A Shropshire Lad

Astronomicon: vol.1, Liber Primus, by Marcus Manilius, edited by A. E. HousmanPeople like me, who incurably see the Author in the Work (Thomas Hardy is the Journeying Boy; at a slightly different level, Dorothy L. Sayers is (or would like to be) Harriet Vane) have a problem with A. E. Housman – he wasn’t born in Shropshire, but in Worcestershire, at Fockbury on the outskirts of Bromsgrove. There is a statue in the High Street  – now an identikit pedestrianised shopping area where several years ago I bought some useful hyacinth glasses. They order these life/works things better in France: Proust may not be Marcel, and vice versa, but the good people of Illiers (Eure-et-Loire) are so convinced that they live in Combray that since 1971 (the centenary of Proust’s birth) they have officially hyphenated their village: Illiers-Combray. But I digress …

Housman must be one of the most quoted and anthologised poets in English, in proportion to the size of his published work: ashes under Uricon, the land of lost content, blue remembered hills, Around the woodlands I will go/To see the cherry hung with snow, the idle hill of summer, when I was one-and-twenty, In summertime on Bredon/ The bells they sound so clear… And of course you don’t just hear the words, but the music – Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Gurney. Is the mixture of anguish and elation in the line ‘They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man’ good poetry, or just versifying, transformed by Butterworth’s genius? I’m sure I remember reading that Vaughan Williams didn’t set the ‘football’ stanza from ‘Is My Team Ploughing’, and, when asked why not, said something to the effect that the poet ought to be grateful not to have such appalling verse exposed to any more public ridicule?

I continue to digress – what I wanted to mention was Housman’s ‘other’, possibly ‘real’ life, as an outstanding classical scholar and critic, of Latin verse in particular (he stopped studying Greek poetry at the same level because ‘I found that I could not attain to excellence in both’). He spent the years from 1911 until his death in 1936 as Kennedy Professor of Latin and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

We have just reissued his edition of the Astronomicon of Manilius, first published in five volumes between 1903 and 1930 (and not by Cambridge University Press, though a new edition with addenda by A. S. F. Gow was published by the Press in 1937). We borrowed a set to scan from the Wren Library at Trinity – it turned out to be the copy given to the library by Housman himself.

Both the author and the date of this poem, the first Western document to link the houses of the zodiac with the course of human affairs, are uncertain. The author’s name may be Marcus Manilius, or Manlius, or Mallius, and the latest datable event mentioned in the books themselves is the disastrous defeat of Varus’ Roman legions by the German tribes in the Teutoburger Forest in 9 CE (this was the catastrophe which caused the emperor Augustus to bang his head against the palace wall, crying, ‘Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions’). The writing shows knowledge of the work of Lucretius, but the work is not referred to by any subsequent writer, suggesting that it was never widely disseminated. It is described by Professor Katharina Volk, in a recent monograph on Manilius and his intellectual background, as a ‘panorama of the cultural imagination of the Early Empire, a fascinating picture of the ways in which educated Greeks and Romans were accustomed to think and speak about the cosmos and man’s place in it’.

A manuscript was rediscovered by the great Renaissance humanist Poggio Bracciolini in 1416 or 1417 (light relief from his work at the Council of Constance consisted of trudging into the mountains to examine the ancient manuscripts bundled up in the corners of monasteries), and editions were produced by Scaliger (in 1579) and Bentley (in his youth, though the publication was held up until 1739, because of ‘dearness of paper and the want of good types and some other occasions’, apparently), but this immensely erudite edition is regarded as authoritative. One can’t help but suspect that Housman was drawn to the subject because of its inherent difficulty: the brisk but detailed overview of the manuscript sources, the curt, sometimes dismissive summing-up of the pros and cons of previous editions, and the comprehensiveness of the notes (all in Latin, of course) show almost a caricature of the stern, reclusive, single-minded scholar, and not the careless Shropshire Lad who used to be one-and-twenty.


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