A composer’s approach to setting A E Housman

In 2003, a conversation took place between Jim Page, myself, and the author Anthony Boden at the end of a concert in Gloucester. During the conversation Jim Page turned to me and asked whether I had ever set any Housman? Somewhat surprised, I replied I hadn’t. To which he then asked, would I consider setting any? This discussion took place a long time before any formal commission had been considered, but I distinctly remember it, and the effect it had upon me.

I began to ask myself the same question. Why I had not set Housman before? It seemed so obvious, especially as I had known Housman’s poetry all my adult life and I had certainly read ‘A Shropshire Lad’ back in my early 20’s, and of course, I knew Vaughan Williams’s great masterpiece, ‘On Wenlock Edge’, intimately. So again, I asked myself why had I not set any of his poetry?

The answer to this question is on the surface quite simple. My work as a professional composer really began in the mid 1970s, and at this time my main interest was in composing abstract music, especially piano and chamber music. The only song I had composed was a setting of Harold Monro’s poem ‘Midnight Lamentation’ which was written in 1974.

I did try later to write more songs, and I may even had tried to set Housman – although, I don’t remember doing so – but for some inexplicable reason I was unable to find the key to setting words to music. So I put such thoughts aside and continued to compose pure music. That was until 1992, some 18 years after my first song, I decided to have another attempt at composing a song. Amazingly, I wrote two in quick succession. A setting of a sonnet by Ivor Gurney and one by Thomas Hardy. Of the two, it is perhaps the Hardy setting that is of more importance because here at last I found the secret to putting words to music. Interestingly, it was Gerald Finzi’s music that acted as a catalyst. At this time, I was becoming more acquainted with his music, particularly his songs. I was also re-reading a Thomas Hardy novel and together this conjunction prompted me to go out and buy a copy of Hardy’s collected poems. As I worked my way through the poetry I was initially surprised by how dark and pessimistic they all were – I wasn’t really surprised, but I did wonder whether he had written any joyful poetry! So began my quest to find such a poem. After many long evenings, I eventually found a beautifully crafted lyric entitled ‘A Kiss’. In this poem, Hardy ponders upon the unseen and unknowable effects that results from a kiss between two lovers.

Inspired, I began setting the poem to music. I have to say it came quite naturally, so much so that I did wonder what the fuss had been about all those years earlier. This compositional success spurred me on, and I began to compose numerous songs settings but not, it seems, Housman. Perhaps, he was simply biding his time until that auspicious moment when Jim Page popped the question. “Would you consider setting any Housman?” Well, my answer was of course “I would love to”. This led to a ‘Finzi Friends’ Commission in 2004.

The actual terms of the commission was for me to compose a cycle of songs to poems of my choice by A.E Housman but I was also asked to use the same forces as Vaughan Williams had used in ‘On Wenlock Edge’.

I was initially very excited by the project, but then it slowly dawned on me the very great task I was about to take on – not to mention the artistic risk! For one thing, the vast majority of Housman’s poetry had already been set and by some of our greatest composers: after all, Housman is England’s most frequently set poet. In Bill Lewis’ catalogue of all the known settings of Housman, he has listed nearly 500 songs, and this includes 40 settings of both ‘Loveliest of Trees’ and ‘When I was one and Twenty’; 23 settings of ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ and 27 settings of ‘With rue my heart is laden’.

These facts alone beg the question, why have composers been so drawn to Housman? Apart from the obvious but largely misunderstood pastoral elements, I think it is the poetry’s musical qualities that have been their principal attraction. Housman’s poems are on the surface enticingly simple and therefore ideal to set. They have a naturally flowing metre, a usually straight forward ballad-type verse structure, a clear syntax and an often monosyllabic vocabulary. But while seemingly easy to set, there is also a trap lying in wait – one that in my opinion many composers, both past and present, have fallen into to. What appears at first glance to be an uncomplicated set of words, are in fact, quite the opposite. Their simple strophic form belies an internal structure of great complexity. Housman’s powerful poetic images and subtle metaphors convey many different levels of meaning. In order to express this Housman frequently turns to the device of poetic irony – the so-called ‘sting in the tail’ in many of his poems. It is this particular quality that makes them so difficult to set well. Poetic irony is of course a literary device that has no obvious parallel in music. So the question is, can a composer evoke poetic irony in the context of a song setting? I think the answer is, yes they can, but it is very difficult to achieve because the composer runs the risk of falling back upon common musical clichés. There is perhaps one possible exception, and that is where irony is used as a separate element within the poem’s overall structure, for example, if it is contained entirely within a single stanza – say the final one of the poem. In this case, I think this could be reflected in the music. However, trying to mirror poetic irony in musical terms as some kind of continuous contrapuntal thread is not really possible: music simply doesn’t work this way.

Of course, Housman never intended for his poetry to be set to music at all. Indeed, he made it well known that he did not like composers setting his poetry. He classed composers along with illustrators, as being ‘entirely wrapped up in their precious selves, regarding the author, as merely a peg on which to hang things, and having less than the ordinary human allowance of sense and feeling’.

In this connection, one of the most celebrated stories is associated with the composer Herbert Howells, who had the great fortune (depending upon how you look at it) to be seated next to Housman at dinner at Trinity College, Cambridge. Howells described in some detail their dinner conversation.

I knew of his reputation as the most renowned Latinist in Cambridge and also as one of the most feared men in Cambridge. After regaling us for the first half of the meal with a lecture on suicide, he turned to me, knowing I was a composer, and said he hoped I’d never set any of his poems. I said I hadn’t, although only that week I’d set ‘Far in a Western Brookland’. There followed a vituperative dismissal of all that Vaughan Williams and Butterworth had done for all his verse in ‘On Wenlock Edge’ and the ‘Shropshire Lad’ songs and orchestral rhapsody which I did have the courage to counter; but resolved that Housman should never see any of my settings during his lifetime, and later I destroyed them. [1]

So in this instance, it seems that it was the poet himself and not the poetry that prevented Howells from setting them! But it does not end there, because when you delve a little deeper you find that there are some significant English composers conspicuously absent from the roll call of Housman settings. These include; Frank Bridge, Elgar, Delius, Holst, Warlock, Quilter, Finzi and Benjamin Britten – to name but a few.

So why didn’t they set Housman? Again, I think that the answer lies in fact that these experienced song composers were all too aware of the trap that was lying in wait for them. Finzi certainly knew it, and despite making several attempts to set Housman never completed a single one. Ivor Gurney, who did set many of Housman’s poems found them difficult. After re-reading ‘A Shropshire Lad’ in 1917, he wrote to Marion Scott, saying,

‘but once again, I feel rather incapable of setting them. Such precise and measured verses are too easy to set; [they]do not give the scope that R[obert] Bridges’ songs offer one’. [2]

So is it possible to set Housman successfully? Well, given that I have composed a cycle of them, I suppose I have to say yes; but with two important caveats. Firstly, the composer has to avoid the trap I have already discussed and secondly, they must be able to respond imaginatively and sensitively to the prosody of the text. If a composer simply uses a poet’s words as a vehicle for their own music, then I believe they are very unlikely to produce an authentic setting. According to Professor Stephen Banfield there have been very few convincing settings of Housman. ‘It is unlikely that Housman can ever gain much by being set to music’.

Even before the Finzi Friends Commission had been confirmed I began to think seriously about the proposed cycle. I was well acquainted with the chamber song-cycles by Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Gurney, and so I deliberately avoided replicating their settings. I then took a copy of Bill Lewis’ catalogue of all the know settings of Housman and put an asterisk along side all those poems that had not been set before. Amazingly, this left only 6 poems out of 63 from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, 12 out of 41 from ‘Last Poems’, 31 out of 48 from ‘More Poem’s and finally 14 out of 23 from ‘Additional Poems’. I was, of course, very intrigued by the 6 poems left unset from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. Well, that is until you start to read them. Let us take the very first one, No. XXVIII, entitled ‘The Welsh Marches’ – my apologies if I offend anyone, but as much as I like Wales, I had no intention of setting a poem about an ancient English/Welsh border skirmish! No. XLI concerns an encounter with a Grecian statue and No. XLIII ends with a lover who cuts his throat – so you might forgive me if I wasn’t attracted to them, nor does it seem were any other composers! This now left me with 12 out of 41 poems from ‘Last Poems’. Once again, these poems seemed to me to be less than ideal to set. As with those from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, some poems were either too long or perhaps they dealt with poetic themes unsuitable for setting, such as no XXI entitled ‘Hell Gate’, which was both. Finally, I came to the final two collections, ‘More Poems’ and ‘Additional Poems’. At last, I found some marvellous poems, which eventually I managed to whittle down to just seven. These were: No. I, ‘Easter hymn’, No. IX, ‘When green buds hang in the elm’, No. XXIII, ‘Crossing alone the knighted ferry’, No. XXX ‘Shake hands, we shall never be friends’, No. XXXI ‘Because I liked you better’ – all from ‘More Poems’ – and No. VI, ‘Ask me no more, for fear I should reply’ and No. XVIII ‘Oh who is that young sinner’ from ‘Additional Poems’.

Although out of these seven poems only three had ever been set before, this was no longer an important consideration as I had become increasingly attracted to just four of them. They were ‘Easter hymn’, ‘When green buds hang in the elm’, ‘Oh, who is that young sinner?’ and ‘Because I liked you better’.

Whether consciously or not, I started to think about the thematic connections between them and the structural possibilities for composing a song cycle. These particular poems also had a unifying autobiographical connection, dealing as they do, with a less familiar side to Housman’s creativity. It was this side of his personality that I was drawn to and one that I realised had not been explored fully by composers before. So now there were two structural elements going hand in hand in the design of this cycle – a narrative one and a musical one.

Let me deal firstly with the narrative element. The poem, ‘Easter hymn’, concerns Housman’s rejection of Christianity. According to the poet’s own testimony he became an atheist sometime between the age of 13 and 21. Although the early death of his mother has often been cited as a possible reason for this, it could equally have been a consequence of ‘inner’ conflicts and his attempt to try to come to terms with his homosexuality and orthodox religion’s denouncement of it. This ‘theme’ is explored in many of his poems. For example, one only has to read no XII of Last Poems to understand the profound alienation that Housman must have felt.

I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made

And then in the lines

let God and man decree Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?

Housman’s rejection of religion forced him to redefine his moral consciousness and seek out an alternative way of living. It was a quest that I suspect eluded him to the end of his life. Housman may well have cultivated an establishment demeanour, but deep down he knew he was an ‘outsider’ and, like Matthew Arnold’s ‘Scholar Gipsy’, was forever striving to find the tree that ‘crowns the hill’ – the seeking after truth in a meaningless universe. It is this ‘seeking after truth’ that pervades the second poem in the cycle, ‘When green buds hang in the elm’.

This now brings me to the third poem in the cycle, and, perhaps to the most controversial aspect of the whole cycle. The poem ‘Oh who is that young sinner’ is a defiant and aggressive plea for tolerance. In this extraordinary emotionally charged poem, Housman condemns a society that was prepared to send someone like Oscar Wilde to prison for something that is as trivial as ‘the colour of his hair’. He also makes the case for homosexuality as an innate characteristic – one that is beyond personal choice and should therefore not be seen as either sinful or morally reprehensible. Although the subject of ‘Oh who is that young sinner’ is linked to the last poem in the cycle ‘Because I liked you better’, this later poem inhabits an altogether more intimate and deeply personal world. Given, the recent publication of the complete letters of Housman by Archie Burnett we can now get a much better understanding of the autobiographical nature of this poem. The correspondence shows how Moses Jackson’s rejection of Housman overshadowed his whole life. Even as late as 1922, news that Jackson was dying in Canada provided the stimulus for the collection and publication of Last Poems. In a letter accompanying a presentation copy sent by Housman to Jackson he was still trying to impress him. Housman even enclosed the reviews of the sales of ASL and ended the letter by saying, ‘I am an eminent bloke; though I would much rather have followed you round the world and blacked your boots’

Then, in an unbearably sad letter written to A. W. Pollard soon after Jackson’s death in 1923, Housman makes his feelings for Jackson explicit in what is possibly the most moving piece of prose ever written by him.

Dated 17th Jan 1923

My dear Pollard,
Jackson died peacefully on Sunday night in hospital in Vancover, where he had gone to be treated for anaemia, with which 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 in a world where anything might happen to him’.

The second element to the cycle is of course the music itself. Now, this is where things get more difficult. For me, discussing something I have composed is a bit like trying to analyse oneself – it is very difficult. So, I am going to leave all the technical aspects aside and just try to explain what I was trying to achieve in this work.

As I have already discussed, the poem, ‘Easter hymn’ is a persuasive statement concerning Housman’s religious anxiety and one that questioned the most fundamental tenet of Christianity, namely the Resurrection. The poem’s visual imagery is bold and striking. Just take the opening line – ‘If in that Syrian Garden ages slain, you sleep and know not that you are dead in vain’. Christ, simply dead! What an amazing thought that is! The power of this image sparked off an emotional response in me and I soon began to hear musical possibilities. I quickly realized that such visionary words would need to be introduced in some way, so I decided to compose a short instrumental prelude that would set the scene and evoke the poem’s complex mood. After this brief introduction, the voice enters in a hushed and questioning tone. The modal inflection in the vocal line on the words ‘know not you are dead in vain’, gives an intentional middle eastern feel, and one that geographically locates the ‘scene’. This tranquil mood is broken on the words ‘behold how dark and bright ascends in smoke and fire by day and by night’. Here the music becomes more dramatic and passionate as it builds towards the song’s first vocal climax on the words ‘the hate you died to quench’. At this point, I introduce a new melodic idea that subsequently appears in various guises throughout the song. This aural signpost is used to underline important moments in the poem’s unfolding narrative. After a brief respite that recalls the songs opening mood, ‘Sleep well and see no morning’, the first stanza ends with a long melisma on the word ‘son’.

In marked contrast to the first stanza’s imagery, Housman momentarily transports us back to the scene in that Syrian garden, but this time he hypothesizes that Christ may have after all risen from the grave. To convey this, I present a new thematic idea, initially heard on the piano alone. This slow-moving and rhythmically repetitive idea is underpinned by pizzicato strings, in what I hope, is an evocation of this strange supernatural occurrence. However, this vision is quickly displaced by the singer’s passionate outcry on the words:

At the right hand of majesty on high
You sit, and sitting so remember yet
Your tears, your agony and bloody sweat

Amid this ‘angst’, there is just one brief moment of reflection on the words ‘remember yet your tears’ after which the music rises up dynamically to prepare for the song’s final vocal climax on the last line, ‘bow hither out of heaven and see and save’. After a restatement of the principal melodic ideas from the first stanza the song ends as quietly as it began, but this time the atmosphere of calm questioning has been replaced by one of resigned acceptance.

After such a powerful and dramatic opening to the cycle, I felt that I should try to lighten the mood and so I decided to compose a short intermezzo. The poem, ‘When the Green Buds Hang in the elm’ is just perfect in this regard. What could be more uplifting than the words:

When green buds hang in the elm like dust
And sprinkle the lime like rain,
Forth I wander, forth I must,
And drink of life again.
Forth I must by hedgerow bowers
To look at the leaves uncurled,
And stand in the fields where cuckoo-flowers
Are lying about the world.

To conjure up the poem’s pastoral atmosphere I present a gentle rocking figure in the instrumental parts over which the vocal line sings a languorous cantilena. Together, and in combination with a wash of impressionist harmonies, I have tried to capture the poem’s optimistic and life affirming sentiments. This song’s position in the cycle acts as a kind of lyrical vignette between two very emotionally intense songs. What follows, is a fast and furious setting of the highly charged poem ‘Oh who is that young sinner’ In this poem Housman discusses humanity’s never ending tale of prejudice and of the devastating consequences to all those who have faced it. This defiant and angry poem is in my opinion the poet’s cri de Coeur. I have tried to mirror Housman’s anguished feelings in the music, by using an aggressive and rhythmically unrelenting accompanimental figure throughout the song. Structurally, the music has two contrasting ideas. One, based on alternating groups of semi-quavers and a quaver (this is the motoric driving figure) and the other is a short strident motive in the unusual time signature of 8/8. Both ideas play off each other at various points in the song. I have kept the vocal line deliberately simple so as to allow the singer full reign in interpreting the fast changing narrative.

This brings me to the final song in the cycle and to the emotional core of the whole work. In the poem ‘Because I liked you better’, Housman expresses his unrequited love for Moses Jackson. Although the poem has seemingly four separate stanzas, the narrative itself divides into two parts. The first, introduces the poem’s main theme – that of an unreciprocated love that ends in separation and despair.

The song opens with a short introduction for piano and voice alone, with the instrumental ensemble joining in on the last couplet of the first stanza, ‘it irked you and I promised to throw the thought away’. The tone of the poem then changes as the protagonists prepare to ‘put the world between them’. This change is reflected musically, by a change in tempo and in a vocal line that becomes increasingly more passionate as it leads to the all important line ‘Goodbye’, said you, ‘forget me’, I will no fear said I’. A restatement of the songs opening material now follows as a preparation for the poem’s final two stanzas.

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

Throughout this section, the instrumental accompaniment becomes ever more elegiac as the narrative becomes increasingly more poignant, ending of course, with those unbearably sad words

And say, the lad that loved you
Was one that kept his word.

The song concludes with an instrumental coda containing fragments of the song’s main themes and so provides a wistful echo of what might have been. Finally, I wish I could claim that the title of this cycle was my own, but as I am sure you all know it comes in part from his preface to ‘More Poems’:

They say my verse is sad: no wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity, and sorrow,
Not mine, but man’s’.

(Adapted from a talk given Ian Venables by to the Housman Society, 27th October 2007)


  1. Herbert Howell – A study by Christopher Palmer (Novello and Co Ltd, 1978, p.16)
  2. Ivor Gurney – Collected Letter, edited by R.K.R Thornton (Carcanet, 1991, p.249)
  3. The Letters of A. E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett (Clarendon Press, 2007)