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Closet Modern

A.E. Housman: A Critical Biography

by Norman Page
Schocken, 236 pp., $29.95

Whewell’s Court, a rather dowdy nineteenth-century Gothic annex of Trinity College, Cambridge, lies across the road from the splendid main gate of the college, the entrance to Great Court. Coming from St. John’s, Trinity’s next-door neighbor, I often had occasion to cross the road to Whewell’s, on my way to visit my friend Michael Straight, whose rooms were on a staircase at the far end of the court, facing Sidney Street and Jesus Lane. Sometimes, in the afternoon, I would pass, in one of the narrow courts or even narrower passages between them, a white-haired old gentleman, wearing a stiff stand-up white collar and black elastic-sided boots, who was proceeding in the opposite direction; his eyes were fixed directly forward on some far-off object—a look that promised brusque refusal of any attempt at contact and that strangely resembled what I later came to call, with fellow soldiers, the “thousand-yard stare.” This was the Kennedy Professor of Latin, A.E. Housman, out for his long afternoon walk, which often brought him back through the four courts of St. John’s (in 1934 it had only four) on his way home to his rooms in Whewell’s court.

His rooms were in fact on the same staircase as Michael Straight’s, and that was not the only strange propinquity offered by Whewell’s Court. One early evening, bounding down the stairs three steps at a time, full of whiskey and late for Hall at St. John’s, I narrowly missed crashing into a slight figure of a man who nervously slipped through a door as I and my companion tumbled past. “Do you know who you almost knocked over?” said my friend as we reached the ground. “That was Ludwig Wittgenstein.”

The only contact between Housman and Wittgenstein recorded by Norman Page in this witty and discriminating biography is a request by Wittgenstein, “stricken with diarrhoea” for “permission to use Housman’s lavatory”—which was refused. This incident is understandable only in the light of Housman’s ferocious defense of his privacy and the fact that in 1934 (and this may still, for all I know, be true) the older buildings of the Cambridge colleges were barbarously short of toilet facilities. In St. John’s I spent my first year in rooms that were over one hundred and fifty yards of unheated corridor and staircase away from the nearest available plumbing.

One important aspect of his privacy Housman guarded to the last—“Others have held their tongues and so can I.” It is impossible to decide, on the basis of existing evidence (and there does not seem to be more to come), whether he was ever a practicing homosexual; whether he ever tasted, as E.M. Forster hoped he did, of the “stolen waters he recommended so ardently to others,” though in fact the poem Forster refers to was not published until after Housman’s death. Many critics and at least one biographer have leaped to conclusions on this point; Page, though he regards Housman’s illicit pleasures as more likely than unlikely, is admirably judicious and states firmly that “we cannot give them a local habitation and a name without crossing the ill-guarded frontier separating biography from romantic fiction.” The Venetian gondolier Andrea (who had only one eye); the companion on motor trips in France who was “amiable…though not of much education”; the collection of pornography (including Swinburne’s Whippingham Papers)—none of this is hard evidence for physical indulgence of Housman’s undoubted homosexual bent. The most suggestive item is a document dating (probably) from May 1932; it is (according to Page):

a list of fifteen consecutive days of the week…; beside each is written a numeral, the only numerals employed being 0, 3, 9, and 10; beside all those except the ones with a “zero” notation is a French noun indicating some masculine avocation or attribute—sailor, boxer, dancer, negro. (In one case danseur is queried.) In the margin the phrase “10 in 15 days” is written.

Page finds it “difficult to accept” the conclusion of an earlier biographer—that these notations “include ‘a note of the price paid on various occasions’ for the services of male prostitutes” (and indeed if that is what the figures indicate one wonders about the chaps that got only 3), but the entry does bring to mind an item in Auden’s 1929 journal—a list of names headed “Boys had. Germany 1929.”

About the homosexual fixation of Housman’s emotional nature, however, there is no doubt at all; his life was set on its strange course by an apparently unrequited passion for his athletic fellow student Moses Jackson. After their Oxford days, Housman, a junior clerk now in the Patent Office, roomed with Jackson and his brother in London; after three years he moved away to rooms of his own. Jackson left for India to become principal of a college at Karachi and returned two years later to marry; Housman was not invited to the wedding and learned of it only after Jackson returned with his bride to India. He retired in 1911, but moved with his family to Canada, where he died of cancer in 1923. We have no letters of Housman to Jackson (though his last letter to his dying friend exists—unpublished—in private hands) and no letters from Jackson.

But Housman himself made no secret of the fact that Jackson was “the man who had more influence on my life than anyone else,” and the tortured repression of his love, the pain caused by its rejection, and the private revolt against the society that condemned it are themes easily recognizable in his poetry, even in the two books published in his lifetime. This was apparent to kindred spirits long before the poems published by Laurence Housman after his brother’s death made it clear for all to see. Lowes Dickinson, for example, wrote to congratulate Housman on Last Poems (1922): “…what they say appeals to something very deep in me. And deep calls to deep….” And E.M. Forster, who “had loved A Shrop-shire Lad since Cambridge days,” came to the conclusion that “the poems concealed a personal experience…the author had fallen in love with a man.”

It is likely, though there is no evidence to prove it, that the psychic disruption caused by his discovery of his real feelings for Jackson had something to do with Housman’s disastrous performance in “Greats”; Arnold and Newman both got Seconds and Auden a Third but Housman actually failed and left Oxford without a degree. The news that his father was dying undoubtedly played its part and so perhaps did his contempt for the approach to scholarship represented by “Greats.” (Of Jowett, the declared enemy of “specialized research,” he was later to write in his notebook: “Jowett’s Plato: the best translation of a Greek philosopher which has ever been executed by a person who understood neither philosophy nor Greek.”) Whatever the reasons, Housman went into the examination rooms totally unprepared.

He was of course not the first nor the last to do so. Many an Oxford or Cambridge undergraduate has spent the pleasant spring months of his last year idling on the river, staying up late with friends, and staving off the awful prospect of disaster with apocalyptic visions—the world may come to an end, war may break out. When the examination date came and the world was still there and at peace, some few made away with themselves, as Housman apparently was tempted to do. “For me, one flowery Maytime,” he wrote later, “It went so ill that I / Designed to die.” But most have managed to scrape a Second or a Third by filling sheet after sheet with shameless guesswork and barely relevant material cunningly combined with what solid stuff they could summon from the well of memory.

Housman didn’t even try. On some papers he wrote “practically nothing.” “Short and scrappy…practically no answers at all,” was how one of the examiners later remembered his philosophy papers. “Proud and angry dust” are the words he used much later to describe human nature, and the adjectives certainly describe his own character. He was too proud, too angry to make the ignominious effort that would have allowed the examiners to give him a Third and his degree. It was, as Page aptly puts it, “a complete act of academic suicide.” He spent the next fifty years vindicating that pride by scholarly publications that made him, in Auden’s phrase, “the leading classic of his generation” (and not just of his own) and venting his anger, in deadly concentrated invective that made the verbose scurrilities of Milton and Salmasius look like child’s play, on fellow scholars who presumed to exercise his chosen profession of textual critic and failed to live up to his Olympian standards.

The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work,” said Yeats; in Housman’s case perfection of the life was denied him by the nature and object of his love but there can have been few men who devoted themselves with such fanatical energy to the alternative. The next fifty years seem in fact somewhat unrewarding from a biographer’s point of view: ten years in London working as a clerk by day and in his spare time writing classical papers which won him an international reputation; nineteen years of teaching and scholarly publication at University College, London; twenty-four years as Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge—the only relief from unrelenting hard work occasional summer trips to Europe.

And yet, as Page points out, “Housman’s biographer cannot complain of a shortage of material.” The trouble is that much of this material is either suspect or trivial. “Only the most naive,” Page goes on, “will treat with uniform respect all that has appeared in print, or be duped by the delusion of total recall enjoyed by so many memoirists and retailers of anecdote.” His own intention is “to bring into play a sympathetic skepticism” and this he does with skill and discretion. As for the trivia, his policy is “anti-inflationary”; too many modern biographies, he complains, are “dropsical with fact, fat books out of which slim books are seeking to escape.” He has tried “never to give a fact simply for the sake of giving a fact” and though he fears that he may have sometimes, though not deliberately, broken his own rule, the reader will be hard put to find any instances. Page’s account of Housman’s life—one chapter on the Patent Office years, “a ten-year exile from the academic world”; one on University College and two on Cambridge—is a remarkable achievement.

There are still some dark areas (we have very few letters, for example, from the period before Housman assumed the professorship at University College), but Page’s Housman is a fully convincing portrait of an extraordinary man, who combined two talents so opposed that if we did not know that the formidable editor of Juvenal, Lucan, and Manilius was also the poet of A Shropshire Lad, we would hardly have guessed the truth. This account of his life, his “long fools’-errand to the grave,” supersedes all previous biographies, not only because “most of the material in this book has never appeared in print and some of it has been available only recently” but also because Page writes with the critical acumen, wit, and elegance the subject imperiously demands.

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