Ars Poetica, Remembering A. E. Housman, 2

Antinous Mondragone, credit Wikipedia

Ars Poetica, Remembering A.E. Housman, 2 

By Darrell Sutton


The prolongation of the Great War did not hinder Housman’s scholarly duties. Volume 3 in his series on Manilius was issued in 1916. He offered advise to aspirant poets. He evidently believed his private judgments to be of considerable value. On April 9th 1917, he sent Edmund Gosse a cursory missive of corrections for future editions of The Life of Algernon Charles Swinburne.[i] He supplied similar notes on The Letters of Algernon Charles Swinburne which had been edited by Gosse and T.J. Wise in 1918.

He was not a recluse but he avoided certain social gatherings. Some dinner parties were attended, various invitations were declined,[ii] except for periodic summons to specific scholarly bodies whose constituents desired to hear of, and were fascinated by, the rigorous analysis of texts. He was opposed to writing ‘literary criticism’ upon demand,[iii] but he attended meetings of classical scholars.[iv] From 1915-1922, Housman’s text-critical labors were tied to several projects linked to the Roman poet Ovid.[v] He published his views in full and their grounds.

His work on Greek and Latin texts continued. Matters that were peripheral to his own studies led him to advise his peers on several Greek and Latin readings of odd provenance. A.S.F. Gow was told that contrary to popular scholarly opinion Lachmann had not investigated the frequency of elision in which the elided syllable ends in m and is immediately preceded by a long vowel or diphthong, such as at Verg. Aen. V 328 Ledaeam Hermionem.”[vi] W.H.D. Rouse learned from Housman the proper meaning of haurire, that Lucretius De Re. Nat. II 453 means “you can scoop up poppy-seed in your hand as easily as water.”[vii]

On Thursday August 4th 1921, Housman lectured in Cambridge on ‘The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism’. His auditors may have been shocked by his provocative metaphors, e.g. he compared textual critic to a rhinoceros or a dog hunting for fleas. In his view, the prime functions of the criticism of texts may be defined in this way:

Textual Criticism is a science, and, since it comprises recension and emendation, it also is an art. It is the science of discovering error in texts and the art of removing it… First, then, it is not a sacred mystery. It is purely a matter of reason and of common sense. We exercise textual criticism whenever we notice and correct a misprint…

A textual critic engaged upon his business is not at all like Newton investigating the motions of the planets: he is much more like a dog hunting for fleas. If a dog hunted for fleas on mathematical principles, basing his researches on statistics of area and population, he would never catch a flea except by accident… If a dog is to hunt for fleas successfully he must be quick and he must be sensitive. It is no good for a rhinoceros to hunt for fleas: he does not know where they are and could not catch them if he did…

There is one special province of textual criticism, a large and important province, which is concerned with the establishment of rules of grammar and metre. Those rules are in part traditional, and given us by the ancient grammarians; but in part they are formed by our own induction from what we find in the MSS of Greek and Latin authors; and even the traditional rules must of course be tested by comparison with the witness of the MSS…

To be a textual critic requires aptitude for thinking and willingness to think; and though it also requires other things, those things are supplements and cannot be substitutes. Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary; and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head.

Housman’s ideas were always clear, original, and based on the main theoretic principles that guided his thought. Receiving mixed praise, he refuted “error” boldly and promptly. On account of his meticulous scholarship, the Senatus Academicus of the University of Saint Andrews sought to bestow upon Housman an honorary degree in 1922, but, as before, he declined. In the same year, Last Poems was issued. He was able to place it in the hands of Moses Jackson before the latter died only months later.[Editorial note; Moses Jackson was supposedly the unrequited love of Housman’s life]. Its reception paled compared to that accorded A Shropshire Lad. He prefaced the volume with these words:

I publish these poems, few though they are, because it is not likely that I shall ever be impelled to write much more. I can no longer expect to be revisited by the continuous excitement under which in the early months of 1895 I wrote the greater part of my first book, nor indeed could I well sustain it if it came; and it is best that what I have written should be printed while I am here to see it through the press and control its spelling and punctuation. About a quarter of this matter belongs to the April of the present year, but most of it to dates between 1895 and 1910.

In the New Year of 1924, he read a paper at Oxford, and stayed with Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, whom he described as “an amazing old man.”[viii] Circa May 1924 he provided an emendation to the editor of The Times for Keat’s poem, ‘The Fall of Hyperion I 97-101.’[ix] The Clark Lectureship was offered to him, but in early 1925 he wrote to inform J.J. Thomson he felt ill suited for the work of literary criticism, stating a preference for “those minute and pedantic studies in which I am fitted to excel and which give me pleasure.” Housman had heard Sir Walter Raleigh deliver a lecture on June 3rd 1911 and considered it exemplary. It was a standard he did not believe he could emulate.


In January 1926, Housman published Lucan: Belli Civilis Libri Decem. He had devoted several years to the careful composition of this volume. Classical scholars were surprised. Few had suspected anything from him other than the final installment of Manilius. The volume was well received. However, he felt constrained to answer one critic.[x] So in the fall of 1926, Housman wrote some brief but snappish remarks in Latin. He was reacting to specific misinformation he believed was being disseminated through a review by Eduard Fraenkel,[xi] who later received Housman’s approbation when Fraenkel was being considered for the Corpus Chair. In a smug reply, the whole of Housman’s disgust and censure is compacted in a sentence of seventeen words: “omninoque uos censores in eo errare soletis quod uobis me magis circumspecti uidemini , estes autem multo minus.”[xii]

In 1929, Housman turned down the Order of Merit.[xiii] His scholarship on the fifth installment of Manilius would soon be complete.[xiv] In addition, in late 1930, Housman mulled over a minor edition of Manilius: “just text and apparatus in one volume …”. His letters are not without touches of humor. In one letter to R.W. Chambers, Feb. 26 1931, Housman enquired if he had heard about a newspaper that reported a lecture “on the application of thought to sexual criticism”.

Housman considered the volumes on Manilius to be his chef d’oeuvre. He supposed the poem was so dull that only a few scholars could read it and did not think that any of those resided in the United States.[xv] The inferences he drew from that assertion are two: (1) classrooms in America could not produce practical minds able to understand Astronomica; but (2), continental classicists had not attained to its understanding either. His ideas about classical scholars and their scholarship were based only upon what he read in journals and from direct and indirect contact with specific individuals. Despite these misgivings, his star remained ascendant. Thus, on May 9 1933 he delivered the Leslie Stephen Lecture at Cambridge. Entitled ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’, he surveyed facets of 18th century poetry, debunking it by using several arguments. He anticipated later critics who also felt it was of lesser quality than comparable verse. From his youth, his conception of poetry was deeply attached to the Romantic era. In a lengthy digression, he assures us that “… there is verse which gives a positive and lively pleasure arising from the talent and accomplishment of its author;

Now Gilpin had a pleasant wit
And loved a timely joke,
And thus unto the Calender
In merry guise he spoke:
I came because your horse would come;
And, if I well forbode,
My hat and wig will soon be here:
They are upon the road.

Capital: but no one, if asked for a typical example of poetry, would recite those verses in reply. A typical example need not be any less plain and simple and straightforward, but it would be a little raised.

Come, worthy Greek, Ulysses, come,
Possess these shores with me;
The winds and seas are troublesome,
And here we may be free.
Here may we sit and view their toil
That travail in the deep,
And joy the day in mirth the while,
And spend the night in sleep.

There we are ceasing to gallop with the Callender’s horse and beginning to fly with Pegasus. Indeed a promising young poetaster could not do better than lay up that stanza in his memory, not necessarily as a pattern to set before him, but as a touchstone to keep at his side. Diction and movement alike, it is perfect. It is made out of the most ordinary words, yet it is pure from the least alloy of prose; and however much nearer heaven the art of poetry may have mounted, it has never flown on a surer or a lighter wing.

It is perfect, I say; and nothing more than perfection can be demanded of anything; yet poetry is capable of more than this, and more therefore is expected from it. There is a conception of poetry which is not fulfilled by pure language and liquid versification, with the simple and so to speak colourless pleasure which they afford, but involves the presence in them of something which moves and touches in a special and recognisable way. Set beside that stanza of Daniel’s these lines from Bruce’s or Logan’s Cuckoo:

Sweet bird, thy bower is ever green,
Thy sky is ever clear;
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song,
No winter in thy year.

There a new element has stolen in, a tinge of emotion. And I think that to transfuse emotion — not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer — is the peculiar function of poetry.”[xvi]

Housman’s last decade provided him with happier diversions.[xvii] He found time for some light reading of novels and history books. Other correspondents required less of his time. He read and gave counsel on books of poetry. Family matters pressed themselves upon him. And once more, in the fall of 1934, he rebuffed the conferment upon him of an honorary degree.

Between 1933 to 1935, Housman was in marked physical decline. He had concerns about his heart.[xviii] The upshot was not long in coming. He entered and exited the convalescent home on more than one occasion. Towards the end, as his health wore thin, he ambled from the nursing home directly to the lecture room and back in order to advance his students’ Latin studies. However, these duties as Professor of Latin soon became onerous. On April 21st 1936, he scribbled a note to R.A. Scott-James from the Evelyn Nursing Facility. “My dear Sir, I am obliged by your letter, but my career and it is to be hoped my life are so near their close that is to be hoped they will concern neither of us much longer.” Those words were a testament to his feelings toward the complexities of his life, an existence not to be punctuated by remorse or regret. Nine days later he died.

So passed away the Cambridge Don who regenerated the field of Latin textual criticism, holder of the Kennedy Professorship of Latin, and a textual critic who was facile princeps, ‘easily the first’ or ‘the most eminent’ among his peers.


[i] Burnett, Letters I, 375-377. Gosse’s Life, published in 1917, was sent to Housman for perusal. Housman’s disapproving remarks wounded him deeply, and E. Gosse complained that Housman had found little with which to rejoice in the book: words to which Housman replied that Gosse was in danger of cutting himself off from “my valued corrections in the future,” ibid., 377-378. Earlier, in February of the same year he had explained to his brother Laurence why he did not “admire” his Return of Alcestis, op. cit., 373.
[ii] Travel to France during the War was restricted. Housman had not been there in over two and one-half years. Moreover he declined an invitation by editor Wilbur Cross to publish a poem in The Yale Review, saying that he was not “likely to write one at any early date.” See ibid., 383. At this time he was still refusing requests to allow his poems from A Shropshire Lad to appear in anthologies of any sort.
[iii] On April 13 1920 he wrote to W. Rothenstein to say “I am sorry if it upsets your arrangements, but I am not going to write literary criticism for you or anyone else…”, Burnett, Letters I, 435.
[iv] He was present for J.S. Phillimore’s address: ‘The Revival of Criticism’, delivered to the Classical Association at Oxford, May 17 1919. Later that year, on November 30, 1919 Housman distanced himself from one of Phillimore’s inconceivable remarks on German scholarship. Housman wrote: “I should say that for the last 100 years \individual/ German scholars have been the superiors in genius \<and tact>/ as well as learning \<and industry>/ of all scholars outside Germany except Madvig and Cobet.” See Burnett, Letters I, 422.
[v] Respectively he published, in 1915: ‘Review: S.G. Owen, P. Ouidi Nasonis Tristium libri quinque’, HCP III, 903-904; ‘Ovid, Ibis 512 and TristiaIII 6 8’, 905-912; in 1916: ‘Ovidiana’, 917-939; in 1918: ‘Transpositions in the Ibis of Ovid’, 969-981; in 1919: ‘Nihil in Ovid’, 1000-1003; in 1920: ‘The Ibis of Ovid’, 1018-1042; in 1922: ‘Attamen and Ovid, Her. I 2’, 1052-1055.
[vi] Burnett, Letters I, 430
[vii] Burnett, Letters I, 436-437.
[viii] See the letter to K. Symons, January 3 1924. He described the 79 year old as a man who rose early by 5am, made coffee and a fire, was of very decided opinions, believing that “civilization without slavery is impossible.
[ix] Ibid., 562-563. Housman suggested the words “in mid-May” in the place of “when in mid-way the sickening east wind…”.
[x] This gesture was not usual for him. Rarely did he respond to reviewers. When A.W. Mair expressed and published his dissent towards Housman’s dogmatic statements in the review of Pearson’s Sophocles, he wrote to the editors of The Classical Review to inform them a less dignified stance would be to reply to Mr. Mair; but that “it ought to be understood by now that I am not of that brood.” Burnett, Letters I, 593.
[xi] Cf. Gnomon (1926), 2. Bd., H. 9, 497-532. Eduard Fraenkel (1888-1870) was a noted German scholar, a refugee from Nazi Germany, who became Corpus Professor of Latin at Oxford. He distinguished himself with his publications, Plautinisches im Plautus, (1922; Oxford: Oxford University Press, repr., 2007), Agamemnon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 3 vol. 1950) and Horace (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957). He taught for decades in England. For a detailed biography, see Gordon Williams, The Proceedings of The British Academy (1972), Vol. 56, 415-442, and C. Stray, ‘Eduard Fraenkel: An Exploration’, Syllecta Classica (2014), Vol. 25, 113-172.
[xii] Translation of A. Gitner: “You critics are altogether in the habit of mistakenly supposing yourselves more prudent than I am, but you are much less so.” Burnett, Letters I, 627-628.
[xiii] See his refusal of acceptance in a letter to Lord Stamfordham, dated to February 23 1929, Burnett, Letters II, 113.
[xiv] On March 21 1929 he was preparing to send three quarters of the whole to The Richards Press LTD: Burnett, Letters II, 118. These he sent off c. April 3 1929. In July he asked F.W. Hall to note down and pass along to him some specific readings of Manilius from a MS in the Bodleian library: ibid., 136. He worked on that text throughout the next year and half. It was finally published in December 1930.
[xv] Letter to Arnold Rubin dated March 1 1931.[xvi] The Name and Nature of Poetry by A.E. Housman, Kennedy Professor of Latin in the University of Cambridge: The Leslie Stephen Lecture Delivered at Cambridge 9 May 1933 (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1936), 6-8.
[xvii] In the summer of 2016, Trinity College, Cambridge, procured 53 letters written by Housman to his godson Gerald Jackson. They range in time from 1927-1936. A gentler side of Housman is evident in every paragraph. Housman even invited Gerald to come and dine with him often, and he was interested in all aspects of his life, offering assistance to him repeatedly if it was requested. See D. Butterfield, ‘Your affectionate but inefficient godfather’: The letters of A.E. Housman to G.C.A. Jackson, The Housman Society Journal (2016), Vol. 42, 89-101. Letters between Housman and Annette Meakin (1867-1959) were published by C. Stray in The Housman Society Journal (2021), Vol. 47, 30-48. See his article, Housman and Annette Meakin: an  epistolary relationship. Composed from 1926-1935, the letters show him to be a cordial, forthright but supportive former Professor of hers. She attended his Latin classes from 1897-1900 and received from him a printed notice of approbation. In the same edition of the Society Journal was published a selection of letters by David Sider. See AEH and W.H. Semple in Letters, op.cit.,  pp.70-100. Semple was Housman’s lone doctoral student.
[xviii] Writing to Jeannie Housman, July 26 1933, he said: “My heart seems to be going on quietly, but the doctor advises me not to walk in this hot weather so that I miss my usual exercise and feel rather feeble.” See Burnett, Letters II, 367.

Darrell Sutton is a frequent contributor to QR

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