Poetry Sunday: A.E. Housman

Today’s Poetry Sunday introduces another renowned, classic author who was also an atheist: the English poet and scholar A.E. Housman.

Housman was born in Worcestershire in 1859. His personal life was marked by tragedy: his mother died while he was young, as did four of his six siblings, and his father squandered much of the family fortune. A homosexual, he fell in love with a fellow student while attending Oxford, but was rebuffed. The rejection left Housman emotionally scarred for life, and much of his poetry makes veiled allusions to his heartbreak – explicit allusions being impossible, since homosexuality was still a felony in Victorian England. (Read more on Housman’s biography here.)

Despite his personal tragedies, Housman was acknowledged as a poet and classical scholar of prodigious talent. From 1911 until his death in 1936, he held the post of Latin professor at Cambridge, and his editions of Roman poets such as Juvenal are still considered authoritative. Ironically, he considered his poetry only an adjunct to his scholarly career, although it was the former that won him the most renown. His works of poetry, most notably A Shropshire Lad (first published in 1896), were nostalgic, evocative depictions of rural life, longing for the simplicity and natural beauty of an idealized childhood. Not surprisingly, given his personal life, many of his poems are gloomy and fatalistic: they praise life and love even while mourning them as transitory. One of his most famous poems, “To An Athlete Dying Young“, contains these oft-quoted lines:

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Nevertheless, Housman met life’s tragedies with stoicism and even flashes of dark humor, such as in the ironically titled “Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff“, which answers complaints that his work was overly pessimistic:

And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

Housman was also an atheist. In a letter to his sister Katharine, written six months before his own death, he said:

“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.”

He described himself as a “High Church atheist”, and some of his poems bear startlingly clear and bold references to his freethought allegiance. In “Easter Hymn“, he raises a dilemma for Christians: either Jesus is divine and thus has taken no action to stop the bloodshed and sectarianism his teachings created, or he was human and is now deceased and forever oblivious to them. Today’s poem also clearly displays its author’s atheist sympathies. In it, he imagines all the gods of humankind’s past gathering for one final time to observe and mourn their own demise, accepting that their time has passed and that a new secular age is fast overtaking them.

New Year’s Eve

The end of the year fell chilly
  Between a moon and a moon;
Through the twilight shrilly
  The bells rang, ringing no tune.

The windows stained with story,
  The walls with miracle scored,
Were hidden for gloom and glory
  Filling the house of the Lord.

Arch and aisle and rafter
  And roof-tree dizzily high
Were full of weeping and laughter
  And song and saying good-bye.

There stood in the holy places
  A multitude none could name,
Ranks of dreadful faces
  Flaming, transfigured in flame.

Crown and tiar and mitre
  Were starry with gold and gem;
Christmas never was whiter
  Than fear on the face of them.

In aisles that emperors vaulted
  For a faith the world confessed,
Abasing the Host exalted,
  They worshipped towards the west.

They brought with laughter oblation;
  They prayed, not bowing the head;
They made without tear lamentation,
  And rendered me answer and said:

“O thou that seest our sorrow,
  It fares with us even thus:
To-day we are gods, to-morrow
  Hell have mercy on us.

“Lo, morning over our border
  From out of the west comes cold;
Down ruins the ancient order
  And empire builded of old.

“Our house at even is queenly
  With psalm and censers alight:
Look thou never so keenly
  Thou shalt not find us to-night.

“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 to-day 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.

Other posts in this series:

Weekend Coffee: February 22
Friday Night Music: Transgressor
Weekend Coffee: March 28
You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.