November 08, 2003
Bits Of Housman

As I've mentioned before, A. E. Housman was not only a poet but a scholar, one of the greatest Latinists of the last 200 years, and a master of prose invective. Here are two (of many) favorite passages.

1. Housman spends many eloquent pages arguing against conservatism in textual criticism, that is, a willingness to trust the manuscripts of ancient authors even when they offer nonsense (he was a radical in criticism and a conservative in politics -- the two are generally unrelated):

The average man, if he meddles with criticism at all, is a conservative critic. His opinions are determined not by his reason, -- 'the bulk of mankind' says Swift 'is as well-qualified for flying as for thinking,' -- but by his passions; and the faintest of all human passions is the love of truth. He believes that the text of ancient authors is generally sound, not because he has acquainted himself with the elements of the problem, but because he would feel uncomfortable if he did not believe it; just as he believes, on the same cogent evidence, that he is a fine fellow, and that he will rise again from the dead.

2. This is from Housman's review of a life of Napoleon III:

One count in the British indictment against him was his private life, which was certainly dissolute; perhaps as dissolute as the Duke of Wellington's. I have been told by those who remembered his first visit to Windsor, in 1855, that the public was agitated, more furiously than the newspapers record, by the knowledge or belief that sovereigns embrace when they meet, and by rage and horror at the notion that 'those lips' should be allowed to sully the pure cheek of England's Queen. England's Queen, who had been kissed by her uncles, did not turn a hair; and a few months later, when Victor Emmanuel was the visitor and nobody made any fuss, the exemplary matron must have been pained to discover that her subjects' solicitude for the purity of her cheek was not sincere.

Both passages are quoted from A. E. Housman, The Name and Nature of Poetry and Other Selected Prose, edited by John Carter, Cambridge 1961, reprinted New York 1981. They will be found on pages 43 and 127 of the reprint -- maybe the original, too, though I haven't checked.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at November 08, 2003 09:13 PM