Housman Country: Into the Heart of England

Methode-times-prod-web-bin-ad25e4de-2bd8-11e6-bb4a-bf8353b79a10Seamus Perry at Literary Review:

A E Housman remains the best advertisement in English literature for the enabling power of repression. He was, as his brother Laurence said, ‘provokingly reserved’, though from beneath the lid he kept so firmly screwed down emerged rare fleeting glimpses of the tempestuous stuff that was always going on inside. Housman was, as Auden put it in his fine, admiring poem, the ‘Latin Scholar of his generation’, but his approach to classical literature was ostentatiously arid, as though deliberately to keep anything like feeling at arm’s length. He wrote about minute matters of textual scholarship with brilliant precision and utter authority, regarding the efforts of less adequate scholars with devastating contempt. He did not suffer fools, let alone gladly. You could not imagine higher ground to occupy. Take, for example, his account of the abject failure of generations of earlier editors to figure out the relationship between the manuscripts of Juvenal: ‘Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.’ The whole performance was one of testy brilliance, the artful cultivation of the persona of an ‘odious editor’ with a ‘deplorable reputation’, showing, Swift-like, his worst face to the world. When the mask slipped the effect was naturally astonishing. One memoirist recalled the last talk in a long, dry-sounding lecture series in Cambridge about Horace, at the end of which, to everyone’s surprise, Housman said, ‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ He read it both in Latin and in his own translation, and then commented, ‘almost like a man betraying a secret, “I regard [that] as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,” and walked quickly out of the room’. The effect was terrific: one student said to another, ‘I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.’

more here.