Nothing for Ever and Ever

Frank Kermode

  • The Letters of A.E. Housman edited by Archie Burnett
    Oxford, 1228 pp, £180.00, March 2007, ISBN 978 0 19 818496 6

When A.E. Housman failed his final examinations at Oxford he went to London to work as a clerk in the Patent Office. After ten years of that, he was appointed, at the age of 33, to the chair of Latin at University College London. In his application for the job he very properly drew attention to his Oxford failure. Not, you might think, a glowing CV, especially as he couldn’t claim any teaching experience. Yet these manifest disadvantages failed to deter the electors to the chair. They had their own criteria of eminence and saw that Housman was already one of the few. He would, before very long, be called the greatest Latinist of his age, to be named in the same breath as Bentley and Porson and Housman’s famous German contemporary Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.

He was usually quite modest about his claims: ‘I wish they would not compare me to Bentley … I will not tolerate comparison with Bentley. Bentley is alone and supreme.’ However, ‘they may compare me with Porson if they will.’ He was willing, that is, to be compared only with the runner-up for the title of greatest English classical scholar. Ordinary readers, even if they have a bit of Latin, can have little notion of what it means to know it well; those who, in their day, did know it well were ready to appoint a young man with a record of academic failure to the most influential Latin chair outside Oxford and Cambridge.

He had spent most of his London evenings in the British Museum Library working on Greek, and more intensively, Latin authors, notably Propertius, Juvenal and Ovid, and had produced some learned articles much admired by the few who were qualified to comment. Then, at University College, he began work on an edition of a long, dull and difficult first-century astronomical-astrological poem by Manilius – a text that had earlier tested the scholarship of Bentley, which was no doubt a challenge in itself. His notes on Manilius were in Latin, and the great work was published at his own expense. Its fifth and final volume appeared in 1930, 27 years after the first.

Its few readers needed to be high-calibre specialists. He made no attempt to persuade others that Manilius was worth their trouble. ‘I adjure you,’ he wrote to Robert Bridges, the poet laureate, ‘not to waste your time on Manilius. He writes on astronomy and astrology without knowing either.’ To an American correspondent he wrote: ‘I do not send you a copy, as it would shock you very much; it is so dull that few professed scholars can read it, probably not one in the whole United States.’ Perhaps the real experts were more interested in Housman’s Latinity than in Manilius’ Latin. But Manilius was his chosen life-work, and when he finished it he seems to have felt about it much as Chapman did on finishing his Homer: ‘The work that I was born to do is done.’ He said repeatedly that the publication of the final volume left him nothing more to do; he would now (at 71) ‘do nothing for ever and ever’.

In his well-known essay on Housman, Edmund Wilson made a special point of the author’s giving up work on a poet as interesting as Propertius in order to spend his life with Manilius. Wilson regarded the switch from love poems to obsolete science as evidence of an intellectual sterility all too characteristic of the English universities in Housman’s day, indeed of English society more generally; and of course there was the doubtless related matter of Housman’s sterile love for Moses Jackson, a friend and fellow undergraduate capable of inspiring the deep devotion of the young Housman but lacking any intention of responding in the manner desired. Moses Jackson was certainly important to the poetry, and I don’t say there is nothing in Wilson’s theory, but there is a more difficult and more interesting aspect of the switch to Manilius: how we should understand this life-absorbing passion for a craft that required not only a virtually unparalleled grasp of ancient languages and cultures but the possession of the exquisite divinatory intelligence required to make proper use of that knowledge? It was, he believed, a gift one has to be born with – possessed, therefore, by few, even among the very learned. And it was a resource more severely tested by Manilius than by the elegant and witty Propertius.

That he was among the few capable of the choice deplored by Edmund Wilson, indeed the first among them, made him contemptuous of rivals. His views of them could be gratuitously, though to disinterested observers amusingly insulting. As a freshman, describing his Oxford matriculation ceremony in a letter to his stepmother, he remarks of a document he was handed that it was ‘written in Latin, or what passes for Latin at Oxford’. Not to be silenced by the grandeur of the institution or its famous members, he did not conceal his contempt for the scholarship of the great Benjamin Jowett, Regius Professor of Greek and master of Balliol, calling his Plato ‘the best translation of a Greek philosopher which has ever been executed by a person who understood neither philosophy nor Greek’. He is said to have kept a record of choice insults for use when the need arose,[*] and he certainly preferred the harsh manner of earlier scholarly rivalries to the politer style of his contemporaries. Marginalia in his own books describe their editors and authors as idiots, asses, blunderers, thieves, egotists, ignoramuses. By way of demonstrating his amused contempt for such scholars he announced that he published his edition of Juvenal ‘for the use of editors’, editorum in usum dedidit, as if offering instruction to professionals who should not need it but all too evidently did. He had a passion for exactitude; accuracy, he said, was a duty, not a virtue. ‘When,’ he asked fretfully, ‘will mankind begin to understand that I am more careful than they are, not less?’

He declined all academic and national honours because to accept them would be to admit comparability with other classical scholars who had received them, admiring the attitude of the 17th-century Greek scholar Thomas Gataker who refused a Cambridge doctorate because ‘like Cato the censor he would rather have people ask why he had no statue than why he had one.’ When he came across some self-critical words of T.E. Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom – ‘there was a craving to be famous; and a horror of being known to like being known’ – he wrote in the margin: ‘This is me.’ So in the course of his life he turned down everything from the OM to the poet laureateship, not to speak of many honorary doctorates. And he refused all invitations to give lectures except for the ones that he conceived to be part of his job.

There was a famous exception to this rule, the Leslie Stephen Lecture ‘On the Name and Nature of Poetry’, which he gave in 1933. The lecture was a huge success, though powerfully deplored by some Cambridge dissidents, led, as some report, by Dr Leavis, or, as some less plausibly suggest, I.A. Richards. To Leavis it seemed that it would take years to remedy the damage the lecture must have inflicted on his students. But many others found its much softer view of poetry acceptable; and what everybody remembers best are the passages about the emotional aspects of poetry. Housman included a number of surprisingly personal comments on this topic. Milton’s ‘Nymphs and shepherds, dance no more’, he said, can ‘draw tears … to the eyes of more readers than one’. And tears are only one symptom. A line of poetry can make his beard bristle as he shaves, or cause a shiver down his spine, or ‘a constriction of the throat’ as well as ‘a precipitation of water to the eyes’. For so reticent a man it was a surprising performance. It possibly upset his health, and he came to regard the date of the lecture, May 1933, as an ominous moment in his life.

I have neglected the calm progress of his academic career. Back in 1911 he accepted the chair of Latin at Cambridge and a fellowship of Trinity College, where he lived for the rest of his life. His scholarly fame was now secure, and at the same time his reputation as a vernacular poet grew to match it. The celebrity of A Shropshire Lad was greatly enhanced during the war of 1914, and the two volumes of verse that followed it were also well received. Despite his professed horror at the idea of fame, he might have felt that at least in some ways things were going quite well.

The life of a bachelor fellow of Trinity could hardly be described as arduous; the company was distinguished, the wine excellent, the menus subject to his approval and the professorial teaching load fairly light. The days could be given to Manilius, the evenings to extensive reading or to such avocations as research into Latin obscenities. He had a private lavatory and, declaring himself to be a philosophical hedonist, refused on principle to allow his less fortunate neighbour, Wittgenstein, to use it. Vacations were filled with luxurious journeys.

And yet it is likely that few men, even taking into account these amenities, would envy such an existence. Housman’s own pronouncements, in prose and verse, on the meaning of life tend to be stoical; there were things he enjoyed, but he did not seem to enjoy them very much. And one is driven back to the position that it was the private pleasure of his divinatory exercises that made everything else tolerable. That was the view of his colleague A.S.F. Gow, who remarked that ‘a man whose mind is so perfectly adapted to the difficult and delicate tasks he has chosen out … cannot be wholly unhappy.’

Auden’s sonnet on Housman ignores Gow’s point and dwells on more furtive pleasures:

Deliberately he chose the dry-as-dust,
Kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer …
In savage footnotes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led.

Even if one leaves the poems out of account, it seems that whether or not he was unhappy he was capable of describing the state of man as one of just tolerable discomfort; and of claiming that there were ways of relieving even that degree of misery. He would tour Europe in a chauffeur-driven hired car and fly to France on the fledgling air services, claiming to conquer his fears by reflecting that every crash reported reduced the probability of his being involved in one himself. He invariably celebrated the New Year with a feast of oysters and stout. On hospitable London evenings he liked to entertain his guests at the Café Royal before taking them to a music hall.

And even dons can sometimes have fun in their donnish way, as Housman did when he became a gourmet, a connoisseur of wine, and a drinker of beer at lunch because beer produced a languor conducive to poetry. A frequent visitor to Venice, he seems to have fallen in love with a gondolier. Paris offered its own pleasures. A quieter entertainment was the composition of light verse, in which long practice made him remarkably skilful. The concluding lines of ‘Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’, written when he was at school, are here quoted as evidence that Housman could giggle learnedly:

Eriphyle (within): O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw:
And that in deed and not in word alone.

Chorus: I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.

Eri: He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
Once more; he purposes to kill me dead.

Cho: I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.

Eri: O! O! Another stroke! That makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.

Cho: If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.

If you like that sort of thing there are later poems that challenge you not to laugh. ‘Light Verse and Juvenilia’ occupy a hundred pages of Archie Burnett’s Oxford edition of the poems. Being exceptionally susceptible to poetry, Housman could laugh at it. This balances his tendency, confessed in the Leslie Stephen Lecture, to cry at it. We are told by someone who was present on an occasion when he had difficulty reading the ode of Horace that begins Diffugere nives: ‘“That,” he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, “I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature.”’ His audience was astonished, for he usually professed contempt for such literary judgments. However, when Thomas Hardy said his favourite Housman poem was ‘Is my team ploughing’, he said it was his too.

Archie Burnett, who edited the verse in almost 600 pages, has now edited Housman’s correspondence in two enormous volumes, about 1200 pages. Somebody else had edited the letters as recently as 1971, but not so thoroughly. Burnett shares his hero’s view on accuracy. Not many poetry lovers will want to read these volumes from beginning to end, and it must be said that they are somewhat reader-repellent. Their price and practically everything else about them suggests that they are not meant to be read except out of necessity, rather like the Manilius. The long editorial labour they required was a tribute rather to Housman’s eminence in other activities than to his letter-writing. He is capable of chilly, erudite jokes, and his default style, an elegant facetiousness, can be amusing. But Burnett has collected dozens of epistolary scraps, which offer little opportunity of stylistic variation. Some are only two or three words long. A great number are addressed to Housman’s publisher, Grant Richards, sometimes peremptory, sometimes indulgent – the responses varying according to the varying urgency of the business problems of the unbusinesslike Richards. The proofing and printing of successive editions of the poetry are a recurrent concern; the passion for exactitude was not limited to Manilius. What seems to be a queue of England’s keenest composers sought Housman’s permission to set lyrics from A Shropshire Lad, and they were all told, politely but coldly, that they could go ahead provided they changed no word of the poem concerned. He refused all offers of payment but insisted on the observance of the ban on omission or alteration; Vaughan Williams transgressed, and Housman seems never to have forgiven him. Repeated requests from anthologists for poems from A Shropshire Lad were turned down flat. A great many of these letters say ‘no’, very briefly, in one way or another; the shortest of them has a message of one word: ‘Refuse.’

Letters to family members, especially to his brother Laurence, whom he liked to tease, can be dutifully full, but in general Housman keeps everything short. There are many brief, authoritative replies to inquiries from scholars. Here is an entire letter to A.S.F. Gow: ‘The constellation is called Tr ’i gwnon for instance in Ptol.synt. VII c.5 (Heiberg vol. I ii p.82), schol. Arat.236, Vett. Val. p.13 13. I do not find Trigonum in Latin: in schol. Germ. ed Breys p. 109 8 sq. it is Triangulus.’ On this, as on other such recondite allusions, the editor, perhaps wisely, remains silent. He does explain in his ‘Note on Editorial Principles’ that where he has found it impossible to elucidate a reference he has chosen to remain silent, rather than to multiply notes saying ‘not identified’ or the like; for to do that, he argues, would make the footnote number ‘a false promise of enlightenment’. A sensible position, no doubt, but it would be strengthened by the omission of plainly unnecessary notes explaining that when Housman wrote ‘don’t’ he meant ‘don’t’. Still, the editor is conscientious in the provision of ascertainable information about Housman’s correspondents, and about his reading, which was more adventurous than one might have expected. It included Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses and Du côté de chez Swann.

A word of mild and, as experience suggests, useless complaint about these volumes as physical objects. They are heavy and tightly bound – presumably to save space by reducing margins. You need both hands to hold them down; if you release the pressure they snap shut. Having let go to make a note one is compelled once more to force a new entrance, feeling about as welcome as Wittgenstein. Yet there was a time when Oxford editions were a pleasure to use.

If one struggles on to the end, the reward is a moving close-up of the great man in his last years. He was 74 when he gave his Leslie Stephen performance (‘that infernal lecture’, he now called it). He had now even less reason to rejoice in the human condition or in the Latinity of his epoch. ‘I can bear my life, but I do not at all want it to go on.’ He was ill, but would run up all the stairs to his room, hoping to die at the top. In May 1935, when he was 76, he told Grant Richards that ‘the continuation of my life beyond May 1933 was a regrettable mistake.’ He could no longer manage to walk from Trinity to Magdalene (half a mile, perhaps). Nevertheless he continued to lecture, complaining that getting to the lecture-room was more tiring than giving the lecture. A month before his death in April 1936 he described himself as an ‘egoistic hedonist’, adding that while George Eliot said she was a meliorist, he was a pejorist. And ‘pejorist hedonist’, with its English blend of Latin and Greek, fits him well enough.

[*] A matter carefully examined in R.P. Graves’s biography, A.E. Housman: The Scholar Poet (1979).