Prose from Poetry Magazine

Translator's Note: "To my Comrade, Moses J. Jackson, Scoffer at this Scholarship" by A.E. Housman

Edmund Wilson’s 1938 essay on A.E. Housman, and W.H. Auden’s sonnet from the same year (perhaps written under the essay’s influence), portray Housman as a tragically divided person, the passion of the poet renounced (“kept tears like dirty postcards in a drawer”) for dry-as-dust scholarship and venomous invective (“savage foot-notes on unjust editions”). Wilson saw, in Housman’s turning from his early work on the Latin love elegist, Propertius, to the didactic poet of astronomy, Manilius, an emblem of the poet’s turning away from creative life and the imagination to the sterile re-creation of textual scholarship. 

Yet in these verses, dedicated to Housman’s Oxford roommate, the formative friend and unrequited love of his life, the poet’s supposedly antithetical interests curiously synthesize. They are composed not in the dactylic hexameter of Manilius but in Propertius’s elegiac couplets. The stars are both astronomical phenomena and the conventional backdrop of lovers. And in fact, Housman’s interest in astronomy was one of his earliest passions; Laurence Housman, in his affectionate biography of his brother, remembers that, as children, Alfred had arranged his brothers on the lawn to show them the relative motions of the earth and moon to each other and the sun. (Alfred was the moon.)

Housman is famously supposed to have dismissed Manilius with: “the brightest facet of [his] genius was an eminent aptitude for doing sums in verse.” Generations of critics have taken his pronouncement at face value, perplexed that he would expend such energy on the second rate. But here his attitude to his fellow stargazing poet is sympathetic, even admiring; we are reminded that Housman referred to his own verses as “solitary stars.” (And a renaissance in Manilius studies is rescuing his sidereal epic, The Astronomica, from B-list status.) The shipwreck that “scarcely own[s] its author’s name” is the manuscript (anonymous in antiquity), salvaged from oblivion by Poggio in the 1400s, its fragments pieced together by editors over the ages. Housman does not depict his scholarship as an empty exercise in self-mortification; rather, he presents himself as a hero, seeking virtue and fame in a noble enterprise.

A classical poet would traditionally invoke the Muse to stand by his side—here the muse is Jackson. The dedication is also a love poem, with its promise to immortalize the beloved. Jackson’s going to where stars rise in the Orient is a reference to his moving to India, a permanent separation. The poem places Jackson in the light of the rising sun, while Housman appears on the other side of the globe, in England, that ultima thule where the lights are ever westering. We are put in mind of the sundered companions of mythology, Theseus and Pirithous, the latter of whom had to remain in the underworld as punishment for their exploits there. Housman fans will know this image from his sublime translation of Horace’s “Diffugere Nives” (according to Housman, the most beautiful poem in the Latin language.) Housman ends it:

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
       Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
       The love of comrades cannot take away.

In Horace, the chain is literal, and though Pirithous is “dear” there is no “love of comrades”; reading the end of the Manilius dedication, one is struck by the similarity. Housman channels Horace via his own translation, or transformation, of it. This dedication is one of the frankest of his love poems, if “closeted” in Latin, and belongs in the mainstream of his work rather than at its margins. (Even Wilson acknowledged that the voice here is straight out of A Shropshire Lad, and Gilbert Murray reckoned these Latin verses the best since antiquity.) My translation risks being a parody, but I aim for sincere imitation. I wonder if Housman would be appalled, or merely wryly bemused, to know that the Latin text of this poem as it is promulgated on the Internet has been adulterated with textual error. No doubt the mindless duplication of the Internet blogger would have earned one of his to-whom-it-may-concern zingers (which he collected in a notebook). “If Mr. ________ were a postage stamp he would be a very good postage stamp; but adhesiveness is not the virtue of a critic. A critic is free and detached.” —A.E. Stallings

Originally Published: March 1st, 2012

A.E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics at the University of Georgia and Oxford University. She has published three books of poetry: Archaic Smile (1999), winner of the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012), which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Stallings’s poetry is known for its ingenuity...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In