More Housman

I’ve been reading more of the selected prose in the back of my Penguin A.E. Housman: Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Among the selections are an amazing number of wittily savage takedowns of rival scholars, and after I stop laughing, I can’t help thinking that if I’d actually known the guy I would have found him to be a horribly pissy old queen.

On an edition of Aeschylus:

When Mr Tucker’s conjectures are not palaeographically improbable they are apt to be causeless and even detrimental. Among the axioms assumed in the preface are the following: ‘”the reading in the text must hold its place until such cause to the contrary can be shewn as will satisfy a rigidly impartial tribunal. The onus probandi lies entirely with the impugner of the text.” “The conditions of dispossession are these. It must either be proved that the reading is an impossibility, or else that in point of grammar it is so abnormal, or in point of relevance so manifestly inappropriate, as to produce a thorough conviction that the MS is in error.” I for my part should call this much too strict; but these are Mr Tucker’s principles. His practice is something quite different: in practice no word, however good, is safe if Mr Tucker can think of a similar word which is not much worse.

On somebody’s introduction to an edition of a play by Euripides (nowhere in the excerpt quoted does it say which play, but the following refers to the play’s deus ex machina ending, which might be enough to narrow it down if only remembered my Euripides better, though more probably it wouldn’t):

And when Mr Flagg says that “the modern reader cannot adequately reproduce the feelings stirred by this final scene in the Athenian spectator’s breast,” this is to arraign Euripides, not to defend him. It means that he wrote for an age and not for all time: he defaced his drama that he might gladden the eyes of the vulgar with the resplendent stage-properties of their beloved goddess: a trap to catch applause which does not differ in kind from the traditional sentiment, always welcome to the gallery of our own theatres, that the man who lays his hand upon a woman, save in the way of kindness, is unworthy of the name of a British sailor.

Nice job, Mr. Housman, reaching out from your ivory tower to slap down Mr Flagg and Euripides with the same swat. And no matter if your own words here are not written for all time, either, but merely for an age, and not even your own age but that of Euripides, who alas did not live quite long enough to revise and improve his plays in line with your counsel, to the great loss of posterity. No one, no one, writes for all time; writing well for one’s own age is the best one can do, and that is plenty difficult enough as it is.

On a disputed line in Aeschylus:

But to say that a thing is not yet begun but is still going on is such nonsense as not one of us can conceive himself uttering in the loosest negligence of conversation; only when centuries of transcription by barbarians have imputed it to an incomparable poet, then we accept it as a matter of course.

This one is a truly beautiful line, though:

His opinions, not being his own, were not permanently held, but picked up and dropped again, and he lived from hand to mouth on the borrowed beliefs of the moment.

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