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A Shropshire Lad
Housman entered Oxford University in 1877 and did very well at first before confounding everyone by failing his examinations in 1881. As a result, he did not actually graduated with a degree until 1892 and this disappointing college experience fueled one of his most famous works, A Shropshire Lad. Four years after finally attaining that degree, Housman self-published this work comprising 63 verses in mostly ballad-form that permeate with the halcyon scent of nostalgia situated in a mostly fictional reimagining of Shropshire. The semi-fictionalizing continues with Housman’s invention of a persona standing in for himself named Terence Hearsay. The verses in “A Shropshire Lad” are short with many lasting little longer than a single stanza overlaid with a rigid symmetrical rhyming on alternative lines.
To An Athlete Dying Young
The poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” is, as might be suspected, addressed to a young man whose death is celebrated primarily on account of his having achieved the ultimate in local glory by winding up a victorious in a race that, as these things do, is co-opted by the townsfolk as confirmation of their own glory. The youth’s death results in that rarest of events: honor of the same level through the act of mourning his premature passing. The narrator of the verse even goes so far as to suggest that the athlete chose to go out while the fires of the memory of his glory was still burning at its brightest; in this way, he even managed to beat out death by using it to avoid the inexorably probability of suffering the hero’s predictably tragic fall from grace.
Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now
The second verse in A Shropshire Lad, “Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now,” is a meditation upon the brief burning candle that is the human life span. Housman manages to utilize a remarkable control of allusion within this short expanse of verse to create the very definition of poetry through a tightly controlled comparison of the fragility of human life to the fragility of the natural world around them.
When I was One and Twenty
This poem is actually a dramatic monologue in which the speaker admits to having failed to take to heart the advice of a more experienced man on the issue of protecting himself from heartbreak. The verse details with exquisite emotional tenor the universal misery that comes with having lost in love at a tender age. What is especially unique about this work is the way that the pain of heartbreak is couched in the almost musical mood of a lighter approach to using verse to express emotional turmoil.
Shake Hands, We Shall Never Be Friends
Diaries made public after Housman’s death revealed that one of the causes behind his delayed graduation from Oxford emotional turmoil resulting from the awakening awareness of his homosexuality and the subsequent rejection by a student named Moses Jackson. The bittersweet result of that unhappy period were poems like “Shake Hands, We Shall Never Be Friends” which exhibits Housman trying to make sense of a relationship coming part at the seams for reasons he seemingly isn’t yet fully capable of understanding.
Because I Liked You Better
This is another poem directed toward Moses Jackson and although the rhyming scheme lends it a certain musical quality, the eloquent choice of understated words to cover up the emotional intensity underlying them becomes almost a textbook demonstration of how Victorian morality regulated homosexual desire during the period covered by the remembrance and the composition and publication of that remembrance.
Obviously not quite over Moses Jackson, this poem which is found in the collection Last Poems was written on the occasion of Jackson’s wedding. The emotional depth of the poem is enhanced with the realization that Housman was pointedly not extended an invitation to attend the ceremony.
This poems also found in Last Poems is notable for its atypical length in a Housman verse. The poem also leaves behind the Victorian distancing by taking up the issues of homosexuality full throttle through an allegorical background pitting the poems’ two protagonists as warriors taking up arms in a rebellion against the authority of Sin and Death in a battle pitched before the very gates of hell.
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
Another poem found in Last Poems that presents a battle in allegorical form, this poem essentially examines what happens when God decides to abandon His creations. The answer may be surprising to some and obvious to others: mercenaries must be entrusted to take over the duties which God can no longer be depended upon to complete.
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The Literary Style Of A.E. Housman
A.E. Housman, perhaps one of modern poetry's most enigmatic writers, was well known for his mastery of concise language. His poem "The night is freezing fast" perfectly illustrates his typical style: short, but effective. Housman makes the most of his carefully selected words as he ties together themes of death, bereavement, and the afterlife with creative poetic devices.
Housman's commentary on the nature of the afterlife gives his elegy a universal appeal. The idea of spending eternity sleeping nestled warm and cozy deep within the "turning globe" (l. 12) is certainly comforting. Housman does not portray death as a frightening experience, but rather as an escape from all worldly discomforts, such as the chill of winter. The brief nature of the poem might also point to Housman's views of death. It is inevitable, and quick: for years a person is living, and then in a single moment, he is dead. Therefore, death is not worth the exhaustion of a long, drawn-out poem. It is not something to be feared, because it is not slow or painful. Housman also indicates that people should not waste time grieving over the death of a loved one, because death is not fearful.
Despite the overall morbid theme of death and dying, there is no overwhelming emotion displayed by the poet. Housman hints at the intense relationship between Dick and himself, through the phrase "chiefly I remember / How Dick would hate the cold." (l. 6) Housman indicates that he and Dick were close--the mere coming of winter reminds him of "winterfalls of old" (l. 3) spent with his friend. The fact that he knew of Dick's aversion to cold weather means that he knew Dick at a personal level. However, Housman does not directly disclose anything about their relationship. He does not refer to Dick as "friend," or any other affectionate term. He does not mention the number of years they knew each other, detail Dick's death, or even say that he misses Dick. There is deep sentiment implied, but not explicitly stated.
This understatement of the poet's feelings is exactly what gives the poem so much intensity. Through meiosis, the narrator lets the reader know exactly how much Dick's death meant to him. Rather than go over the top with maudlin descriptions of his grief, the lack of any emotional language takes the poem in a direction opposite than expected. The setup of the first stanza is traditional: the winter reminds the narrator of the death of his friend. But then in the second stanza, instead of mourning, the narrator jokes that his friend is staying warm in his figurative overcoat of "earth and sea" (l. 10). It is somewhat of a grotesque image, when taken literally. Dick's lifeless body, buried in the ground, is indeed protected from the chill of winter. However, it is this very fact in which the poet takes the most comfort, because Dick hated the cold. The tone of the second stanza is ironic, and the reader consequently looks at the poem in a...
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