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A Short Analysis of A. E. Housman’s ‘Because I Liked You Better’

A poem about hopeless love

A. E. Housman (1859-1936) remains a popular poet with many readers not least because he so poignantly captures the feelings of heartbreak and hopeless love in his work. He is perhaps the unofficial Laureate of the Broken Heart: nobody has said it better. His short poem ‘Because I liked you better’ is about doing the noble thing and agreeing to give up chasing the one we love, because we know they can never return our love.

Because I liked you better
Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
To throw the thought away.

To put the world between us
We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Good-bye,’ said you, ‘forget me.’
‘I will, no fear’, said I.

If here, where clover whitens
The dead man’s knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.

‘Because I liked you better / Than suits a man to say’: if these words hint at homosexual love, which was not openly talked about during Housman’s lifetime, then this is because all of his poetry stemmed from the hopeless devotion he harboured for another man. Like virtually all of Housman’s poetry (except, perhaps, his nonsense-verse), this poem was inspired by Housman’s own hopeless affection for Moses Jackson, an athlete whom Housman met when they were both studying at Oxford in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Jackson later married and emigrated to Canada, but Housman remained loyal, nurturing an impossible love for Jackson until the day Jackson died in 1923. After that, Housman didn’t write any further poems: his muse had gone.

Housman’s poetry is full of speakers and narrators upholding the ‘stiff upper lip’ associated with English stoicism: here, Housman vows to forget Jackson, but we know that this is a lie. He’s prepared to ‘forget’ him in so far as he will never mention his love for him again, but he will never really forget him – all he can do is the noble thing of keeping his distance, a promise that Housman honoured until the day Jackson died.

Because the opening words suggest a love that dare not speak its name, ‘Because I liked you better’ was not published during A. E. Housman’s own lifetime. However, it did appear in More Poems, published shortly after his death in 1936, like another poem of Housman’s which sees him bidding farewell to Jackson, knowing that the love he yearns to have returned never will be.

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Posted on April 9, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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