Exploring Poetry of A.E. Housman

Poetry is a complex emotion that is expressed through the use of words. One noteworthy poet is A.E. Housman. Housman had very unique poetry that expressed sadness, confusion, happiness, and many other emotions. Two of these poems are,“To An Athlete Dying Young” and “When I Was One-And-Twenty”.  A.E. Human uses literary devices such as personification, simile, metaphor, and repetition in his poetry to aid him in bringing across a complex feeling that can be directly related to his own life. A.E. Housman was born in 1859 in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England. Housman was the oldest of seven children, and growing up wasn’t the easiest for him. At the age of twelve, his mother died, and he suffered a great deal due to this tremendous loss. In college, he met a man named Moses Jackson and he fell in love with him; Moses did not feel the same way. Living as a homosexual was difficult for Housman, partly because it was illegal in England at the time. Housman was struggling a lot in college, and eventually he accepted that his dream of having a career in academics was closed. He began working at a London Patent, where he published many poems. After Moses died in 1923, Housman was left with no inspiration for poetry. After this, he only wrote a few lines of prose. A.E Housman eventually died peacefully in 1936 at the age of 77 in Cambridge, England (Karbiener).One of A.E. Housman’s commendable poems is called “To An Athlete Dying Young”. In this poem, the speaker is talking about the death of a popular runner in his town. The speaker remembers the athlete as a hero for the town when he won the race. The speaker also glorifies the idea of dying young, he even says that the athlete was smart to die at a young age. The runner died at the height of his career and he will never have to experience anyone surpassing his record or stealing his spotlight (Karbiener).  The athlete will be remembered as a hero in the minds of the townspeople forever. (“‘To An Athlete…’ Analysis”). One theme of  “To An Athlete Dying Young” is Glory. After winning his race, the runner is praised for it by his entire town. The athlete was even praised after he died. The athlete was lucky enough to die while he was being praised, so the glory carries on after his death. For example, “This lad will never wear out his honor by surviving the peak of his power; having enjoyed simultaneous youth and accomplishment, he bows out, while the cheers still ring”(“‘To An Athlete…’ Analysis”). The athlete’s glory will never fade or be worn out because he died a hero to his town and his friends. The townspeople are also celebrating the triumphs of his youth after he died. They are remembering his accomplishments and victories, while also mourning his very premature death. Overall, the athlete is experiencing glory during his fulfilling life, and in his death. One poetic device that Housman used to aid his poem “To An Athlete Dying Young” is personification. Personification allows an author to give a nonliving thing human qualities, this relation helps an author convey a message effectively.  One example of personification in this poem is, “Runners whom renown outran / And the name died before the man”(19-20). Housman is using personification because a name cannot literally die. He is using death as a comparison to fading away or losing fame. Runners who were outran or surpassed lost their glory before they died. In their case, their name and their fame is “dying” before they do. In the poem, the athlete being described does not have this problem, because he died before he was outran. For example, “The line, ‘And the name died before the man’ tells us that the fame of many other men was forgotten before they died, and they lived to see this loss. In this young athlete’s case, his reputation will outlive him, because the townspeople remembers the race even as it buries him” (Robisch 238). No athlete wants to outlive their own fame, but many have suffered this tragedy. However, the athlete in the poem did not have to deal with this. By using personification, Housman suggests that this athlete was most likely grateful to have died at his peak. Personification is used in this poem to aid Housman in bringing across his overall idea that glory is short lived. Another poetic device that Housman used in “To An Athlete Dying Young” is simile. Simile also provides a comparison between two things to help a reader get a visualization. For example, “And early though the laurel grows / It withers quicker than the rose”(11-12). These lines of the poem represent how quickly glory grows, and how quickly it fades. A laurel is a symbol of victory and triumph. Housman is using simile to represent how quickly an athlete’s reputation can disappear. For example, “He accomplishes this by comparing the laurel leaf to the feminine and delicate rose, which also grows early in the season and withers and dies quickly, but not as quickly as the laurel”(“To An Athlete…”). This shows that the idea of beauty and youth, which is represented by the rose, does not fade as quickly as glory does, which is represented by the laurel. Many things in life will fade away at some point, but glory and triumph will always be the first to go. Another poem written by A.E. Housman is called “When I Was One and Twenty”. This poem is about a man who was twenty-one years old, and he got advice from an older and wiser  man to not get too invested in love because it will break his heart and hurt him. He initially ignored his advice, as any young person would do. By the end of the poem, the speaker is twenty-two, and he now understands that the old man was right. He has most likely experienced exactly what the old man was trying to warn him to stay away from. He did not take the advice of an experienced person and he suffered the consequences. (“‘When I Was…’ Analysis”) He recognizes his own ignorance and understands the harsh reality of giving your heart away (Hochman 272).  One theme of this poem is, knowledge is sometimes gained with ignorance. The speaker admits that he was ignorant and did not take the advice of the wise man. He then learned from his own personal experience and gained the knowledge that the wise man had. For example, “The poem subtly draws a line between knowledge that is told by someone else and knowledge that is gained from experience…”(“‘When I Was…’Analysis” 268). This shows that sometimes you cannot simply learn from other people’s mistakes, you have to make your own mistakes and learn from those. Overall, sometimes you have to experience something yourself to find out that someone else was right about it all along. One poetic device used in “When I Was One-and-Twenty” is repetition. Repetition gives a statement a sense of meaning and importance to a reader. The use of repetition in this poem is to clarify and put emphasis on how young the speaker was. For example,“When I Was One and Twenty”(1), and “When I Was One and Twenty”(9). By repeating the same line twice, and making it the title, the reader has full understanding of the importance that is placed on the speaker’s age. The speaker is looking back on his foolish decisions that he made when he was twenty-one. At the end of the poem, he shows that he is looking back on his twenty-one year old self, and he regrets his mistakes (“‘When I Was…’ Analysis”). Overall, Housman needed to use repetition in order to create a sense of importance in the speaker’s age when he made his foolish choices. Another poetic device used in this poem is metaphor. Metaphor creates a comparison between two things so a reader has a better understanding. Housman compares love to something that must be purchased. For example, “Tis paid with sighs a plenty”(13). This line is comparing a sign to money. It is suggesting that love is paid for with sighs, and implies that love is stressful and frustrating. Love does not come without a price, and in this case it is being paid for with sighs. For instance, “The impact that this has, perhaps, is to make us feel even more intensely that there is always an exchange in life, that one can never get something for nothing”(“‘When I Was…’Analysis” 268). This shows that nothing in life is free, not even love. Overall, Housman used metaphor to help a reader understand that love does in fact come with a price, just not literally. A.E. Housman incorporated the events of his own life in many of his poems. He had a very challenging and troublesome life, and it shows in his poetry. In “When I Was One-and-Twenty”, he explains that you should not get too invested in love, especially at a young age. When Housman was in college, he fell in love with a man that did not feel the same way. Housman most likely took this anger and sadness and put it into his poem. He regretted falling in love with this man, because it caused him a lot of pain. For example, “If Housman had composed his love poems while experiencing emotional turmoil, the work might have suffered and indeed been self centered…”(Hochman 274). According to Hochman, Housman waited until he was finished coping with his issues to write poetry, and he was smart to do so. He was able to write brilliant love poems that were in fact about his own love tragedy, but he had gained a sense of perspective and knowledge of the situation before writing his feelings down. Housman’s life also connects to his poem “To An Athlete Dying Young”. This poem is about the glory and happiness of youth. Housman wrote this poem out of his own disappointments, and everything that went wrong in his life. For example, a writer explains how Housman’s life shaped this poem: Housman’s own disappointments and the poetry that came out of them, even while he was playing the part of an effete scholar, testify that his commitment– to a philosophy that was both dark and instructive, both simply constructed and deeply resonant, written for youth in the memory of what it meant to be youthful– would remain undaunted and would be remembered even beyond his lifetime.       (Robisch 241). Therefore, Housman wrote poetry based on the events in his own life. His poems reflect on his youth, he was remembering what it was like to be youthful. Overall, the poetry written by A.E. Housman can be directly related to his own life. By using literary devices such as simile, metaphor, personification, and repetition in his poetry, A.E. Housman is able to bring across a message to the reader that is reflective on his own life. Housman was able to use major events in his life to piece together his poems. Both of his poems can be traced back to important parts of his life, such as the devastation of unrequited love and the hopeless desire to be youthful again. Poems are compex pieces of art that are created beautifully by individual and diverse artists. Each work of art can be interpreted differently by everyone who reads them.