Closet Modern

A.E. Housman: A Critical Biography

by Norman Page
Schocken, 236 pp., $29.95

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…

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