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Rhyme and Reason

A E Housman


LAST Monday, the New York Paddies made a huge mistake keeping the gay community out of their St Patrick's Day whoopee.

It is often forgotten that homosexuality was only decriminalised in Britain as late as 1967.

Up to that point, gay people could get a stiff prison sentence if they were found in flagrante delicto, which means caught in the act.

This year is the 155th anniversary of the birth of a poet who fought with his pen to decriminalise homosexuality.

He was A E Housman, a Cambridge professor, one of the great poets in English of the 20th century and a bonny fighter for his cause.

Famous throughout the world for his poem A Shropshire Lad, a 66-verse eulogy of the English countryside, Housman decided to take his countrymen by the ear and give them a good shake.

He wrote a poem in which the fourth line of every verse featured "a young sinner" who was being put in prison "for the colour of his hair".

Of course, it was clear that the "colour of his hair" meant the nature of his sexual orientation.

There was much fury and foaming of the mouth among the establishment at Housman's clever stroke, but he got away with it.

He lived out his life in England's green and pleasant land and died recognised as one of England's greatest poets.

Read the poem carefully.

It is one of the finest satires in the language and excoriates that most pernicious of all vices, hypocrisy.