"Great literature should do some good to the reader: must quicken his perception though dull, and sharpen his discrimination though blunt, and mellow the rawness of his personal opinions. "

Alfred Edward Housman was born on 26 March 1859 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. His mother died on his twelfth birthday, and subsequently her place was taken by his stepmother Lucy, an elder cousin of his father whom he later married in 1873. 

Housman was educated, first at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and then Bromsgrove School, where he acquired a strong academic grounding and won prizes for his poetry. In 1877 he won an open scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, where he studied classics. Although by nature rather withdrawn, Housman formed strong friendships with two roommates, Moses Jackson and A. W. Pollard. Jackson became the great love of Housman's life, though the feelings were not reciprocated, as Jackson was firmly heterosexual.

After Oxford, Jackson got a job as a clerk in the Patent Office in London and arranged a job there for Housman. They shared a flat with Jackson's brother Adalbert until 1885 when Housman moved to lodgings of his own. Moses Jackson moved to India in 1887. When Jackson returned briefly to England in 1889 to marry, Housman not only was not invited to the wedding, but knew nothing about it until the couple had left the country. Adalbert Jackson died in 1892.

Housman continued pursuing classical studies independently and published scholarly articles on such authors as Horace, Propertius, Ovid, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. He gradually acquired such a respected reputation that in 1892, he was offered, and accepted, the professorship of Latin at University College London. Many years later, the UCL Academic Staff Common Room was dedicated to his memory as the Housman Room.

During 1903–1930, he published his critical edition of Manilius's Astronomicon in five volumes. He also edited works of Juvenal (1905) and Lucan (1926). Many colleagues were unnerved by his scathing critical attacks on those whom he found guilty of shoddy scholarship. In the early 1920s, when Moses Jackson was dying in Canada, Housman wanted to assemble his best unpublished poems so that Jackson could read them before his death. These later poems, mostly written before 1910, show a greater variety of subject and form, than those in A Shropshire Lad but lack the consistency of his previously published work. He published them as Last Poems (1922) because he felt his inspiration was exhausted and that he should not publish more in his lifetime. Wordsworth Editions have published The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman.

Housman found his true vocation in classical studies and treated poetry as a secondary activity. He did not speak about his poetry in public until 1933 when he gave a lecture, The Name and Nature of Poetry, in which he argued that poetry should appeal to emotions rather than to the intellect. He died three years later, aged 77, in Cambridge. His ashes are buried near St Laurence's Church, Ludlow, Shropshire.