Housman and Swinburne

I left work early, at 3:30 pm, with a fairly bad headache that it had become obvious was not going to be departing from my skull any time between then and 5:30 when I ordinarily get off. My bad headaches, if I’m not successful in catching them early and fending them off before they have a chance to get settled in, tend to last about six hours. There wasn’t anything so vitally urgent on my desk that it would have been better to get it done poorly today than done well tomorrow morning, so I cashed in a couple of hours of my accumulated Paid Time Off and headed home.

The headache was still pounding when I got home, so I drew a hot bath and looked for something I’d like to read that wouldn’t require extended concentration. I picked A.E. Housman, thinking I’d reread some of my favorite poems of his. I have several old volumes of Housman, not terribly valuable (I’m much more likely to own a 14th printing than a first) but which I’d hate myself for if I accidentally let drop into the bathwater; and so I took with me my copy of the Penguin paperback A.E. Housman: Collected Poems and Selected Prose, which I can always replace if I need to.

After rereading a dozen or so poems, I flipped to the back of the book to look for what notes there were, and as I flipped, I caught a glimpse of Housman’s essay “The Editing of Juvenal”, his preface to the edition of Juvenal that he edited. Although I’ve read pretty much all of Housman’s poems at least a few times by now, I’ve read very little (in fact, probably nothing, as far as I can remember) of the selected prose in the second half of this book. But this essay looked interesting, dealing with issues of how he decided which reading to follow when ancient manuscripts differed, so I started in on it.

OMG! Funny! The man was brilliant scholar and a total bitch at the same time!

Open a modern recension of a classic, turn to the preface, and there you may almost count on finding, in Latin or German or English, some words like these: “I have made it my rule to follow [ancient manuscript] a wherever possible, and only where its readings are patently erroneous have I had recourse to b or c or d.” No scholar of eminence, even in the present age, has ever enunciated such a principle. Some, to be sure, like Mr Buecheler in his Juvenal, have virtually assumed it in their practice, as a convenient substitute for mental exertion; but to blurt it out as a maxim is an indiscretion which they leave to their unreflecting imitators, who formulate the rule without misgiving and practise it with conscious pride.

Either a is the source of b and c and d or it is not. If it is, then never in any case should recourse be had to b or c or d. If it is not, then the rule is irrational; for it involves the assumption that wherever a‘s scribes made a mistake they produced an impossible reading. Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time.


The task of editing the classics is continually attempted by scholars who have neither enough intellect nor enough literature. Unless a false reading chances to be unmetrical or ungrammatical they have no means of knowing that it is false. Show them these variants,

molliaque {inmittens/inmites} fixit in ora manus,

and they cannot tell which is right and which is wrong; and, what is worse, they honestly believe that nobody else can tell. If you suppose yourself able to distinguish a true reading from a false one, — suppose yourself, that is, to be a critic, a man capable of what the Greeks called κρίνειν, — they are aghast at your assurance. I am aghast at theirs: at the assurance of men who do not even imagine themselves to be critics, and yet presume to meddle with criticism.


But there are editors destitute of this discriminating faculty, so destitute that they cannot even conceive it to exist; and these are entangled in a task for which nature has neglected to equip them. What are they now to do? Set to and try to learn their trade? that is forbidden by sloth. Stand back and leave room for their superiors? that is forbidden by vanity. They must have a rule, a machine to do their thinking for them. If the rule is true, so much the better; if false, that cannot be helped: but one thing is necessary, a rule.

Near the end of the preface:

Truth and wisdom have never been the fashion, no more than virtue; and for the same reason, because they are not easy to attain.

After finishing that essay, I flipped through the other prose selections and happened on an essay about Swinburne; I’m not sure on what occasion he wrote it, but it’s a hoot.

The poems [in Swinburne’s best and most successful book Poems and Ballads] were largely and even chiefly concerned with a thing which one set of people call love, and another set of people call immorality, each set declaring that the other name is quite wrong, so that people who belong to neither set do not exactly know what to call it; but perhaps one may avoid extremes by calling it Aphrodite. Now in the general life of mankind Aphrodite is quite able to take care of herself; but in literature, at any rate in the literature of that Anglo-Saxon race to which we have the high privilege and heavy responsibility of belonging, she wages an unequal contest with another great divinity, who is called purity by her friends and hypocrisy by her enemies, and whom, again to avoid extremes, one may perhaps call Mrs Grundy.


Those to whom this work appealed by its subject and contents, as distinct from its form, were of two classes: there were the simple adherents of Aphrodite, and there were many of those grave men, correct in behaviour and earnest in thought, who regard the relations of the sexes as the most serious and important element in human life. It was the irony of the situation that Swinburne himself belonged to neither class. He was not a libertine, and he was not an earnest thinker about life: he was merely a writer in search of a subject, and a tinder-box that any spark would set on fire. When he had written his book upon this subject, he had done with it, and it hardly appears again in the twenty volumes of his later verse: he was ready for a new subject.

The subject of his next volume, wrote Housman, was Liberty. And, he continued,

The fact is that, whatever may be the comparative merits of the two deities, Liberty is by no means so interesting as Aphrodite, and by no means so good a subject for poetry.

I’m only two or three pages into the essay, and it goes on for ten or so, but I’m enjoying it.


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