Photographers Unknown, The Colour of His Hair
Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.
‘Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time ’twas hanging for the color that it is;
Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.
Oh a deal of pains he’s taken and a pretty price he’s paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they’re haling him for justice for the colour of his hair.
Now ’tis Oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare,
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.
Alfred Edward Housman, Oh Who Is That Young Sinner, First Draft Summer 1895
Published 1939, Collected Poems,’Additional Poems’, Number 18
Born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire in March of 1859, Alfred Edward Housman was an English classical scholar, educator and poet. Recognized as one of the foremost classicists of his era, he emerged as a poet with his 1896 “A Shropshire Lad”, a collection of works espoused by a simple youth preoccupied with the idea of early death.
The eldest of seven children to Edward Housman and Sarah Jane Williams, Alfred Housman was educated at King Edward’s School in Birmingham and later at Bromsgrove School. In 1877 at the age of eighteen, he won a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, where he studied the classics. Though introverted by nature, Housman developed strong friendships with two roommates, Moses John Jackson, who became the principal of Sind College in Karachi, and Alfred William Pollard, a future bibliographer and scholar of Shakespearean texts.
At Oxford, Housman knew that emendation, the revision and correction of scribal errors in classical texts, would be his life’s work. So, he studied accordingly. In 1879, Housman earned a first on his exam for Moderations but failed the Finals due to his neglect of ancient history and philosophy. He returned in September for the Michaelmas term to retake the exam and achieved the lower-grade pass degree. Housman, who was homosexual, fell in love at Oxford, for the first and only time, with his classmate Moses Jackson who was heterosexual. This unreciprocated love would remain a constant throughout Housman’s life and play a role in the creation of his poetry, an emotional and physiological experience for him..
After Oxford, Housman joined Jackson in London to work as a clerk in the Patent Office. They shared lodgings with Jackson’s brother Adalbert until 1885 at which time Housman found a flat of his own. Two years later, Jackson took a position in Karachi, India as an educator; he returned in 1889 to marry and resided with his wife and family in India until his retirement. Learning in 1922 that his friend, now back in England, was dying from stomach cancer, Housman wrote thirty-seven pages of poems that were published in early 1922. A copy of the collection was sent the hospital where Jackson was being treated. Jackson read the poems in October, a few months before his death in January of 1923.
Housman’s most sustained period of poetry composition was during his professorship at University College. Of the work he produced during this period, his 1896 “A Shropshire Lad” became his best effort. After its rejection by Macmillan Company, it was published by Kegan Paul at Housman’s expense; at his insistence he took no royalties from Kegan Paul. Over two years, the book sold very slowly until Grant Richards, who became a lifelong friend, published five-hundred copies in 1897. Sold out, two more editions were printed and three-thousand copies sold by 1902.
Profoundly affected by his mother’s death when he was twelve, Alfred Housman’s poetic themes largely dealt with time, seen by Housman as the enemy, and the inevitability of death. He frequently dealt with the plight of the young soldier, in which sympathy for the youth was balanced with patriotism of the nation. Housman also saw, through its changing seasons, death in nature; however, he regarded this manner of death with a stoic outlook rather than one of complete pessimism. Although the universe is seen in his poetry as cruel and hostile, his work also extolled the preciousness of both youth and youth’s beauty.
In 1922, Housman published his “Last Poems” which greatly added to his reputation. His place in the poetic world was further enhanced by British composers setting his work to music. The cycle of poems from “A Shropshire Lad” were wet to music in 1904 by composer Arthur Somervell. As of 2023, there have been six-hundred and forty-six musical settings of Housman’s poems. Among these are Ribert Vaughan Williams’s 1909 “On Wenlock Edge” for sting quartet, tenor and piano, George Butterworth’s 1911 “Six Songs fro A Shropshire Lad”, and John Ireland’s 1920 song cycle “Land of the Lost Content”.
Alfred Edward Housman died at the age of seventy-seven in April of 1936 at Cambridge, England. After his death, his brother Laurence published several collections of works by Housman among which include the 1936 “More Poems” and 1939 “Collected Poems”. In 1936, Laurence deposited an essay, “A. E. Housman’s ‘De Amicitia”” at the British Library with the proviso that it not be published for twenty-five years. This essay discussed Alfred Housman’s homosexuality and his love for Moses Jackson. Despite his own caution in public life and the conservative nature of the era, Housman was fairly open in his poetry about his love for Jackson.
Notes: A 2021 article by Veronica Alfano, a Research Fellow at Australia’s Macquarie University in Sydney, on the life of Alfred Edward Housman can be found at the Yellow Nineties 2.0 site located at: https://1890s.ca/aehousman_bio/
Alfred Edward Housman’s poem “Oh Who Is That Young Sinner” was written in the summer of 1895, a few months after the crimainal trial of poet Oscar Wilde on charges of gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which applied to same-sex activity. In his poem, Housman criticized the imprisonment of Wilde by stating that Wilde’s homosexuality was natural and created by god/nature and, as such, should not be condemned. Housman, himself gay, avoided the fate of his contemporary but, as seen in the poem, was very sympathetic to Wilde’s plight. Housman died before homosexuality was decriminalized in England during the 1960s.
More information on the trials of Oscar Wilde can be found at Professor Douglas O. Linder’s “Famous Trials” website located at: https://famous-trials.com/wilde/327-home
Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Alfred Edward Housman”, 1894, Vintage Bromide Print
Second Insert Image: Agnes Miller Parker, Illustration for “A Shropshire Lad”, Woodcut, 1954 Edition, George G. Harrap, London
Third Insert Image: Francis Dodd, “A. E. Housman”, 1926, Charcoal on Paper, 37.5 x 27.3 cm National Portrait Gallery, London
Fourth Insert Image; Agnes Miller Parker, Illustration for “A Shropshire Lad”, Woodcut, 1954 Edition, George G. Harrap, London
Bottom Insert Image: Emil Otto Hoppé, “Alfred Edward Housman”, circa 1911, Vintage Bromide Print, 29.7 x 25 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London