The greatest poems of A. E. Housman selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
A. E. Housman (1859-1936) didn’t write a great deal of poetry, but the poems he left behind are loved by millions around the world. But what are Housman’s best poems? Drawing up a ‘top ten’ has proved difficult. We’ve included some of his most famous poems, but have also included some of the poems which, we feel, show Housman doing what he did best: tugging at the heartstrings through skilfully crafted verse. Click on the title of each poem to read it.
‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’. One of A. E. Housman’s most widely anthologised poems, this sees the speaker reflecting on the fact that, aged 20, he only has 50 of his threescore years and ten remaining. Because time is short, he will appreciate the cherry blossom while he’s around to do so. This poem is the first of four poems on this list from A. E. Housman’s first, self-published volume, A Shropshire Lad (1896).
‘To an Athlete Dying Young’. Housman fell in love with Moses Jackson, a fellow student and athlete, while studying at the University of Oxford in the late 1870s. Jackson didn’t return Housman’s love, but they remained friends and Jackson was, more than any other person, Housman’s poetic muse. This poem, which was recited in the 1985 film Out of Africa and quoted by Krusty the Klown in an episode of The Simpsons, may have been inspired by the death of Moses’ brother Adalbert Jackson, in 1892.
‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble’. Like the fiction of Mary Webb or Arthur Machen’s remarkable 1890s novel The Hill of Dreams, ‘On Wenlock Edge’ (later set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams) imagines the life of a Roman soldier who trod the same land in west England as he now treads, but in the times of Roman occupation.
‘Into my heart an air that kills’. One of A. E. Housman’s best poems, and arguably his most popular. In two short quatrains Housman encapsulates the feeling of nostalgia we have for our homeland, a ‘land of lost content’.
‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’. Taken from Housman’s second volume Last Poems (1922) – which, true to its title, was the final collection Housman allowed to be published during his lifetime – this poem muses upon ‘heartless, witless nature’ during the autumn season.
‘Tarry, delight, so seldom met’. This poem, which was unpublished in Housman’s lifetime and appeared in the posthumous collection More Poems, is about the brevity of happiness and the knowledge that it must inevitably pass, leaving us with the daily struggle of living to get on with. But Housman expresses this sentiment wonderfully through the mythical lovers of Hero and Leander: Leander would swim out to see Hero every night, but knew he would have to swim back afterwards.
‘How clear, how lovely bright’. The final line of this underrated poem – about the fading of hope as we grow older – provided Colin Dexter with the title of his final Inspector Morse novel, The Remorseful Day (1999). Worth it for the magnificent final stanza alone.
‘Because I liked you better’. Housman didn’t publish this poem in his lifetime, perhaps because the second line, ‘Than suits a man to say’, hinted at Housman’s homosexuality. However, we think it’s one of the greatest poems about unrequited love ever written, and about promising to abide by the loved one’s wish that the lover put them out of mind. Part of its power comes, perhaps, from the fact that we know the speaker never did forget the one they so hopelessly loved: Housman certainly didn’t.
‘Give me a land of boughs in leaf’. When the world of bereft of life and leaves, Housman intimates in this poem, it is a barren land full of sorrow. The land of the living is where he would like to remain, but unfortunately he is filled with the knowledge that he is going to die soon, and will be in the land of the dead forever.
‘When the bells justle in the tower’. At just four lines, this is the shortest Housman poem in this list. Christopher Ricks called it the best thing Housman ever did, but Housman chose not to publish it during his lifetime. The double meaning of ‘tongue’ is a nice touch (the speaker’s tongue, but also the tongue of the bell in the tower).
If this selection of Housman’s best poems has whetted your appetite to discover more of A. E. Housman’s poetry, we recommend this website. The best affordable edition of Housman’s work is Collected Poems And Selected Prose (Twentieth Century Classics), which contains all of his poems, including his nonsense verse for children, and some of his key lectures and essays. You might also like our pick of Oscar Wilde’s best poems and Edward Thomas’s greatest poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.