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A Shropshire Latinist

ISSUE:  Autumn 1981
A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet. By Richard Perceval Graves. Scribners. $15.95.

When he returned to Cambridge in 1929, Ludwig Wittgenstein chose rooms in the Gothic tower that looks down on Whewell’s Court, east of the older parts of Trinity College. The rooms below Wittgenstein’s had been occupied for years by the Kennedy Professor of Latin, Alfred Edward Housman, who had come to be regarded as the preeminent Latin scholar of his generation. They had little in common. Housman was the author of more than 100 publications. Wittgenstein published only a single paper and a book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which sustained his reputation at the cutting edge of contemporary philosophy long after he had repudiated its method and conclusions. Wittgenstein shunned Trinity’s “High Table” and the Cambridge dining clubs so much a part of Housman’s college life. Both Housman and Wittgenstein, however, uncompromisingly pursued linguistic accuracy according to their different perceptions of the nature of language itself, and both were homosexual.

Richard Graves describes the indirect path by which Housman came to the Kennedy Professorship in the first quarter of this biography. In subsequent chapters he analyzes Housman’s poetry, traces his professional career at the University of London and Trinity College with too lengthy accounts of Housman’s continental travels, and finally summarizes classical scholars’ opinions of Housman’s academic work. Graves intends his work to be a “balanced and sympathetic account of (Housman’s) remarkable but troubled life . . .and to introduce a new generation to the neglected beauties of Housman’s poetry.” He half succeeds, for I rather doubt a new generation will turn to the poems of A Shropshire Lad. There the fault lies not with Graves’ book.

Housman claimed his deep appreciation of Latin and Greek poetry sprang not from early study of Catullus and other Classical poets but rather from Sabrinae Corolla. Now out of print, Sabrinae Corolla, was a famous 19th-century compilation of well-known English and European poems translated into classical Greek and Latin verse, mostly by Benjamin Hall Kennedy, the Latin grammarian after whom Housman’s professorship was named. This strange beginning, followed by regular studies, brought Housman to St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1877, where he confidently began what he expected would be a distinguished undergraduate career and first step in a life of classical scholarship. The former expectation was mistaken.

As an undergraduate and in later life, Housman seldom lacked confidence in his intellectual abilities. While at Oxford, Housman held in equal contempt long-dead scholars and contemporary dons who fell below his personal standards. After one of his tutors mistakenly substituted a short for a long Greek vowel, Housman “vowed he would not try to learn anything from such an ignoramus.” Such an attitude does not necessarily ensure college success. Neglecting his regular tutorials, Housman concentrated on the discipline of textual criticism: that careful reconstruction of original classical texts from corrupted contradictory manuscript readings. In 1881 he failed his exams. Hubris rather than family or personal problems was largely responsible. Housman had shown no interest in Plato beyond textual cruces; neglect of the syllabus was obvious to his examiners.

After gaining a pass degree, Housman obtained a clerkship investigating claims in His Majesty’s Patent Office in 1882 and took a Bayswater house with Moses Jackson, his Oxford friend who dominated his adult emotional life. The collegiate, and therefore tolerable, homosexual attraction Housman had felt towards Jackson was, in Graves’ phrase, “deepening into love.” Housman never recovered from the rejection he experienced when he finally expressed his feelings to Moses Jackson. Graves speculates that Jackson’s brother, Adalbert, may have become the recipient of Housman’s affections when Moses left England for India: we cannot be sure and need not be. Even if Graves is correct, Adalbert was then but the first in a lifelong series of surrogates for Moses Jackson. Graves probably assumes too much in claiming that Housman’s homosexuality is traceable to the traumatic loss of his mother when he was a boy and to his circumcision at the age of 14. We do know of Housman’s regular visits later in his life to male brothels in Paris and his long affair with a Venetian gondolier named Andrea. After reviewing all the evidence collected by Graves and the observations of knowledgeable critics like Auden, this reader at least must conclude that Housman’s sexual life was one of rather narrow, compartmentalized self-satisfaction.

By 1892 Housman’s published papers on emendations of classical texts, the result of his evenings of study at the British Museum after the day’s boring work at the Patent Office, had received such widespread approval that he was emboldened to apply for the recently vacated Latin Chair at the University of London. His application was supported by the leading professors at Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, and St. Andrews, together with recommendations from Germany and America. After ten years in a government clerkship (and only one who has worked with stultifyingly dull government documents can appreciate Housman’s frustrations), Housman became professor of Latin at the University of London. Would any other country, I wonder, have been so civilized as to bestow a professorship upon an individual so lacking in the proper Ph. D. “paper credentials”?

The early years at the University of London required considerable work. During this time Housman completed his first slim volume of verse—A Shropshire Lad. Most of the poems were written during several months of heightened emotion in 1895. The original draft centered around the experiences of a fictitious young man Housman called Terence Hearsay, a persona Housman largely abandoned in the published version, with the exception of poems like “Terence this is stupid stuff.” Housman’s brother Laurence objected that the Hearsay persona displayed “a quite impossible combination of light-hearted rustic and deeply-feeling highly-learned thinker upon whom the burden of life lies heavy.” But in many of those melancholy, Heinesque ballads the burden of isolated suffering is clearly discernible. And behind the soldier-loving musings of the poems one can descry the figure of Moses Jackson.

Housman paid the publishing firm Keagan Paul to print the first edition of A Shropshire Lad. Critical response was only mildly favorable. In 1898 the young publisher Grant Richards obtained permission to reissue the book. It went through subsequent printings, and Housman gradually assumed his place among the minor literary figures of the turn of the century, a small society in which he was never at ease. The business relationship with Richards turned into friendship, but Graves here spends too much time discussing the dinners Housman and Richards enjoyed on the continent.

After 19 years at University College, London, Housman on May 9,1911, delivered his Cambridge inaugural lecture “The Confines of Criticism.” The study of Latin texts “ought not to be pursued as if it were a science conversant with the operations of nature or with the properties of matter and space, nor yet as if it were itself a branch of literature and no science at all.” Towards the end of the lecture he excoriates the German scholars who omitted one Latin word for cat, “aelurus”—a Greek word Romanized by Juvenal, from the monumental Thesaurus Linguae Latinae. The misguided German scholars are described as “the chaingangs working at the dictionary in the ergastulum at Munich.” Where in such a comment does one find evidence of what Housman’s loyal disciple A.S.F. Gow calls Housman’s “dispassionate scholarship”? The virulence of Housman’s ad hominem published attacks upon his fellow scholars and editors reveals some imbalance of mind. In his notes were found invective phrases, presumably stored for future use. Graves dismisses this problem in Housman’s character, either because he is unable or unwilling to deal with it. Housman did not believe that the study of litterae humaniores produced humane scholars, a point he emphasized in his 1892 introductory lecture at University College, London: “I never yet heard it maintained by the wildest enthusiast for Classics that the standard of morality or even amiability is higher among classical scholars than among men of Science.” Housman was speaking from personal experience.


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