Alfred Edward Housman was born in 1859 in Fockbury, Worcestershire, England. The eldest of seven children in a family that would produce a famous dramatist (Housman's younger brother, Laurence) and a novelist and short story writer (his sister Clemence), Housman attended Bromsgrove School, a notable institution that emphasized Greek and Latin studies. Though successful academically, Housman was a small and frail boy who did not easily form friendships. When he was twelve, Housman's mother died, the first of a number of events which would affect him profoundly and erode his religious faith. (Years later he would write that he "became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one.") He also developed a pronounced facial tic that he never entirely overcame.
Housman earned a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford, which he began attending in 1877. He immersed himself in the study of classical languages, particularly Latin and Greek, and he also helped to found Ye Round Table, an undergraduate magazine featuring humorous verse and satire (a skill in which he excelled, though critics would later condemn his poetry for being stark and humorless). While at college Housman established a friendship with a classmate, Moses Jackson, that would have an enormous impact upon his life. Jackson was a good-looking, athletic young man with whom Housman fell hopelessly and permanently in love. Jackson rebuffed his friend's affections, and Housman was heartbroken; many of his subsequent poems speak of unrequited love and refer to the rejection he suffered when he was "one-and-twenty." Initially, Housman excelled at his studies at Oxford. However, in 1879 he failed his final examinations; not only did he fail, he turned in answer books that were nearly blank but for seemingly random scribblings. The reason for this is generally attributed to some sort of nervous breakdown, though its origins are cause for speculation: some feel it may have been the result of overconfidence, others speculate that it was caused by his pining over Jackson, while still others conjecture that Housman failed deliberately, if subconsciously. Regardless of the cause, Housman returned home ungraduated and disgraced; though he returned to Oxford a year later and obtained a "pass" degree, it seemed the door to a career in academia was closed.
In 1882 Housman passed the civil service examination and took a position in a London patent office — a career decision that was influenced, no doubt, by the fact that Jackson was employed at the same office. For the first four years of his ten-year stay at the patent office he shared a West End apartment with Moses Jackson and his younger brother Adalbert Jackson. Housman spent his evenings at the British Museum library studying Greek and Latin. When, in 1888, Moses Jackson left England for a teaching position in Karachi, India, Housman withdrew into a monkish seclusion, occupied only with his studies and scholarly writing. A number of his articles were published in journals such as the Classical Review and the Journal of Philology, and they began to earn for Housman a reputation as a brilliant and meticulous scholar. When the Chair of Greek and Latin at University College, London, became available in 1892, the institution overlooked Housman's academic falterings and appointed him to the vacant position. In November, 1892 Adalbert Jackson — who, since the departure of Moses, had been Housman's closest friend — died of typhoid. This trauma created an emotional explosion that resulted in Housman's composing A Shropshire Lad, a collection of sixty-three poems addressing the themes of unrequited love, the oblivion of death, and idealized military life. Because of the 1895 persecution and imprisonment of poet Oscar Wilde, Housman was careful to distance himself from the homosexuality depicted in A Shropshire Lad, often adopting the persona "Terence Hearsay." The first printing of Housman's collection, published in 1896, was done so at the poet's own expense; neither it nor a second edition, published two years later by a different publisher, sold particularly well. However, when the Boer War broke out in 1899, readers rediscovered the numerous patriotic military poems in the volume, and sales were quickly booming. After the publication of A Shropshire Lad, Housman's writing efforts were restricted to scholarly publications — and those limited chiefly to the study of a single classic Roman author of questionable skill and influence, Manilius. The reason for this somewhat odd choice of subject matter was simple: the decidedly shallow nature of Manilius' text allowed Housman to showcase his own editorial and critical talents, thus earning him greater professional distinction. He completed a total of five volumes on Manilius.
Housman's poetic output, which had previously gushed from him in a torrent, was reduced to a trickle. Thus it was not until 1922 that he produced his second collection of verse, the aptly titled Last Poems. Though more than a quarter century had elapsed since the publication of A Shropshire Lad, the poems contained in Last Poems were nearly identical in theme, form, and diction to those in the earlier volume. In 1923 Moses Jackson died, and with him went much of Housman's inspiration; he wrote only a few more lines of prose before his death in 1936. Housman continues to be a popular and frequently read poet despite the fact that since the initial publication of his verse, his work has been intermittently praised and rebuffed for what has been called its "obvious limitations." While his overriding morbidity of theme is often described as tedious and adolescent, Housman's open investigations of the mysteries of death and the dual nature of humankind have earned him acknowledgment as a precursor to the development of modern poetry.