother Laurence published two further collections.

In the introduction so Last Poems, Housman says:

'I publish these poems, few though they are, because it is not likely that I shall ever be impelled to write much more. I can no longer expect to be revisited by the continuous excitement under which in the early months of 1895 I wrote the greater part of my first book, nor indeed could I well sustain it if it came; and it is best that what I have written should be printed while I am here to see it through the press and control its spelling and punctuation. About a quarter of this matter belongs to the April of the present year, but most of it to dates between 1895 and 1910.'

The subject matter of the poems is more varied than A Shropshire Lad and the poems themselves more uneven. But what is also true is that the underlying homoeroticism of the poetry, is a little more revealed. Housman was an emotionally withdrawn man, and his poetry reflects this, yet in these poems we get hints of something a little more than a love of comrades.

See the second part of this article.

Johnny Herford (baritone) and William Vann (piano) perform my Housman settings on our new disc Quickening: songs to texts by English and Welsh poets which will be coming out on the Navona Records label. Please do support the crowdfunding for this,

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