Ars Poetica, Remembering A.E. Housman, 1

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Ars Poetica – Remembering A.E. Housman, 1

By Darrell Sutton

The history of classical Greek and Roman philology is replete with names of distinction. The list extends over 2300 years. It is an intellectual tradition containing poets, prose writers, their interpreters, grammarians, and textual critics. In the last seven decades, the issuance of private letters, extracts from diaries, and reminiscences by friends and family members, has bolstered the fame or infamy of a select group of men and women who made their living studying Greco-Roman literature. Arnaldo Momigliano (1908-1987) firmly established the history of historiography by conducting extensive biographical studies of ancient and modern figures of importance in classical scholarship. He asked the right questions and he provided insightful answers that were founded on new interpretations of extant evidence.

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931), arguably a better Hellenist than anyone before or since, was once known in English classrooms only by pupils who had studied under him. Through the herculean efforts of William Calder III, Wilamowitz’ name, if not his specific publications, is known today within wider fields of classical studies. Deploying philological gifts that are better suited in translation for paraphrase than exactness, students owe much to Anthony Grafton for his broad studies of the history of ideas, Renaissance classical traditions, and analyses of Joseph J. Scaliger (1540-1609). Likewise, Christopher Stray’s interests have reshaped how one views the educational contexts of British classical studies in the last two hundred years. Disclosures  regarding the careers and temperaments of Richard Jebb (1841-1905) and Eduard Fraenkel (1888-1970) have been enlightening. Granted, the subjects Stray treats did not require him to engage in philological criticism, yet his literary frameworks help separate fact from fiction apropos some notable figures and institutions.

British classical scholarship, in  a ‘specialist’ sense, began with Richard Bentley (1662-1742), who possessed a unique aptitude for critical studies of Greek and Latin texts. During the century and half following his death, Bentley’s legacy endured. Of English classicists at work one hundred years ago, few rivaled Mr. Housman in scholarly precision or in scholarly contempt for one’s peers. Aggressive and audacious, his emendations of texts were prodigious, he poured forth vitriol in abundance on German classicists; and he was hailed by a few of them as the best Latinist of the day, the best Bentleian textual critic since Bentley.

A.E. Housman was born on March 26 1859. The grandson of evangelical ministers on both sides of his family, he was raised in Fockbury on the outskirts of Bromsgrove, a town whose fame now is partly tied to his memory. His parents were well off. The surrounding villages of his youth would later became useful toponyms in his poems. Sarah, Housman’s mother, shared her son’s poetic aspirations.

The earliest years of Housman’s youth remain obscure. As regards religion, he was not particularly devout. Indeed, the death of his mother when he was twelve may have inclined him towards atheism. By the age of fifteen, he was committed to poetry. Early fame came with the poem ‘The Death of Socrates’. It won him an award. His love for the verse of Horace is apparent in his verse translation of Hor. Od. I 2 29. And his early acquaintance and application of scripture for literary purposes is shown in the 1875 poem, ‘St. Paul on Mars Hill.’ After his mother’s decease in 1871, Housman’s father Edward, a solicitor, but not the best steward of funds, married a cousin on June 26 1873 whose name was Lucy. The relationship between Alfred and his stepmother seems to have been solid. In a letter to her in 1873 he calls her “dearest momma”.’[i]

Housman attributed his turn towards Greek and Latin at the age of seventeen to a gift volume of translated verse entitled Sabrinae Corolla in Hortulis Regiae Scholae Salopiensis (1850). Housman first visited London in 1875: he took in Trafalgar square, the Bank & Exchange, and Joseph Hadyn’s musical By Thee with Bliss. In a detailed letter to his stepmother he describes his adventures in the city. He mentions spending a significant amount of time in the Greek and Roman section of the British Museum. In the next decade he would find this building to be invaluable for research, spending many evenings there studying the texts of ancient dramatists and poets.

Alfred went up to St. John’s College in the fall of 1877. He was a brilliant pupil possessed of insatiable curiosity. The rigor of classical scholarship excited him to such degree that he decided his German language studies should be postponed .[ii] He relished the minutiae of Greek and Latin studies. The profession to which he was bred took in textual criticism, which entails inter alia a move away from a subjective dependence upon MSS, in order to discern true and false readings, and where necessary, to emend them. By now, Housman was investigating the transmission of the texts of Propertius, and according to a letter to a publisher, he had “formed the design of producing an edition and commentary which should meet the requirements of modern critical science…”.[iii]

Housman believed Emil Baehrens’ (1848-1888) edition, Sex. Propertii: Elegiarum Libri IV (1880) was not sufficiently scientific, given the material available. He also began writing some “nonsense” verses for Ye Rounde Table.[iv] Each one, thanks to their literary wit and satirical manner, found favour.[v] As far as the classics curriculum went, there were other colleges of repute but St. John’s proved to be an excellent choice. Housman’s tutor T.H. Warren provided him with a list of suggested readings. The list included c. 300 epigrams of Martial and several sections of Propertius’s poetry (Paley), and Madvig’s Cicero De Finibus book II. But of more significance was the assigning of Wilhelm Wagner’s (1843-1880) 1876 volume: T. MACCI PLAVTI AVLVLARIA: with Notes Critical and Exegetical and an Introduction. Throughout the volume, Wagner engaged with the theories of textual critics, especially F. Ritchl. Housman would not have agreed with Wagner’s conclusion on 69: “…we gain and learn more and arrive at more stable results by means of a critical and conservative observation of single facts than by specious but unsound emendations of seeming irregularities.”

In the summer of 1881 Housman, failed ‘Greats.’ He subsequently returned to Oxford and in the Fall received a pass degree from the university. He then scored a passing grade in the Civil Service Exam and obtained a position as a clerk in the Royal Patent Office in London. When he began his employment there, he already had been teaching the sixth form at Bromsgrove School. In London, while working there alongside his friend Moses Jackson,[vi] his evenings were spent mainly at the British Museum. He studied the texts of Propertius, Horace and a few Greek tragedians. His earliest academic output (c.1882) affirms this. The dual roles of clerk and independent scholar both involved the examination of documents and original ideas. He never obtain a doctorate, nor was it deemed necessary for philological research at this time. The methods he employed originated with textual critics of previous generations. The influence of any of his professors on his outlook are negligible.

Over the next decade he published twenty-five papers of exceptional quality (including two reviews).[vii] Each of these contained the kind of invective usually associated with a youthful mind and zealous attitude. But the publications brought him to the attention of scholars. During the years 1884-1886 he published little in journals. Undoubtedly, he was hard at work developing his textual theories about the manuscripts of Propertius.[viii] In March of 1885 he wrote to Lucy Housman, lauding her literary talents. Illustrating a literary appreciation for scripture, he opined on March 29 1885 that, “with the possible exception of the second of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians,” it was the best letter he had read.[ix] By the summer of the same year he was writing of his brief time sitting on a coroner’s jury and of the suspected dangers attached to his job at the Patent Office.

In 1887, there are only two pieces of extant correspondence in Burnett’s Letters (pp. 60-61). Housman addressed R.Y. Tyrrell and W. Aldis Wright regarding ancient Greek language and orthography. On March 7 and March 22 1891, he sent two brief notes to the editor of The Academy.[x] In the first, he expressed dismay concerning W.G. Rutherford and Lewis Campbell’s misreading of a Greek sentence, which Housman alleges “is neither verse nor Greek.” Therefore, in order to make sense of the text, Housman emends it. He claimed that Campbell and some fellow editors have misconstrued a term. Housman was concerned that a word which does not exist might obtain a place in “our fragment of Euripides.”

On February 7 1892, Alfred Goodwin died and the chairs of Greek and Latin became vacant at University College, London. On March 19, Housman duly applied for either of the academic appointments. His letter of application was written as follows:

To the Council of University College, London

H.M. Patent Office London

19 April 1892

I have the honour to present myself as a candidate for the vacant Professorship of Latin in University College. If however the Latin Chair should be conferred upon another, I would ask to be considered as an applicant in that event for the Professorship of Greek.

I am thirty-three years of age. I entered the University of Oxford as a scholar of St. John’s College in 1877; in 1879 I was placed in the first class in the Honour School of Classical Moderations. In 1881 I failed to obtain honours in the Final School of Litterae Humaniores. I have since passed the finals for the degree of B.A., and am of standing to take the degree of M.A. in the event of my appointment to a Professorship. In 1881 and 1882 I was for some time engaged in teaching the sixth form at Bromsgrove School, and in the latter year I obtained by open competition a Higher Division Clerkship in Her Majesty’s Patent Office, which I now hold.

During the last ten years the study of the Classics has been the chief occupation of my leisure, and I have contributed to the learned journals many papers on ancient literature and critical science, of which the following are more important…

If I am honoured by your choice I shall give my best endeavors to the fulfillment of my duties and to the maintenance of accurate learning in University College. I have the honour to be,

My Lords and Gentlemen,

Your obedient servant

A.E. Housman

To this letter was appended a pamphlet of testimonials. In 1892, Housman obtained the Chair of Latin. His election over the other eighteen applicants was announced in the month of June, and so began his distinguished career as a Professor in London and later in Cambridge, stretching well over four decades. He departed the patent office. In this new position he had a singular focus, disseminating his well thought-out ideas. Previously prepared material quickly appeared. Two articles, one on the texts of Sophocles, another on a paper concerning the Vatican Glossary, were published.

In Housman’s inaugural lecture, his comments about Herbert Spencer on the supposed utility of science and the influence that astronomy has had on the masses, were less than flattering. But the homage that Housman paid to the study of the classics still echoes 130 years after the event. Speaking of the uses of Greek and Latin classical literature, Housman says,

“The special benefit which those studies are supposed, and in some cases justly supposed, to confer, is to quicken our appreciation of what is excellent and what is not. And since literature is the instrument by which this education is imparted, it is in the domain of literature that this quickened appreciation and sharpened discrimination ought first to display themselves.

If anyone wants convincing of the inestimable value of a classical education to those who are naturally qualified to profit from it, let him compare our two greatest poets, Shakespeare and Milton, and see what the classics did for one and what the lack of the classics did for the other. Milton was steeped through and through with classical literature; and he is the one English poet from whom an Englishman ignorant of Greek and Latin can learn what the great classics were like. Mark: the classics cannot be said to have succeeded altogether in transforming and beautifying Milton’s inner nature. They did not sweeten his naturally disagreeable temper; they did not enable him to conduct controversy with urbanity or even with decency.

But in the province of literature, where their influence is soonest and more powerfully exerted, they conferred on him all the benefits which their encomiasts ascribe to them. The dignity, the sanity, the unfaltering elevation of style, the just subordination of detail, the due adaptation of means to ends, the high respect of the craftsman for his craft and for himself, which ennoble Virgil and the great Greeks, are all to be found in Milton, and nowhere else in English literature are they to be found: certainly not in Shakespeare. In richness of natural endowment Shakespeare was the superior even of Milton; but he had small Latin and less Greek, and the result…”.

Housman continued to write poetry in the 1890s. The notebooks left behind at his death are annotated with a variety of dates, signifying the time of a poem’s composition. The dated poems are listed by Housman’s brother Laurence in the back of the posthumously published volume, More Poems (1936). Over twenty poems are dated 1890-1895.[xi]  The bulk of them are in A Shropshire Lad or Last Poems. A Shropshire Lad (ASL) was published in 1896. It was originally entitled ‘Poems of Terence Hearsay’. The Terence series had attractive aspects to it. Thematic ideas, when written well, captivate audiences. But the military overtones of some of the poems engendered a request to Housman to modify the whole. He declined to do so. Upon its release the book was favorably reviewed, at times pseudonymously. Eventually, the book of poems became a success in the “classic” sense of the word and remains in print today.

In 1899, astronomy and the discovery of the Oxford lines of Juvenal in 1899 caught his attention. Astute editors had studied Manilius before. Even so, Housman saw an avenue that he believed other scholars were incapable, or fearful, of traversing. Speaking of Cambridge classicists, he remarked, “The Latinists here are very well disposed towards me but terribly afraid of Manilius.”

On the other hand, like Horos, at Prop. IV I, Housman presumed that ancient astrology was the superior to all forms of divination practiced among Greeks and Romans.[xii] Astronomy or astrology is the science that is artfully treated in Manilius’ treatise, Astronomica. For thirty years he analyzed these texts: he deleted, transposed, amended and conjectured wherever he felt it was necessary. The first volume of a projected five-volume series appeared in 1903. The whole series set new benchmarks for text-critical studies. Two years later he issued the 1905 edition of Juvenal, which Housman sent off to J.P. Postgate to be the second volume of the Corpus Poetarum Latinorum (CPL). He labored profusely over the MSS. It was/is thought by some persons that this piece of scholarship was performed in a hasty manner. Housman seems to have confirmed the charge.

He considered editing Martial’s epigrams. A year or so prior to this, there was some correspondence between Housman and W.M. Lindsay (1858-1937): see Burnett, Letters I, 141. Housman and Lindsay led the way as distinguished Latinists. Although they rather admired each other, they attacked each other in print. In a letter to J.D. Duff, on August 26 1905, he wrote unfavorably of some lines he had crossed out in Lindsay’s edition. He then remarked “I suppose I shall be driven to edit Martial myself, much against my will, in order that it may come to its rights”.

Under Postgate’s editorship, the CPL supplied critical texts for competent scholars. A firm basis was necessary for those authors whose manuscripts were in disarray. Professor and pupil needed new texts with a moderately abbreviated apparatus. These wants could be met only by persons with a special grammatical aptitude or editorial fitness for such tasks. Housman’s expert hand was needed, and he did not disappoint. His text-critical skills won him lasting fame and prestige at home and abroad. By the spring season of 1905, on two occasions at least, a senate of academics had voted to confer the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws upon him. He declined to accept.

University College, London was a place of instruction but it was also a business. Hard at work on Latin texts, Housman shunned unnecessary administrative obligations, seeking to devote his time to pure scholarship. Yet in May 1907, he informed Walter Ashburner, “I have not been doing much in the way of writing” although two years later, on May 12 1909, he notified Grant Richards that “Manilius Book II may perhaps be ready next year.”

His publisher Grant Richards regularly sent him books. Friends and colleagues sent him queries and selections of poetry, requesting his opinion. In March 1906, Housman replied to Elisabeth Gibson, who had forwarded her poems to him to read; and on May 18 of the same year he is found supplying critical notes to Henry Jackson concerning readings in Martial’s texts, in which he commented that Grenfell and Hunt’s investigations have uncovered the Phaedrus and Symposium among papyri in Egypt and he confesses that the “Symposium is the one dialogue of Plato that I have properly read…”. He did not complain of receiving a second copy of Woodberry’s Swinburne, and happily noted his pleasure at the American reception of Lowes Dickinson’s Greek View of Life.

On May 1 1907 Robinson Ellis received a letter from Housman informing him that a MS of Manilius had arrived from Göttingen, and that he was willing to provide information on the document if Ellis so desired. In the same month, Richards sent him The Triumph of Mammon. It was the first of a trilogy on God and Mammon by J. Davidson. Housman said of certain passages that they were “like the doctrine of the Trinity: probably false and quite unimportant if true.” In the  summer of 1907, he was reading Bynner’s An Ode to Harvard and Other Poems (1907). During February 1908 to he critiqued his brother Laurence’s selections of poetry. Beleaguered by reading material, J.P. Postgate hears that Housman has completed reading W.G. Headlam’s 1908 booklet ‘Restorations of Menander.’ Housman claimed that Headlam “keeps a sharper eye on the metre than Wilomowitz.”[xiii]

Fulfilling a request for Friedrich Vollmer in the fall of 1908, Housman was once again ensconced in the British Museum, researching cod. Harl. 2745. His findings were then communicated to Vollmer in a letter on November 30. Vollmer responded to Housman’s aid by sending him a copy of his well-researched 1909 publication Appendix Vergiliana. Richards sent him yet another volume. It was Royal Tyler’s Spain: A Study of Her Life and Arts (1909). This tome Housman enjoyed far more than the volume sent by Lily Thicknesse on The Rights and Wrongs of Women: A Digest with Practical Illustrations and Notes on the Law in France (1909) by Ralph Thicknesse. Of the degrading of women outlined therein Housman wrote “My blood boils.”[xiv]

In late 1909, he perused the poetry of Rachel Taylor. Her new volume, artfully designated Rose and Vine, generally received lukewarm praise. Housman thought she possessed “technical skill” but that her compositions exhibited a “curious indistinctness”. On November 26, he read a paper on ancient Latin poets to The Oxford Philological Society, entitled ‘Greek Nouns in Latin Poetry’. He stayed over night with Oxford Professor Gilbert Murray.

From 1906 until the outbreak of World War One, he published upwards of thirty papers.[xv] A close eye on zodiacal issues printed in a German volume, Sphaera, permitted him to write to D’Arcy Thompson in July 1910 that “cancer appears in Egyptian zodiacs sometimes as a beetle.” On December 1, 1910, J.E.B. Mayor (b.1825), Cambridge’s Kennedy Professor of Latin, died. Housman was elected to the post in his place and simultaneously became a Fellow of Trinity. On May 9th 1911, A.E. Housman delivered his inaugural lecture for this professorship. His lecture, titled, The Confines of Criticism, was a forceful and focused oration. His views, though not accepted by all, were reasonably presented. He emphasised his veneration for one of his predecessors, Munro, [xvi] as follows: “…but the history of scholarship in England must be forgotten before English Latinists can cease to remember him with gratitude and reverence,  for we are also his offspring…”[xvii] In addition, he denounced the conflation of literary criticism with the business of scholarship. He declared: [The scholar] “…has no right to presume that his own aesthetic perceptions are superior to those of anyone whom he addresses…” and that “The aim of science is the discovery of truth, while the aim of literature is the production of pleasure; and the two aims are not merely distinct but often incompatible, so that large departments of literature are also departments of lying.” The latter part of 1911 and early 1912 were devoted to seeing the next installment of Manilius through the press. Its publication provoked some strong reviews. They almost all emphasised its originality but also Housman’s habitual discourteousness.


[i] Archie Burnett, The Letters of A.E. Housman: Volume I: 1872-1928 and Volume II: 1929-1936 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Henceforth cited as Burnett, Letters I, or II. Quotation is taken from Burnett, Letters I, 4.

[ii] Burnett, Letters I, 30. One letter to Elizabeth Wise, July 8 1877, and written wholly in French, shows his facility by this time with at least one of the major Romance languages of Europe.

[iii] Burnett, Letters I, 58.

[iv] T.B. Haber, ‘A.E. Housman and “Ye Rounde Table”’, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology (October 1962), Vol. 61, No. 4, 797-809.

[v] P.G. Naiditch, ‘A.E. Housman’s Prose Contributions to Ye Rounde Table’, The Housman Society Journal (2011), Vol. 37, 21-46.

[vi] Their relationship is dealt with by the writer in “Polemicizing Housman”, The Quarterly Review (Oct. 16 2015)  and more fully by the writer in the appendix:  “The Polemics of ‘Sexual Criticism’: Interpretative Thoughts on Alfred’s Private Life, in Introducing A.E. Housman (1859-1936): Preliminary Studies (2018).

[vii] E.g. ‘Horatiana [I]’, (1882); ‘Horatiana [II]’, (1888); ‘Horatiana [III]’, (1890); ‘On Certain Corruptions in the Persae of Aeschylus’, (1888); ‘Emendationes Propertianae’, (1888); ‘Emendationes in Ovid’s Metamorphoses’, (1890); ‘Conjectural Emendations in the Medea’, (1890); ‘The New Fragment of Euripides’, (1891); ‘Adversaria Orthographica’, (1891) and ‘Remarks on the Vatican Glossary 3321’, (1892).

[viii] In a letter to Macmillan and Company, Housman requested that they consider publishing his recension of the text of Propertius. they declined to publish that one and other volumes also proposed to them by Housman. See Burnett, Letters I, 58-59.

[ix] Burnett, Letters I, 55.

[x] Republished in J. Diggle and F.R.D. Goodyear The Classical Papers of A. E. Housman  (Cambridge: 1972), cited henceforth as HCP I, II, III.

[xi] Sept. 1890: ‘Once in the Wind of Morning’; Jul. 1891: ‘In Summertime on Bredon’; 1891-1892: ‘Far in A Western Brookland’; Feb. 1893: ‘Tis Time, I think, by Wenlock Town’ and ‘The Weeping Pleiads Wester’; Aug. 1894: ‘Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree’; Dec. 1894: ‘The Lad Came to the Door at Night’; Jan. 1895: ‘When I was one and Twenty’; ‘Wake the Silver Dusk Returning’; ‘Leave your Home Behind, Lad’; ‘High the Vanes of Shrewsbury Gleam’; (Feb.): ‘On Moonlit Heath and Lonesome Bank’; (Mar.): ‘Far I Hear The Bugle Blow’; (Apr.): ‘Tis Spring: Come out to Ramble’; (May): ‘Oh, When I was in Love with You’; (?Jun.): ‘Along the Field As We Came By’; (Jul.): ‘When I Came Last to Ludlow’; (Aug.): ‘Here the Hangman Stops his Cart’; (Sept.): ‘Morning Up The Eastern Stair’; (Nov.): ‘In My Own Shire If I Were Sad’; (Dec.): ‘Yonder See The Morning Blink.’

[xii] HCP I, 146.

[xiii] Related by blood to Richard Bentley through his mother’s lineage, Walter G. Headlam (1866-1908) was a classicist who authored some superb papers, but one whose acute intellect surpassed any energetic drive to publish his research.

[xiv] Burnett, Letters I, 238.

[xv] Numbered 74-107 in HCP II, the papers are predominantly Latin in sequence, The multiplicity of authors he treated is noteworthy: Statius, Lucilian, Pindar, Manilius, Martial, Lucretius, Cicero, Calimachus et cetera.

[xvi] Munro held the Kennedy Chair from 1869-1872. Housman believed that he, Munro, though not the best teacher, had reinstated a historically philological bent to classical British scholarship.

[xvii] John Carter, A.E. Housman: The Confines of Criticism, The Cambridge Inaugural, 1911 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 21. Housman stated Munro’s edition of Lucretius was “more compact of excellence than any edition of any classic which has ever been produced in England,” ibid., 21. Housman also expressed, generally appreciative remarks about his lately deceased predecessor J.E.B. Mayor and of his scholarship, saying, he was “a scholar who in learning, if that word is taken to mean range and thoroughness of reading, had no equal in England and no superior in Europe.” Carter, op. cit., 23.

Darrell Sutton is a regular contributor to Quarterly Review

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1 Response to Ars Poetica, Remembering A.E. Housman, 1

  1. Brian S. Rockford says:

    The Guardian (3 June 2008) said Housman’s poetry was boosted by Amis, Betjeman and Larkin (not political favourites in the Wokehouse) because of his “wistful recollections” of an England that “never existed in the first place” (a Guardianista refrain). He also had a cordial relationship with his equal in classical scholarship – Enoch Powell (even “worse”). However, Alan Hollinghurst FRSL LGBT has discovered that Housman was really another author driven by his homosexuality, so that’s all right now, then.

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