IN MANY WAYS, Alfred Edward Housman must seem an unlikely subject for literary biography. Although he is still widely known as the author of A Shropshire Lad, most of his life was spent as a minor civil servant or as a very diligent and scholarly professor of Latin, first in London and later at Cambridge. Housman has achieved a wide popular readership and, possibly because of that, disdain from "serious" readers of poetry. Although Housman did not die until 1936, and his Collected Poems only appeared three years later, his work seems permanently fixed in the atmosphere of the Georgian poets just prior to World War I.
The idea of Housman as a simple-minded celebrator of rural values if proof that his poems have been cherished but not read. Like Robert Frost, with whom he has many affinities, Housman has been praised in a way that has transformed the serious and often ironic nature of his art into superficial banality. He wrote in a form which was austere and simple, one which perfectly reflected his own advocacy of a stoic acceptance of a fate that lay more in our stars than in ourselves (his greatest scholarly project was an edition of Manilius' Astronomica, a major classical work of astrology).
Can one tell the life of this withdrawn scholar, known for his acid tongue and his incivilities, in a way that will win him new readers? This is the task that English critic Richard Graves (nephew of the poet) has set himself. Graves is a devoted Housmaniac. He is concerned that his work should convey both respect and affection for Housman and at the same time that it should be honest in telling the largely unknown story of Housman's life. The problem is that there simply is very little to tell, particularly if one shares Graves' unwillingness to ask probing and speculative questions. Graves sees the biographer's task as one of putting together all the documents and composing them into a narrative. This he does well, and with the authority of an expert. But he leaves something crucial about Housman unexplained.
The problem is not reticence, as it had been until a few years ago in writing about Housman. It is now wellknown that Housman fell in love while a student with Moses Jackson, a young man who returned his friendship but not his love or sexual desire. Housman was unable, or unwilling, to transform the sexual energies released by this emotional affair into love for other men and instead preserved intact the memory of a perfect but failed love whose prefection was preserved by its failure. Graves provides new information on Housman's sex life, suggesting that the love for Moses Jackson which was unconsummated may have been consummated with his brother Adalbert, who died young, and demonstrating that Housman later had a sustained relationship with a Venetian gondolier, Andrea, and took advantage of Parisian steambaths and male prostitutes during his regular visits there.
No doubt this information will do its small part to humanize Housman and to make us realize the enormous gap between his public and private selves. Graves searches through Housman's life for the clues to the origins of his homosexuality, and finds them in parental puritanism about sexual matters and in a belated circumcision. Like all such searches for causes, however, this one is unsatisfying. The much more interesting question, and one not approached in this book, is the nature of the relationship between Housman and his brother Laurence, who was also homosexual. What is striking is that Laurence transformed sexuality into a questioning of sexual and political mores, while his more celebrated brother kept his secret notebook and his private cache of pornography. Laurence Housman was a leader in two important early homosexual-rights groups (it has been suggested elsewhere that Alfred may also have belonged to one of them) and a vocal supporter of the feminist movement, along with their sister Clemence, while A. E. Housman consistently opposed all feminist causes and suppressed all public indications of his sexuality.
If the loss of Moses Jackson is the leitmotif of most of Housman's verse and the source of his tone of mingled longing and regret, his failure in Greats at Oxford was the single event which appears to have determined most of his subsequent conduct as a scholar and perhaps even his celebrated misanthropy. Graves argues that the failure was not due to emotional problems, or to indiffernece, but to overconfidence and arrogance. Housman had been raised in an atmosphere of aristocratic privilege even though his father was a repeated failure and near-bankrupt. When Housman finally returned to Cambridge and a prominent academic position, he cloaked himself in the dignity of the place, more than compensating for his previous disgrace. Failure in love and failure in scholarship combined to make of Housmman a man determined to keep his privacy at all costs and a poet in celebration of a lost golden age.
On the matter of housman's poetry, Graves rightly suggests that Housman's success was largely due to his discovery of a persona, Terence Hearsay, through whom Housman could express many of his own experiences at a safe distance. He makes, unfortunately, no attempt to link Housman's practice here with that of other moderns, or even Browning, and so cannot really contribute to any serious revaluation of Housman's work. And, although he stresses that Terence was an invented persona, and Shropshire even a largely imaginary county, he then proceeds to read the poems as if they were straightforward guides to the life. As a reader of the poems, Graves brings a wide knowledge but little sensitivity. He calls attention to Housman's patriotic verse, which may well stand in the way of his finding a modern audience, but he does not seem alert to the depths of its irony. Surely the famous lines "A soldier cheap to the King/and dear to me" suggest some limitation to his espousal of the imperial cause. And Housman's love poetry is also somewhat more complex than Graves allows. The lines,
But this unlucky love should last
When answered passions thin to air;
Eternal fate so deep has cast
Its sure foundation of despair. cannot be dismissed merely as "bitter" by anyone who senses its echoes of a paradox dear to the Shakespeare of the sonnets or the Marvell of "The Definition of Love."
A biography of Housman is important because the poems so astonishingly arise out of personal experience: in 1895, the year of the Wilde trial, Housman wrote 70 poems, of which 50 are now in A Shropshire Lad; in 1922, after he learned that Moses Jackson, whom he had not seen for many years, was dying, he wrote most of his second volume, More Poems, in two months. By telling Housman's story honestly, and without romanticism, Graves has enabled us to re-examine the work and to begin to find a place for Housman among the early moderns. There is still much sweeping away of preconceived notions to be done, though, and a serious critical book yet to be written.