A.E.HOUSMAN… A Bournheath Lad
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
The haunting melancholy words of Bournheath’s most famous son, the celebrated poet; Arthur Edward Housman.
The eldest of seven children, Housman was born at Valley House (left) on the outskirts of Bournheath, to Sarah Jane Williams and solicitor Edward Housman and baptized on 24 Apr 1859 at Christ Church, in Catshill. Shortly afterwards Housman’s family moved to Perry Hall, Bromsgrove before returning to Fockbury House (The Clock House) where the poet grew up and began his education at Bromsgrove School.
In 1877 he won an open scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford where he studied classics. He formed strong friendships with two roommates, Moses Jackson and A. W. Pollard. Jackson became the great love of Housman’s life, but he was heterosexual and did not reciprocate Housman’s feelings. Housman obtained a first in Classical Moderations in 1879, but his dedication to textual analysis led him to neglect ancient history and philosophy, which formed part of the Greats curriculum. Accordingly, he failed to obtain a degree. Though some attribute Housman’s unexpected failure in his final exams directly to his rejection by Jackson, most biographers suggest that there are more obvious reasons. Housman was indifferent to philosophy, felt contempt for inexact learning, and enjoyed idling away his time with Jackson. The failure left him with a deep sense of humiliation, and a determination to vindicate his genius. He subsequently passed his exams and took a position as a clerk in the Patent Office in London for ten years. Here he continued to study Greek & Roman classics intensively and in 1892 he became professor of Latin at University College, London, followed by a similar position in 1911 at Trinity College, Cambridge, a post he held until his death in 1936.
Housman only published two volumes of poetry during his life. His most famous was “A Shropshire Lad” which was written after the death of his friend and companion Adalbert Jackson. This cycle of sixty three poems centers around the themes of pastoral beauty, unrequited love, fleeting youth, grief, deep pessimism and preoccupation with death and the patriotism of the common soldier.
The advent of the Boer War and World War 1 gave the book widespread appeal due to its nostalgic depiction of brave British soldiers. Housman wrote most of them while living in Highgate, London, before ever visiting that part of Shropshire (about thirty miles from his boyhood home), which he presented in an idealised pastoral light, as his ‘land of lost content’
Despite acclaim as both a scholar and poet in his lifetime, Housman lived as a recluse, rejecting honours and avoiding the public eye. He travelled frequently to France where he enjoyed reading “books which were banned in Britain as pornographic”. A fellow don described him as being “descended from a long line of maiden aunts”
He died in 1936 in Cambridge and is buried at St. Laurence’s Church in Ludlow, Shropshire.
Photo of Valley House by Peter Moss