a.e. housman: pejorist hedonist


When A.E. Housman failed his final examinations at Oxford he went to London to work as a clerk in the Patent Office. After ten years of that, he was appointed, at the age of 33, to the chair of Latin at University College London. In his application for the job he very properly drew attention to his Oxford failure. Not, you might think, a glowing CV, especially as he couldn’t claim any teaching experience. Yet these manifest disadvantages failed to deter the electors to the chair. They had their own criteria of eminence and saw that Housman was already one of the few. He would, before very long, be called the greatest Latinist of his age, to be named in the same breath as Bentley and Porson and Housman’s famous German contemporary Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.

He was usually quite modest about his claims: ‘I wish they would not compare me to Bentley . . . I will not tolerate comparison with Bentley. Bentley is alone and supreme.’ However, ‘they may compare me with Porson if they will.’ He was willing, that is, to be compared only with the runner-up for the title of greatest English classical scholar. Ordinary readers, even if they have a bit of Latin, can have little notion of what it means to know it well; those who, in their day, did know it well were ready to appoint a young man with a record of academic failure to the most influential Latin chair outside Oxford and Cambridge.

more from Frank Kermode at the LRB here.