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Housman at Work & Play

In response to:

Closet Modern from the March 15, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Norman Page’s life of A.E. Housman, Bernard Knox again discusses the oft-discussed question of Housman’s choice of Manilius to edit. There should be no great puzzle: it was a task ready-made for his talents and ambitions.

The Astronomica is of bulk sufficient to form the monument Housman desired. The former editors had included great men whose work could be vindicated, and others who had left strata of dullness to be cleared away and gave scope for Housman’s unique punitive powers. The technical content of the poem required his diligence to master ancient astronomy and astrology. The variety of manuscripts called for his outstanding accuracy, logic and judgment. The witty style demanded his acumen to see what the poet meant, or might have meant, or might have written; and being also pointed and precise, it allows the right interpretation or conjecture to click satisfactorily into place, so to speak. The accomplished versification permitted the great metrist in Housman to establish the canons of Manilius’s practice, and to use them. Above all, the abounding corruptions and other difficulties demanded all his palaeographical knowledge, his knowledge of ancient literature, his Latinity, his imagination and penetration to solve them.

I see no difficulty in explaining his choice of Manilius, though it might have been difficult to explain any other choice. Surely also we ought to be grateful for it, for what other scholar could have accomplished what he did for a difficult and virtually unread Augustan text? Anybody who can should at least sample his edition, and may be surprised to find how interesting, even exhilarating it is.

G.F.C. Plowden

London, England

Bernard Knox replies:

The Regius Professor’s footnotes are a welcome addition, especially his vision of Housman handing out grades for performance (though I must confess to a liking for Mr. Bell’s time-table reading). I must defer to his judgment of Housman’s work on the text of the Greek tragedians; as editor of the new Oxford Classical Text of Sophocles he must have given careful consideration to Housman’s many suggestions in this area. I am, however, quite unconverted on the subject of Manilius. Rhetoric he has in abundance but the wit and elegance are in short supply. Housman remarked at one point on Manilius’s “eminent aptitude for doing sums in verse, which is the brightest feature of his genius.” Translated from the Latin and stripped of the verse a typical passage reads like this:

For you must ascertain what hour of the day it is, if the Horoscope is sought by day, and repeatedly heap this number on itself by multiplying it ten times, adding to the amount, however, a further five times, because in any hour of the day the signs ascend through thrice five degrees. When this number is found, be sure to join to it the degrees which the sun is left with in the zodiac. From this total you must distribute thirty degress to each sign….[III.485ff]

The translation of these lines is not a prejudicial effort on my part; it is from the pen of professor G.P. Goold, now of Yale, who admires Manilius and has in the new Loeb edition (1977) provided him with the first complete English translation since 1697 and also an introduction of over one hundred pages which, with the aid of star charts and astronomical tables, makes him accessible for the curious reader.

Mr. Plowden gives an admirable defense of Housman’s choice of Manilius as a difficult text which cried out for a modern editor of Housman’s talents. And he is quite right that, for the specialist, Housman’s edition is not only interesting but, at times, exhilarating. But this has very little to do with Manilius; what is exhilarating is Housman’s technical virtuosity. It is true that Manilius is an Augustan poet, but then so were Colley Cibber and Shadwell.

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