Alfred Edward Housman was born in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England, on March 26, 1859, the eldest of seven children. A year after his birth, Housman's family moved to nearby Bromsgrove, where the poet grew up and had his early education. In 1877, he attended St. John's College, Oxford and received first class honours in classical moderations.
Housman became distracted, however, when he fell in love with his heterosexual roommate Moses Jackson. He unexpectedly failed his final exams, but managed to pass the final year and later took a position as clerk in the Patent Office in London for ten years.
During this time he studied Greek and Roman classics intensively, and in 1892 was appointed professor of Latin at University College, London. In 1911 he became professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, a post he held until his death. As a classicist, Housman gained renown for his editions of the Roman poets Juvenal, Lucan, and Manilius, as well as his meticulous and intelligent commentaries and his disdain for the unscholarly.
Housman only published two volumes of poetry during his life: A Shropshire Lad (1896) and Last Poems (1922). The majority of the poems in A Shropshire Lad, his cycle of 63 poems, were written after the death of Adalbert Jackson, Housman's friend and companion, in 1892. These poems center around themes of pastoral beauty, unrequited love, fleeting youth, grief, death, and the patriotism of the common soldier. After the manuscript had been turned down by several publishers, Housman decided to publish it at his own expense, much to the surprise of his colleagues and students.
While A Shropshire Lad was slow to gain in popularity, the advent of war, first in the Boer War and then in World War I, gave the book widespread appeal due to its nostalgic depiction of brave English soldiers. Several composers created musical settings for Housman's work, deepening his popularity.
Housman continued to focus on his teaching, but in the early 1920s, when his old friend Moses Jackson was dying, Housman chose to assemble his best unpublished poems so that Jackson might read them. These later poems, most of them written before 1910, exhibit a range of subject and form much greater than the talents displayed in A Shropshire Lad. When Last Poems was published in 1922, it was an immediate success.
A third volume, More Poems, was released posthumously in 1936 by his brother, Laurence, as was an edition of Housman's Complete Poems (1939).
Despite acclaim as a scholar and a poet in his lifetime, Housman lived as a recluse, rejecting honors and avoiding the public eye. He died on April 30, 1936, in Cambridge.
A Shropshire Lad (1896)
Last Poems (1922)
More Poems (1936)
Complete Poems (1939)
This poem is in the form of rhymed couplets.
The meter of the poem is basically iambic tetrameter; that is it has four major stresses in each line with a pattern of unstressed/stressed syllables. For example, the second line fits the metric pattern.
Other lines do not exactly fit the stresses of the meter to offer variety and different emphases. The first line gives emphasis to the word loveliest with the stress on the first syllable followed by three unstressed syllables.
The fourth line (as well as lines 6 and 10 leaves off the first unstressed syllable to provide some variety in the rhythm of the piece.
Note however that the pattern of four stressed syllables per line is strictly adhered to.
The result of the meter is a pleasant pattern that adds a smooth flow and cohesion to the poem and words.
TypeThis is a lyric poem expressing an emotion or idea produced through an observation of nature.
- The End Rhyme in this poem is all masculine or strong rhyme.
- Internal Rhyme such as alliteration and assonance is used.
- Alliteration is used – ex. woodland, wearing; seventy, springs, score.
- Some assonance is used – ex. threescore years; leaves me.
The strongest image in the first stanza is that of early spring. Without using many figures of speech, Housman draws a picture of a countryside path lined with blossoming cherry trees. This image is a reference to youth and beginnings. The reference to white and Easter suggest naiveté and purity. The cherry tree represents the beauty of nature and spring.
The second stanza uses a riddle-like method to tell us the speaker’s age. The first figure of speech here is a reference or allusion to the age allotted to man in the Bible – threescore years and ten- or seventy years. The reference to spring in line 7 is a synecdoche; spring here stands for a full year.
In the third stanza, Housman uses the synecdoche things in bloom to represent all of life and woodlands to represent the world, just as hung with bloom in the first stanza represents spring and the beginning of life.
Cherry trees come in white, pink, dark pink, yellow, and green varieties. Some blossoms change from white to pink over a few days. See pictures of cherry trees white with blossoms in spring and white with white snow in winter, below.
The last stanza refers to these color differences. In the last line, cherry blossom hung with snow is a double metaphor, a reference to both real snow in winter and to white cherry blossoms that look like snow in spring. It's another reference to the bloom of spring, like the one in the first stanza, and it reminds us that the end of life is with us at its start.
Woodlands represent inner life, not just the outer world. I will go to see the cherry hung with snow encourages us to search for beauty everywhere and in every moment of life, not only in nature, and not only when we're young. The cherry tree is the loveliest of trees because it symbolizes all this beauty.
This poem was written in 1896 as part of Housman’s book The Shropshire Lad at the end of the Victorian period and the beginning of the Modern. However, the poem is strongly reminiscent of the Romantic period in its natural imagery and optimism. This is often the case in works of later poets who draw on earlier periods for inspiration.
The beautiful cherry tree stands out along the woodland path when it is blooming white in springtime. I’m twenty years old and can expect to live to be seventy. Since I only have about fifty years left in my life, I will look at nature’s beauty in all seasons.
theme and Meaning
Using the theme of the beauty of the natural world, the poet is expressing the view that we should seize every opportunity to experience life in all its beauty. Because of its lighthearted tone (especially notable because of the riddle-like second stanza), this is an optimistic poem despite a reference to the shortness of man’s tenure in the world. The poem's briefness, short lines, and simplicity remind us that life is short; they urge us to speed.