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Housman was an emotionally withdrawn man whose closest friend Moses Jackson had been his roommate when he was at Oxford in 1877–82. In the 1920s, when Jackson was dying in Canada, Housman compiled forty-two previously unpublished poems into a volume entitled Last Poems, for him to read. The introduction to the volume explains his rationale:
I publish these poems, few though they are, because it is not likely that I shall ever be impelled to write much more. I can no longer expect to be revisited by the continuous excitement under which in the early months of 1895 I wrote the greater part of my first book, nor indeed could I well sustain it if it came; and it is best that what I have written should be printed while I am here to see it through the press and control its spelling and punctuation. About a quarter of this matter belongs to the April of the present year, but most of it to dates between 1895 and 1910.—September 1922
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
This poem, No. XXXVII in the collection, is perhaps the best known:
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
The poem could relate to many bodies of troops throughout the ages. It has been argued, however, that Housman was referring specifically to the old professional British Army, which was destroyed in France during 1914 when it was the B.E.F. at the outset of World War I.
The 42 poems in Last Poems are listed below. All the poems are identified by their first lines; the titles, where given (they are in capital letters), are Housman's own.
- "We'll to the woods no more" was set to music in 1922 by John Ireland in his song cycle We'll to the Woods No More.
- We'll to the woods no more is the title of the 1938 translation by Stuart Gilbert of the 1887 French novel Les lauriers sont coupés by Édouard Dujardin.
- John Ireland set No. XXXII, "When I would muse in boyhood", under the title "To Boyhood", to music in We'll to the Woods No More.