To mainstream readers of poetry, A E Housman was the much admired of author of two best-selling collections, A Shropshire Lad (1896) and Last Poems (1922), whose texts were taken as universal statements. But for all its universality, Housman's poetry is deeply rooted in homosexual experience and consciousness, and even reflects gay history.
Those 'in the know' were always aware of this, for despite being forced to write in code Housman was reasonably bold, and it would appear from some of his poems and from the work of his brother Laurence, his literary executor and also gay, that Housman wrote the bulk of his work for a secret and oppressed homosexual readership. Housman is unusual in that he not only wrote a large amount of private work of a more open nature, but it was not destroyed. In fact, Laurence assembled two further volumes from his brother's surviving manuscripts - More Poems (1936) and Additional Poems (1937). Laurence also wrote an essay circa 1940 about his brother's life and work in which he spoke openly about his homosexuality. This work, along with diaries and other surviving documents were left in the care of the British Museum in 1942 on the understanding that they would not be made public for twenty-five years. 1967 was an appropriate year to blow open the truth about one of the best loved English poets of his generation.
The inspiration for Housman's poetry comes from two sources - the unrequited love (and lifelong friendship) he had for a fellow student named Moses Jackson; he also had a brief affair and long friendship with Moses' brother, Adalbert. The second driving force behind his work was his anger at the treatment of homosexuals, particularly the public hostility generated by the Wilde trial, and the ensuing need for secrecy that followed for decades. Housman wrote as openly as he could.
So if you read all those poems in A Shropshire Lad that talk of 'lads', 'fellows' and 'comrades' , don't be under any illusions what he was really talking about...
The street sounds to the soldiers' tread,from A Shropshire Lad
And out we troop to see:
A single redcoat turns his head,
He turns and looks at me.
My man, from sky to sky's so far,
We never crossed before;
Such leagues apart the world's ends are,
We're like to meet no more;
What thoughts at heart have you and I
We cannot stop to tell;
But dead or living, drunk or dry,
Soldier, I wish you well.