Long Runs

Adam Phillips

  • The Poems of A.E. Housman edited by Archie Burnett
    Oxford, 580 pp, £80.00, December 1997, ISBN 0 19 812322 1
  • The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard
    Faber, 106 pp, £6.99, October 1997, ISBN 0 571 19271 8

‘Passion and scholarship may enhance each other’s effects,’ E.M. Forster noted in his Commonplace Book with A.E. Housman in mind. Forster was always keen to reduce the incompatibles in life: Housman was less persuaded by such redemptive harmonies. He preferred the losing paradoxes to the winning ones: ‘ “Whoever shall save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life shall find it.” That is the most important truth that has ever been uttered,’ he said in his Leslie Stephen Lecture of 1933, published as The Name and Nature of Poetry. His poetry is always fascinated by what is irresolvable – ‘Keep we must, if keep we can/These foreign laws of God and man’ – and his scholarly prose concerned, above all, with such textual resolutions as are possible in a world of inevitably corrupt classical texts. Having lost his faith at 13 – though never his interest in the Bible, as Archie Burnett’s commentary on the poems in this wonderful edition makes very clear – he discovered a vocation for accuracy.

Housman didn’t think of scholarship as merely a refuge from passion: on the rare occasions when he wrote or lectured about such things there is nothing to indicate that this was the argument he was having with himself. Indeed the fact that he devoted most of his life to classical scholarship while also being the author of two popular books of terse, passionate lyric poetry – A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896, and Last poems (1922) – was not the problem for Housman that it was for others. Burnett could not have done a better job of convincing us that Housman was ‘one of the true scholar-poets’; but one of the ways he has done this is by suggesting that the scholarship that went into the scholarship was similar to the scholarship that went into the poems, whereas Housman himself viewed the writing of poetry and the emending of texts as circumstantially different, as involving different skills and talents: ‘the intellect is not the fount of poetry ... it may actually hinder its production, and it cannot be trusted even to recognise poetry when produced.’ At the same time, ‘literary’ concerns, he insisted, could be a menace to scholarship. So when Burnett says in his Introduction that Housman had ‘a mind trained to precision, amazingly retentive, and exquisitely sensitive to literary values ... as in his scholarship, such accuracy was a lifelong preoccupation,’ it seems both true and worth quibbling with – if only because the accuracy of textual conjecture is always a different matter from the accuracy of poetic allusion.

It is also worth asking what a life devoted to accuracy is a life devoted to. This, inevitably, is more the province of Tom Stoppard’s often riveting play about Housman, The Invention of Love, than of Burnett’s scholarly edition of the poems. While Wilde, whom Stoppard uses as a foil for Housman, warned against falling into careless habits of accuracy – as though accuracy (or rigour) were simply conformism, weak morality masquerading as strong epistemology – Housman with his own mordant wit worried that if the scholarship were not precise we simply wouldn’t be reading the right texts (‘works of this sort,’ he wrote of one poorly edited classical text, ‘are little better than interruptions to our studies’). But why isn’t it better to be interesting than right? What’s the big deal about precision as an end in itself? As Stoppard archly knows – and as Arnold and Ruskin and Pater and Wilde and Housman knew in rather different ways – so much hangs on the question of accuracy. Or what fantasies of accuracy are used to do.

‘ “To see the object as in itself it really is”, has been justly said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever,’ Matthew Arnold said in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1857). The remark was more question-begging than he liked to think, and Housman, who knew all Arnold’s poetry by heart, was pointedly to echo it in his first lecture as Professor of Latin at University College London in 1892. ‘It must in the long run be better,’ he said, ‘for a man to see things as they are.’ (‘I have spent most of my time,’ he remarked on another occasion, ‘in finding faults because finding faults, if they are real and not imaginary, is the most useful sort of criticism.’) Nothing has suffered more, in the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, than the idea of the real. And the idea of how long the long run might be. Housman never lost his faith that there were real things – like suffering and love and knowledge and death – and that we are obliged to take them seriously. If, as he wrote, ‘accuracy is a duty and not a virtue,’ it is not up for grabs; and it is part of Housman’s finer rigour to make, as well as take on, such distinctions. ‘Life,’ Stoppard’s Housman remarks, ‘is in the minding.’ Caring about something is caring that it be as good as it can be. Housman took the kind of care of his chosen (dead) authors – often savaging those who could not do them justice – that he wasn’t ultimately able to take of the man who was the love of his life, Moses Jackson. But the scholarship was not a substitute, or some kind of embittered retreat: it was another way of doing a similar thing. Accuracy was a form of love for Housman; and love always exposes one’s incompetence.

The notion of producing an authoritative scholarly edition of Housman’s published and unpublished poems, as Burnett’s certainly is, could itself have been the subject, if not the pretext, for a Stoppard play. Burnett is neither coy nor unduly self-reflexive about the task of editing the most exacting of editors. He takes the pressure, and he takes the pressure off, by being at once thorough and painstaking with the required information, and by occasionally aping Housman’s gleeful knockdown wit.

‘Completing’ the poems, whether by adding lines or by moving around other lines or phrases of AEH’s, has no place in this edition. Those interested in creative writing may consult ‘Two Housman Torsos’ by Robert Conquest, TLS, 19 Oct. 1973. Those with a taste for highly creative writing should seek out A.E. Housman: New Poems [sic] ed. [sic] by John Edmunds, with a preface and notes by Hilary Bacon (San Francisco, 1985).

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