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.1 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, even to his contemporaries, to fall. (The title of W.H. Auden’s review of A.E.H., a 1937 memoir of Housman written by his brother Laurence, who was a popular and prolific poet and playwright in his own right—his Victoria Regina, starring Helen Hayes, was a huge Broadway hit—was “Jehovah Housman and Satan Housman.”) There was the heavenly poet of A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896—the elegy on dead or soon-to-be-dead youth which was so loved in its time that its author was, in George Orwell’s words, “the writer who had the deepest hold upon the thinking young” in the years immediately before and after World War I; and yet there was also the devilishly forbidding classics scholar who, in the damning words of a contemptuous 1939 sonnet by Auden, “Deliberately…chose the dry-as-dust”:
In savage footnotes on unjust editions
He timidly attacked the life he led
And put the money of his feeling on
The uncritical relations of the dead.
Auden knew his classics, and the “dry-as-dust” criticism wasn’t a casual bit of Philistinism: Housman devoted thirty years of his professional life to producing a five-volume critical edition of an obscure verse treatise on astronomy and astrology called the Astronomica, by the minor first-century CE poet Marcus Manilius.
And there were also the tender Housman, whose sympathy for the doomed young men he wrote verse about—the soldiers marching off to die in wars not of their making, the forlorn, possibly homosexual suicides, the prematurely dead village athletes, the petty criminals about to be hanged—was apparently limitless; and the vindictive Housman, whom the ineptitude of other scholars could rouse to bursts of famously annihilating—and, it must be said, quite funny—contempt. One eighteenth-century edition of Manilius, Housman dryly wrote, “saw the light in 1767 at Strasburg, a city still famous for its geese.” (Luckily, the editor responsible for the Strasburg edition was long dead: Housman went on to write that his “mind, though that is no name to call it by, was one which turned as unswervingly to the false, the meaningless, the unmetrical, and the ungrammatical, as the needle to the pole.”)
Finally, there was the man whom friends recalled as “an admirable raconteur,” the bon vivant who loved good food and wine and (as Housman once slyly hinted to some High Table companions) was perfectly willing to fly to Paris for lunch, the tablemate whose “silvery,” “boyish, infectious” laughter made an impression on all who heard it, the kind and surprisingly sensitive colleague who, as his friend the classicist A.S.F. Gow noted, took pains, in the everyday business of academic life, to “defer to suggestions made by junior colleagues.” How little that Housman had in common with the aloof misanthrope recalled by the British-born classicist Bernard Knox. As a Cambridge undergraduate in the Thirties, Knox would occasionally glimpse Housman marching stiffly across the courts of St. John’s College in his elastic-sided black boots, his “thousand-yard stare” intended, as was the out-of-the-way location of his rooms, to discourage casual contact.2
In his 1985 history of English classical scholarship, one fourth of which is devoted to Housman (a discussion divided, significantly enough, into two chapters: “Life and Poetry” and “Critic and Scholar”), C.O. Brink warns against indulging the seemingly irresistible urge to create one coherent figure out of all these Housmans, which fall into groups roughly aligned with “two such apparent incompatibles as pure poetry and pure scholarship.” (Those “two different people” again.) “The bearing of the one on the other,” he writes, “cannot be direct.”3 But the risks that the cautious academic historian, bound by the available evidence, fears to take are the bread and butter of the artist. It is to writers like Stoppard that we turn to find the answers to “puzzles” like the one seemingly posed by Housman’s life.
There are many pleasures to be had from Stoppard’s play, which was thoughtfully presented this spring in Philadelphia, in a visually striking staging. Like all of his plays, this one is a clever and articulate work written for an intelligent audience. Like his 1993 hit Arcadia, the new play seeks, often successfully, to create drama out of technical intellectual material. (The quite emotional climax of one scene in The Invention of Love turns on the correct repositioning of a comma in Catullus’ poem about the marriage of Achilles’ parents.) And yet the playwright hasn’t solved the puzzle. Or, to be more precise, he isn’t interested in the puzzle. The reason for this is that the real hero of The Invention of Love isn’t Housman at all, but a contemporary of his who cut a far more dashing figure, someone who was, if anything, the Anti-Housman—in nearly every way, his temperamental, creative, and intellectual opposite; someone who, after being gossiped about, invoked, admired from a distance, and quoted throughout Stoppard’s play, finally appears at its close for a climactic showdown: Oscar Wilde.
Wilde’s life certainly looks more dramatic. “With Housman,” his most recent and most judicious biographer, Norman Page, has written, “the extent of our knowledge of the various aspects of his existence is usually in inverse proportion to their interest or significance.” 4 We know, in other words, a tremendous amount about the meals Housman ate, the trips he took, his opinions about publishing matters (“I want the book to be read abroad, and continental scholars are poorer than English,” he wrote when urging Grant Richards, his longtime friend and publisher, to keep the sale price of the first Manilius volume low), his opinions about bibliophiles who wrote to him asking for autographs (“an idiotic class…the only merits of any edition are correctness and legibility”), and little if anything about the kind of emotional dramas that typically make for engrossing theater. In Housman’s case there were two such dramas: his unrequited love for Moses Jackson, which seems to have shut him down emotionally for the rest of his life; and his mysterious, apparently deliberate failure at Oxford, the humiliation of which took him ten dreary years to recover from.
Alfred Edward Housman was born in March 1859 into a respectable if troubled middle-class Worcestershire family. (Shropshire, as he never tired of pointing out, was a place he wasn’t very familiar with; the topographical details described in his poem were, he wrote two years before his death, almost always “wrong and imaginary.” The place’s resonance for him was, if anything, symbolic: “Shropshire was our western horizon, which made me feel romantic about it.”) Both of his grandfathers had been clergymen; his father, who had no luck with money, drank, and seemed to have been somewhat unbalanced: Edward Housman would sometimes assemble his children at bedtime and shout his favorite Tory slogans at them. Young Alfred’s adored mother, Sarah, died just before his twelfth birthday, an event that apparently precipitated his abandonment of his grandfathers’ High Church religion. “I became a deist at thirteen and an atheist at twenty-one,” he wrote to an interviewer in 1933. One of seven children, Housman was particularly close to his sister Kate, to whom he wrote frequently, warmly, and wittily throughout his life; for his brother Laurence, also homosexual, he seemed to have less esteem. Most Housman scholars agree that Alfred’s decision to appoint Laurence as his literary executor was based on the cynical belief, eventually borne out, that Laurence would, contrary to his instructions, make public some revealing poems of a personal nature that Housman had never published: a passive-aggressive coming-out if ever there was one.
Housman found refuge from family troubles in reading. Despite an early passion for astronomy, his “affections,” he recalled in old age, were already “attached to paganism” by the time he was eight, when, as he put it, a copy of Lemprière’s classical dictionary fell into his hands; after distinguishing himself in the local village school he went up to St. John’s College, Oxford, on a scholarship in the fall of 1877, at the age of eighteen. Oscar Wilde had arrived three years earlier and made a big splash with his blue china décor and his assiduous courting of Pater and Ruskin; by contrast, Housman “lived a quiet student’s life,” according to a fellow student, “reading hard, and not taking any interest in the general life of the College.”
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.”
As it happens, similar words mark the climax of The Invention of Love, where a character rapturously catalogs the effects of love: “the self-advertisement of farce and folly, love as abject slavery and all-out war—madness, disease, the whole catastrophe owned up to….” The character is Housman, but he’s describing not love itself but love poetry—as near to the real thing, we are meant to feel, as this erotically thwarted man ever got. The structure of his play suggests that—as Auden might have done—Stoppard believes that Housman’s devotion to the life of the mind was essentially a repressive reaction to, and a sublimation of, his failed love for Jackson. This is where Wilde comes in: emotionally foolhardy, aesthetically flamboyant, Stoppard’s Wilde is clearly intended as a foil to his Housman. (Stoppard’s Wilde is a caricature, valued here for his emotional messiness rather than his intellectual brilliance.) References to Wilde run like a basso continuo through the play from the very beginning, first in breathless undergraduate rumors of his notorious “Aesthete” excesses while at Oxford, and then in more grown-up gossip about his trial and conviction; in the climactic scene, set after Wilde’s release from prison, he and Housman finally meet. (They never actually did, but Housman sent Wilde a copy of A Shropshire Lad, and we know that Wilde’s intimate friend Robbie Ross recited some of the poems to Wilde when he was in prison.) There’s no question of where your sympathies are meant to lie; in this play, the news of Wilde’s trial and conviction comes at precisely the moment when Housman gets his first academic appointment, as if Housman’s success were somehow predicated on Wilde’s failure. And as Wilde himself is rowed across the Styx in the last scene, he recites some of his wittiest and most famous aphorisms, while Housman, standing upstage, recites some of his most vicious and mean-spirited.
“I’m very sorry,” AEH says to Wilde in this final exchange:
Your life is a terrible thing. A chronological error. The choice was not always between renunciation and folly. You should have lived in Megara when Theognis was writing and made his lover a song sung unto all posterity…and not now!—when disavowal and endurance are in honour, and a nameless luckless love has made notoriety your monument.
If Housman stands for renunciation in Stoppard’s eyes, Wilde stands for glorious folly:
Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light…. Your “honour” is all shame and timidity and compliance…. You are right to be a scholar. A scholar is all scruple, an artist is none…. I made my life into my art and it was an unqualified success…. I awoke the imagination of the century. I banged Ruskin’s and Pater’s heads together, and from the moral severity of one and the aesthetic soul of the other I made art a philosophy that can look the twentieth century in the eye…. I lived at the turning point of the world where everything was waking up new—the New Drama, the New Novel, New Journalism, New Hedonism, New Paganism, even the New Woman. Where were you when all this was happening?
AEH: At home.
This exchange got a big laugh when I saw the play, but I have to think that it came at the price of intellectual fairness: Housman, after all, was an artist too, and a very good one. But then, the whole point of The Invention of Love is to make Housman into the (unattractive) representative of timid, thwarted, dry-as-dust “scholarship” and “science,” so that Wilde can become the heroic and tragic representative of “poetry” and “emotion”—a dithyrambic type for whom the playwright evidently has more feeling. For all their intellectual trimmings, Stoppard’s plays are, ultimately, anti-intellectual; he loves to show—and audiences love to watch—brilliant, analytical minds humbled by messy, everyday emotions. (Stoppard has Housman cry out several times during the action of the play, “Mo! Mo! I would have died for you but I never had the luck!” and you can tell that the playwright wished he had.) It’s strange that a writer who presents himself—and is accepted as—an intellectual playwright shows so little real appreciation for “affections” (as Housman called them) that originate above the neck; you’d never guess from Stoppard’s presentation of Housman that the mind can be a passionate organ, too.
A speech that Stoppard has chosen not to quote in his play—the 1892 Inaugural—suggests a different picture of Housman. The poet-scholar declared that
Existence is not itself a good thing, that we should spend a lifetime securing its necessaries: a life spent, however victoriously, in securing the necessaries of life is no more than an elaborate furnishing and decoration of apartments for the reception of a guest who is never to come. Our business here is not to live, but to live happily.
It hasn’t occurred to Stoppard, or indeed to many of those writing about Housman, that although he never received Jackson as a full-time lodger in his life, Housman could actually have been happy. Pace Stoppard, Housman was no grim Stoic: “I respect the Epicureans more than the Stoics,” he wrote. Stoppard’s Frank Harris gets Housman all wrong when he grumbles that the point of A Shropshire Lad is that “you’re better off dead.” If you read beyond the melancholy and obsession with mortality, the point that emerges is, if anything, an Epicurean one: tomorrow we shall surely die, so today we must live—and be happy as best we know how. “My troubles are two,” Housman wrote, and this troubled Housman is all The Invention of Love cares about; but what about “My pleasures are plenty”?
During their climactic exchange at the close of The Invention of Love, Wilde mischievously tweaks Housman’s famous devotion to scientific “truth,” a passion that pervades both his poetic and scholarly utterances. (“It is and it must in the long run be better for a man to see things as they are than to be ignorant of them,” he wrote in the UCL Inaugural; and in the penultimate poem of A Shropshire Lad, the narrator says of harsh poetic truths that they are worth having even “if the smack is sour.”) Stoppard’s Wilde is somewhat more sanguine about the relation between facts and truth, and shuns unpleasant realities. “It’s only fact,” he tells Housman, referring to a newspaper report about a young cadet who killed himself because he was a homosexual: The incident was the basis for one of the most searing and implicitly self-revealing of A Shropshire Lad’s poems (“Shot? So quick, so clean an ending?”). “Truth,” Wilde goes on, “is quite another thing and is the work of the imagination.”
You’re meant to applaud this line, which ultimately provides the explanation of the play’s title. Wilde knows that Bosie is nothing more than a “spoiled, vindictive, utterly selfish and not very talented” young man, but those are merely the boring “facts.” The “truth” is that for Wilde, Bosie is divine Hyacinthus. “Before Plato could describe love,” Stoppard’s Wilde says, “the loved one had to be invented. We would never love anybody if we could see past our invention.” This exaltation of complaisant fantasy in the face of unpleasant reality couldn’t be further from Housman’s hardheaded view of things. (He loathed Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” which he disdainfully summarized thus: “Things must come right in the end, because it would be so very unpleasant if they did not.”)
Of the cold realities of life, Housman got an early and bitter taste; his reaction was to abandon illusion, “invention,” and devote himself to laying bare reality as he saw it. If love, as Stoppard wants us to believe, lives in the province of the imagination—if it is, essentially, an invention—then Housman’s handicap was his limited, science-bound, fact-obsessed, philological mind. Even if you accept the dubious and disturbing proposition that we could never love people if we could see them for who they really are, Stoppard isn’t playing wholly fair again. Having erased all traces of Housman the poet, the amiable colleague, the warm and hilarious correspondent, there’s nothing to stop the playwright from claiming that Housman wasn’t a fully realized human being, wasn’t capable of “inventing.” This, in turn, allows him to deliver to his grateful audience the always welcome news that scholars are dull and haven’t got satisfying emotional lives, whereas other people live life to the hilt.
Had Stoppard dug deeper, been really interested in considering what the soul of a man who was both genuinely creative and rigorously intellectual might be like, he might have penetrated to the mystery of the “two different people” that Housman was. With his playwright’s imagination and presumed interest in the textures of human character, he wouldn’t have had to dig very deep. Is the “puzzle” of Housman’s divided nature all that difficult to solve? To my mind, the fierceness of his scholarly invective is a mutation of the fierce protectiveness he felt for the beautiful lads he eulogized. A Shropshire Lad is a bitterly ironic anti-war poem: “The saviours come not home to-night,/ Themselves they could not save,” goes a line from the sequence’s first lyric, which refers to the thousands of young men fighting and dying in the Empire’s wars, and which is set on the night of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, as choruses of “God save the Queen” ring out into the bonfire-illuminated sky. Housman loves his young men, and hurts to think of them wounded (“lovely lads and dead and rotten,” he spits), and scorns those who would wound them. So too with his beloved texts: he loves them, and hurts to think of them wounded.
And surely the life-altering rejection by Jackson has much to do with the tone and character of Housman’s two personae: the two emotions that underlay this hopeless, humiliating incident—desire (his for Jackson) and contempt (Jackson’s, implicitly, for him and his world)—each found its own outlet: desire in the elegies for young men, contempt in the vituperative footnotes. (Housman wryly dedicated his magnum opus to Jackson the contemptor harum litterarum—“the one who has contempt for these writings.”) Indeed, that contemptuous “thousand-yard stare” seems all too clearly to have been a self-protective device, a way of distancing himself from the intense emotions that young men—students—could so easily arouse. For this we ourselves should feel sympathy, not contempt.
Desire, contempt; poetry, criticism. Housman’s classical papers, abstruse as they may be, are filled with flashes of wit; they are also masterful examples of elegant and precise English. (Among his contributions to textual criticism was to make of what had been a truly dry-as-dust genre, characterized by terse, abbreviated notations, an almost literary one.) There’s a strange moment in one of these, an early review of a new edition of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, in which, during a discussion of textual matters, emotion suddenly kindles: Euripides’ Hippolytus, the author fiercely writes, was “by far the most faultless tragedy of Euripides, if not indeed the most faultless of all Greek tragedies with the exception of the Antigone alone.” In Euripides’ play, Hippolytus is portrayed as a proud and solitary youth who devoted himself to the austere cult of the virgin goddess Artemis; he perishes, as the indirect result of an unwanted erotic advance, because he would not break an oath of silence. Small wonder the play appealed so much to Housman, who in life had played not one but both of its great leading roles: the desire-maddened, rejected would-be seducer, and the solitary youth whose austere enthusiasms were a refuge from erotic confusions for which he claimed contempt.
As for Housman’s particularly rarefied intellectual enthusiasms, we need not look to pathology to explain them. Of course it’s tempting to think that there was, in his choice of Manilius as the object of his life’s work, something deliberately perverse; it’s as if, to punish the “system” that had punished him, he chose to waste his awesome talents on someone wholly beneath him. (It wouldn’t have been the first time.) Professor Knox wrote in these pages in 1984:
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.”
But even if there is some truth in the theory that Housman’s choice of subject was deliberately perverse (after all, he had every reason to resent the system, and to want to subvert its needs and desires), to complain in this way is to inflict, as Housman might put it, the literary on the scientific. We may be interested in possessing the most accurate possible texts of the three great tragedians, but Housman’s interest was to find corrupt texts and repair them—“to strike your finger on the page and say, ‘Thou ailest here, and here.”‘
It is important, also, to remember that among Manilius’ previous editors were the great scholars Scaliger and Richard Bentley, whom Housman so revered; whatever his modest refusal to be counted their equal, it would be inhuman to expect him to resist embarking on a project that, quite apart from its intellectual and technical appeal, would link his name permanently to theirs. And let us not forget that childhood fascination with astronomy. Why shouldn’t Housman have a Proustian motivation?
If Stoppard’s interest in intellectuals and their lives and passions extended beyond his desire to use them as garnish for his essentially romantic, pop vision—if, for instance, he’d taken more seriously, and investigated more closely, the contexts for and nuances of Housman’s utterances about classical learning and the role of the scholar—he’d have found many things to admire. (And would have had to write a different play.) Not least of these would have been the very thing for which Housman becomes, in this play, an object for fun: his insistence on “scientific” scrupulousness in dealing with ancient texts. “The only reason to consider what the ancient philosophers meant about anything is if it’s relevant to settling corrupt or disputed passages in the text,” AEH declares in Act I, as the audience, echoing Jowett (who also makes an appearance), sniggers knowingly: how narrow he is, how horribly he has failed to see the glory that was Greece!
And again, toward the end of Act One, AEH is lecturing young Housman on the qualities of a good textual critic; among these was “repression of self-will.” This also got a solid giggle on the night I saw the play, perhaps because people were making a connection—as Stoppard intends them to—between Housman’s mania for intellectual “repression” (by which he meant, of course, the effort to filter out the critic’s own prejudices) and the alleged sexual and emotional repression for which, thanks to Auden and others, he is so well known.
Like many lines in this play, this one is, in fact, a quotation from Housman, but Stoppard doesn’t provide the idea with its proper context. In his Cambridge Inaugural Lecture of 1911, Housman argued passionately that scholars of ancient texts must repress their own tastes—what we today might call their cultural biases. He derides an evaluation of some lines by Horace as being “exquisite”:
Exquisite to whom? Consider the mutations of opinion, the reversals of literary judgment, which this one small island has witnessed in the last 150 years: what is the likelihood that your notions or your contemporaries’ notions of the exquisite are those of a foreigner who wrote for foreigners two millenniums ago? And for what foreigners? For the Romans, for men whose religion you disbelieve, whose chief institution you abominate, whose manners you do not like to talk about, but whose literary tastes, you flatter yourself, were identical with yours…. Our first task is to get rid of [our tastes], and to acquire, if we can, by humility and self-repression, the tastes of the classics.
In the context of the fuzzy Victorian romanticization of classical culture, this is shockingly refreshing. The past thirty-five years of classical scholarship have, in fact, been devoted to stripping away our cultural preconceptions about and woolly idealization of the Greeks and Romans and trying to see them “cold,” for what and who they were—which was, as often as not, strange and off-putting, despite our desire to make them into prototypes for ourselves, to “invent” them as “Hyacinths” when the “facts” suggest otherwise. Stoppard has AEH recite most of this speech in his play, but without, I suspect, being aware of its implications—without realizing how startlingly prescient and contemporary this musty old character was. Fact-loving, scientific Housman was unsentimental about the Greeks and Romans—more modern by far, when all is said and done, than “Hyacinth”-loving Wilde.
The back cover of the printed edition of The Invention of Love makes a little joke of Housman. The publisher rhapsodizes about Wilde’s superior allure, about the fact that although his life was short and tragic, he had, at least, lived: “The author of A Shropshire Lad lived almost invisibly in the shadow of the flamboyant Oscar Wilde”—this, of course, isn’t true; Housman was hugely popular—“and died old and venerated—but whose passion was truly the fatal one?”
After seeing Stoppard’s one-sided play about this fascinatingly two-sided figure, I was moved to ask a different question. Let’s say that Stoppard’s Wilde is right—let’s say he did invent the “new” twentieth century, mad as it is for everything new. And indeed, so much of what he was famous (and infamous) for inventing in the nineteenth century has become commonplace in the twentieth: media celebrity, and the celebrity trial; personality as a form of popular entertainment; glittering pronouncement as ideology; “image” culture; the adulation and tireless pursuit of idealized, rather than real, love objects. So let’s say that Wilde (or at least the Wilde of Stoppard’s play), the one who preferred silvery, seductive, vaporous images to unappealingly humdrum “facts” and unpleasant realities, invented that—gave us the world we now inhabit. And let’s say that Housman, after failing—or refusing—to “invent” the one he loved, chose to be unglamorous, to devote himself to facts, to reality, to the dull task of bringing to light hard truths unlikely to endear him to a public hungry—as Stoppard’s public is—for sentimental fantasies. Let’s give Wilde that much, and Housman that little. Who is the greater hero?
August 10, 2000
See C.O. Brink, English Classical Scholarship: Historical Reflections on Bentley, Porson, and Housman (Cambridge, England: James Clarke & Co., 1986), pp. 150, 152. ↩
Bernard Knox, “Closet Modern,” The New York Review, March 15, 1984, p. 11. ↩
Brink, English Classical Scholarship, p. 154. ↩
Norman Page, A.E. Housman: A Critical Biography (Schocken, 1984), p. 8. ↩