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.
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 …
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).
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears …
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.
’Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
’Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.
Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there …
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
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
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’.
The speaker views a distant land and recalls, with a certain melancholy nostalgia, the hills and spires of his homeland. He recognises that, whilst he was happy when he lived there, he cannot return there now he is older and has left that land behind.
Possess, as I possessed a season,
The countries I resign,
Where over elmy plains the highway
Would mount the hills and shine,
And full of shade the pillared forest
Would murmur and be mine …
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.
The poetry of A. E. Housman is often characterised as self-pitying and even adolescent in its outlook on the world. ‘One day I’ll be dead, and then you’ll be sorry’ is how at least one detractor has cruelly summed up the gist of Housman’s work.
But what ‘Tell me not here’ shows is just how finely Housman trod the line between expressing a sentiment and being sentimental. His poetry contains pity, but it stops short of being self-pitying.
By Sestos town, in Hero’s tower,
On Hero’s heart Leander lies;
The signal torch has burned its hour
And sputters as it dies …
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.
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
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
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away …
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.
Alas, the country whence I fare,
It is where I would stay;
And where I would not, it is there
That I shall be for aye …
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.
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.