Poetry Sunday: A.E. Housman

Poetry Sunday: A.E. Housman April 19, 2009

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.

Read the rest.

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