In What Style Did A.E. Housman Write?

Alfred Edward Houseman is a mystery you might consider worthy of Jekyll and Hyde; he was a lone, severe academic whose one love, after his mother's death when he was 12, was for another man. His poetry reveals an acute sensitivity to all humanity's losses, love and youth among them. If you examine his poetry, you may find his flowing yet rhythmic style reminiscent of Romantic poets; however, he hides any such notions in witticisms.

Emotion Behind Epigrams

"When I was one-and-twenty" demonstrates his style peerlessly: genuine feelings peeking out of syntactically balanced attempts at wit. He's no Oscar Wilde, making pronouncements like "give crowns and pounds and guineas / But not your heart away." Like a child's verse-maker, he uses internal rhyme and inverted sentences, but his facile innocence masks his deep emotion when he speaks of "the heart out of the bosom ... paid with sighs a plenty and sold for endless rue." The sentiments sound like they belong on a sampler; the tone behind them makes you wince with regret.

Style for Sense of Loss

Housman's sense of loss is near tragic in his "Last Poems," where he stylizes the lines to fit his own sensibility: "May will be fine next year like as not: / But ay, but then we shall be twenty-four." The diction of "like as not" gives you emotional distance, until he brings you up sharply with "But ay," as if to say, "almost forgot, it's a waste, we'll all be older." Only Emily Dickinson, who in poem 1260 says "You, who were existence, yourself forgot to live," expresses regret at lost time as well as Housman.

Jokes Hiding Pain

Housman's style sometimes retreats entirely behind epigrams, as in "Terence, This is Stupid Stuff," but even here, you might find his regrets invade his sense of satire. After boasting that liquor "justifies the ways of God to man" better than Milton, and satirizing Othello-like jealousy in a cow's death -- "she sleeps well, the horned head" -- he suddenly turns philosophical, speaking of the old Greek king who swallowed poisons to become immune. "Mithridates, he died old" indelibly expresses the sorrow of the aged; Housman cannot even joke his losses away.

Autobiographical Bitterness

Housman's most autobiographical lines occur in "To an Athlete, Dying Young"; his style here is unlike any of his other works. Free of epigrams and clever rhymes, his description of the dead athlete allows you to read his own heartbreak from one who did not requite his love: the "strengthless dead" will surround the newly perished hero, admiring his "garland briefer than a girl's." The bitter irony and spare diction of that line push aside all romantic illusions, his and yours.