Polemicising Housman

AE Housman
AE Housman

Polemicising Housman

Darell Sutton considers the poet’s sexuality

Through the years numerous essays describing Alfred E. Housman’s poems have been published. The focus on his Parisian adventures or the sexual intent of some of his verse now is pervasive. Much of it in fact is reminiscent of how some current studies are conducted on the poetry of Sappho, the ancient poetess of Lesbia. Regarding her, take a look at Mendelsohn’s excellent survey-article ‘Girl, Interrupted’ in The New Yorker (2015). Eroticism or ‘unrequited love’ is the guiding light in nearly all interpretations of Alfred’s and Sappho’s poetry. Belief in his homosexuality is widespread. And the person behind its diffusion is none other than Laurence Housman (1865-1959), a younger sibling. Alfred’s deep love for his friend Moses Jackson is stated to have been unreciprocated. This impression is commonly held by non-specialist readers, literary critics and classicists, and it is the mainstream position. I am unaware of opinions to the contrary.

I have published several papers on Housman’s classical scholarship and on his poetry in The Housman Society Journal. Most of these were very detailed examinations; a few of them were of a popular sort. Of the latter, brief excerpts of these researches made their way, in serial form, into the pages of The Housman Society Newsletter (Feb. 2014 – Feb. 2015), entitled ‘Why Read Housman?’ All of which were foundational to a brief sketch of his life and career on which I had labored. The feedback was stimulating. And for my part, the investigations over the last decade have proved to be enlightening, if not surprising. I pored over more than 3500 articles and books and letters. I rummaged through the ‘stacks’ in a multitude of university libraries. One assertion after another led me to several dead-ends. Proceeding in this manner I mistakenly stumbled into a new kind of reality: that dogmatic attitudes regarding his supposed homosexuality were not solidly based on sound, obtainable evidences. They all derived from oral transmission, and all these legends were traceable to the views of Alfred’s brother Laurence.

Literary critics who are familiar with the details of Laurence’s private life will know of his own conflicted, emotional state. These same critics, though, seem unaware that Laurence’s suppositions are the ONLY basis of Housman’s supposed gay predilection. Scholars are over-optimistic here, and Laurence’s testimony is incredible in its entirety. There is simply not enough material to support the general picture currently depicted. Until now no one else has bothered to search out this matter and fact-check parts of it in a periodical. Laurence was not a member of Alfred’s inner circle. Alfred was unimpressed by his younger brother’s poetic acuity. The corpus of Alfred’s published letters proves that Laurence’s physical contact with his elder brother’s private worlds was infrequent. Laurence himself declares that his brother never spoke to him of sexual matters.

Literary texts are far more trustworthy than an individual’s imaginative reconstructions of events. Yet delusions, too, sometimes possess magnetic qualities. During Alfred’s lifetime there was no word-of-mouth rumor mill or written reviews which intimated in any way that he was anything other than a straight Victorian male. Today readers of his poetry are told that his poems were coded with all kinds of same-sex allusions. Such code-breakers appear everywhere nowadays. I suppose that if one desires to be freed from bad interpretative practices it would do no harm to scan D. Carnes-Ross’ collected papers of criticism in Classics and Translation. Faulty methods of interpretation abound in wider spheres of humanities, much more so in the narrower genre of literary studies. F. R. Leavis (1895-1978) told us so. Scrutiny was founded to sharpen critics’ tools of criticism, delivering the reading public from the burdens of unneeded literary theories. Not everyone heard what Leavis was saying. Soon after Alfred died, Laurence recast his brother’s image, the main ingredient being a subjectively invented letter. Laurence, himself a writer and composer of verse, wanted to induce what he deemed to be a positive effect on the society of his day. One of his lifelong goals was to reshape contemporary British thinking on homosexuality.

The blame game easily can become an ugly sideshow when explicit description is required. Existing declarations of Alfred’s pronounced homosexuality are refutable. Challenges to these allegations must be made; but if the private cache of curiosa, which was turned over to certain authorities after Alfred’s death, tell us anything, it reminds us of how little we know of Alfred the man, of how it was acquired, from whom it was received, or even of the nature of its use. One could argue that Alfred might have been shielding someone other than himself from scandal, thus taking it off of an ally’s hands as a means of protection.

I remain skeptical of the consensus opinions, since the references of scholars to each others’ books and articles within an academic clique, although demonstrating a chain of transmission, do not make their claims correct. The source of some of these things is bad biography. Most critics of Housman’s poetry still refer to R.P. Graves’ 1979 publication A.E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet. After all these years it yet turns up in second-hand stores. What is troubling is that students may refer to it as authoritative when much of the primary sources for Alfred’s adult years were misread and misreported. However, several pieces of information compel us to reflect on them further.

Nearly five decades ago, in 1967, John Carter published ‘A.E. Housman’s “De Amicita’ in Encounter. It presents Laurence’s interpretations of his brother’s social behavior. I believe he was off-track. One needs more than an open mind to construe data as he did, needed also is a wild imagination that is untethered by facts. In the following paragraphs I refer to various pages of Carter’s essay. On page 34 Laurence writes “When my brother’s papers came into my hands after his death, I was confronted with the fact that he had left me to discover in them certain matters of a very intimate character about himself, of which previously he had never spoken to me,…” [italics are mine]. Here is where the problems begin. A.E. Housman did entrust his brother to be his literary executor; never had he trusted Laurence enough to be his strict confidante in personal matters of intimacy. The last sentence affirms as much. Given Alfred’s temperament why would anyone believe he would leave this issue to be divined later?

Only the credulous can persevere in the belief that all of Laurence’s remarks regarding his brother’s sexuality are correct, especially since he was a stranger to Alfred’s private worlds: for instance, Laurence did not recognize the persons in two portraits on the wall in Housman’s rooms at Trinity College two years before his death (page 39). That episode is often overlooked. After all, who would challenge the arguments of a blood relative? Laurence submitted several items to the trustees of the British Museum in 1942 with the stipulation that they should not be published for twenty-five years, until the year 1967. Supposedly he figured he would be dead by then; he died eight years before in 1959. After depositing the materials he carried on some correspondence with one Maude M. Hawkins, speaking plainly of the cache of submitted documents as if they would reveal to the literary world his brother’s homosexual character.

Laurence did not present anything which confirmed the existence of this tendency or that there ever were sexual relations between Alfred and Moses. As the reader will see, as unaware as he was of any problems in their intense friendship, Laurence could say nothing at all of their parting of ways in the 1880s. The statements Laurence makes about his brother’s poetry on pages 34-35 are not reflections of certainty, but are dubious thoughts of what he hopes to be the aids to hearing the unhappy tones of Alfred’s verse. It all reads like a fabella, in which a story-keeper has good tales to tell. Each poem suggests many things, the transparency of certain conventional interpretations are not so clear. Laurence may have interpreted them in such ways; I believe literary scholars, however, are mistaken when they trust his conclusions.

The newspaper clipping about the young man who committed suicide because of his same-sex inclinations, noted on page 36, obviously was the basis of one of Housman’s poems, but his general sympathy – if you can designate it so – for the young man’s plight should not be used as a foil to skillfully deduce a homosexual element in Housman’s own life. Housman’s poem also may be read as a snide mockery of it. Its tone is perversely satiric throughout:

Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending…

Describing the young man’s inward sentiment as a discarded “household traitor” in a later verse is not flattery. Further on Laurence wrote (page 36) “I do not pretend to know how far my brother continued to accept throughout life, in all circumstances, the denial of what was natural to him, but I do know that he considered the inhibition imposed by society on his fellow-victims both cruel and unjust.” A few remarks are needed here to clarify the above citation: Laurence DOES pretend to know… . Laurence may have known somewhat of Housman’s thoughts on Victorian hang-ups. Even still, that these are reflections on political or social topics are all that one may suitably infer. In truth, Laurence sought to reconstruct a type of innate homosexuality, implying it was native to Alfred’s person; since his brother never spoke to him of these issues there was neither denial nor affirmation of what was supposedly “natural to him.” There is nothing extant in regard to Alfred’s opinions on the “inhibition:” the poem (mentioned above) is definitely a tribute, but unless its context is contorted by the reader and its meaning twisted, it cannot be a resounding call to the masses to accept or to indulge in homosexual behavior.

In Laurence’s hands, even Housman’s diaries are manipulated and made to resemble lovelorn novels. Since when does an entry like the following one inspire fervent emotion? (Page 38) Sunday July 8: “He wrote this day to Nightingale, having seen his name in the paper as called to the bar. ‘My dear Nightingale’ {Yours} very truly.” It is true that the common phrase “yours truly” is affective; but Carter tells the reader that Laurence inserted the word ‘Yours’. One wonders what other insertions flourish. It would not surprise me to discover one day that he appended varied forms of his own private poetry to Alfred’s final selection of poetry. The diaries reveal nothing more or less than diarist’s pastimes.

Additional twisting of the truth compelled Laurence to write (page 39): “when I found the poems which he had left to my discretion, when I found the diaries which had so obviously been preserved for one purpose only, which did him no discredit, but which told me clearly the direction of his interest in the beauty of human form, I became convinced that he had a purpose, and that purpose was to let me know the secret of his life, and to give me liberty to make it known.” Obviously Laurence was far from being an objective examiner. There is nothing impartial in those remarks. It is clear that Laurence deliberated over this matter, got it in his head that Alfred had ‘given him liberty’ to announce to the world tidings of his brother’s homosexual proclivities.

Taken altogether, the remarks do not confirm what Laurence has implied throughout his notes. The personal motive revealed in all this is Laurence’s, and it is one which interferes even in the final paragraph which sums up his main motivations: (considering the stigmas of homosexuality at the time he wrote) “I have a hope that, twenty-five years hence, their day of evil power will be gone; and that society may, at long last, have acquired sufficient commonsense to treat the problem less unintelligently, less cruelly, more scientifically.” His wish came true, certainly in large portions of western civilization and in academia at least. All the same, this is no reason to treat Laurence’s claims unintelligently, less dispassionately and less critically.

It is my firm belief that Laurence carefully redrew the image of his brother for posterity, even when he was unable to prove anything illicit occurred between Moses and Alfred. Therefore he was a corrupter of public opinion. Moreover, to add insult to injury, Laurence put forward one further thesis, that his brother Alfred and Adalbert (Moses’ Brother) were attracted to one another: writing “I doubt whether Moses ever kissed AEH: but I have no doubt that AJJ did,” (page 41). To me Laurence’s misdeed was crass; and it has been shown plainly that his handling of the matter is not closed to criticism.

It is no wonder, then, that weird explanations flourish, and that it is not easy to disassociate Housman’s poems from the peculiarities of bizarre criticism. As a result, every poem of his now requires the kind of psychological analysis with which literary writers believe they exhibit complete control.[i] One question remains to be asked: is the homo-erotic literary image of Housman valid? Not in my opinion. More evidence is necessary to sustain it. As far as I am concerned the image of Housman the confirmed homosexual should be placed on life-support, it is a vegetative apparition slowly dying and unable to offer any more original ideas. Competent critics should now gather around the bed, hoping for the best and lamenting the inevitable.

If you wonder whether or not I believe he was homosexual, well anything is possible, especially considering the curiosa uncovered posthumously among his personal effects. But remember, Housman was led along many erotic paths of Latin literature because of his classical scholarship. For my part it is implausible that Alfred was tripped up by an ‘unrequited love’ that failed him in Greats and tormented him through life, or that an emotional affair was accomplished in print: one requiring folk to see soldiers and dying persons as reflective images of his so-called ‘real homosexual self.’ On what are these beliefs founded? I have not based them on gut feelings or intuition, but on sources, stylistic studies, etc. I firmed them up reading Housman’s poems for their artistic and rhythmic qualities. Every imaginative assertion that is published is not true just because it is creatively written in accordance to academic standards. Honesty and common sense are needed also.

Certainly this stands in contrast to how his poems’ turns of phrase are translated today by critics. However, the term “homosexual”, as it is applied to him, is too narrow. Not only is it ill-defined, there is no record of any male liaisons with whom he had a verifiable homosexual relationship. It is troubling to think that one should infer same sex affection from his preface to his edition of Manilius’ Astronomica. Laurence’s accusations of Alfred’s relations with Moses and Adalbert Jackson should be disregarded entirely. Casting aside insincere imagery is not easy; but I leave these things to the reader. Personally I feel that I have lost something of importance as I became acquainted with the facts. Perchance I can capture and release this new sentiment best in the concluding 18 lines of verse I have composed:


A strange feeling comes over me
when I think of what
I have lost.
Sometimes, something small,
perhaps a memory
May bring me to tears
When I consider
how precious it once was to me.
In the end, though,
as I look behind me and
reflect on occurrences
which urged me
into this state of grief,
I am tempted to remember
That what has parted ways with me
is also now alone,
And far from my existence;
so it too, is sad.


i My mind returns repeatedly to a statement by A.J.P. Taylor on the historian’s use of psychology in biographical work. It deserves reiteration. He remarked “But how do you interview a dead man? The answer is: you guess. The psychologist takes concepts he has derived from living subjects and imposes them on dead ones… Hitler has been a favorite subject of psychologists. I read one such work recently where Hitler’s character was explained by the fact that at the age of three he saw his father and mother having sexual intercourse. The proof of this was that, even if he did not see them, he had the psychology of one who had and therefore must have seen them. If this sounds like nonsense, I can only plead that it represents my view of psychoanalysis as a biographical weapon.” See the essay the ‘Historian as a biographer’ in From Napoleon to the Second International: Essays on Nineteenth Century Europe (1995: Penguin), p.28

Herbert James Draper, Figure with a Laurel Wreath

Herbert James Draper, Figure with a Laurel Wreath

Darrell Sutton is rector of the Tabernacle in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small village in the Great Plains. He also teaches Semitic languages and edits an academic bulletin entitled ‘The DS Commentary on Books’


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