Housman did well enough, but his great passion, already at this early age, was in the unpopular field known as textual criticism. The printed texts of the Greek and Latin classics which we read today are based on ancient and often erroneous medieval manuscripts that were themselves copied from even older and, likely, error-riddled manuscripts. Only close reading of, and comparison among, various manuscripts of an ancient author allow a scholar to surmise what that ancient author most likely wrote, assuming such a scholar has total mastery of language, grammar, manuscript tradition, lexicography, and the author’s style, taste, and diction. This mastery Housman had, at an astonishingly early age. As an undergraduate, he blithely ignored the assigned readings in philosophy and instead was hard at work on a new edition of the Roman love elegist Propertius. This intellectual inclination went against the grain of the rather romantic mid-Victorian cult, led by Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol, that celebrated classical education as a means of improving moral tone among the ruling classes, and was dismissive of what Jowett condescendingly referred to as “exact scholarship.”
Housman’s Oxford experience was marked, characteristically it would seem, by not one but two distinct disasters. The first was emotional. In his first year he met, and struck up a friendship with, Moses Jackson, an athlete and engineering student who was utterly different from him: a contemporary remembered Jackson as being “a perfect Philistine…quite unliterary and outspoken in his want of any such interest.” However reticent the documentary record may be about the content of the relationship between the two, it seems clear that Housman fell swiftly and deeply in love with Jackson, whom in later life he referred to as “the man who had more influence on my life than anyone else.” Even though his feelings were not returned, Housman persisted in his obsessive crush, and he and Jackson (and Jackson’s brother Adalbert, who according to Laurence Housman became Housman’s lover) lived together in Bayswater for three years after Housman was sent down in 1881 and subsequently went to work in the Patent Office, doggedly following Jackson, who’d gotten a position there after successfully completing his degree.
The extreme emotional tensions bound to make themselves felt in a ménage like the one in which Housman and his two love objects found themselves aren’t hard to imagine, and it broke up in 1885, apparently after some kind of blowup between Housman and Moses Jackson. (Stoppard has the nice conceit of making the proximate cause of the break the news of the passage, in that year, of the infamous Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which made acts of “gross indecency” even between consenting adult men punishable by up to two years’ hard labor, and under which Wilde would be convicted.) Moses soon left England for India, returning briefly in 1889 to marry, but by that time the relationship was over; Housman heard about the wedding second-hand. Jackson retired in 1911 and moved to Canada, where he died of cancer in 1923. Adalbert Jackson died at twenty-seven, in 1892. Till the end of his life, Housman kept portraits of the two brothers over the mantel in his rooms at Trinity. It is worth noting that Housman’s two bursts of poetic activity—the composition of A Shropshire Lad in the mid-1890s, and that of Last Poems (1922) in the early 1920s—coincided with crises related to Jackson: in the first case, the awful, awkward separation, in the second, the news that Jackson was ill.
The second disaster was an academic one. For reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, and about which Housman himself remained silent, he failed his final exams in May of 1881. Housman was a scholarship boy from a financially beleaguered family; his failure meant that avenues of possibility that Oxford could have opened for him were (or at any event seemed at the time) forever closed. What is striking is the almost willful manner of his downfall: one of the examiners later reported that he had barely written anything at all in response to the examination questions. Various explanations for the catastrophe have been put forth over the years: a week before he sat the exams, Housman had received news that his father had suffered a life-threatening breakdown; Housman had contemptuously ignored the set curriculum, heavy as it was with philosophy, in order to work on his edition of Propertius; there was some kind of confrontation with Jackson about the true nature of Housman’s feelings for him.
A posthumously published lyric that appears as More Poems XXXIV—“For me, one flowery Maytime,/It went so ill that I/Designed to die”—suggests that the real explanation was, in fact, a combination of all three. Indeed, this allegedly great mystery of Housman’s life won’t seem very mysterious to anyone who has gone to college. It is easy to imagine that Housman, upset by the terrible news from home, was at long last jarred out of the rebellious undergraduate fantasy that he didn’t have to prepare the set curriculum; with only days before the exams, he panicked. In his overwrought state, we can further imagine, he sought comfort from Jackson, and in so doing inadvertently betrayed the intensity of his feelings—or, indeed, was made aware of their intensity for the first time. (It may even be that he unconsciously welcomed the crises as a way of finally forcing a confrontation with Jackson.) Hence the disaster, the willed collapse, the “design to die”: if not literally then, certainly, symbolically.
The Oxford and Bayswater fiascoes marked the nadir of Housman’s life; from that point, it was, more or less, all uphill. Even during the decade between 1881, when he left Oxford, and 1892, when he got his first professorial position at University College, London—a period to which Norman Page refers as “the years of penance”—a typical bifurcation is in evidence. By day, Housman worked at the Patent Office and lived as an ordinary working man, an existence the details of which he described in vivacious letters to his stepmother, Lucy Housman, which display the often outrageous humor that characterized so much of his prose writing (a quality that the “dry-as-dust” school of Housman critics conveniently ignores). “One butcher’s man,” he wrote to her in 1885 after having served with great glee on a coroner’s jury, “…cut his throat with a rusty knife and died a week after of erysipelas (moral: use a clean knife on these occasions).”
Nights he spent in the reading room of the British Museum, where he began producing a series of papers on the texts of Horace, Propertius, Ovid, and other classical authors that almost immediately won the admiration of the international scholarly community—the more so because the author had no official academic affiliation. His first published paper, “Horatiana,” appeared when he was twenty-three, and reads like the work of a man three times as old. Housman’s reputation was sufficiently established ten years after flunking out of Oxford that he won the appointment to the Chair of Latin at University College, London. In 1903 he published the first volume of his magnum opus on Manilius, and by 1911, when he was elected Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge University, his reputation as a scholar who deserved to be ranked with his intellectual idols, Scaliger and Bentley, was secure. He remained at Cambridge until his death. The last of the millions of words he wrote appeared on a postcard to Kate, mailed five days before his death. “Back to Evelyn nursing home today (Saturday). Ugh.”
There are indeed two Housmans in Tom Stoppard’s play—the young, emotional, idealistic “Housman,” and the dead, cynical “AEH,” whose post-mortem reveries of his youth, from his Oxford days through his appointment to his first academic position at the age of thirty-three, constitute the play’s dreamlike action—but they’re the wrong ones. With the exception of a few disparaging references to A Shropshire Lad in the second act, which Stoppard puts in the mouth of the journalist and Wilde memoirist Frank Harris (“I think he stayed with the wrong people in Shropshire. I never read such a book for telling you you’re better off dead”), Housman the well-loved sentimental poet is virtually nonexistent. Instead, there’s a good deal about the formation of Housman the classical scholar; what contrast there is between the two Housmans on Stoppard’s stage is merely a matter of age. “Housman,” who spends the play getting into as much of a lather about misspellings and misplaced punctuation as he does about Jackson, and into whose mouth Stoppard puts many of the more acidulous aphorisms for which Housman became famous (“the passion for truth is the faintest of all human passions”), isn’t different in kind from “AEH,” who says pretty much the same things; he’s just more wide-eyed and enthusiastic. (The Philadelphia staging was moodier and more evocative of the real-life Housman’s seething emotions than the text itself is. One beautiful scene opened with the mournfully moving image of a handsome young man dressed in a Henley shirt, sitting atop a colossal Greek head and playing the cello; in another, the young actor who plays Moses Jackson runs slowly in place, as Housman recites the first poem in Book Four of Horace’s Odes: “At night I hold you fast in my dreams, I run after you across the Field of Mars, I follow you into the tumbling waters, and you show no pity.”)
Much of Stoppard’s presentation of Housman the developing scholar is engrossing; certainly the Philadelphia audience thought so. (The run there was extended several times; as yet, there are no plans to bring the play to New York. The rumors are that cautious producers fear that the subject matter is too esoteric.) Few playwrights delight in the surface dazzle of intellectual activity—the theorems, the Latin phrases, the arcane allusions—as much as Stoppard does, and—superficially, at least—he seems to honor his subject’s intellectual energy and love of learning for its own sake. There’s a wonderful scene toward the end of the first act in which the young Housman exults, apropos of that correction in the Catullus passage, that
by taking out a comma and putting it back in a different place, sense is made out of nonsense in a poem that has been read continuously since it was first misprinted four hundred years ago. A small victory over ignorance and error.
When I saw the play in March with a classicist friend of mine, we were amazed to see that the audience was rapt as Housman explained, in technical language that refused to condescend to the nonclassicist, how his emendation worked. (“So opis isn’t power with a small ‘o’, it’s the genitive of Ops who was the mother of Jupiter. Everything comes clear when you put the comma back one place.”)
But as the play proceeds, it becomes evident that Stoppard himself doesn’t really value the kind of small victories over ignorance and error to which Housman devoted his life as a scholar. In the Inaugural Lecture he gave on assuming his job at University College, London, Housman the scrupulous scholar warned against what he called “dithyrambic” tendencies: self-indulgence on the part of the critic, reckless emotionality and idealization in interpreting texts, as opposed to cautious evaluation and strict consciousness of the author’s, rather than the interpreter’s, tastes and cultures. For all his interest in intellectual esoterica, Stoppard has always been the dithyrambic sort—a romantic at heart. For all its fussing over Fermat’s last theorem, and some of its characters’ worries about “the decline from thinking to feeling,” Arcadia ultimately celebrates the imperfectability of knowledge, and the messiness of love and sex (“the attraction which Newton left out”). Henry, the playwright protagonist of The Real Thing, which is currently enjoying an excellent revival on Broadway, may be impatient with intellectual softness, and may have no patience for vulgar politicized writing, but everyone else realizes that he’s really “the last romantic,” despite his reputation as someone who doesn’t get “bothered” by things (as Housman was thought not to). The point of this popular play of love and infidelity among very clever people is to make Henry realize this, too. “I don’t believe in behaving well,” he exclaims toward the end of the play, when he realizes how fiercely he loves his second wife. “I believe in mess, tears, pain, self-abasement, loss of self-respect, nakedness. Not caring doesn’t seem much different from not loving.”