Coincidences won’t quit !!! Today is the birthday of A[lfred] E[dward] Housman (1859) and Robert Frost (1874). I’m not going to dwell too long on either because they’re far from favorites. But I’ll tip the hat; they are well liked. For me their styles and ideas just don’t resonate. De gustibus.
Housman was born at Valley House in Fockbury, a hamlet on the outskirts of Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, to Sarah Jane (née Williams) and Edward Housman (whose family came from Lancaster), and was baptised on 24 April 1859 at Christ Church, in Catshill. His mother died on his twelfth birthday, and his father, a country solicitor, remarried, to an elder cousin, Lucy, in 1873. Housman’s brother Laurence Housman and their sister Clemence Housman also became writers.
Housman was educated at Bromsgrove School, where he revealed his academic promise and won prizes for his poems. In 1877 he won an open scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford, where he studied classics. Although introverted by nature, Housman formed strong friendships with two roommates, Moses Jackson and A. W. Pollard. Jackson became the great love of Housman’s life, but he was heterosexual and did not reciprocate Housman’s feelings. Housman obtained a first in classical Moderations in 1879, but his dedication to textual analysis, particularly of Propertius, led him to neglect the ancient history and philosophy that formed part of the Greats curriculum. Accordingly, he failed to obtain a degree. Though some attribute Housman’s unexpected failure in his final exams directly to his rejection by Jackson, most biographers adduce more obvious causes. Housman was indifferent to philosophy and overconfident in his exceptional gifts; he felt contempt for inexact scholarship; and he enjoyed idling away his time with Jackson and others. He may also have been distracted by news of his father’s desperate illness. He felt deeply humiliated by his failure and became determined to vindicate his genius.
After Oxford, Jackson got a job as a clerk in the Patent Office in London and arranged a job there for Housman too. The two shared a flat with Jackson’s brother Adalbert until 1885, when Housman moved to lodgings of his own, probably after Jackson responded to a declaration of love by telling Housman that he could not reciprocate his feelings. Moses Jackson moved to India in 1887, placing more distance between himself and Housman. When Jackson returned briefly to England in 1889, to marry, Housman was not invited to the wedding and knew nothing about it until the couple had left the country. Adalbert Jackson died in 1892 and Housman commemorated him in a poem published as “XLII – A.J.J.” (1936).
Meanwhile, Housman pursued his classical studies independently, and published scholarly articles on such authors as Horace, Propertius, Ovid, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. He gradually acquired such a high reputation that in 1892 he was offered and accepted the professorship of Latin at University College London (UCL).
In his private life Housman enjoyed gastronomy, flying in aeroplanes and making frequent visits to France, where he read “books which were banned in Britain as pornographic”. A colleague described him as being “descended from a long line of maiden aunts”.
Although Housman’s early work and his responsibilities as a professor included both Latin and Greek, he began to specialize in Latin poetry. When asked later why he had stopped writing about Greek verse, he responded, “I found that I could not attain to excellence in both.” In 1911 he took the Kennedy Professorship of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he remained for the rest of his life. G. P. Goold, Classics Professor at University College, wrote of Housman’s accomplishments: “The legacy of Housman’s scholarship is a thing of permanent value; and that value consists less in obvious results, the establishment of general propositions about Latin and the removal of scribal mistakes, than in the shining example he provides of a wonderful mind at work. … He was and may remain the last great textual critic.”
Between 1903 and 1930 Housman published his critical edition of Manilius’s Astronomicon in five volumes. He also edited works by Juvenal (1905) and Lucan (1926). Many colleagues were unnerved by his scathing attacks on those he thought guilty of shoddy scholarship. In his paper “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism” (1921) Housman wrote: “A textual critic engaged upon his business is not at all like Newton investigating the motion of the planets: he is much more like a dog hunting for fleas.” He declared many of his contemporary scholars to be stupid, lazy, vain, or all three, saying: “Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head.” His younger colleague A. S. F. Gow quoted examples of these attacks, noting that they “were often savage in the extreme”. Gow also related how Housman intimidated his students, sometimes reducing them to tears. According to Gow, Housman could never remember his students’ names, maintaining that “had he burdened his memory by the distinction between Miss Jones and Miss Robinson, he might have forgotten that between the second and fourth declension”.
Housman found his true vocation in classical studies and treated his poems as secondary. He did not speak about his poetry in public until 1933 when he gave a lecture, “The Name and Nature of Poetry”, in which he argued that poetry should appeal to emotions rather than to the intellect. Housman died, aged 77, in Cambridge. His ashes are buried just outside St Laurence’s Church, Ludlow, Shropshire.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, California, to journalist William Prescott Frost, Jr., and Isabelle Moodie. His mother was a Scottish immigrant, and his father descended from Nicholas Frost of Tiverton, Devon, England, who had sailed to New Hampshire in 1634 on the Wolfrana. Frost’s father was a teacher and later an editor of the San Francisco Evening Bulletin (which later merged with The San Francisco Examiner), and an unsuccessful candidate for city tax collector. After his death on May 5, 1885, the family moved across the country to Lawrence, Massachusetts, under the patronage of (Robert’s grandfather) William Frost, Sr., who was an overseer at a New England mill. Frost graduated from Lawrence High School in 1892. Frost’s mother joined the Swedenborgian church and had him baptized in it, but he left it as an adult.
Although known for his later association with rural life, Frost grew up in the city, and he published his first poem in his high school’s magazine. He attended Dartmouth College for two months, long enough to be accepted into the Theta Delta Chi fraternity. Frost returned home to teach and to work at various jobs, including helping his mother teach her class of unruly boys, delivering newspapers, and working in a factory maintaining carbon arc lamps. He did not enjoy these jobs, feeling his true calling was poetry.
In 1894 he sold his first poem, “My Butterfly. An Elegy” (published in the November 8, 1894, edition of the New York Independent) for $15 ($410 today). Proud of his accomplishment, he proposed marriage to Elinor Miriam White, but she demurred, wanting to finish college (at St. Lawrence University) before they married. Frost then went on an excursion to the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and asked Elinor again upon his return. Having graduated, she agreed, and they were married at Lawrence, Massachusetts on December 19, 1895.
Frost attended Harvard University from 1897 to 1899, but he left voluntarily due to illness. Shortly before his death, Frost’s grandfather purchased a farm for Robert and Elinor in Derry, New Hampshire; Frost worked the farm for nine years while writing early in the mornings and producing many of the poems that would later become famous. Ultimately his farming proved unsuccessful and he returned to the field of education as an English teacher at New Hampshire’s Pinkerton Academy from 1906 to 1911, then at the New Hampshire Normal School (now Plymouth State University) in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
In 1912 Frost sailed with his family to Great Britain, settling first in Beaconsfield. His first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will, was published the next year. In England he made some important acquaintances, including Edward Thomas (a member of the group known as the Dymock poets and Frost’s inspiration for “The Road Not Taken”), T. E. Hulme, and Ezra Pound. Although Pound would become the first American to write a favorable review of Frost’s work, Frost later resented Pound’s attempts to manipulate his American prosody. Frost met or befriended many contemporary poets in England, especially after his first two poetry volumes were published in London in 1913 (A Boy’s Will) and 1914 (North of Boston).
In 1915, during World War I, Frost returned to the U.S., where Holt’s American edition of A Boy’s Will had recently been published, and bought a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, where he launched a career of writing, teaching, and lecturing. This family homestead served as the Frosts’ summer home until 1938. It is maintained today as The Frost Place, a museum and poetry conference site. During the years 1916–20, 1923–24, and 1927–1938, Frost taught English at Amherst College in Massachusetts, notably encouraging his students to account for the myriad sounds and intonations of the spoken English language in their writing. He called his colloquial approach to language “the sound of sense.”
In 1924, he won the first of four Pulitzer Prizes for the book New Hampshire: A Poem with Notes and Grace Notes.
For forty-two years — from 1921 to 1963 — Frost spent almost every summer and fall teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English of Middlebury College, at its mountain campus at Ripton, Vermont. He is credited as a major influence upon the development of the school and its writing programs. The college now owns and maintains his former Ripton farmstead as a national historic site near the Bread Loaf campus. In 1921 Frost accepted a fellowship teaching post at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where he resided until 1927 when he returned to teach at Amherst. While teaching at the University of Michigan, he was awarded a lifetime appointment at the University as a Fellow in Letters.
Harvard’s 1965 alumni directory indicates Frost received an honorary degree there. Although he never graduated from college, Frost received over 40 honorary degrees, including ones from Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge universities, and was the only person to receive two honorary degrees from Dartmouth College. During his lifetime, the Robert Frost Middle School in Fairfax, Virginia, the Robert L. Frost School in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and the main library of Amherst College were named after him.
Frost was 86 when he read his well-known poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961. He died in Boston two years later, on January 29, 1963, of complications from prostate surgery. He was buried at the Old Bennington Cemetery in Bennington, Vermont. His epitaph quotes the last line from his poem, “The Lesson for Today (1942): “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”
Housman was a noted foodie but his interest lay in French rather than English cooking. Pity. There are many great Shropshire dishes that I have given recipes for here. I found a recipe for Shropshire Mint Cake here which looks delightful.
This is a bit like a classic Eccles Cake, but with the addition of fresh mint.
Shropshire Mint Cake
200g plain flour
100g butter, diced
1 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp chopped fresh mint
80g caster sugar
50g softened butter
1 egg, beaten (to glaze)
Mix the chopped mint into a bowl and half the caster sugar in a bowl and leave to sit for at least an hour. It will become juicy.
Make the pastry by placing the flour and the diced butter in a food processor and pulsing 8 to 10 times, or until the mix looks like fine breadcrumbs. Mix in the sugar and gradually add cold water to make a smooth dough. Wrap in foil and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Place the currants, mint mixture, remaining sugar and the softened butter in a bowl and mix well with a fork.
Roll the pastry thinly and cut out into 6cm discs. Place half of these discs on baking sheets. Then place a teaspoonful of the currant mixture in the middle of each disc.
Brush a little of the egg all around the edge of the discs of pastry and place another disc on top, sealing well around the edge by pressing with your finger. Brush the egg all over the tops and then place the baking trays in a preheated oven at 200°C/390°F for 10 minutes, or until golden brown.
Leave to cool on a wire rack and dust with caster sugar if you like. They are good warm from the oven.