A hitherto unknown collection of 53 letters from the poet AE Housman shed new light on his final years at Trinity, and his regard for his godson, Gerald Jackson, the son of his best friend, Moses Jackson.
The letters, written between 1927 and 1936, recently came to light among family papers, and have been acquired by Trinity College, Cambridge, where Housman lived for the last 25 years of his life. He is best known today as the poet of ‘A Shropshire Lad’, but was also one of the most renowned classicists of his day, being appointed Professor of Latin at Cambridge University in 1911.
The letters to his godson offer fascinating insights into Housman’s character and life at Trinity during the interwar period. Among the curiosities are Housman’s mention of his preferred sleeping tonic – bromide and champagne – his appetite for oysters, and his kindness towards those who looked after him as he aged.
While a student in Oxford, Housman fell in love with his best friend Moses Jackson, but his feelings were not reciprocated. Jackson subsequently married, and invited Housman to be godfather to his fourth son.
Trinity Librarian Dr Nicolas Bell said:
The letters reveal that Housman was a diligent and generous godfather, supporting his godson financially so that he could be sure of his final choice of career. The collection illuminates Housman’s life at Trinity in his later years and is a valuable addition to the existing holdings of Housman’s manuscripts in the Wren Library at Trinity and at the University Library.
Gerald trained first as a geologist, spent a term at Trinity and then pursued medicine – he was one of the first anaesthetists to work in Rhodesia.
For nearly a decade, godfather and godson wrote to one another every few months. Housman passes on many pieces of Cambridge gossip: he was appalled when the Trinity boat was defeated in 1933, and gives a vivid account of student pranksters painting a bronze statue outside his window.
Despite his frail health he was able to report in his letter of 18 January 1934:
I am going on tolerably, neither worse nor better, I think. The eating and drinking of Christmas does me no harm, and the 52 oysters I consumed on Dec. 31 rather did me good.
And in his letter of 22 January, Housman wrote:
When you ask ‘how many meals the 52 oysters represented’ you betray some meanness of conception. They constituted the one meal of supper.
His letters continue the gastronomic theme by asking his godson to send him a smoked ox tongue from Fortnum & Mason, as well as a nice box of crystallised fruits for the nurses who had looked after him at the Evelyn Nursing Home. One of his final letters reports that;
My walking is weak and slow, and for getting to sleep I am using diminishing doses of bromide, supplemented with champagne.