A. E. Housman
British classical scholar and poet (1859-1936)
- The most important truth which has ever been uttered, and the greatest discovery ever made in the moral world.
- Referring to Luke 17:33, 'Whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life shall find it' (the wording used by Housman).
- Chorus: O suitably attired in leather boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in inquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Nod with your hand to signify as much.
Alcmaeon: I journeyed hither a Boeotian road.
Chorus: Sailing on horseback or with feet for oars?
Alcmaeon: Plying by turns my partnership of legs.
Chorus: Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
Alcmaeon: Mud's sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.
Chorus: To learn your name would not displease me much.
Alcmaeon: Not all that men desire do they attain.
- "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy". This parody was first written in 1883, but quoted here from a revised version of 1927.
- The house of delusions is cheap to build, but draughty to live in, and ready at any instant to fall.
- "Introductory Lecture" delivered on October 3, 1892 at University College, London.
- The average man, if he meddles with criticism at all, is a conservative critic. His opinions are determined not by his reason -- 'the bulk of mankind' says Swift 'is as well qualified for flying as for thinking' -- but by his passions; and the faintest of all human passions is the love of truth. He believes that the text of ancient authors is generally sound, not because he has acquainted himself with the elements of the problem, but because he would feel uncomfortable if he did not believe it; just as he believes, on the same cogent evidence, that he is a fine fellow, and that he will rise again from the dead.
- Introduction to Astronomicon of Manilius, Lib I. (Cambridge University Press,  1937) p. xliii.
- Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.
- Saturae of Juvenal (Cambridge University Press,  1931) p. xi.
- I rather doubt if man really has much to gain by substituting peace for strife, as you and Jesus Christ recommend. Sic notus Ulixes? do you think you can outwit the resourceful malevolence of Nature? God is not mocked, as St. Paul long ago warned the Galatians. When man gets rid of a great trouble he is easier for a while, but not for long: Nature instantly sets to work to weaken his power of sustaining trouble, and very soon seven pounds is as heavy as fourteen pounds used to be. Last Easter Monday a young woman threw herself in the Lea because her dress looked so shabby amongst the holiday crowd: in other times and countries women have been ravished by half-a-dozen dragoons and taken it less to heart. It looks to me as if the state of mankind always had been and always would be a state of just tolerable discomfort.
- "Letter to Gilbert Murray" (April 23, 1900).
- My heart always warms to people who do not come to see me, especially Americans, to whom it seems to be more of an effort.
- "Letter to Neilson Abeel" (October 4, 1935).
- Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
- Additional Poems, No. 18, st. 1 (1937).
- Nature, not content with denying to Mr — the faculty of thought, has endowed him with the faculty of writing.
- From a list of insults drafted by A E Housman, and posthumously published in Laurence Housman's A. E. H. (1937) pp. 89-90. The name was left blank in the original, but was intended to be filled in and used when a suitable subject should turn up.
"The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism", a lecture delivered on August 4, 1921Edit
- A man who possesses common sense and the use of reason must not expect to learn from treatises or lectures on textual criticism anything that he could not, with leisure and industry, find out for himself. What the lectures and treatises can do for him is to save him time and trouble by presenting to him immediately considerations which would in any case occur to him sooner or later.
- A textual critic engaged upon his business is not at all like Newton investigating the motions of the planets: he is much more like a dog hunting for fleas. If a dog hunted for fleas on mathematical principles, basing his researches on statistics of area and population, he would never catch a flea except by accident.
- The difference between an icicle and a red-hot poker is really much slighter than the difference between truth and falsehood or sense and nonsense; yet it is much more immediately noticeable and much more universally noticed, because the body is more sensitive than the mind.
- Most men are rather stupid, and most of those who are not stupid are, consequently, rather vain.
- It is supposed that there has been progress in the science of textual criticism, and the most frivolous pretender has learned to talk superciliously about "the old unscientific days". The old unscientific days are everlasting; they are here and now; they are renewed perennially by the ear which takes formulas in, and the tongue which gives them out again, and the mind which meanwhile is empty of reflexion and stuffed with self-complacency.
- And, what is worse, the reader often shares the writer's prejudices, and is far too well pleased with his conclusions to examine either his premises or his reasoning. Stand on a barrel in the streets of Bagdad, and say in a loud voice, 'Twice two is four, and ginger is hot in the mouth, therefore Mohammed is the prophet of God', and your logic will probably escape criticism; or, if anyone should by chance criticise it, you could easily silence him by calling him a Christian dog.
- To be a textual critic requires aptitude for thinking and willingness to think; and though it also requires other things, those things are supplements and cannot be substitutes. Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders and brains, not pudding, in your head.
A Shropshire Lad (1896)Edit
- Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough.
- No. 2, st. 1.
- Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
- No. 2, st. 2-3.
- Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.
- No. 4 ("Reveille"), st. 6.
- Lovers lying two and two
Ask not whom they sleep beside,
And the bridegroom all night through
Never turns him to the bride.
- No. 12, st. 4.
- When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
"Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away."
- No. 13, st. 1.
- When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
"The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue."
And I am two-and-twenty
And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.
- No. 13, st. 2.
- His folly has not fellow
Beneath the blue of day
That gives to man or woman
His heart and soul away.
- No. 14, st. 3.
- Oh, when I was in love with you
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave.
And now the fancy passes by
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they'll say that I
Am quite myself again.
- No. 18.
- To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high, we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
- No. 19 ("To an Athlete Dying Young"), st. 2.
- And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
- No. 19 ("To an Athlete Dying Young"), st. 4.
- The bells they sound on Bredon
And still the steeples hum.
"Come all to church, good people," —
Oh, noisy bells, be dumb;
I hear you, I will come.
- No. 21, st. 7.
- They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.
- No. 23, st. 4.
- But from my grave across my brow
Plays no wind of healing now,
And fire and ice within me fight
Beneath the suffocating night.
- No. 30, st. 4.
- There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.
- No. 31, st. 4.
- From far, from eve and morning
And yon twelve-winded sky,
The stuff of life to knit me
Blew hither; here am I.
- No. 32.
- Oh tarnish late on Wenlock Edge,
Gold that I never see;
Lie long, high snowdrifts in the hedge
That will not shower on me.
- No. 39, st. 3.
- 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.
- No. 40.
- Be still, my soul, be still; the arms you bear are brittle,
Earth and high heaven are fixt of old and founded strong.
- No. 48, st. 1.
- Far in a western brookland
That bred me long ago
The poplars stand and tremble
By pools I used to know.
- No. 52, st. 1.
- There, by the starlit fences,
The wanderer halts and hears
My soul that lingers sighing
About the glimmering weirs.
- No. 52, st. 4.
- With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
- No. 54.
- Now hollow fires burn out to black,
And lights are guttering low:
Square your shoulders, lift your pack,
And leave your friends and go.
Oh never fear, man, nought's to dread,
Look not to left nor right:
In all the endless road you tread
There's nothing but the night.
- No. 60.
- Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think.
- No. 62, st. 2.
- Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
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.
- No. 62, st. 3.
Last Poems (1922)Edit
- The chestnut casts his flambeaux, and the flowers
Stream from the hawthorn on the wind away,
The doors clap to, the pane is blind with showers.
Pass me the can, lad; there’s an end of May.
- No. 9, st. 1.
- We for a certainty are not the first
Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled
Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed
Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.
- No. 9, st. 3.
- The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale.
- No. 9, st. 7.
- Could man be drunk for ever
With liquor, love, or fights,
Lief should I rouse at mornings
And lief lie down of nights.
But men at whiles are sober
And think by fits and starts,
And if they think, they fasten
Their hands upon their hearts.
- No. 10, st. 2.
- The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Now I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me.
- No. 12, l. 1-4.
- And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
- No. 12, l. 15-18.
- He stood, and heard the steeple
Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
One, two, three, four, to market-place and people
It tossed them down.
Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour,
He stood and counted them and cursed his luck;
And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength, and struck.
- No. 15 ("Eight O'Clock").
- Happy bridegroom, Hesper brings
All desired and timely things.
All whom morning sends to roam,
Hesper loves to lead them home.
Home return who him behold,
Child to mother, sheep to fold,
Bird to nest from wandering wide:
Happy bridegroom, seek your bride.
- No. 24 ("Epithalamium"), st. 3.
- These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
- No. 37 ("Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries").
- Tell me not here, it needs not saying,
What tune the enchantress plays
In aftermaths of soft September
Or under blanching mays,
For she and I were long acquainted
And I knew all her ways.
- No. 40, st. 1.
The Name and Nature of PoetryEdit
The Leslie Stephen Lecture, Cambridge University, May 9, 1933
- Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act...The seat of this sensation is the pit of the stomach. Houseman's test for great poetry.
- Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out … and perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.
- Good literature continually read for pleasure must, let us hope, do some good to the reader: must quicken his perception though dull, and sharpen his discrimination though blunt, and mellow the rawness of his personal opinions.
More Poems (1936)Edit
- They say my verse is sad: no wonder.
Its narrow measure spans
Rue for eternity, and sorrow
Not mine, but man's.
This is for all ill-treated fellows
Unborn and unbegot,
For them to read when they're in trouble
And I am not.
- Hope lies to mortals
And most believe her,
But man's deceiver
Was never mine.
- No. 6, st. 1.
- The rainy Pleiads wester,
Orion plunges prone,
The stroke of midnight ceases,
And I lie down alone.
- No. 11, st. 1.
- Who made the world I cannot tell;
'Tis made, and here am I in hell.
My hand, though now my knuckles bleed,
I never soiled with such a deed.
- No. 19, st. 2.
- Here dead we lie because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.
- No. 36.
- We now to peace and darkness
And earth and thee restore
Thy creature that thou madest
And wilt cast forth no more.
- No. 47 ("For My Funeral"), st. 3.
- Good-night; ensured release,
Have these for yours,
While sea abides, and land,
And earth's foundations stand,
And heaven endures.
- No. 48 ("Parta Quies"), st. 1.
Quotes about HousmanEdit
- Housman is one of my heroes and always has been. He was a detestable and miserable man. Arrogant, unspeakably lonely, cruel, and so on, but an absolutely marvellous minor poet, I think, and a great scholar.
- John Berryman, The Paris Review, Winter 1972.