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On ‘The Invention of Love’: Another Exchange

To the Editors:

Catullus XI ends:

nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem,
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam tactus aratrost.

In G.P. Goold’s translation:

and let her not count on my love, as in the past,
for through her fault it has fallen like a flower
at the meadow’s edge, after being lopped by the passing plough.

In The Invention of Love, the elderly Housman (“AEH”) in conversation with his young self (“Housman”) remarks that poetical feelings are a peril to scholarship: “There are always poetical people ready to protest that a corrupt line is exquisite. Exquisite to whom? The Romans were foreigners writing for foreigners two millenniums ago; and for people whose gods we find quaint, whose savagery we abominate, whose private habits we don’t like to talk about, but whose idea of what is exquisite is, we flatter ourselves, mysteriously identical with ours.”

Whereupon—

HOUSMAN: “But it is, isn’t it? We catch our breath at the places where the breath was always caught. The poet writes to his mistress how she’s killed his love—’fallen like a flower at the field’s edge where the plough touched it and passed on by.’ …Two thousand years in the tick of a clock—oh, forgive me…”

AEH: “No, we’re never too old to learn.”

In his letter [NYR, September 21], Daniel Mendelsohn asserts that the real Housman would have reviled this kind of “sentimental thinking” which “subverts his superb philological insight” about cultural bias.

If he means (and what else can he mean?) that the real Housman would have reviled the idea that Catullus XI or any other classical poem was capable of having an identical appeal to the Romans as it has to us, that would not have been a superb philological insight but a lapse into idiocy. Housman was not an idiot, and we don’t need his famous tears over “Diffugere nives” (“the most beautiful poem in ancient literature”) to know it.

The point which Housman was making in his Cambridge Inaugural Lecture, and which Mr. Mendelsohn has misunderstood, was the very different one that an “exquisite” effect is not an argument for defending a verse against an emendation made on philological grounds. That is the context in which Housman reminded us (“exquisite to whom?”) that the Romans were very different from you and me, and adjured us to “acquire, if we can, by humility and self-repression, the tastes of the classics [i.e., classical authors].”1

Building on his mistake, Mr. Mendelsohn objects that when the fictitious Housman refers to the necessity for “the repression of self-will,” he does so in a different context, albeit in the same scene. Unwisely, he writes that I “certainly…sunder [Housman’s] call for ‘self-repression’ from its proper context as the logical conclusion of the ‘exquisite to whom?’ speech….”

But I certainly do not. He is unaware that the context for the phrase as I made use of it is not the Cambridge lecture but Housman’s Preface to his Manilius, where, putting the general case for rigorous scholarship (as he is doing in the scene), he writes that what is required is to “read attentively, think correctly, omit no relevant consideration, and repress self-will…[and more besides].”

From this collapsing platform, Mr. Mendelsohn speculates that my inability to appreciate his understanding of Housman’s “methodological and intellectual insights” might be explained by a public conversation recorded on stage at the Wilma Theater, Philadelphia, and my belated “discovery”—(“as he referred to it”)—that Housman was a classicist.

(It’s worth pausing a moment to consider the quote marks around “discovery” and the parentheses. Mr. Mendelsohn wishes us to think something—but what? My words in the published transcript are: “The first thing I knew about Housman was that he was a poet. I wanted to write a play about him almost instantly when I discovered the second thing about him, that he was a [classicist].” Now, presumably there was a moment when Mr. Mendelsohn discovered the same thing, but it would not occur to me to try to make him look—what? foolish? callow? boastful?—by affecting to discern some kind of posture in the verb.)

My next words were: “I didn’t know he was homosexual. I knew nothing about him.” All of which, writes Mr. Mendelsohn, “makes one wonder whether he understands Housman’s poetry any better than he does Housman’s scholarship.” If he wants to patronize me, let me help him. I don’t understand a hundredth part of Housman’s scholarship; and I read A Shropshire Lad when I was young without knowing whether Housman was homosexual, heterosexual, or a hermaphrodite.

But Mr. Mendelsohn has more uses for the transcript, which he would like to think supports him in his insistence, which I find obtuse, that Wilde is supposed to represent the “successful” personality which Housman “failed” to live for himself: inside the scholar, the poet Wildely signaling, one could say. Not many people would call Housman’s emotional life a successful one, but he had his own personality to make the best or the worst of.

In Philadelphia, I said (or, as the inimitable Mr. Mendelsohn has it, “boasted”) that the appeal was to write the play about two people who inhabited the same person. I was not the first or the hundredth to see the poet and the scholar as a divided man. Mr. Mendelsohn believes I failed to illuminate that divide, and I think that is at least an intelligible criticism. (His own dovetailing of the two, in his article, remains a suggestive contribution to our view of Housman, in my opinion.) My excuse if I need one is that I was more struck by a different division.

Housman was simultaneously a gratified man and a disappointed one. As a private person he was driven in on himself, not only in my view, by a hopeless passion which contracted his personality (epithets like “arrogant,” “bitter,” “anti-social” are much what one expects to find, and does find, in the index to the Richard Graves biography, along with “companionable,” “witty,” etc.), and that in some ways, amazingly, he remained an adolescent (there is an unpublished 1922 letter to Jackson which in its archness reads like a schoolboy’s).

Stoppard has remarked,” writes Mr. Mendelsohn, changing tense to distance the upcoming remark from the transcript which he himself has called as witness (Where do they teach this?), “that ‘personally’ he finds Housman heroic, but…,” and so back to his spavined hobbyhorse that I disdain Housman’s intellectualism. The sentence is: “I called Housman earlier some sort of failure. I personally find him heroic.” This might have alerted him to what in the context is obvious, that the “failure” is seen by me as the complement to an intellectual and poetical self-fulfillment which is Housman’s triumph and which for me makes Housman, differently from Wilde, a hero, just as he was, differently from Wilde, “some sort of failure.” I added: “It was this tension between different sorts of success and failure which interested me.” If Mr. Mendelsohn could have brought himself to notice it, that sentence alone would have undone half his thesis.

The other half, he undoes merely by deploying it. Out of modesty, lack of competence, and general disinclination, I cannot follow him into what he calls his “larger point” and what I would call his snobbish squaring of my regrettable “popularity” with my “ambivalence about people who pursue knowledge for its own sake” (he quotes me as saying it’s what makes us human, which doesn’t sound all that ambivalent to me, and he might have quoted Housman from the play: “Scholarship… [is] where we’re nearest to our humanness. Useless knowledge for its own sake. Useful knowledge is good, too, but it’s for the fainthearted…”; yet one can see why he didn’t). But his thesis, that Housman’s intellectual passions constituted “a whole and satisfactory life,” is more romantic than anything I could have come up with, and how Mr. Mendelsohn can think it after reading the poems is a question I cannot answer.

But there is one poem Mr. Mendelsohn has evidently not read. He says (the shrink is in) that if I didn’t have it in for intellectuals, I wouldn’t find it “necessary” to present Housman “as a man who, despite his stunning literary and scholarly accomplishments, continually [i.e., twice] cries out that he wishes he had died for his beloved [but never had the luck].” Since he obviously thinks this is something I made from the whole cloth, let him turn to Additional Poems XX.

I shall not die for you.
Another fellow may;
Good lads are left and true
Though one departs away,
But he departs to day
And leaves his work to do,
For I was luckless aye
And shall not die for you.2

Finally, but it has to be done, there’s my poor old American publisher again. Mr. Mendelsohn allowed himself a casual and ill-founded kick at Grove Press. I made a rebuttal which I would have thought unanswerable, and indeed he doesn’t answer it. To get in another kick, he panics sideways into a ludicrous and irrelevant riff that ends up equating Oscar Wilde with Ethel Merman. Here as elsewhere, Mr. Mendelsohn commands a kind of admiration, but it’s the kind one might have for a skater who, finding the ice has given way beneath him, makes out he was really going for a swim.

Tom Stoppard

London, England

Daniel Mendelsohn replies:

Tom Stoppard in his defensive mode reminds me of the mythic monster: for every head you chop off, ten grow back. In this case, however, each batch of ten makes more noise, and yet has less bite, than the single head it replaces. I can understand Mr. Stoppard’s annoyance following the last exchange which he initiated; the sting of having his own words (that he’d found Wilde “heroic” and Housman “a failure”) used against him must have been sharper than the sting of my original criticisms of his play—which were, it is worth remembering, hardly characterized by the shrill, protesting-too-much tone that has found its way once again into Mr. Stoppard’s defenses. (I said I found him “pop” and “romantic”; he countered with calling me “obtuse,” “fatuous,” and, if I now read him aright, “idiotic.”)

Alas, Mr. Stoppard’s defenses once again consist of nothing more than hair-splitting (he runs rings around Housman’s “exquisite to whom?” speech, only to end by acknowledging that its gist is that the Romans had different tastes, which is precisely the sense that I claimed for it and, alas, the one that his character AEH so bizarrely rejects); straw-man arguments (I certainly never claimed that Mr. Stoppard invented Housman’s despairing remark to Moses Jackson out of whole cloth; I merely pointed out that his frequent reiteration of this remark is part of his play’s lopsided emphasis on the dry, unfulfilled, “failed” Housman); and, most bizarrely, willful misconstructions of even my most innocuous jokes (to suggest that my remark about Ethel Merman and Oscar Wilde was a serious attempt to “equate” them is—how shall I put this?—obtuse, fatuous, and, yes, idiotic). Since his furious and ceaselessly metastasizing transatlantic self-defense system consists of more and more of the above, it seems best at this point to leave it to readers to consult Mr. Stoppard’s play—which comes to New York in January—and my original review of it [NYR, August 10], and to let them draw their own conclusions as to whether it presents Housman as a “failure,” as I argued, or otherwise. Those of us who perform for undergraduates in the classroom on a regular basis are compelled—unlike dramatists, it would seem—to have a keen sense of when we are in danger of losing our audience.

Indeed, Mr. Stoppard’s dog-with-a-bone attitude kept reminding me of something, and now I realize what it is: the howling of an “A” student who finds himself awarded a “B” on his latest paper. The fuss! The protestations! The quasi-Talmudic interpretations of interpretations, and critiques of critiques! (Where did he learn this?) I certainly agree with Mr. Stoppard that it sounds as if someone’s gone swimming; but I respectfully submit that the noises of flailing and splashing are coming from the other side of the pond.

  1. 1

    The example Housman used in the Cambridge Inaugural Lecture is Horace, Odes I, 23, v. 5, where the manuscripts have the arrival of spring (veris) fluttering the leaves, and where Richard Bentley in his famous 1711 edition read vepris (bramble) for veris, and ad ventum (in the wind) for adventus (arrival), because—Bentley said, and Housman concurred—in Latin, arrivals can’t flutter anything. Bentley wrote (in Latin), “Absolutely nothing can be more certain than this conjecture and it proves itself by its own light as surely as though it were produced from a hundred manuscripts.” Here is Housman in 1911: “When pedants like Bentley and Munro object that the phrase is unsuitable to its context, of what avail is it to be assured by persons of taste—that is to say per-sons of British taste, Victorian taste, sub-Tennysonian taste—that these are exquisite lines? Exquisite to whom? [Etc.]” Nonetheless, the Loeb has not promoted vepris to the text, and of the modern editors I have to hand only David West (Oxford University Press, 1995) accepts Bentley; which he does with an extra finesse on the symmetry of the images in vv. 5–8.

  2. 2

    I shall not die for you,” first published three years after Housman’s death, survived as a “first draft” in pencil and a fair copy in ink in what is now “Notebook D” in the Adelman Collection in the Canaday Library, Bryn Mawr College (see The Poems of A.E. Housman, edited by Archie Burnett). Two pages earlier, there is the date “Jan. 1925” in Housman’s hand; that is, two years after Moses Jackson’s death. I have taken it that the poem evokes Jackson. (There are precedents in the Notebooks for Housman’s returning to poems years after putting their origins aside.) If it does not, the sentiment remains the sentiment.

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