Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Housman's humanity

I first encountered the story that Eric lately referred to in Gilbert Highet's The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, but allusions crop up here and there, due in no small part to the contrast which it offers to Housman's published persona, which was powerfully polemical and often alienating. I think it's worth reading, so stick around through the set-up.

In chapter 21, "A Century of Scholarship," Professor Highet (who wrote elsewhere on The Art of Teaching) has some words for what he considered the worst possible teaching, namely that which views Greek and Latin as "a science, and nothing but a science."

His illustration is the life of A.E. Housman, who believed that his purpose as Professor of Latin was to be a textual critic, which is to say to work toward the reconstitution of ancient texts. Until that work was done, literary criticism was not possible.

It was admirable, and he was responsible for great advancements in philology best exemplified in his essay "The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism" (available in The Name and Nature of Poetry, and some online versions may be found, though they often have corrupt Greek). I think we've gone too far in the opposite direction, producing generations of un-philological classicists who fancy themselves literary critics while acting under the false assumption that our texts are secure. But I digress.

Housman took his appointment so seriously that he abandoned Greek, an area in which he had previously received such high praise from the likes of Wilamowitz. And we should remember that Housman, who acknowledged himself a pedant, admired the legendary Richard Bentley, whose emendations are ubiquitous, often brilliant, and always instructive even when incorrect.

And in this pursuit of textual criticism, Highet believed, he became a bad teacher of poetry. This is a matter of perspective. Housman saw himself as a teacher of language and of texts, not of poems.

But here, then, comes the surprising moment when Housman revealed his appreciative, poetic soul. The following was recorded in a letter by one of his students, and reprinted by Highet:

'[O]ne morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached...the seventh ode in the fourth book of Horace.... This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm. Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said: "I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry." Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own (now the fifth in More Poems). "That," he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, "I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature," and walked quickly out of the room.'
One of the men who watched this said, 'I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.' He was. In part because of the the extreme sensitivity which made it uncomfortable for him even to recall certain lines of poetry while shaving, because his skin bristled and turned the razor's edge; but in part also because of his embarrassment at feeling that he he had permitted personal emotion to escape, and invade what he held should be nothing but an objective field of thought, sterile as ice, bright as an operating table.
I think it's obvious that Highet is wrong on one point, which I've already mentioned above: it's not 'Greek and Latin' that Housman strove to keep sterile, but his very specific task as a textual critic. It was not his business, not his academic charge, to advocate for poets or to impose taste upon other men: his was simply to restore texts and teach others the skills necessary to do the same.

Outside his job, he was as human as the rest of us.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Thanks, Dennis!