AEH: I think that must be me.
Charon: Both of them?
AEH: I'm afraid so.
Charon: It sounded like two different people.
AEH: I know.
--Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love
A. E. Housman (1859-1936) belongs with the sexually tormented Victorian writers: the masochistic Swinburne; the impotent Carlyle and Ruskin; the repressed homosexuals: FitzGerald, Lear, Carroll, Pater, and Hopkins; and the unhappily married homosexuals: Symonds, Wilde, Barrie, and Maugham. Housman was also a divided man with a buried life who hid behind a carefully constructed mask. His poetry and Classical scholarship expressed two different aspects of his personality, and though the Classics influenced his poetry, he was not able to bring the two into a harmonious union. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent" T. S. Eliot magisterially pronounced: "the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates" (7-8). But for Housman as for Eliot, who had a nervous breakdown while composing The Waste Land, the suffering was not separate but inspired the creation. The enigma of Housman's existence contrasted with the clarity of his poems, which were often set to music.
Every important aspect of Housman's life revealed his divided character. He had a High Church childhood, but in adult life became an atheist. He was close to his six younger siblings, but would not allow them to visit his sacred London digs. He had a lifelong love for his college roommate Moses Jackson, but found his feelings both shameful and unreciprocated. He failed his final exams at Oxford, but became a distinguished professor of Latin in London and in Cambridge. He had no sex life in England, but hired male prostitutes in France. He loved the poetry of Propertius, but devoted his life to the dry-as-dust text of Manilius. John Peale Bishop noted the contrast between Housman's "passion for distinction, his craving to be famous, and his equally strong and perverse dislike of being known" (138). Housman desperately wanted to be admired, but refused many honorary degrees and even the Order of Merit. He found his haughty refusals more gratifying than acceptance.
The circumstances of Housman's academic failure, another mysterious aspect of his life, recalls Gertrude Stein's insouciant substitute for answers on her final exam at Radcliffe: "Dear Professor [William] James, I am so sorry but really I do not feel a bit like an examination paper in philosophy today" (Sprigge 34). Housman's disaster at St. John's College in 1881 was even more calculated. He did not bother to read the set books in ancient history and philosophy-subjects he studiously ignored for the rest of his career. Though he could have bluffed his way through to a pass, he did not even attempt to answer the questions and left his examiners no choice but to fail their most promising pupil.
Housman's humiliating disgrace not only extinguished his academic career, but also had unfortunate economic consequences for his feckless solicitor father, who could not support his large family, and for his younger brothers whose school fees could no longer be paid. It seems that Housman punished himself for his emotional failure with his beloved Jackson by committing academic suicide-though his penitential clerical job in the Patent Office paradoxically allowed him to work and live with Jackson for several more years. During the tedious decade from 1882 to 1892 he did menial work by day, but wrote a series of brilliant articles at night. Housman did not begin to write verse until his emotional life was extinguished, but held fast to all his precious torments in order to exploit them in his poetry.
Housman's brother Laurence-a writer and campaigner for homosexual freedom-said "as a rule A.E.H. kept what he called his 'pedantry' separate from his poetry" (87-88). His Cambridge inaugural address of 1911 argued that "literature is so alien from science [by which he meant textual editing] that the literary temper in himself is a peril against which the scholar must stand on his guard" (31). The Romantic lyrics of the Worcestershire lad who rarely visited Shropshire were emotional, sentimental, nostalgic, poignant, and sad. His pedantic studies were Classic and rational; his prefaces and reviews were notoriously satiric, savage, venomous, caustic, and cruel. His poems seem to be spontaneous outpourings, his scholarship laborious and tedious. Yet, as Bishop observed of Housman's poetry, "the romantic conflict of man against society, of man against immutable laws, is... presented by a man who has the craftsman's respect for both himself and his craft" (139).
In his personal relations, Housman always maintained an icy reserve. He taught at Cambridge when the homosexual ethos of Keynes, Strachey, Forster, and the Apostles prevailed, but had no contact with them. Nor did he have any meaningful connection with the two aristocrats, Russell and Wittgenstein, who were his colleagues at Trinity College. His letters were witty and defensively ironic, and never revealed his intimate feelings. He suppressed all personal information and-like Henry James, Eliot, and Auden- did not want his biography to be written. As he off-puttingly told a cheeky admirer, "the wish to include a glimpse of my personality in a literary article is low, unworthy, and American.... Some men are more interesting than their books but my book is more interesting than its man" (Letters, ed. Maas 187).
The foxy Housman made a number of misleading but widely accepted remarks to maintain his public persona and throw curious truth-seekers off the scent. He claimed that his poetry was inspired by ill health, by times when he was indisposed and out of sorts, and that it "sprang chiefly from physical conditions, such as a relaxed sore throat [with constricted breathing] during my most prolific period, the first five months of 1895" (Letters, ed. Maas 329). Though he seemed to place himself in the pathological tradition that ran from Plato, Phalaris, and the mythical Philoctetes to Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Rimbaud, A Shropshire Lad (1896) was clearly inspired by his thwarted love for Moses Jackson rather than by a laryngeal catarrh. During the last two years of his life, when he was severely ill and close to death, he wrote nothing at all.
Housman also unconvincingly denied that he was a Stoic and a pessimist. "For the Stoics ... I have a great dislike and contempt," he affirmed. "In philosophy I am a Cyrenaic or egoistic hedonist, and regard the pleasure of the moment as the only possible motive of action. As for pessimism, I think it almost as silly, though not as wicked, as optimism.... I am a pejorist," one who believes that everything is getting worse (Letters, ed. Maas 222,390). Despite his protestations, he was not a Cyrenaic, and had very little pleasure-apart from gourmandizing, drinking fine wines, and guilt-ridden sex-in his exiguous life. In Classics, by contrast, he was a meliorist who believed that ancient texts, over the centuries, could be gradually improved and restored to an approximation of their original state.
In one of his letters, Housman cryptically hinted at his love for Jackson by stating, "the troubles of my early manhood were real and great" An editor perceptively wrote that the shadowy and elusive Jackson--the son of a school proprietor in Ramsgate, Kent--"was a brilliant scientist, certain of a First, tall, well-built, handsome and self-confident Housman, short, shy and undistinguished in appearance, worshipped him.... He hid his emotions and for the rest of his life felt the bitterness of the frustration" (Letters, ed. Maas 22). A classmate described Jackson as "a perfect Philistine ... a vigorous [running and] rowing man, quite unliterary and outspoken in his want of any such interest" (Letters, ed. Burnett 1.516n). Perfect for hero-worship, Jackson had everything that Housman lacked and despised everything that Housman had. Nothing remained but to fantasize and adore his secret sharer. Housman's Manilius I was dedicated to his great lost love, Moses Jackson, just as Tennyson's In Memoriam was dedicated to Arthur Hallam, T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom to the Arab boy "S. A.," and Eliot's Prufrock and Other Observations to Jean Verdenal.
Housman transformed Moses Jackson, who never showed him the Promised Land, into a kind of ineffable god to whom his faithful worshipper brought constant tribute. "Mo" had the delicate task of gently deflecting Housman's sexual feelings while somehow managing to maintain their friendship. Jackson first made him ecstatic, then wretched. Housman blamed himself, not Jackson, for the devastating rejection. He thought he was unworthy of his idol's love and condemned himself for degrading his idealistic longings to the level of "beastly" sex.
Weary of Housman's emotional demands, Jackson left England. He became headmaster of a school in Karachi, India, in 1887; married a widow, Rosa Chambers, secretly while on leave in England in 1889; and left Karachi to farm at "Applegarth" in New Westminster, twelve miles southeast of Vancouver, Canada, in 1911. When Housman learned that Jackson was dying of stomach cancer in 1922, his memories and inspiration welled up and, breaking a twenty-six-year silence, he published Last Poems that year. In a letter sent with the book to Jackson, Housman wrote, "from a fellow who thinks more of you than anything in the world.... You are largely responsible for my writing poetry and you ought to take the consequences" (1Collected Poems and Selected Prose 488-89). Despite Housman's anxious surveillance, Jackson disappointed him by dying the following year. Housman then poignantly told a friend, "Now I can die myself: I could not have borne to leave him behind in a world where anything might happen to him" (Letters, ed. Burnett 1.534-35). Nothing was left but to mourn for the rest of his life. More Poems (1936) and Collected Poems (1939) appeared posthumously.
Housman deceptively told a friend that the flood of the Shropshire Lad poems had come to him "partly perhaps as a reaction from a learned controversy on the manuscripts of Propertius in which he was then engaged" (Graves 104). But he frequently hinted to the knowing reader about the "onlie begetter" of the Shropshire poems. He lost his heart to the "straight" and "brave" Jackson, who perforce remained indifferent, embarrassed, and even hostile to his ardent feelings:
It was not foes to conquer, Nor sweethearts to be kind, But it was friends to die for That I would seek and find. I sought them far and found them, The sure, the straight, the brave, The hearts I lost my own to, The souls I could not save. (Last Poems #32)
In another covert declaration of his love Housman becomes the "straight" one for repressing his tempestuous emotions and remaining "clean" and "brave":
Oh, when I was in love with you, Then I was clean and brave, And miles around the wonder grew How well did I behave. (Shropshire Lad #18)
"Clean" and "brave" recur in a later poem when he prides himself (though "one" ambiguously refers to both men) for resisting temptation and maintaining his purity: "How one was true and one was clean of stain / And one was braver than the heavens are high" (Additional Poems #6). The "stain," the opposite of "dean," is the ineradicable stigma of homosexuality that can only be extinguished by death. In Leviticus 13:45, the repulsive "leper in whom the plague is ... shall cry, Unclean, unclean." T. E. Lawrence's morbid theme was stamped on the front cover of Seven Pillars of Wisdom: "the sword also means clean-ness & death."
Housman also alludes to the sacrificial renunciation that ended his emotional life and to the promise he was unable to keep. For the rest of his life-like a woman who could not replace the lost fiance killed in a war--he remained faithful to the memory of his love:
Because I liked you better Than suits a man to say, It irked you, and I promised To throw the thought away. (More Poems #31)
He always repressed his emotions and never succumbed to what Eliot called "the awful daring of a moment's surrender." As Yeats pessimistically wrote of the power of lost love in "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen": "Man is in love and loves what vanishes" more than what remains.
A Shropshire Lad appeared when Oscar Wilde was in prison, after sensational trials, for sexual crimes. Frank Harris reported that after Wilde's arrest "every train to Dover was crowded; every steamer to Calais thronged with members of the aristocratic and leisured classes, who seemed to prefer Paris, or even Nice out of season, to a city like London, where the police might act with such unexpected vigour" (160). In that hostile atmosphere Housman, a connoisseur of misery, had to be extremely cautious about declaring the love that dare not speak its name.
Housman told a celibate friend (exaggerating considerably and alluding to the "stain"), "the average Englishman is a sexual monomaniac; and if you and I have escaped the taint we may be thankful" (Letters, ed. Maas 309). But he did not quite "escape the taint," and his repressed sexual feelings found other, less perilous outlets. He had a keen interest in pornographic literature. He owned a nine-volume index of Bibliotheca Germanorum erotica et curiosa; and he was aroused by John Cleland's Fanny Hill, Swinburne's flagellant Whippingham Papers and The Romance of Chastisement, and Baron Corvo's pornographic letters on the homosexual underworld of Venice, with which Housman was intimately acquainted through Andrea, his acquiescent gondolier. Housman confessed, with his usual irony, that the sodomitic penetration of a woman in Lady Chatterley's Lover "did not inflame my passions to any great extent, but it is much more wholesome than Frank Harris [My Life and Loves] or James Joyce [Ulysses]" (Letters, ed. Maas 291). He also wrote in the same vein, and the widow of his friend Arthur Platt felt impelled to destroy Housman's "Rabelaisian" letters to her husband.
Richard Graves, Housman's biographer, discovered a sensational document, carelessly left in one of Housman's books, that referred to his frequent holidays in Paris. He traveled by airplane and even, with surprising insensitivity, during the blood-soaked war. He visited "a number of male prostitutes, including sailors and ballet-dancers, [noting the] price paid on various occasions for their services" and listing his numerous encounters in a two-week period (155). But Graves did not disclose the details of these mercenary transactions and drew a discreet veil over Housman's companions, fees, and frequency. Proust vividly described Baron de Charlus' visits to these louche establishments in Cities of the Plain. But it is gratifying to learn that the encounters of "M. Maisonhomme" (as he called himself)--however furtive and fleeting--afforded him some release and pleasure.
In his poetry Housman avoided the verbosity and didacticism of the Victorians, the Aestheticism and Decadence (as well as the absinthe and outlandish costume) of the 1890s, and the radical innovations of the Moderns. He anticipated both the nostalgic pastorals of the Georgians and the death-haunted anguish of the Great War poets. The deaths in colonial wars in India and Africa in A Shropshire Lad foreshadow the far greater slaughter in World War I:
East and west on fields forgotten Bleach the bones of comrades slain, Lovely lads and dead and rotten; None that go return again. (Shropshire #35)
These deaths also foreshadow the tide and morbid melancholy (replete with shires and boys) of Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth." Like Keats, Rimbaud, Owen, and Plath, Housman's poured out most of his poetry in a brief rush, and in 1895 he wrote fifty poems in a few months. Like other modern scholar poets--I. A. Richards, William Empson, D. J. Enright, and Donald Davie--poetry for Housman was not a total commitment, but an occasionally inspired part-time avocation.
Housman offered some illuminating insights about the composition of his verse, which usually came unbidden during one of his long country walks. He believed "poetry is either easy or impossible.... If you are going to be a poet, it will come naturally to you and you will pick up all you need from reading poetry" (Letters, ed. Maas 170, 225). He also thought the creation and effect of poems was emotional and physical rather than rational and intellectual, and famously described his bristling skin, shivering spine, and watery eyes when he remembered great lines of verse. In a surprising anticipation of D. H. Lawrence, he insisted, "you feel poetry in the throat, in the solar plexus, or down the spine." Lawrence later agreed about the supreme importance of that network of nerves; "the first seat of our primal consciousness is the solar plexus" (Graves 178; Lawrence 34).
Misleading as always, Housman stated, "I am not conscious of having been influenced by writing verse in Greek and Latin" (Letters, ed. Maas 205). But his Classical characteristics and Romantic content connect the two sides of his literary careers. His poems have two Latin titles: "Illic Jacet" (There lies) and "Parta Quies" (Rest attained), and seven allusions to Sappho, Lucretius, and Catullus. "To an Athlete Dying Young"--"The time you won your town the race"--recalls the ancient Greek games in which athletes competed for honors and renown. The references to fallen soldiers echo the laments for the dead in the Athenian wars against Persia and Sparta.
Housman took two dominant ideas from the Classics. He believed in the lacrimae rerum (the tears of things, in Virgil's Aeneid). And like the writers in the Greek Anthology, who also emphasized the tragic aspects of life--"At sixty I, Dionysios of Tarsos, lie here, / Never having married: and I wish my father had not"--he thought it was better not to have been born (Poems from the Greek Anthology 70). He repeated this belief in his translation (one of three brief excerpts from Greek tragedies) of Sophocles' Oedipus Coloneus: "The portion I esteem the highest, / Who wast not ever begot" (Collected Poems 243) and in "The day my mother bore me / She was a fool and glad" (Last #14).
Critics have noted the influence of Greek and Latin poetry in Housman's union of clarity and intensity. Cyril Connolly observed, "Housman is essentially a classical poet.... He has introduced into English poetry the economy, the precision, the severity of that terse and lucid [Latin] tongue." Brooks agreed that his "poetry is classical--in its lucidity, its symmetry, its formal patterning, its laconic bite and edged intensity" (Connolly 35; Brooks 62). David Perkins also noted "the restraint, studied control, marmoreal phrasing and generality ... the conspicuous absence of Christian feeling and the presence of stoicism" (202). Like his close contemporary, the Greek-Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), Housman stands at an oblique angle to the universe. Both poets display a wealth of Classical learning, perfect craftsmanship, ironic detachment, nostalgic yearning, world-weary resignation, and troubled undercurrent of homosexuality.
Though Housman dismissed his Classical influences, he was (for once) frank about some of his sources: "I have been unconsciously influenced by the Greeks and Latins, but I was surprised when critics spoke of my poetry as 'classical.' Its chief sources of which I am conscious are Shakespeare's songs, the Scottish Border ballads and Heine" (Letters, ed. Maas 329). Nietzsche was characteristically acute about Heine's satiric wit and ironic disillusionment, which strongly appealed to Housman: "The highest conception of the lyrical poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine. I seek in vain in all the realms of history for an equally sweet and passionate music. He possessed that divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection" (245).
Another (hitherto unnoticed) influence was the purity of rhyme and meter, the moving and melancholy themes of early seventeenth-century English lyrics: Walter Ralegh's "The Lie," Thomas Nashe's "A Litany in Time of Plague" ("Brightness falls from the air"), and Thomas Campion's "What If a Day" (1606):
Fortune, honor, beauty, youth Are but blossoms dying; Wanton pleasure, doting love Are but shadows flying.
Housman's rural poems oddly combine plain diction with obscure botanical terms: "awns" and "haulm." He portrays the nostalgic yearning for the bucolic idyll that was destroyed by Victorian industrialism, just as Monet's delightful Impressionist paintings show modern factories puffing out menacing smoke in the background. Tom Stoppard, noting Housman's pastoral theme, quotes Ruskin's observation that "you could see the Muses dance for Apollo in Derbyshire before the railways" (44).
Housman's dominant theme is violent or shameful death. In his modern version of the eighteenth-century Graveyard School he returns, with repetitive morbidity, to the tomb just as Hopkins always ends up with God. In Housman's anthems, the doomed youths--decadent, defeatist, and threatened by inexorable death--cannot take pleasure in nature, beauty, love, drink, or young manhood. But paradoxically, to escape from the intolerable pains of life, they also long for the release of death by war, hanging, murder, suicide, or disease. Like Housman himself, his unheroic persona believes "And on through night to morning / The earth runs ruinward" (More 43) and suffers (as Housman did) from "The mortal sickness of a mind / Too unhappy to be kind" (Shropshire 41). His tormented self-portrayal as "a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made" (Last 12) echoes "a stranger in a strange land" (Exodus 2:22) and recalls Hamlet's lament, "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!" In contrast to Dylan Thomas's violent opposition to malign fate: "Do not go gentle into that good night ... / Rage, rage against the dying of the light," Housman merely offers meek submission. He seems to have only an attenuated sympathy for his ill-fated lads and tends to write them off as hopeless cases.
One of Housman's most famous lyrics, using delicate repetition and liquid "Is," opposes the lad's loss in the first quatrain to his friend's fate in the second and provides a striking contrast to his favorite Romantic poet:
With rue my heart is laden For golden friends I had, For many a rose-lipt maiden And many a lightfoot lad. By brooks too broad for leaping The lightfoot lads are laid; The rose-lipt girls are sleeping In fields where roses fade. (Shropshire #54)
The self-pitying pejorist Housman said that Wordsworth believed "in the morality of the universe and the tendency of events to good" (Selected Prose 186). In the optimistic pantheism of Wordsworth's similarly dramatic verse, "sleeping" takes on an entirely different meaning. He describes the deceptive complacency of the man and apparent invulnerability of the young woman who suddenly and shockingly dies. But instead of fading like roses, she is absorbed by and lives eternally in the natural world:
A slumber did my spirit seal; I had no human fears: She seemed a thing that could not feel The touch of earthly years. No motion has she now, no force; She neither hears nor sees; Rolled round in earth's diurnal course, With rocks, and stones, and trees.
Despite their differences, the poems are similar in style. Both rhymed poems have eight lines and two quatrains, with alternating four and three accents per line. Both have simple, often monosyllabic diction and heavy alliteration. Both shift from past to present tense and from the first to the third person.
Kipling's poem on hanging, "Danny Deever" (1890), and Housman's similar meter and long lines in his posthumously published poem on the same theme, offer another illuminating comparison:
For they're hangin' Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play, The Regiment's in 'ollow square--they're hangin' him to-day; They've taken of his buttons off an' cut his stripes away, An' they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'.
Kipling's soldier is executed for shooting a comrade. Housman's innocent youth is hanged for the natural and immutable color of his hair, which symbolizes (after the scandalous trials of Oscar Wilde) his homosexuality. Housman begins by asking three rhetorical questions; his unusually long fourteener lines repeat the key words: "colour," "hair," and "hanging"; and the ironic, five-syllabic "abominable" has a powerful crusading effect:
Oh who is that young sinner with 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. '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. (Additional #18)
The autobiographer and editor J. R. Ackerley described the desperate measures that young men took, a half-century after Wilde's imprisonment, to avoid public humiliation and disgrace. As late as 1942, during a homosexual trial of twenty men in Wales, "one youth of nineteen committed suicide on the railway lines, and two others attempted unsuccessfully to do away with themselves by hanging and poison, to avoid the shame of exposure" (62).
Housman's two principal poetic heirs were John Betjeman, who was nostalgic, evocative, and fearful of death, and Philip Larkin, who (suggesting Housman as well as himself) wittily remarked in Required Writing, "deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth" (47). Housman also had a rather surprising influence on George Orwell. A pupil at Eton of Housman's pupil and friend A. S. E Gow, Orwell echoed Housman by asking his bewildered classmates, "are you Cyrenaic?" (Meyers 34). The Chestnut Tree Cafe at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Orwell's ironic parody of Housman--"under the spreading chestnut tree / I sold you and you sold me"--allude to the splendid opening lines of "The chestnut casts his flambeau" (Last #9; Orwell 77,296).
In "Inside the Whale" Orwell wrote that in Housman's poems the rosebuds fade before the lads can gather them, the girls betray, marry a rival, and die. He also zeroed in on Housman's crucial weakness: whining and self-pity. Owen said that in his wartime verse "the Poetry is in the pity"; in Housman's verse the pity is in the poetry (31). Partly because of this flaw, Macmillan made one of the worst mistakes in modern publishing history and rejected A Shropshire Lad, which has never gone out of print. In a similar fashion, Andre Gide rejected Swann's Way, Eliot rejected Animal Farm, and Elio Vittorini rejected The Leopard. In 1896, Housman published the book at his own expense with Kegan Paul. A Shropshire Lad was well received, grew in popularity, and made Housman famous. The volume portrayed his emotional tie to Jackson and his deep sense of loss. It both concealed the secret bond and revealed it to knowledgeable readers. In the later volumes, published after Jackson's death and his own, Housman caressed his wounds and expressed his love more directly. The poems became a bestseller during the Great War, when contemporary events caught up with his prophetic mood and vision.
Housman had no influential teachers. At Oxford he disliked the intellectual arrogance of Benjamin Jowett, who proclaimed: "I am the Master of this College, /What I don't know isn't knowledge," and criticized his pronunciation of ancient Greek. Housman was essentially self-taught. Gaining the Latin professorship in London in 1892 and at Cambridge in 1911 was analogous to being promoted from private to general--like Sir Hector Macdonald, who committed suicide after a homosexual scandal. He moved from expressing his own feelings to intuiting the feelings of ancient authors. He wrote his own poetry to express the pain of thwarted love and edited Latin poetry to establish his international reputation. Humiliated by his failure in final examinations at Oxford, he retaliated by humiliating his adversaries in scholarly feuds. He loved virulent disputations and felt invulnerable to counterattacks. After his tragic disappointment, he shut off his emotions and devoted himself to arid scholarship and to the contemptuous condemnation of his competitors.
Housman was drawn at first to Propertius' melancholy, self-absorbed and self-pitying love for Cynthia, and to "the ecstasy, torments and humiliation of his feverish passion," whose "transports are often interrupted by sombre reflections on death" (The Oxford 349). He was also drawn to Ovid's torrent of learned but violent love in Ibis, written during his exile from Rome to the Black Sea. But he turned instead, as another form of self-torment, to what he called the 4,500 lines of "facile and frivolous" poetry in Manilius' Astronomica. "I adjure you not to waste your time on Manilius," he told Robert Bridges. "He writes on astronomy and astrology without knowing either" (Letters, ed. Maas 222n30). Despite the title, this prolix, mediocre author wrote mainly about astrology. In contrast to Housman, Manilius saw design and "heavenly reason" in the order of the universe. Housman himself wrote knowledgably about astronomy in "The Sun at noon to higher air" (Shropshire #10) and "The Wain upon the northern steep" (Last #17).
To compensate for his early failure Housman challenged two of the greatest Classical scholars of all time: the Dutch Joseph Scaliger, who produced an edition of Manilius in 1579, and Richard Bentley, who had been Master of Housman's own Trinity College and whose edition appeared in 1739. To establish his own superiority he also imitated Bentley's caustic comments. Preferring textual problems to aesthetic pleasure, Housman wrote that Manilius is "an author both corrupt and difficult.... Even after Scaliger and Bentley there remains much to explain as to emend" (Selected Prose 40). He gave an incisive account of his scholarly method by stating that editing had the same physical effect on him as reading great poetry: "when one at this date makes a [textual] conjecture of this sort one ought to do it with one's hair standing on end and one's knees giving way beneath one; because the odds are a hundred to one that it is a conjecture which our betters were withheld from making by their superior tact" (Letters, ed. Maas 404). He published about 235 articles and edited Lucan, Juvenal, and five volumes of Manilius between 1903 and 1930. Widely acknowledged as the greatest scholar of his age, he could justly claim with Horace: Exegi monumentum aere perennius (I have built a monument more lasting than bronze).
But it was not enough for him to succeed: others had to fail. Housman's vitriolic comments, which reveal the bitter aspect of his character that contrasts to the appealing persona of A Shropshire Lad, are better known than his scholarship and worth quoting at length. These comments are the metaphorical equivalent of Apollo's flaying of Marsyas after the mortal musician had dared to challenge the god. Jonathan Swift's satire suggests the effect of Housman's attacks on his targets: "Last Week I saw a Woman flay'd, and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her Person for the worse" (343). As Housman self-reflectively wrote of Milton, Classics "did not sweeten his naturally disagreeable temper" (Selected Prose 10). Alluding to "vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Romans 12:19), he also exclaimed, "revenge is a valuable passion, and the only sure pillar on which justice rests" (Letters, ed. Maas 177). Willing to wound and not afraid to strike, Housman was equally severe in his private letters about contemporary writers and his public pronouncements about pompous German scholars who were used to respectful adulation. He treated distinguished colleagues as errant schoolboys who had to be lashed with his tongue and provided considerable amusement to everyone but the unfortunate victims. In his modern Dunciad the chien mechant of Trinity College would say to scholars as well as to readers of his poetry, "Terence, this is stupid stuff" (Shropshire 62).
Housman called one scholar a "buffoon," another an "idiot child." Applying the rack and thumbscrew, he variously exclaimed: "works of this sort are little better than interruptions to our studies"; they are "a long record of conjectures which dishonour the human intellect"; "all the tools he uses are two-edged, though to be sure both edges are quite blunt" Housman continued his massacre with: "he was a born blunderer, marked cross from the womb and perverse"; "in his corruptions and misinterpretations of the text he seems to stick at no falsehood and no absurdity which the pen will consent to trace on paper"; he discharged "bucketfuls of falsehood ... on an ignorant and confiding public"; "he wantonly deceived the less wary of his readers with an inaccurate collation ... an insidious peril and a pernicious nuisance" (Selected Prose xii; Sullivan 172; Selected Prose 34, 46). Housman took it upon himself to uphold the highest standards, but also reaped grim pleasure by vaporizing his foes. He was scarcely less scathing about eminent writers. Meredith is a "galvanised corpse. By this time he stinketh." Hopkins "compensates by strangeness for the lack of pure merit." The critic George Saintsbury is "shallow and ignorant." Galsworthy is "without a spark of genius." Chesterton is "cheap and brassy" (Letters, ed. Maas 67, 158-59, 252, 282, 126).
When suffering from heart disease in his mid-seventies, Housman wanted to die in real life as ardently as his lads had longed to die in his poems: "I wish [life] had ended a year and a half ago," he lamented. "The great and real troubles of my early manhood did not render those days so permanently unsatisfactory as these.... I still go up my 44 stairs [to my rooms] two at a time, but that is in hopes of dropping dead at the top" (Letters, ed. Maas 363, 370).
Admirers described Housman pulling Christmas crackers and playing with children to show he had a modicum of human feeling. But he was also notably unkind and refused to allow Wittgenstein, who lived on the floor above, to use his private bathroom when the philosopher was sick. He was not troubled when his colleague had to descend the stairs and cross the yard to the outdoor toilets. Friends were unable to penetrate his forbidding silence. The Oxford don Maurice Bowra said Housman's "underlip hinted at ferocity, and nothing hinted that he was the author of A Shropshire Lad' (254). The poet and diarist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt observed that Housman talked "fairly well, but not brilliantly or with any originality, depressed in tone, and difficult to rouse to tiny strong expression of opinion.... He would, I think, be quite silent if he were allowed to be" (387). Auden, sensing the emotional wound that Housman carefully cultivated all his life, alluded to Virgil's lacrimae rerum and to Housman's taste for pornography, and wrote in his memorial poem that the older poet "Kept tears like dirty pictures in a drawer."
Kipling, a close contemporary who transcended the suffering of his early years, described the creative tension in his own life in "The Two-Sided Man":
Much I owe to the Lands that grew-- More to the Lives that fed-- But most to Allah Who gave me two Separate sides to my head.
Housman treasured his unresolved torments. Like a flash of electric current between two poles, his tension sparked both his poetry and his scholarship.
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Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968. 146-62. Print.
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JEFFREY MEYERS is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has recently published Remembering Iris Murdoch, Thomas Mann's Artist-Heroes, and the paperback edition of his life of Scott Fitzgerald. Thirty of his books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets, and published on six continents. In 2012, he gave the Seymour lectures on biography, sponsored by the National Library of Australia, in Canberra, Melbourne, and Sydney. His book Robert Lowell in Love appeared in January 2016. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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|Date:||Feb 27, 2016|
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