The Tale of Two Housmans

The Invention of Love

a play by Tom Stoppard, directed by Blanka Ziska. February 9-April 2, 2000, at the Wilma Theater, Philadelphia.

Tom Stoppard’s play about A.E. Housman opens with a perceptive bit of shtick. As the curtain rises, the eminent Cambridge Latinist and author of A Shropshire Lad has just died at the age of seventy-seven—the year is 1936—and is waiting to be ferried across the Styx. Charon, the infernal ferryman, is waiting, too: he keeps peering over “Professor Housman’s” shoulder, looking for the other passenger he thinks he’s supposed to be picking up:

CHARON: He’s late. I hope nothing’s happened to him….

AEH: Are you sure?

CHARON: A poet and a scholar is what I was told.

AEH: I think that must be me.

CHARON: Both of them?

AEH: I’m afraid so.

CHARON: It sounded like two different people.

AEH: I know.

Stoppard wastes no time getting to the heart of the Housman conundrum—the “psychological puzzle,” as one recent biographer puts it, that even today makes the poet-scholar someone who can arouse “attention, admiration, fear, irritation, criticism, evasion, or downright detestation” in those who study him. For to all appearances, Housman was two different people. To study his life and work—and Stoppard clearly has studied them; his play is filled with knowing citations of Housman’s letters and published writings—is to confront again and again the stark divisions, rigid distinctions, and odd, almost schizoid doublings that characterize nearly everything about him.

Housman himself set the tone. Sundering, separation, and halving are motifs in several of his best-known and most striking verses. “I shook his hand and tore my heart in sunder/and went with half my life about my ways,” goes one posthumously published poem, presumably about his farewell to Moses Jackson, the hearty, heterosexual Oxford companion for whom he had a disastrously unrequited passion that was the pivotal emotional experience in his life. Demarcation and bifurcation are themes in his scholarly writing as well: hence his lifelong insistence, impossible to take seriously any longer, on divisions between intellect and scholarship, on the one hand, and emotion and literature, on the other. “Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not,” goes one typical aphorism. Occasionally, the poetic and the scholarly came together: “The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:/My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two./But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,/The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.” “He very much lived in water-tight compartments that were not to communicate with each other,” his sister Kate Symons observed after his death. She was referring to Housman’s homosexuality, which forced him, as it did many homosexuals of his era, to live a “double life”; but duality is the leitmotif of his entire existence, professional as well as personal.

Who were the “two” Housmans? The “two different people”—a poet, a scholar—for whom Stoppard’s clueless Charon waits are particularly apt symbols for the two discordant halves into which Housman’s personality seemed …

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