A.E. Housman On Toads And Unicorns



While A.E. Housman is perhaps best known as the author of “When I was one-and-twenty” and “To An Athlete Dying Young,” his most anthologized poems and those most often found in English Literature reading assignments, he was also an astute scholar (widely acknowledged to be one of the finest Latinists of modern times) and, more to the point of today’s post, an occasional writer of children’s verse.

Given Housman’s deserved reputation as reclusive, melancholy, and profoundly pessimistic, poems for juveniles may seem an unlikely genre to sustain his interest. It is helpful, in this respect, to keep two points in mind:

  1. British poetry for children often has a – well, a vicious streak.
  2. It is often extraordinarily difficult to separate children’s verse, light verse, satire, epigrams, and parody.

“The Use And Abuse Of Toads” resonates with sibling discord, internecine sadism, and collateral damage.


The Use And Abuse Of Toads
By A.E. Housman


As into the garden Elizabeth ran
Pursued by the just indignation of Ann,
She trod on an object that lay in her road,
She trod on an object that looked like a toad.

It looked like a toad, and it looked so because
A toad was the actual object it was;
And after supporting Elizabeth’s tread
It looked like a toad that was visibly dead.

Elizabeth, leaving her footprint behind,
Continued her flight on the wings of the wind,
And Ann in her anger was heard to arrive
At the toad that was not any longer alive.

She was heard to arrive, for the firmament rang
With the sound of a scream and the noise of a bang,
As her breath on the breezes she broadly bestowed
And fainted away on Elizabeth’s toad.

Elizabeth, saved by the sole of her boot,
Escaped her insensible sister’s pursuit;
And if ever hereafter she irritates Ann,
She will tread on a toad if she possibly can.

While the next poem, “Inhuman Henry,” has been (non-pejoratively) described as silly, it hardly seems random chance that Housman chose a lion and unicorn, heraldic emblems for England and Scotland and the objects of legions of literary allusions, for his poetical menagerie.


But, it is delightfully silly.

Inhuman Henry
or Cruelty to Fabulous Animals
By A.E. Housman

Oh would you know why Henry sleeps,
And why his mourning Mother weeps,
And why his weeping Mother mourns?
He was unkind to unicorns.

No unicorn, with Henry’s leave,
Could dance upon the lawn at eve,
Or gore the gardener’s boy in spring
Or do the very slightest thing.

No unicorn could safely roar,
And dash its nose against the door,
Nor sit in peace upon the mat
To eat the dog, or drink the cat.

Henry would never in the least
Encourage the heraldic beast:
If there were unicorns about
He went and let the lion out.

The lion, leaping from its chain
And glaring through its tangled mane,
Would stand on end and bark and bound
And bite what unicorns it found.

And when the lion bit a lot
Was Henry sorry? He was not.
What did his jumps betoken? Joy.
He was a bloody-minded boy.

The Unicorn is not a Goose,
And when they saw the lion loose
They grew increasingly aware
That they had better not be there.

And oh, the unicorn is fleet
And spurns the earth with all its feet.
The lion had to snap and snatch
At tips of tails it could not catch.

Returning home in temper bad,
It met the sanguinary lad,
And clasping Henry with its claws
It took his legs between its jaws.

‘Down, lion, down!’ said Henry, ‘cease!
My legs immediately release.’
His formidable feline pet
Made no reply, but only ate.

The last words that were ever said
By Henry’s disappearing head,
In accents of indignant scorn,
Were ‘I am not a unicorn’.

And now you know why Henry sleeps,
And why his Mother mourns and weeps,
And why she also weeps and mourns;
So now be kind to unicorns.

Credit Due Department: Photo atop this post by E. O. Hoppehttp://images.google.com/hosted/life/fd76be65c0baead9.html, PD-US, via Wikipedia. Photo of toad by brian.gratwickeAdult Cane toad, CC BY 2.0, via Wikipedia. UK Coat of Arms by SodacanOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia. Unicorn illustration By Pearson Scott Foresman – Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation. via Wikipedia

Note: Originally posted Mar 18, 2009 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com

4 thoughts on “A.E. Housman On Toads And Unicorns

  1. The Elizabeth and Ann are said to be Lizzie Tirbutt (13/7/1865-8/9/33) and Annie Brettell Tirbutt (17/11/1860-24/5/37), daughters of Anne Brettell and John Tirbutt. Ann Brettell (b. 3/7/1834) was the niece of Anne Brettell (d. 1841) (m Rev Thomas Housman), grandmother of AE Housman.

    Annie Brettell Tirbutt is my great grandmother.

  2. these poems do show the difference of british poems. it was a pleasant read, these are great poems.

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