A. E. Houseman
A. E. Houseman; drawing by David Levine

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.

Page’s subtitle “A Critical Biography” is justified not only because he is critical of the sources in his biographical section but also because he devotes more than a quarter of his book to a discussion of Housman’s work, both the scholarship and the poetry. Though he is quite right in his claim that “it is possible to exaggerate the arcane nature” of Housman’s scholarly pursuits and, further, that “the nature of textual criticism is more easily grasped by the non-specialist than that of, say, nuclear physics…,” he is of necessity dependent in his assessment of Housman as a classical scholar on the pronouncements of experts. He ends his chapter seven, “The Scholar,” with a quotation, four-and-a-half pages long, from the balanced appreciation written for the centenary of Housman’s birth by Shackleton Bailey, whose work on the letters of Cicero, on Propertius and Horace, is more than sufficient warrant for his authority in this matter. Shackleton Bailey sees Housman’s main achievement as the reversal of a scholarly trend toward defending manuscript readings at any cost, torturing meaning and coherence out of unlikely phrases, “construing, as the phrase goes, through a brick wall.”

But what he admires most is “Housman’s unremitting, passionate zeal to see each of the innumerable problems in his text not as others had presented it or as he might have preferred it to appear but exactly as it was.” On Housman’s notorious ferocity in print he points out that it was not directed against minor errors. “His saeva indignatio was nearly always reserved for pretentious incompetence, intellectual fraud, meanness of spirit, and that compound of the three which makes men band together, with cries of mutual encouragement, round a fashionable totem.” And he adds that Housman’s denunciations were hardly ever wrong. “Robinson Ellis had, among scholars, the intellect of an idiot child, Francken was a born blunderer, marked cross from the womb and perverse, van Wageningen’s commentary does most resemble a magpie’s nest.”

No one doubts Housman’s eminence as a scholar and a textual critic but some have complained of the narrow focus of his interests and in particular of his decision to devote thirty years of his time to an edition of Manilius, an Augustan poet whom Housman himself called “tedious.” Page dismisses Auden’s charge—“deliberately he chose the dryasdust”—as “missing the point about Housman’s scholarship in his anxiety to make a point about his masochism.” But the fact that “an editor of Manilius was certain to suffer less competition, and less anxiety during a long-term undertaking that he might be beaten to the post” can hardly have been the reason for Housman’s choice of Manilius; if ever a man had no fear of competition in his chosen field, it was Housman, whose contempt for his rivals was bottomless. Page quotes Housman telling Robert Bridges that Manilius “writes on astronomy and astrology without knowing either. My interest in him is purely technical” and adds his own comment, that strong literary interest can be a positive handicap for a textual critic.

That is a formula worthy of Housman himself, but it goes too far. The textual critic must in the last analysis fall back, as Housman never tires of emphasizing, on judgment not technique, and this judgment is literary: it is, or should be, informed by an almost instinctive grasp of what an author would be likely to write, based on an intimate acquaintance with every aspect of his style, meter, and content. And there is in fact no reason in the world why the textual critic should prefer the second-rate author to work on; Richard Bentley’s great work was an edition of Horace. When Housman wrote to his London colleague and friend Arthur Platt: “If you prefer Aeschylus to Manilius you are no true scholar; you must be deeply tainted with literature,” he was indeed speaking with “characteristic irony” but he was probably joking, too (all his other letters to Platt were destroyed by Mrs. Platt after her husband’s death as “too Rabelaisian”).

The fact is that before he accepted the Latin chair at University College his critical faculties had been brought to bear on some of the greatest poets in the canon; almost one third of the 421 pages of the first volume of his classical papers (1882–1897) is devoted to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Horace, Ovid, and Propertius. And these papers are much more than “purely technical.” Though few of the emendations he proposes appear in modern texts, his diagnostic flair is superb. He angrily reproved those who compared him to his idol Bentley but his work on the text of the Greek tragedians brings to mind his words about Bentley, who could “strike his finger on the place and say thou ailest here, and here.” When I think of what Housman might have done for the improvement and elucidation of our texts of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides instead of devoting thirty years to the verses of an astrological hack, I am tempted to use his own words against him: “The time lost, the tissues wasted…are in our brief irreparable life disheartening to think of.”

“Scholarship,” Housman said in his 1911 inaugural lecture at Cambridge, “is not literary criticism; and of the duties of a Latin chair literary criticism forms no part.” In the Cambridge of 1911, as Page points out, this was not so strange a statement as it would be if made today. Academic literary criticism was at that time, some years before Leavis and Richards began to transform the English School at Cambridge, “no more than a hazy, undisciplined attempt to communicate ‘appreciation’ or aesthetic response”—Quiller-Couch’s vapid outpourings on Shakespeare, for example. Housman, with sardonic delight, quoted in his lecture a Swinburne panegyric on a passage of Shelley, which turned out “to be based on a misprint.”

Though he rejected literary criticism as part of his duties, Housman claimed to have great respect for literary critics but he believed that they were hard to find, appearing, he suggested later in the same lecture, “once in a century, or once in two centuries.” The eighteenth century had seen the birth of a literary critic, Lessing, who was also a classical scholar. Such a “purely accidental conjunction” was not likely to occur again soon—“and if so early a century as the twentieth is to witness it in another person, all I know is that I am not he.” This may be false modesty (one never knows with Housman) and Page finds that though “an unwilling critic he was not an inept one” and cites an interesting judgment on Addison’s prose. But Housman’s comments on modern writers present a different picture. He advised his friend and publisher Grant Richards against publishing Proust: “I have not finished Proust’s book but I have read enough to form the opinion that an English translation would not sell.” He found little to admire in Hopkins: “His manner strikes me as deliberately adopted to compensate by strangeness for the lack of pure merit.” On the other hand he pronounced Masefield’s feeble plays (The Tragedy of Nan and Other Plays) “well worth reading; they contain a lot that is very good.” And he thought Edna St. Vincent Millay “the best living American poet” and her inane sonnet sequence Fatal Interview “mighty good.”

Such verdicts are perhaps not surprising from a poet who admired Matthew Arnold above all and praised Coventry Patmore and, later, Blunden, Blunt, and Bridges; “we must remember,” Page writes, “that he was a late-Victorian poet,” and he cites Philip Larkin’s “tentative conclusion” that “perhaps there is more of a mid-Victorian in Housman than is generally realized.” It is all the more astonishing that in the best of his poetry there is nothing old-fashioned; its dominant note, stoic acceptance of a faulty if not malevolent universe, rings as true today as when he first sounded it.

There was, inevitably, an initial reaction against the widespread popularity of his poetry. Even before Housman’s death Ezra Pound had opened fire with a typically slashing article in the Criterion; Housman had not been dead a month when Cyril Connolly published a devastating assessment in the New Statesman. Conrad Aiken, David Daiches, and Edith Sitwell among others all added their voices to the chorus of denigration; Orwell and Auden admitted the power of Housman’s enchantments but thought them effective only on the young. The wheel has since come full circle. Page points out that the 1979 edition of The Oxford Book of Quotations (the first substantial revision since 1941) includes almost twice as many passages from Housman as the previous edition; it may be added that it contains ninety citations from Housman’s verse as against ninety-seven from T.S. Eliot, seventy from W.B. Yeats, sixty-nine from Auden, and fifty-three from Hardy.

Page explains his decision to separate the detailed discussion of Housman as a poet from the biographical chapters, a decision “not lightly taken.” The “biographer’s dream…to integrate the life and work so successfully that the latter can be seen and felt as flowing naturally from the process of living” is an unattainable ideal in the case of Housman, “for whom art was separate from daily life, a consciously different, secret activity, running in quite another direction from his public existence.” In any case, it is impossible to date many of the poems, and there are some that were started early and completed late. An example of the pitfalls that await the incautious literary historian is the exquisite poem “Parta Quies,” which reads like an epitaph for Jackson or for Housman himself, and in which one critic saw signs of “mature style”; it was printed first in an Oxford magazine in 1879, when Housman was twenty years old. But Page does not really need to apologize for his separate treatment of the poems: for such a procedure he had an august model in Samuel Johnson, whose classic Lives of the Poets deal first with the life and then move on to a critical assessment of the works.

Page’s short but masterly analysis of Housman’s themes and diction uncovers a poet very different from the sentimental romantic dismissed by the critics of the decades that followed his death: a poet who “wrote from an urgent personal need to find expression for the inexpressible.” Page quotes with approval one dissentient voice in the critical chorus—John Peale Bishop, who wrote in 1940: “There is always something that is not clear, something not brought into the open, something that is left in doubt.” This is not so true of course of the poems Housman did not publish in his lifetime. In some of them—“He would not stay for me…,” for example, or “Because I liked you better / Than suits a man to say…”—the real situation has what Page calls “the immediacy of a diary entry…it is preserved in the memory like an old photograph; a perfectly shaped monument to that moment.” In other poems—“Oh, were he and I together / Shipmates on the fleeted main…,” for example—“the circumstantial world,” as Page puts it, “has undergone a dreamlike transformation,” though “the code is not hard to decipher.” In some, in fact, the message is almost in the clear, as in the bitter, beautiful poem that begins “Crossing alone the nighted ferry…” and ends with Housman’s assessment of his own lifelong devotion to Jackson as well as his final declaration of independence: “…the true sick-hearted slave, / Expect him not in the just city / And free land of the grave.”

But in the two volumes published in his lifetime (1896 and 1922) Housman “objectifies certain preoccupations in order to be able in his poems to work out problems and attitudes…that he was unable or unwilling to communicate to anyone in direct and literal terms.” He was not, Page claims, a “poet of nature and landscape,” not even a “regional poet” (he insisted he did not know Shropshire well): “his real landscapes are of the heart.” His themes are death, exile, and love, and to present these themes “by impersonation” he creates “certain recurring figures or roles of which the most prominent are the soldier, the lover, the rustic, the exile and the criminal.”

Page’s brilliant exploration of the way these figures are exploited, to express by “indirection” the poet’s own “unuttered, unutterable anxieties and yearnings,” is a convincing demonstration of Housman’s true stature as a poet, one whose best work derives its strength from a “quality of controlled passion—an intensity held in check by lexical precision and the formal discipline of verse.” If Housman’s ghost could return to read this sensitive, subtle, and enlightening exposition, he might well temper the severity of his strictures on literary critics. But he would also be delighted to find that printers, like scribes, are blunderers still and that one of his most beautiful stanzas, cited expressly for that reason, is disfigured by a hideous misprint which renders a line unintelligible. Readers who fancy themselves as textual critics may turn to page 201 and try their hand at emending “On acres of the seeded grasses / The changing burnish beaves” before checking the text in Last Poems XL.

This Issue

March 15, 1984