A A. E. Housman

Oh Who is that Young Sinner by A. E. Houseman

‘Oh Who is that Young Sinner’ by A.E. Houseman is an important poem that addresses the fear and hatred of homosexuality in England in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The poem explores themes of discrimination, sexuality, and justice/injustice. Throughout ‘Oh Who is that Young Sinner,’ the poet creates a solemn and depressing mood through a commanding and prejudicial tone. 

Oh Who is that Young Sinner by A. E. Houseman


Summary of Oh Who is that Young Sinner

Oh Who is that Young Sinner’ by A. E. Houseman depicts discrimination through the extended metaphor of a young man’s hair. 

In this poem, the speaker depicts the arrest and imprisonment, and later torture, of a young man because, supposedly, of the color of his hair. The hair is used by Houseman in order to represent something else, the man’s sexuality. He is, in reality, being arrested for being gay and condemned to hard labor for it. The poem expresses the attitudes of the time, and the tone condemns those who thought and acted that way. 


Structure of Oh Who is that Young Sinner

Oh Who is that Young Sinner’ by A. E. Houseman is a four stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines. These stanzas are known as quatrains. They follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABB CCDD, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. 

The lines also follow a specific metrical pattern. They are known as “fourteeners,” meaning, each line contains fourteen syllables usually separated into seven iambic feet. The style is also known as iambic heptameter. This pattern was less common in the 18th and 19th centuries when Houseman was alive than it was from the Middle Ages up to the 16th century. 


Poetic Techniques in Oh Who is that Young Sinner

Houseman makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Oh Who is that Young Sinner’. These include anaphora, metaphor, and repetition. The latter, repetition, is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. In this case, Houseman reuses the phrase “colour of his hair” numerous times throughout the poem. It is an important part of the message of frivolous discrimination that he’s trying to get across. It also relates directly to another technique, metaphor. 

A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that do not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In this case, Houseman uses an extended metaphor to speak about discrimination. He uses the color of a young man’s hair as the reason that he’s arrested and taken to prison. By speaking about his hair, rather than his sexual orientation, he is able to emphasize the close-minded and cruel attitude that allowed for this kind of discrimination. 

Houseman also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. This can be seen most clearly in the first stanza where two lines start with “Oh” and two starts with “And”. The word “And” also begins two lines in the final stanza as well. 


Analysis of Oh Who is that Young Sinner 

Stanza One 

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?

And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?

And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?

Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

In the first stanza of ‘Oh Who is that Young Sinner’ the speaker begins with the phrase that was used as the title of the poem. He is young, in “their” eyes he is a sinner, and he’s in handcuffs. The speaker wonders who he is, but he has some idea. 

He follows this up with two more questions. The first is in regard to what the young man did that makes those around him “groan and shake their fists”. It would seem that the reason he has been arrested in genuine as there is real anger around. This is emphasized by the third line that inquires about his “conscience-stricken air”. He appears guilty. 

The answer to the speaker’s questions comes in the fourth line. The young man is being arrested for the “colour of his hair”. The reasoning behind the arrest is meant to surprise and baffle readers. It is obviously a frivolous and purposeless reason to arrest someone, emphasizing the absurdity of arresting anyone for a personal choice or an aspect of their appearance. 


Stanza Two 

‘Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;

In the good old time ’twas hanging for the colour that it is;

Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair

For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

In the second stanza, the speaker begins by saying that the man’s hair is a “shame to human nature”. He’s expressing the opinion of those the poet is seeking to condemn through this poem. The speaker thinks back to the past and remembers how if he’s had that color hair in the old days that he would’ve been hanged for it. 

It’s clear that the speaker is very much in support of the arrest. He would like the young man to meet a very painful death for the color of his hair. He’d like hanging, but really that isn’t bad enough. Flaying, or being skinned alive, would be more “fair”. 


Stanza Three 

Oh a deal of pains he’s taken and a pretty price he’s paid

To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;

But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,

And they’re haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

The man has tried, the speaker says, to hide his hair (or his true nature) and he’s paid a “price” to do so. This is a vague reference to the efforts one must go to hide from the world and deny the truth of what they want. 

But, despite his efforts, they’ve pulled his “beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare” at his hair. Now, justice, the speaker says, will be done. 


Stanza Four 

Now ’tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet

And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,

And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare

He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.

In the last four lines of ‘Oh who is that young sinner,’ the speaker describes the punishment that the man was subjected to. From the description, it appears that he was sentenced to hard labor. His hands were tied up with oakum he has to walk on a prison treadmill as further punishment. 

In a solemn and depressing end to the poem, the speaker says that the young man is going to have time, between the pain and punishment, to curse God for having made him the way he is. 

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Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
  • James White says:

    Housman wrote this in 1895, just after Oscar Wilde’s first trial and shortly before he was sentenced to 2 years hard labour for, effectively, being gay.

    It’s almost certainly based on Oscar Wilde, although Oscar was by then about 40, so not really a young man, though not yet old.

    Oscar and his fellow prisoners had to pick oakum ropes apart which destroyed their fingers, and they had to walk a pointless treadmill – like a huge stairmaster with room for 10 or so people to walk together, with grain inside to make it harder to take each step. They also had to go to quarries and break stones with hammers to make the small pebbles used in railway sidings, during all weathers, wind, rain, cruel winter and harsh summers.

    Two years of hard labour nearly killed Oscar, and he died in Paris at 45, less than 3 years after he was released from Reading Gaol. After release he gave his name as C33 – his prison number, or Sebastian Melmoth, after the mythological wandering jew. The only thing he wrote after Prison was The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, which I recommend.

    I love this poem. Although Housman puts on the voice of an enraged moralist who thinks hanging’s too good, and he should be flayed (i.e. to have all his skin torn from his body by whips), it’s easy to tell the sarcasm because of the metaphor chosen, and also easy to show that he had deep sympathy for Oscar’s plight. The poem does a good job of showing that these punitive and primitive, draconian laws were seen at the time as being unfair and ridiculous by many intelligent people.

    I love how well he sticks to the metre, the words seem to fall perfectly into step. Particularly the line “For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.” Every one of the 5 syllables of “abominable” hits its beat perfectly and it’s breathtaking.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Good morning, James. Thank you for this information. I genuinely enjoyed reading what you had to say and feel I have learnt a lot I didn’t know about Oscar Wilde.

  • Hi “His hands were tied up with oakum he has to walk on a prison treadmill as further punishment. ” The oakum reference is related to unpicking oakum which was a common punishment. It basically entailed unpicking tarred rope for reuse. A miserable task.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      ouch. That sounds horrid. Thanks for the comment that is a really useful piece of context.

    • Glad you clarified this, Phil – I was about to do so myself. The reference to “his fingers” (rather than “hands” or “wrists”) indicates the true nature of the cruel punishment. And forcing someone to walk a treadmill with his hands tied would increase the risk of him falling, breaking a leg and becoming unusable – whereas the whole point of a prison treadmill was to generate free power for local industry (mills and so on), so you had to be sure all the prisoners kept walking, if necessary by flogging them. They’d have needed their arms free to keep their balance. Unpicking oakum was another instance of using prisoners as unpaid labour. 19th-century capitalist efficiency at its most ruthless!

      • Lee-James Bovey says:

        Wow, that really is awful. Thank you for sharing some of the unique contexts of this poem with us.

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