This Trying Time

A.N. Wilson

  • The Warden by John Lowe
    HarperCollins, 258 pp, £19.99, August 1998, ISBN 0 00 215392 0

John Hanbury Angus Sparrow (1906-92) was a devotee of the poetry of A.E. Housman. He wrote a vivid introduction to Housman’s verse, whose tight control, both of metre and of homosexual passion, found obvious echoes in his own character. Sparrow was also co-author of A.E. Housman: An Annotated Hand-List, one of the few excursions into modern bibliography made by this great collector, 17th century bibliographer and connoisseur of Renaissance Latin, who counselled aspiring bibliomaniacs: (1) never lend anyone a book; (2) never sell a book; (3) never give anyone a book; (4) never read a book.

The ascending, punctilious nihilism of these injunctions is typical. Reading this disappointing memoir by one of Sparrow’s oldest friends, I was reminded of Auden’s line about Housman keeping ‘tears like dirty postcards in a drawer’. Then I remembered the line by which the same poet skewered Matthew Arnold: ‘And thrust his gift in prison till it died’.

Sparrow was a man who appeared to have had every girt handed him by the gods: unshakeable homosexuality – no pram in the hall to make war on his early promise; brutal, but stunning handsomeness; an exact and dogged intelligence, and a delight in arguing impossible positions which would have guaranteed him success at the Chancery Bar, had he wanted it; a bibliophile’s flair for finding rare editions – in an era when such discoveries could be made on bookstalls and in secondhand shops; an intense feeling for poetry; an exuberant sense of mischief; a romantic temperament which enabled him to enjoy a number of undemanding love affairs; a fellowship of All Souls and, at the age of only 45, the Wardenship.

Perhaps this last was the trouble, ‘OUR THOUGHTS ARE WITH YOU DURING THIS TRYING TIME. JOHN AND PENELOPE’ read his telegram from the Betjemans when he was elected. Or perhaps it was money, never having to worry about it, having been born the scion of a line of extremely prosperous ironmasters near Wolverhampton. Something, some accursed thing, made him throw it all away and do almost nothing with his life.

As a schoolboy at Winchester, Sparrow bought an early edition of Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions; and before his 18th birthday, he had published a learned edition with Cambridge. It won laudatory reviews from Edmund Gosse, George Saintsbury and others. Surely a future stretched ahead in which Sparrow was destined to be a great scholar and man of letters, perhaps a good minor poet? Who could have predicted that when this learned and precocious adolescent had become an inebriated old man, his published work would consist of a few collections of footling Latin inscriptions, some elegant essays, some broadcast talks and four lectures on Mark Pattison (his hero) which were a substitute for the great book on Pattison which, John Lowe tells us, was never even begun?

Many dons, of course, regard publication as incurably vulgar. Bruce McFarlane, a fellow of All Souls before becoming the history tutor at Magdalen, knew more about the late Middle Ages than anyone alive, but could not translate any of his knowledge into books. Sparrow might have liked to be such a man, but he wasn’t Lowe describes visiting him in old age. He got Lowe to line up his complete works on a shelf by his elbow, and having inspected them for a few minutes, he asked: ‘ “Are you sure you’ve found everything?” “Yes, I’ve looked everywhere,” I assured him. “Quite respectable, don’t you think?” ’ It is hard to know how to read this sad little exchange. No doubt kindness compelled Lowe, in the old man’s presence, to agree. But he seems to suggest that the reader, too, will agree, and this is piety run mad.

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