Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.03.58

David Butterfield, Christopher Stray (ed.), A. E. Housman: Classical Scholar.   London:  Duckworth, 2009.  Pp. x, 288.  ISBN 9780715638088.  £50.00.  

Reviewed by Stephen Harrison, Corpus Christi College, Oxford (

This volume celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of A. E. Housman (1859-1936). Housman's charismatic status amongst British (and other) classical scholars has several aspects: his remarkable mastery of a wide range of scholarly skills, his fearsome acerbity in castigating the failings of other scholars, and his compelling other life as an initial academic failure, tragically frustrated lover and best-selling poet of yearning and melancholy. Housman has been the subject of several biographies, inevitably more interested in his life, sexuality and poetry than in his classical work, but the publication in 1972 of the splendid three-volume edition of his classical papers and the useful survey of Housman's work in Charles Brink's English Classical Scholarship (1986, 150-98) have reminded modern scholars of the breadth and quality of his scholarly achievements.1 This well-planned book now provides a most welcome detailed analysis, enlisting an impressive panel of experts in a fully authoritative investigation of Housman's classical work and its intellectual context.

The volume falls into three parts, the first of which examines Housman's contribution to the study of specific Latin authors. First up is Stephen Heyworth, who (fresh from his recent Oxford Classical Text of the author) looks at Housman on Propertius (11-28), the target of much early effort (the draft of an edition was burnt at Housman's death on his instructions, p.11). He catalogues Housman's important published work and his equally significant unpublished marginalia in Oxford and Cambridge, finding several conjectures to add to his own edition; he rightly has less praise for Housman's over-complex and unhistorical approach to the manuscript tradition, and plausibly notes that Horace is more influential than Propertius on Housman's poetry. Next comes Edward Courtney (29-44), who looks at Manilius, the most consistent subject of Housman's textual scholarship from 1903 (his edition of Book 1) to the editio minor of the whole Astronomica in 1932, again presenting a balanced assessment. Housman's great contribution to Manilius is emendation, 339 instances according to Courtney, about one every dozen lines; one might add that the opportunity to propose so many new readings was perhaps Housman's primary motivation for taking on a lesser known poet. Housman's main fault is the moralising content of his negative judgements on other scholars, and Courtney also rightly argues that many items in his commentary and text can be disputed despite its continuing deserved status as a scholarly classic.

Three further chapters in this section consider Juvenal, Lucan and Ovid's Ibis, all texts edited by Housman (1905, 1924 and 1894). Robin Nisbet (45-63) points out that on Juvenal Housman's approach to the MS tradition was essentially right, but again shows that his edition was far from perfect and should not be approached uncritically (some splendid emendations stand alongside some dubious ones, Housman did not allow enough for possible deletions, and did not cite enough proposals by other scholars). He rightly stresses that, as in the case of Manilius, the edition (now more than a century old) remains a key reference point for anyone dealing with Juvenal's text and interpretation. Stephen Oakley (65-94) chronicles Housman's engagement with Lucan and gives a high estimate of the edition, showing that Housman's view of the transmission was essentially correct and that his judgement in conjecture, punctuation, choice of reading and explanation was generally excellent. He also assesses Fraenkel's famous review of the edition (occasionally correct against Housman) and Housman's generous support for Fraenkel in his English exile, citing an unpublished letter of Housman. Gareth Williams (95-116) shows that Housman's Ibis (though not perfect) is important and superior to those of Ellis and Owen which he castigated, but takes issue (persuasively) with Housman's belief that the malice in the poem is purely fictional.

Two final chapters in this section look at Housman's scholarly skills more generally. David Butterfield (117-137) demonstrates Housman's mastery of metre and prosody, while suggesting that he was not infallible and sometimes too willing to accept apparent anomaly rather than posit corruption, and adds a brief account of Housman's own (few) compositions in Latin verse. Michael Reeve (139-52) shows that Housman's estimates of the textual traditions of the authors he edited remain soundly based, and that his editorial skills could cope with many aspects of transmission as well as emendation, though his early besting by Postgate on the textual tradition of Propertius is not ignored.

A third section considers Housman's scholarly environment, assessing him through illuminating links and comparisons with his contemporaries. Christopher Stray (155-73) looks at the engagements between Housman and R. C. Jebb over the discovery and emendation of Bacchylides, and its context in the development of universities, journals and the wider public diffusion of classics; Housman was clearly right against Jebb on questions of metre, unsurprising for anyone who has read Jebb's metrical analyses of the choruses of Sophocles. Neil Hopkinson (175-191) considers the three decades of wary rivalry and scholarly interaction between Housman and the broader and more public-spirited J. P. Postgate; their controversy on the text of Propertius in the 1890s (lost by Housman) may have been responsible for the famous mental excitement in which he claimed to have written A Shropshire Lad (pp.178-9), but Housman defeated Postgate for the Kennedy chair in 1911. David Butterfield (193-216) sets Housman alongside a distinguished (but very different) contemporary British Latinist, W. M. Lindsay: the two had a range of professional contacts and clashed in print, inevitable given that Lindsay was sceptical about the value of emendation and keen on the details of palaeography and textual transmission. Luigi Lehnus (217-27) gives us an unpublished set of letters from Housman to the papyrologist A. S. Hunt, illuminating Housman's conjectural contributions over two decades to the publication of the Oxyrhynchus papyri and confirming his fine knowledge of and powers of conjecture in Greek. Finally in this section, Colin Leach (229-43) combs Housman's recently edited letters for nuggets of textual criticism and his limited interactions with other scholars, showing that they share the concern of his published scholarship for truth while pouring less vitriol on opponents.

A final section presents three brief pieces on Housman's legacy by three distinguished textual critics. Georg Luck (247-254) pays tribute and notes the high count of Housman's conjectures in the recent OCT text of Propertius (Heyworth in 2007 accepts 47 against Luck's own 39 in 1996). E. J. Kenney (255-260) offers an after-dinner speech honouring Housman as the scholar who has meant most to him, with amusing fantasy classical cricket teams for Oxford and Cambridge (Housman plays for Oxford, his alma mater). James Diggle, to whom we should be grateful as co-editor of Housman's collected papers, rounds off the volume (261-263) with an account of how he acquired Housman's cap and pen, nicely illustrated on the book's front cover (the volume, beautifully produced as ever by this publisher, also presents a fine portrait of Housman aged c.40 on the back cover).

Though these personal relics of the great man are perhaps redolent of the cult of Housman which has sometimes inhibited a balanced assessment of his achievement as a scholar, the volume as a whole offers a well-conceived and fair-minded re-examination of Housman's classical work, by which his extraordinary talents can be appreciated in their larger contemporary professional context. Though some may reasonably deprecate Housman's magisterial self-construction in print as the apostle of truth and smiter of the wicked, honed over initial years of professional marginalisation and personal disappointment and less justifiably imitated by some of his followers, we must all admire his sheer capacity as classical scholar and textual critic which few can hope to match.


1.   Also important is the contribution made to the study of Housman's career by the detailed researches of P. G. Naiditch (e.g. in his A. E. Housman at University College, London: the Election of 1892, Leiden 1988), and by the recent edition of Housman's letters by Archie Burnett (The Letters of A. E. Housman, Oxford 2007).

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 18:32:09, Sunday, 28 March 2010