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Saturday, December 15, 2001

Arts & Letters

A. E. Housman

A. E. Housman (1859-1936) was undoubtedly the greatest Latin scholar that England produced since Richard Bentley (1662-1742), and Housman himself wanted to be thought of as Bentley’s successor and to be counted along with him and Scaliger (1540-1609) as the triumvirate of textual emendation. Housman, however, did not rank himself above Lachmann (1793-1851), Madvig (1804-1886), or Wilamowitz (1848-1931); and when he was told that so-and-so thought he was the greatest of living classical scholars, he replied, “I am not; and if I were he would not know it.” This just estimation of himself and others was always combined with a cutting nastiness that seems to be a superfluous display of wit and a bitterness that reflects solely on Housman. He could appear generous, but only through his probity and love of truth, and not through any greatness of soul. His love of truth perhaps most distinguishes him from most other brilliant critics, whose facility gets in the way of their devotion to the textual problem in itself. Perhaps Richard Porson (1759-1808) alone shared this love of truth with Housman; but Porson was modest in a way that Housman never was, for he belonged to a time when textual criticism was the handmaiden of interpretation, and classical scholarship had not yet claimed all understanding for itself.

Textual criticism is involved in an insoluble dilemma. Its focus is necessarily on corruption, which is for the most part limited to a few words or even a few letters. Whatever solution it arrives at is meant to satisfy only the immediately surrounding area where the corruption is found; it is not designed to handle the larger question which of two or more possible readings the author in fact chose, for the author had the design of the whole in mind and the critic is forbidden by the rules of his craft to take the whole into consideration. If, for example, a Greek tragedy lacks a word that appears in all other extant plays, but the word occurs as a variant in that tragedy and makes a kind of sense, a critic would go beyond his competence either to insert it in order to regularize the play or deny its permissibility on the grounds of the plan and intention of the play. Housman, like all good critics, was to some extent aware of this dilemma but not to the extent of acknowledging that emendation necessarily has to be understood as a probe and not as a tool of certainty. Housman believed that certainty could be gained through a thorough understanding of an author’s style, for he thought that poetry was primarily a question of diction and not of fiction. Whether this narrow view of poetry had to do with his own verses is hard to say; but it is striking that the sentimentality present throughout his poems betrays the slightness of the influence the classical poets whom he knew so well had on him. 

Housman began as a textual critic of both Greek poetry (Sophocles and Euripides primarily) and Latin elegiacs (Propertius mainly); but his reputation rests on three major editions: Juvenal (1905, 1931 second edition), Lucan (1926), and Manilius (1903-1930 in five volumes). This turn seems to have been a rejection of what he loved to an acceptance of what he was good at and where no contemporary could rival him. Housman put under the title of his Lucan edition the phrase, editorum in usum, “for the use of editors,” by which he implied that his was a tentative reconstruction of the text and that it was designed to teach other editors their business. Modesty and superiority were thus blended, and he could look forward to denouncing those who had not learned their lessons and admitting that he had erred, as on rare occasions he did. Modern editors unfortunately did not follow one practice, which he shared with Wilamowitz, that had been routine in the early centuries of classical learning. To pick up Farnaby’s edition of Lucan (1618), for example, is to find a text surrounded by brief and informative notes that instruct the reader both about the history of the event Lucan describes and accounts for the difficulties in Lucan’s verse. Housman abandoned the historical element, and one has to go elsewhere to find what passage in Caesar’s Civil War, for example, Lucan has put into verse; but Housman did supply the reader with a deep grammatical understanding of passages, with a brief recommendation of the ancient Scholia to Lucan, if they were right, and, if they were wrong, an alternative. No contemporary edition of a text would put this explanation for Lucan’s, “And rainy Cynthia with her pregnant crescent had already for the third time increased the waters”: “It rained for three nights, as Farnaby realized.” Housman’s notes make for marvelous reading, for the Latin is as clear and Ciceronian as Lambinus’ (1500[1]-1572), and they reveal how deeply he understood the meaning of complex constructions. It is safe to say that if one has Housman, Farnaby, and the Scholia at one’s side one, can read Lucan without much difficulty; one would be hard put to say this of any other text in the last century and a half that did not claim to be a commentary. Housman never produced a commentary in the modern sense; one suspects that he despised this combination of textual and literary criticism. Such a combination is not found before Wilamowitz’s edition of Euripides’ Heracles (1889), for it took a major controversy in the middle of the nineteenth century in Germany to make room for the possibility that Wilamowitz initiated and promoted. Housman stuck to the kind of notes found in Bentley, Porson, and Hermann; but with this difference. Lachmann had revolutionized the way in which manuscripts were to be evaluated. One now had a means to determine in the best possible case whether a variant reading in a manuscript was a genuine alternative, a scribal error, or a late but learned correction. For classical scholars this meant, and it meant for Housman as well, Lachmann’s edition of Lucretius; it did not mean his edition of the New Testament, where the number of manuscripts and variants allow for the display of the method in all its power. The method of Lachmann is mechanical, and it breaks down if the tradition shows contamination among different lineages of the manuscripts. Housman understood himself as a true representative of German scholarship in an England that had lost long before his birth the last representative of the Bentley-Porson strain; but he also rejected with horror what he thought were the excrescences among his contemporaries that he thought signaled an absolute decline in the standards of scholarship.

What he thought scholarship was good for emerges in his inaugural lecture for the chair in Latin at London University. His answer to this question was, “not much,” but he thought it worth pursuing as knowledge for its own sake without any need for justification in the larger scheme of things. He held that Macaulay’s essay, On Translating Homer, surpassed anything that any scholar had done by way of criticism; but however much one might be inclined to praise Macaulay’s essay over against those of “scholars,” Macaulay himself seems to be a childish boy compared to Lessing’s Laocoön, which shows a far deeper understanding of Homer than anything in Macaulay. There is a narrowness in Housman that does not just reflect a just appreciation of his own limits, but which contains as well a deliberate refusal to acknowledge anything great beyond his own expertise. The critic Edmund Wilson pointed out long ago how absurd Housman is when he applies Lucretius’ words about Epicurus – lucida tela dieï (brilliant shafts of sunlight) – to Bentley’s edition of Manilius. All the careful exactness of Housman goes along with a pettiness of spirit that at least at times is out of control and expresses a contempt for whatever he does not understand.

Seth Benardete was professor of classics at New York University and of philosophy in the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research. His numerous books include Plato’s “Laws”: The Discovery of Being, The Argument of the Action: Essays on Greek Poetry and Philosophy, The Tragedy and Comedy of Life, and The Bow and the Lyre.
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