If it were not for the one great love in Alfred Edward Housman’s life — which also proved to be the one great sadness — it is doubtful that he would have become the poet we know.
It can all be traced to his remarkably deep but unrequited love in his youth for his friend and fellow Oxford undergraduate student, Moses Jackson — a love that Jackson — not being homosexual by nature — could not return. Nonetheless, Housman never abandoned that love, never got over it.
It is a hard lesson those with homosexual affection for a heterosexual person — or the reverse — must learn (often with great pain): the necessity to let it go and move on, learning from it as part of the experience of life. But Housman could not let it go. Instead, he enshrined it in his heart as the classical lifelong, deep bond between males — though in reality he was the only one bound by it. Moses Jackson made that clear when he left England for work in India, then married a young woman, then moved to western Canada, where he eventually died. None of this change in time and space lessened Housman’s long-distance attachment.
Just what it was about Jackson that caused Housman to be so smitten is hard to say. Jackson was good-looking and sturdily built and what in modern terms would be called a “jock”; Housman was more the intellectual. But such differences mean little when one is struck by the romantic obsession known as limerence. It is not something you choose; it is something that happens to you, like getting hit by a car.
Dorothy Tennov, author of the book Love and Limerence, defined it as:
“an involuntary interpersonal state that involves an acute longing for emotional reciprocation, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and emotional dependence on another person.”
Some characteristics of limerence may be:
• Idealization of the other person’s characteristics (positive and negative)
• Uncontrollable and intrusive thoughts about the other person
• Extreme shyness,stuttering, nervousness and confusion around the other person
• Fear of rejection and despair or thoughts of suicide if rejection occurs
• A sense of euphoria in response to real or perceived signs of reciprocation
• Fantasizing about or searching obsessively for signs of reciprocation (“reading into things”)
• Being reminded of the person in everything around you
• Replaying in your mind every encounter with the other person in great detail
• Maintaining romantic intensity through adversity
• Endlessly analyzing every word and gesture to determine their possible meaning
• Arranging your schedule to maximize possible encounters with the other person
• Experiencing physical symptoms such as trembling, flushing, weakness or heart palpitations around the other person
We can certainly say that for Housman, “maintaining romantic intensity through adversity” is an understatement. Some people get over limerence within a few months, some within a few years, and some — well, those some who never do include Housman.
Among all of Housman’s extraordinary verses, there are three in particular that exemplify his unfading and deep affection for Jackson. The first and second must be, in their simplicity, among the greatest love poems ever written. Both deal with the two parting to go their separate ways, after Housman’s rejected declaration of love for Jackson. Here is Housman speaking in poem XXX from his volume More Poems:
Shake hands, we shall never be friends, all’s over;
I only vex you the more I try.
All’s wrong that ever I’ve done or said,
And nought to help it in this dull head:
Shake hands, here’s luck, good-bye.
But if you come to a road where danger
Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share,
Be good to the lad that loves you true
And the soul that was born to die for you,
And whistle and I’ll be there.
Though the poem begins by saying “we shall never be friends,” and “all’s over,” it really makes quite clear that for Housman, it will never be over. In spite of Jackson’s rejection, Housman remains
“…the lad that loves you true,
And the soul that was born to die for you,”
Accepting and living in a homosexual relationship at the time was quite accurately “where danger / Or guilt or anguish or shame’s to share.” It was a socially hostile environment in which Housman — without Jackson — had to go his own way alone and manage as best he could, which was the lot of countless other homosexual young men.
Here is the second poem, XXXI from his More Poems:
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.” In Housman’s day, homosexuality was something that for social and legal reasons, and as Housman knew well — had to be hidden: “the love that dare not speak its name.” People did not then understand that it is just a normal part of human variation, as some people like strawberries and others do not. So Housman’s love for Jackson was something that it did not “suit a man to say” in those times, and Jackson was troubled by the admission.
Housman, outwardly accepting Jackson’s rejection, promised to “put the thought aside,” (which of course was impossible), and the two eventually parted “stiff and dry,” with Jackson asking Housman to forget him — at least as a romantic interest — and Housman promising “I will.”
But Housman — speaking to Jackson in the poem, tells us the true state of affairs. He says in essence, “if you ever pass the bare, clover-covered knoll where my grave lies, stop by the tombstone with my name on it. There I will be, with my heart no longer stirred with love for you — but only because I am dead.” And so it was to be only finally and in the grave that Housman eventually was to keep his word and forget Jackson. So at last, keep it he did:
“And say the lad who loved you
Was one who kept his word.”
And that was very much how it was, though of course as it turned out, Housman outlived Jackson.
The third poem revealing Housman’s deep love for Jackson is actually his rather loose translation of an ancient poem originally written by the Roman Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 b.c. – 8 c.e.), better known in English as Horace. Housman rendered it in a formal, deliberately old-fashioned English, using words like “shaws” (a grove or copse of trees), “mead” (meadow), “aye” (always), “wintertide” (wintertime), “assize” (a trial/judgment), and of course the old “thee” and “thou” (you). I will put Housman’s stanzas in bold type, each followed by an explanation:
DIFFUGERE NIVES [The Snows Depart]
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.
The snows have melted and disappeared; the leaves on the trees and the grasses in the meadow spring up again, and the river level goes down between its banks, and the appearance of the world changes.
A student of Housman has this memory of a lecture he gave his Latin class:
“One morning in May 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace’s Fourth Book, ‘Diffugere Nives, redeunt iam gramina campis‘. This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in a quite different voice said: ‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion first in Latin, and then in an English translation of his own.
‘That’, he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, ‘I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature’ and walked quickly out of the room.
Afterwards another undergraduate, a scholar of Trinity, commented: ‘I felt quite uncomfortable. I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.’
“Almost like a man betraying a secret.” We know what that secret was. The poem brought to Housman’s mind the brevity of life and his own deep love for Jackson — his hopeless and unrequited love. He considered his love for Jackson a classic friendship, like that of Theseus and Pirithous — who in some versions were also lovers — something that Housman and Jackson were not to be.
Here is the letter Housman wrote to a friend on receiving news of Jackson’s death:
Jan 17 1923
My dear Pollard,
Jackson died peacefully on Sunday night in hospital at Vancouver, where he had gone to be treated for anaemia, with which he had been ailing for some years. I had a letter from him on New Year’s Day, which he ended by saying “goodbye”. Now I can die myself: I could not have borne to leave him behind me in a world where anything might happen to him.
One might consider Housman’s lifelong devotion to Jackson the height of foolishness — but one cannot help but see in it also a kind of classical nobility — a faithfulness that neither rejection nor time could erase.
In any case, out of the pain and sadness of his love for Jackson, Housman created a cluster of memorable poems that continue to speak to us today.