European Scholar

HOUSMAN, Alfred Edward

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1859-03-26
  • Born City: Catshill, Worcestershire
  • Born State/Country: England
  • Parents: Edward, a solicitor, & Sarah Jane Williams H.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1936-04-30
  • Death City: Cambridge
  • Death State/Country: England
  • Education:

    King Edward VI Grammar School, Bromsgrove, 1870-7; St. John's College, Oxford , 

  • Professional Experience:

    Clerk, Patent Office, 1882-3; secretory to head of Patent Office, 1882-3; higher division clerk, Trade Marks division, 1183 (1884?)-92; prof. Latin, University College, London, 1892-1910; Kennedy Professor Latin, Cambridge, 1910-36; memb. Cambridge Philological Society, 1889; presents., 1912-13.

  • Publications:


    M. Manilii astronomicon liber I [II, III, IV, V] (London, 1903, 1912, 1916, 1920, 1930; corrected impression, vol. V, Cambridge, 1937; editio minor, Cambridge, 1932); DIunii Iuuenalis saturae (London, 1905; revised ed., Cambridge, 19310; M. Annaei Lucani belli ciuilis libri decem (Oxford, 1926; corr. impr., 1927).

    Articles (Collected)

    The Classical Papers of A. E. Housman (= Cl.Pap.), ed. J. Diggle and F. R. D. Goodyear. (Cambridge, 1972).

    Articles (Selected)

    “Emcndationes Propertianae,” JPh 16 (1887) 1-35 = Cl.Pap. 29-54; “The Manuscripts of Propertius." JPh 21 (1892-93) 101-97, 22 (1893) 84-128 = Cl.Pap. 232-304,314-47; “Greek Nouns in Latin Poetry from Lucretius to Juvenal.” JPh 31 (1910) 236-66 = Cl.Pap. 817-839.

    “ΑΙΟΣ and ΕΙΟΣ in Latin Poetry.” JPh 33 (1913) 54-75 = Cl.Pap. 887-902; “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism.” PCA 18 (1922) 67-84 = Selected Prose, ed. J. Carter (Cambridge, 1962) 131-50 = Cl.Pap. 1058-1069 = Collected Poems and Selected Prose, ed. C. Ricks (London, 1988) 325-39; “Prosody and Method.” I, II, CQ 21 (1927) 1-12; CQ 22 (1928) 1-10 = Cl.Pap. 1114-26, 1136-46; “Praefanda,” Hermes 66 (1931) 402-12 = Cl.Pap. 1175-84.

  • Notes:

    A.E. Housman is commonly regarded as one of the greatest classical scholars in the history of Great Britain. His rigorous intelligence and precision of thought; his genius for textual criticism; his wide, detailed, and systematic knowledge of the classical languages and literatures; and his elegant command of the English tongue go far to explain the reputation he has long possessed; but almost as significant as these, though perhaps less obvious than these, was a deadly seriousness of purpose that made him a proponent for the highest of standards in his chosen studies. Yet Housman’s place in history is not limited to classical scholarship. In addition, he enjoys considerable standing as a poet. Many readers consider his verse amongst the most moving and melodious of modern English poetry; and his chief works, A Shropshire Lad (1896) and Last Poems (1922), have remained continuously in print since their publication. But Housman himself was more interested in his standing as a scholar than in his rank as a poet.

    Alfred Edward Housman was the eldest of the seven children of Edward Housman (1831-1894), a Worcestershire solicitor, and his first wife, Sarah Jane Williams (1828-1871). Theirs was a talented family. Clemence (1861-1955) became a noted artist, novelist, and suffragist; Katharine Elizabeth (1862-1945) composed a history of King Edward VI Grammar School, Bath, where her husband, Edward Symons, was headmaster; Laurence (1865-1959) was variously an illustrator, novelist, playwright, and supporter of pacificism and women’s rights. Others of the children became, respectively, a physician, a munitions expert, and a soldier, the last killed in combat during the Boer War.

    Housman was born in a house called either The Little Valley or The Valley House, Fockbury, in the parish of Catshill, Worcestershire. Soon afterwards, the family moved to the neighboring town of Bromsgrove. The new home, Perry Hall, was a large manor, formerly the property of an elderly relation. But the size and extent of the house did not accurately reflect the financial standing of the family: the Housmans were thus far not so much prosperous as fortunate.

    About the year 1870 Sarah Jane developed cancer and on 26 March 1871, her eldest son’s twelfth birthday, she died. Housman had been sent away a few days before, and his mother’s demise contributed greatly to his dark view of existence. But he was not the only member of the family badly affected by this sad event. His father did not support the death of his wife well, though two years afterward he married a cousin, Lucy Housman (1827-1907), who had introduced him to Sarah Jane. He endeavored, without conspicuous success, to continue his profession and, eventually, took to drink. Edward Housman died, nearly insolvent, in 1894.

    A. E. Housman’s academic career began propitiously. He won a scholarship in 1870 to King Edward VI Grammar School, Bromsgrove. He was studious and, when he respected an instructor, worked well. Under Herbert Millington (1841-1922), who became headmaster in 1873, his studies advanced until, in 1877, he stood at the head of the school. In this last year, Housman was ranked as one of the first twelve students in the annual Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examinations; and he won, in open competition, a classical scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford.

    Housman’s career at Oxford was, except for its conclusion, unremarkable. He worked at his studies; he contributed to undergraduate periodicals; and he stood, without making serious efforts to succeed, for the Newdigate Prize and the Ireland Scholarship. Despite his taking first class honors in Classical Moderations in 1879, the Fellows of St. John’s were probably disappointed in him. For his part, Housman should have realized that the College to which he belonged was not one of the chief academic institutions at Oxford. Its tutors were not generally either the most learned or the most efficient in the University; and Housman, who had a history of neglecting work when he disliked or despised an instructor, was not inspired to put forward his best efforts.

    In 1880 Housman and the other two scholars of his year, A. W. Pollard (1859-1944), afterwards Keeper of Printed Books in the British Museum, and Moses J. Jackson (1858-1923), took rooms outside the College. Probably, Pollard and Housman had come to be on friendly terms from the first. They each had won a classical scholarship; they involved themselves in the production of the undergraduate periodical Ye Rounde Table; and they visited each other’s homes during the vacations. Jackson, on the other hand, had won the Holmes Science scholarship; he had little respect for, and indeed was openly contemptuous of, the humanities; and his outside interests centered not on literature but on athletics. In later years, however, Housman identified Jackson as his greatest friend, and said he had had more influence on him than anyone else. Not improbably, at Oxford, this influence was principally intellectual.

    Like his College, the University of Oxford was not an institution for which Housman had great respect. The master of the most prestigious college was the Regius Professor of Greek, Benjamin Jowett (1817-93) of Balliol; and Jowett despised technical scholarship. Having heard Jowett lecture once, Housman never returned to hear him again. Henry Nettleship (1839-93), the Professor of Latin from 1878 to 1893, though a man of considerable erudition and no mean intelligence, did not share Housman’s high opinion of textual criticism; and the learned and industrious Robinson Ellis (1834-1913) was foolish and absurd and eccentric. Ingram Bywater (1840-1914) and Herbert Richards (1848-1916), for both of whom Housman latterly had a measure of esteem, do not seem then to have come his way.

    In 1881 Jackson received first-class honors in the natural science examinations, and Pollard received a first class in Literae Humaniores. Housman was failed. The explanation for his poor performance in Greats has long been a subject ofdiscussion and debate. As early as 1881 Pollard was interviewed by the College authorities in the hope of determining why Housman had performed so badly. The reason may have been nothing more than Housman’s disinterest in the subjects of theexaminations and a false faith in his ability to deal satisfactorily with the philosophical questions. But writers have conjectured other causes, ranging from religious troubles to a misplaced romantic interest in Jackson; and it does not now seem possible to determine why Housman turned in such inadequate answers. But the examiners probably failed him because they felt he was treating them with contempt. They allowed him neither a fourth-class honors degree nor credit towards the pass examinations. This failure almost ended Housman’s professional career before it had properly begun. Very few have proved able to surmount so disastrous a beginning in the classics, and no classical scholar has done so in as spectacular a fashion as Housman.

    Housman returned to Bromsgrove. In 1881 and 1882, he worked as a sixth form master for Millington at his school and readied himself for the examinations for the pass degree at Oxford and the Civil Service in London. He was successful in these tests and, at the end of November 1882, accepted a position in the Patent Office in London, where his friend Moses John Jackson(1858-1923) was employed as a special indexing clerk. Probably, Housman began his career as secretary to the head of the Patent Office. By 1883 or 1884, however, he was transferred to the Trade Marks Division, and worked as a higher division clerk until his resignation.

    At this time, Housman dwelt in London with the brothers Moses and Adalbert James Jackson (d. 1892), who were both students at University College, London. In 1883, Moses received a doctorate in science from the University of London; in the following year, Adalbert was awarded a bachelor’s degree, and moved away to work as a schoolmaster. Apparently in 1885, after a serious altercation, whose causes are uncertain, Housman and Moses Jackson took rooms in different parts of London. Housman lodged at Byron Cottage, 17 North Road, Highgate, where he stayed until 1907, when he moved to 1 Yarborough Villas, Pinner.

    Jackson had been greatly annoyed and disgusted by a major reorganization of the Patent Office, and in 1887 resigned to accept the position of Principal of Sind College, Karachi. He remained there, except for long and numerous holidays, until his retirement in 1910. His attempts to obtain a chair or headmastership in London during the late 1890s were unsuccessful and, on retirement, he moved to British Columbia. The break with Housman had been eventually healed, and in 1900 Housman was asked to stand as godfather to Jackson’s fourth son.

    It was in the 1880s that Housman began seriously to study the classics. At Oxford, he was considered highly intelligent, but his tutors did not view him as a prodigy, and on one occasion he was publicly told that he was not a genius. Even in those days, it is apparent that it was Housman’s plan to become a professional classical scholar. As early as 1879 he began work on an edition of Propertius and, whilst still technically an undergraduate, he published an article in a Cambridge philological journal. Not improbably, it was with this article that he introduced himself to H. A. J. Munro (1819-1885), the one British scholar of the day whose labors he greatly admired. But if Housman entertained any hopes for aid from Munro in retrieving the position his failure had cost him, they were unfulfilled. Munro’s reply was polite and friendly but apparently offered no help.

    Housman’s first article, “Horatiana,” published in the Journal of Philology for 1882, reveals a young man of respectable though no exceptional learning, and of considerable intellectual ability and knowledge of Latin and the errors of scribes. The paper seems to have attracted little comment at the time. His second classical publication, a note on Ovid’s Ibis, was even less ambitious, and appeared in the same periodical in 1883.

    After his workday as a clerk in the Patent Office, Housman pursued his private classical studies at the British Museum. In 1885, he tried to interest the Oxford University Press and Macmillan in an elaborate edition of Propertius. The former declined the proposal on the advice of Robinson Ellis, who sent Housman a letter explaining his reasons for thinking the work unsatisfactory; Macmillan refused, without discussion, almost immediately. At length, in October 1886, Housman completed a long article, his third paper, “Emendationes Propertianae,” and submitted it to the Journal of Philology. It was accepted and appeared in 1887. It is with this paper that Housman’s career may be said to have properly begun.

    Housman divided “Emendationes Propertianae” into two parts. After a brief preface, he listed about two hundred and fifty of his conjectures, without supporting argument, in the text of Propertius. This was followed by a detailed examination of the first elegy: a discussion with the subordinate purpose of showing that textual critics do not propose alterations without reasons. Housman displayed brilliance in argument and evidence of wide and careful reading in the Latin classics.

    This article attracted the attention of R. Y. Tyrrell (1844-1914), the Regius Professor of

    Greek at Trinity College, Dublin, who, “struck by the brilliancy of some emendations of his published in one of the teamed journals ... introduced [himself to Housman] by letter.” Likely enough, it was also at this time that Housman came to be on friendly terms with J. P. Postgate (1853-1926), then Professor of Comparative Philology at University College, London, who in 1891 entrusted him with the task of editing Ovid’s Ibis for the Corpus Poetarum Latinorum (published 1894; corrected edition, 1905). Postgate also was greatly impressed by Housman’s labors on Propertius and, in his own edition of 1894, accepted over sixty of his conjectures, transpositions, and changes in punctuation; and no name appears more often in his apparatus criticus than Housman’s.

    During the next few years, Housman continued to write on problems in classical texts. By the beginning of 1892, he had published over two hundred pages of notes, articles and reviews. These were principally concerned with the textual criticism of important ancient authors and were about equally divided between Greek and Roman writers: notably, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Horace, and Ovid. In addition, he had contributed English verse translations of three passages in the tragedians to his friend Pollard’s Odes from the Greek Dramatists: versions admired, among others, by Walter Headlam (1866-1908). In 1889, Housman was elected, with Postgate proposing him, to the Cambridge Philological Society.

    Early in 1892 the chair of Greek and Latin at University College, London, became vacant, and the Council of the College resolved to engage two classical professors. The advertisement, when it appeared, attracted nineteen applicants, including R. S. Conway (1864-1933), A. B. Cook (1868-1952), J. Wight Duff (1866-1944), and G. F. Hill (1867-1948). Housman’s testimonials, both in the number and eminence of his sponsors and in the force of their several asseverations, marked him as the strongest and most interesting of the candidates; and, taken as a whole, he was far the best supported applicant in the contest. He was able to submit favorable, even exceptionally laudatory, letters from the Professors of Latin at Oxford, Cambridge, and Dublin and the Professors of Greek at Dublin and St. Andrews. He did not, however, include letters from the Regius Professors of Greek at Oxford and Cambridge and it is highly unlikely that he sought their support. Jowett he despised; and he probably realized that R. C. Jebb (1841-1905) had as little liking for his philosophy of scholarship as he had for Jebb’s.

    As was permitted by the advertisement, Housman offered himself for either the Latin or the Greek chair, with a preference for the former. The election committee, of which Postgate was a member, recommended his appointment to the Professorship of Latin. The Chair of Greek was conferred on William Wyse (1860-1929)and, after his resignation in 1894, on Arthur Platt (1860-1925), a whimsical, delightful, and very erudite man, who became one of Housman’s closer friends.

    At University College, London, Housman fulfilled all of the duties that were set him both consistently and well. Since he was now Professor of Latin, and since he felt he was unable to attain to excellence in both Latin and Greek, Housman restricted his professional investigations in the main to problems in Latin textual criticism. But his idea of excellence was high, and his occasional contributions to the correction of new papyri texts, especially Bacchylides, remain notable. As a teacher Housman was efficient, though deliberately dry; and practically all of the students who left accounts concur in picturing an excellent instructor. None of his students at University College, London, however, attained eminence in classical studies and, whilst two or three became professional classical scholars, and Mortimer Wheeler (1890-1976), an archaeologist, Housman later remarked in effect that he “seldom had pupils who possessed a native aptitude for classical studies or intended to pursue them far.” As an administrator, Housman took, as was required of him, an active though not a dominant role in meetings: he served as Dean of his faculty (1894-1896) and as a member of the University College Council (1899-1902). Additionally, he involved himself, again as was expected of him, in the social activities of the College: notably in the Debating Society, especially in his first years, and in the Literary and Arts Societies. To the Literary Society he periodically delivered much-applauded lectures on various English poets. For the Union Society, he twice delivered the annual Foundation Oration. As an orator, be it in formal or informal settings, all accounts portray Housman as superb: witty, amusing, interesting, and delightful.

    During his years at University College Housman began the work that was to become his most renowned contribution to classical studies. His labors on Propertius had been mostly abandoned after an unpleasant and regrettable controversy with Postgate in 1895, a conflict that took its origin in Housman’s earlier work. Sometime before, Housman had written a book on The Manuscripts of Propertius, and Postgate had sponsored it to the Cambridge University Press. The Press declined it in 1891, but the work was accepted by the Journal of Philology as three long articles (1892-1893). The series was brilliantly and charmingly argued. “Controversy,” Housman remarked, “is inseparable from the discussion of our subject, and the ensuing pages will of necessity contain a certain amount of polemical matter; but my purpose is not in the main controversial. My purpose is to establish my own theory: to demolish the theories of others is only a necessary incident in the process.” Realizing that true readings could not in themselves prove that a manuscript preserved a genuine element from antiquity, he used an intriguing methodology for evaluating manuscript lections: he gave emphasis to readings which stood “halfway between the true reading and the corruption” in the lost common parent of the surviving codices.

    Postgate believed, with reason, that Housman’s stemma codicum was defective. It was indeed a fault in Housman’s methodology that he often was willing to rely on others’ reports of manuscripts; and the false datings and false reports on occasion seriously damaged the logical premises on which he built his arguments. His critic, in discussing another manuscript of Propertius, identified this defect as well as additional problems. Housman’s rebuttal failed in its purpose; and Postgate’s reply, bitter and harsh and deadly, silenced him. For nearly two years Housman published almost nothing in the journals. In 1897, however, he turned himself to Ovid’s Heroides and, about the same time, to Manilius’ Astronomica. In 1898 and 1900, he published his first papers on Manilius: dry lists of conjectures in the opening and final books of the poem. These papers led to his first book.

    Housman’s first published classical book, M. Manilii astronomicon liber primus, was published when its editor was forty-four years of age. It appeared in 1903 in an edition of four hundred copies, and it was published at Housman’s expense. The volume was dedicated neither to teacher nor family member but to his friend M. J. Jackson, harum litterarum contemptor. This astrological poem remained at the center of Housman’s studies for the rest of his life. In 1912 he published an edition, with commentary, of the second book; in 1916, of the third; in 1920, of the fourth; and, in 1930, of the fifth and final book. In 1932, he brought out an editio minor.

    Housman’s Manilius marked a considerable advance in Latin studies. He was not of course the first in Great Britain to work on the poem. In England, interest in Manilius had languished after Richard Bentley’s (1662-1742) edition of 1739. But at length, during the last part of the nineteenth century, attention was again directed to the Astronomicachiefly by Robinson Ellis and J. P. Postgate, and it was their labors, not Bentley’s, that first brought Manilius to Housman’s critical notice. Ellis in particular had made available a partial collation of a new, important manuscript, though he failed to make good use of it himself; and it may be supposed that it was this publication that first led Housman seriously to consider Manilius as a subject on which to work.

    Following a lengthy, polemical preface, Housman listed his conjectures in books II, III, and IV. Then, he provided a corrected text of the first book with a commentary written in Latin. The work was distinguished by the editor’s erudition, the large number of intelligent and even brilliant alterations he proposed—a recent editor has accepted over two hundred of his conjectures—and by his disagreeable comments on other classical scholars, both dead and living: the slashing style, as one reviewer styled it, which all know and few applaud. The reception of the volume was mixed. Postgate welcomed Housman’s volume as “the most substantial contribution to the criticism and elucidation of Manilius since the time of Bentley”; many others, especially in Germany, were less enthusiastic. Friedrich Vollmer (1867-1923), in particular, complained that Housman had no “inkling” of Überlieferungsgeschichte; and several, both on the Continent and in England, commented adversely on the savage, carping, disagreeable tone that pervaded the editor’s preface and commentary.

    Housman’s seemingly ceaseless criticisms, especially of conservative critics, has led to the belief that his own philosophy was radical. He himself had no such delusion. In a private letter, he wrote: “Radicalism in textual criticism is just as bad as conservatism; but it is not now rampant, and conservatism is. Radicalism was rampant thirty or forty years ago, and it was then rebuked by [Johan Nicolai] Madvig [1804-66] and [Moritz] Haupt [1808-74]: now it is conservatism that wants rebuking.”

    But it was less his general remarks than his comments on distinguished or well-known scholars of the day that gave considerable offense. “I imagine that Mr [Franz] Buecheler [1837-1908], when he first perused Mr [Siegfried] Sudhaus’ [1863-1914] edition of the Aetna, must have felt something like Sin when she gave birth to Death”; “But suppose that we could blunt our grammatical perceptions to the hebetude of Mr [Rudolf] Ehwald’s [1847-1927] . . .”; “Mr Vollmer’s notion of the dative case is a case which he can translate by für.” This polemical manner effectively disguised the fact that Housman was, in a special sense, a singularly courteous writer.

    This courtesy consisted in the care with which Housman presented his case in favor of or against manuscript readings and the conjectures of other scholars. Readers were not required to have faith in his omniscience: they were given the opportunity to see how he reached conclusions. It was a courtesy only accidentally given to the world at large, for Housman had little respect for mankind in general. His words, “the reader whose good opinion I desire and have done my utmost to secure is the next Bentley or [Joseph Justus] Scaliger [1540-1609] who may chance to occupy himself with Manilius,” were not designed to win applause, and Housman clearly wished to annoy and alienate certain of his readers. There is no doubt that he fulfilled his desire. But there exists in his attitude a pride of purpose and loftiness of ambition that deserve admiration. He asked no quarter and, so far as his contemporaries could see, he gave none; he evaluated the writings of others by that same intelligent, learned standard by which he wished his own compositions to be judged. By standards such as his, few works deserved strong commendation and, accordingly, few received it from him.

    In 1905 Housman’s second classical book appeared: an edition of Juvenal. The satirist was not, until the close of the nineteenth century, a writer that especially interested Housman. But the discovery, in a manuscript at Oxford, of some thirty lines otherwise unknown in the tradition intrigued him, and he began to write on the problems the new text presented. As a result, Postgate asked Housman to review the Oxford Classical Text of Juvenal by S. G. Owen (1858-1940) for the Classical Review.Following Housman’s critique, Owen resigned his rights to preparing the text for Postgate’s Corpus. The critic was invited to supply it in his stead, and his text, composed in about a twelvemonth, was issued both in the Corpus and, with a preface and revised apparatus, as a separate volume. As usual, for the separate book, Housman paid for the publication.

    Juvenal’s popularity has long been considerable. From the invention of printing to the beginning of the twentieth century, over nine hundred texts, translations, and reprints of the satires had appeared. The rate of correction of the work was not, however, commensurate with the interest the work attracted: “the fact is,” wrote Housman, “that Juvenal has never been taken in hand by a critic of the first order. If, instead of Pithoeus and Rigaltius and Ruperti and Jahn, it were Scaliger and Gronovius and Bentley and Lachmann that had been here before us, not much would now remain unexplained or uncorrected except the inexplicable and the incorrigible.”

    The separately issued text of Housman’s Juvenal, again of only four hundred copies, carries on the title page the words “editorum in usum edidit A. E. Housman.” The preface was equally trenchant, with references to “the sloth and distaste for thinking which are the common inheritance of humanity” and “that habit of treading in ruts and trooping in companies which men share with sheep.”

    Housman’s text of Juvenal is intelligently constituted. Although the apparatus criticus is superior in design and in detail to anything which had gone before, it nonetheless was inadequate. It wants emphasis, however, that Housman did not pretend that his was a polished edition. He wrote: “This work ... is not meant for a model; it is an enterprise undertaken in haste and in humane concern for the relief of a people sitting in darkness.” But he had an additional purpose. He designed not merely to provide a good text with a competently constructed apparatus criticus, he wished also to reform editorial technique in the classics. Therefore, Housman addressed himself to beginners “who are not critics yet, but are neither too dull to learn nor too self-satisfied to wish to learn.” The brilliance, the sanity, the modesty with which he expressed himself—“The superstitious have full faith in their superstitions, but those who follow reason are well aware that reason is no infallible guide”—go far to mitigate the cruel satire with which he attacked fools; and Housman’s improvements to the text, especially in punctuation, are not despised by more recent editors.

    At the close of 1910 the Latin Chair in Cambridge, subsequently called the Kennedy Professorship, became vacant on the death of John E. B. Mayor (1825-1910). Housman was persuaded to stand and, though J. P. Postgate, J. S. Reid (1846-1926), T. R. Glover (1869-1943) and others were candidates for the position, he was appointed to the Chair. His appointment was not inevitable, though he was recognized by some as the foremost Latinist in Great Britain. Amongst his champions were the Regius Professor Greek at Cambridge, Henry Jackson, and W. T. Lendrum, who actively worked on his behalf. Of the other electors, only Robinson Ellis, who had not forgiven Housman the discourteous treatment he had received from him in a review of Catullus, seems to have been mildly against his appointment. Jackson had long wished to see him Professor of Latin at Cambridge or Oxford; Lendrum believed him the greatest Latinist since Madvig. Shortly after Housman was offered the chair, he was elected to a fellowship at Trinity College. In Cambridge, his modest rooms were, except for the last few months of his life, in Whewell’s Court. 

    Housman took little part in academic politics at Cambridge, albeit he was President of the Cambridge Philological Society in 1912 and 1913. Only once, more than twenty years later, did he involve himself in a question concerning the classics in a nontechnical publication. In 1934, when a chauvinistic British writer in the Sunday Times complained about the election of the German Eduard Fraenkel (1888-1970) to the Corpus Professorship of Latin in the University of Oxford, Housman was asked to intervene. His letter effectively silenced the opposition to the appointment. But this intervention was unique, though now and again he might write to the newspapers on some other matter. Ordinarily, Housman wrote papers and edited texts, served on the necessary boards, and delivered his lectures in Cambridge.

    Housman’s lectures in Cambridge were attended not only by students but by professional scholars. They seem rarely to have attracted large audiences. The lecturer limited himself almost entirely to problems in textual criticism; the substance of his discourse was precise and spare and polemical remarks were not numerous. But twice he delivered a special course on “The Application of Thought to Textual Criticism.” In this series, he declined to give a systematic exposition of textual criticism and preferred to avoid as much as possible general propositions. He believed that it was very difficult for people, himself included, to generalize successfully. Instead, he gave particular examples of the way in which scholars had failed to approach their topics honestly or intelligently. The topics in the course ranged from the use of inscriptions for studying Saturnian meters to W. M. Lindsay’s (1858-1937) discussion of textual criticism; from H. W. Garrod’s (1878-1960) glib and foolish-remarks on textual studies to Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb’s comments on a passage in Euripides’ Medea.

    The rest of Housman’s lectures at Cambridge concerned Catullus, Horace, Juvenal, Lucretius, Martial, Ovid, Persius, Plautus and, over ten years, one book after another of Lucan. His labors on the Bellum Civile culminated in an edition that, declined by Macmillan, was issued by Blackwell in 1926. It was an edition that, like his Juvenal, depended not on an examination of new manuscripts but on an intelligent reading and assessment of others’ collations and a carefully cultivated knowledge of how Silver-Age poets expressed themselves. In addition, the editor’s mastery of ancient astrology permitted him to deal with the writer’s inaccurate references to that peculiar art: “that intricate fraud” as Housman styled it elsewhere “by which Asia revenged herself on Europe for the conquests of Alexander.”

    Housman’s edition of Lucan in 1926 at last won him the respect and regard continental scholars, notably Fraenkel, whose elaborate essay in Gnomon was the signal to others to take him seriously as the first scholar of Great Britain. Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moelendorff (1848-1931), Einar Löfstedt (1880-1955), and Giorgio Pasquali (1885-1952) all soon declared themselves to be admirers of Housman’s labors, and placed him at the head of classical studies in Britain. Much of the opposition Housman had encountered earlier now died down. Even old enemies began to seek excuses to praise Housman’s work. In particular, the publication of the fifth and final book of Manilius in 1930 occasioned enthusiastic congratulations from many who were in no position to judge the quality of the work. Housman’s reaction to this praise was restrained. He noted it and privately remarked that people did not like or understand his work any better than they had before, but as he now had a name in the world, they therefore thought it safer to treat him with respect. Like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), he seems never to have read a word without seeing an attitude.

    Having no high respect for the ability of his fellow man to assess quality —“You would be welcome to praise me if you did not praise one another”— Housman refused most of the honors that were offered to him. The chief exception was, thirty years after his academic disgrace in Literae Humaniores, an Honorary Fellowship at St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1911. He declined at least eight honorary doctorates, election to the British Academy, and, in 1929, the Order of Merit, always with great courtesy and, when offered by those he liked, with considerable charm. “I must begin with grateful acknowledgment to you and my other friends,” he wrote, “because I could not read your letter without feelings which had some pure pleasure in them; but this was swallowed up in surprise, and surprise itself was engulfed in horror. Not if the stipend were £150,000 instead of £150 would I be Public Orator.” But friendship would oblige him to undertake even uncongenial tasks. Most notably, he composed addresses for Sir James G. Frazer (1854-1941) and Henry Jackson and a biographical memoir for Arthur Platt, and he wrote addresses to King George V both for his College and for his university. Finally, he agreed to deliver the Leslie Stephen Lecture for 1933: a workmuch commended at the time, even by T. S. Eliot, though Housman himself took no pleasure or satisfaction in it.

    Housman’s refusal to accept unmerited or ignorant praise was mirrored by his reluctance to award commendation to others. His consciousness of high standards and of the limits of his own expertise outside certain areas, made him at once adifficult critic to please when he was competent to judge, and a critic slow to commend when his learning or understanding seemed to him imperfect. And his anger and annoyance with “that vague and conventional laudation which is distributed at large, like the rain of heaven, by reviewers who do not know the truth and consequently cannot tell it” led him to adjust the scales of justice by preferring severity to kindness.

    Harsh, seemingly merciless, criticism rarely wins friends, and few recognize a reluctance to give praise as an endearing trait. Nor does the student, who consciously designs to raise standards, usually win admiration from a population that had rather be left to pursue its work at its own low level; and the hatred and animosity that Housman still excites is due, in part, to wounded vanity and a desire to avenge savaged friends or respected predecessors. For his own part, Housman had especially great admiration for Richard Bentley and reacted to casual attacks on Bentley as others have reacted to Housman’s own careful invective against their friends.

    The last few years of Housman’s life were, as his health declined, physically painful. “The doctor does not want me to take walks of much more than a mile, and I myself am often inclined not to do much more than twice that amount. I still go up my 44 stairs two at a time, but that is in hopes of dropping dead at the top.” He continued however, almost to the last, to deliver the lectures he had agreed to give. At length, he was compelled to abandon his rooms for a set on the ground floor of the Great Court. On 25 April 1936, he returned to the Evelyn Nursing Home, Cambridge, and died there of advanced heart disease in the evening of 30 April 1936. He was cremated, and his ashes buried in Ludford, a town he had commemorated in A Shropshire Lad.

    In person, Housman was of medium height (5’9”), of slight physique, with a severe and forbidding countenance. He enjoyed long walks and ecclesiastical architecture, was very knowledgeable about plants and an excellent judge of wine and food. His holidays were, after his translation to Cambridge, usually restricted to France. Earlier in life, he often visited Italy, especially Venice, and, once, Istanbul. From 1920 he regularly flew to Paris for his gastronomical and architectural tours. His standing as a gourmet is reflected by the creation, by the chef of La Tour d’Argent, of the dish Barbue Housman. So far, indeed, as Housman willingly took part generally in society, it was as host or guest of university dining clubs, notably the Family, to which he had been elected. Philosophically, he described himself as a Cyrenaic or an egoistical hedonist, though twice, at the start of the first World War and during a financial crisis, he sent substantial sums of money to the government. Observation and experience and a certain sense of justice made Housman an atheist and, except in textual criticism, a conservative.

    Controversy has long surrounded Housman and his labors. During his lifetime, there were numerous complaints about the severe and brutal tone of his criticisms; after his death, eminent classicists complained that his influence in these studies had been regrettable. He had, by making the discipline seem too difficult or dangerous, frightened students away from Latin studies; he had, by his example, encouraged a harsh, indeed cruel, tone of polemics in the compositions of those whom he influenced. Housman himself, who valued talent and competence and honesty and brains, was not noticeably moved by the first group and should not have been overly troubled by the second. Although many classical scholars desire to interest students in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome and to encourage research in the humanities, Housman did not share these ambitions. He regarded it as no part of his business to popularize the classics or even to attract students to the field. A superb lecturer, he purposefully refrained from making his courses generally interesting; “the leading classic of his generation,” his uncompromising invective caused some scholars to abandon classical studies as a profession. He never designed to found a school and despised the impulse that led to such foundations, for he judged, on the basis of observation, that schools impeded the quest for truth. Accordingly, though at Cambridge for almost a quarter of a century, he directed only one graduate student, William High Semple (1900-81), Hulme Professor of Latin at Manchester, 1935-67.

    Housman’s friend and biographer, A. S. F. Gow, has characterized him as “a man at war,” and it is a fair description. “There is no rivalry” wrote Housman “between the studies of Arts and Laws and Science but the rivalry of fellow soldiers in striving which can most victoriously achieve the common end of all, to set back the frontiers of darkness.” But the ranks of Housman’s fellow soldiers only included those who shared his hatred for incompetence and dishonesty and impudence and sloth, and those whose abilities permitted them to advance learning.

  • Sources:

    R.W. Chambers,  Man’s Unconquerable Mind (London, 1939) 365-386. (Memoir of Housman’s life at University College, London); A.S.F. Gow, A. E. Housman: A Sketch (corr. impr. Cambridge, 1936). (Biographical memoir; the best introduction to Housman’s life; see Naiditch, A. E. Housman at University College, London, 26f.); Richard Perceval Graves, A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet (corr. impr. Oxford, 1981). (Unreliable biography; see CJ 77 [1982] 361-64; 81 [1986] 365.); T. Burns Haber, A. E.Housman (New York, 1967). (Biography, with considerable material on Housman’s verse; knowledgeable but uncritical and inaccurate); Maude M. Hawkins, A. E. Housman: Man behind a Mask (Chicago, 1958). (Foolish and preternaturally inaccurate biography; see W. White, American Book Collector 9 [February 1959] 23f.); Laurence Housman, A. E. H. (London, 1937). (Memoir.); P.G. Naiditch, A. E. Housman at University College, London: the Election of 1892 (Leiden, 1988); Norman Page, A. E.Housman: A Critical Biography (New York, 1983; partly corrected impression, 1985). (Intelligent but indolent biography; sec CJ81 [1986] 362-365.); Grant Richards, Housman 1897-1936 (corr. impr. London, 1942). (Memoir accompanied by essays of varying value.); Katharine E. Symons, et al. Alfred Edward Housman: Recollections (New York, 1937). (Memoirs and essays.); George L. Watson,  A. E. Housman: A Divided Life (London, 1957). (Intelligent, but badly biassed biography; see J. Sparrow, Independent Essays, London, 1963: 134-145.); Percy Withers, Buried Life (London, 1940). (Memoir.)


    T.G. Ehrsam,  A Bibliography of Alfred Edward Housman (Boston, 1941); J. Carter, J. and J. Sparrow, A. E. Housman: A Bibliography, rev. William White (Godalming, 1982) (see CJ 79 [1984] 269-72).


    The Letters of A. E. Housman. Edited by H. Maas. London, 1971.


    Hundreds of works, including several books, have been dedicated to Housman’s poetry and poetical theory. Cf. Ehrsam, Carter and Sparrow, the Housman Society Journal (Bromsgrove), and the A. E. Housman Journal (Tokyo).

    Housman’s Cambridge lecture notes survive (University Library, Cambridge, Add. Mss. 6874-6902). His library was dispersed, though large portions of the classical sections are preserved at St. John’s College, Oxford; Trinity College, Cambridge; University Library, Cambridge; and Waseda University, Tokyo. Other libraries, possessed of large Housman collections, include the British Library, London; Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania; the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.; the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington; the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York; University College, London; and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

  • Author: P.G. Naiditch