Saturday, April 21, 2012

I'll Show You the Life of the Mind

Today I picked up a copy of A. E. Housman's 1911 inaugural lecture as Kennedy Professor of Latin at the University of Cambridge.  Housman is probably best known to most people now for his verse, especially A Shropshire Lad (1896), which is a classic of love poetry between men.  But he was also a distinguished scholar of Latin and Greek literature, famous both for the quality of his work on the ancient texts and for his scathing reviews of other men's work that didn't come up his standards.  I first got interested in that aspect of Housman when I encountered his line "Three minutes' thought would suffice to find this out; but thought is irksome and three minutes is a long time."  Some years ago I found a selection of his prose writings, and enjoyed them a great deal even though I'm not a classicist and know no Latin or Greek at all.  What made the articles interesting was Housman's prose style, but even more, his vast learning, his clear reasoning, and his humor.  When I found the copy of the inaugural lecture and saw that it had never been completely published before, I snapped it up.

The reason the lecture had not been published during Housman's lifetime, and not in its entirety until 1969, was that he had made some statements about a poem of Percy Bysshe Shelley's that he couldn't back up: he'd criticized Algernon Swinburne for gushing over the beauty of a line that, Housman said, was "the verse, not of Shelley, but of a compositor" (33).  The poem, titled "A Lament" by Shelley's widow for posthumous publication, seems not to have been completed.  Because he couldn't prove his claim, Housman wouldn't allow the lecture to be published, and it would have been lost if his brother Laurence hadn't saved a copy.  When it was first published, the section on Shelley's poem was omitted, but eventually the editor John Carter was able to verify from manuscripts that Housman was correct, and the lecture was published unexpurgated (The Confines of Criticism: The Cambridge Inaugural 1911 [Cambridge University Press, 1969]).

It would have stood up well without the discussion of Shelley's poem.  I noticed that Housman's epigram about three minutes' thought appears to be a sharpened paraphrase of a saying of Goethe's, which he quotes: "Thinking is hard, and acting according to thought is irksome."  (Denken ist schwer, nach dem Gedanken handeln unbequem [37].)  A bit later he talks about the way people think:
Men hate to feel insecure; and a sense of security depends much less on the correctness of our opinions than on the firmness with which we hold them; so that by excluding intelligence we can often exclude discomfort.  The first thing wanted is a canon of orthodoxy, and the next thing is a pope.  The disciple resorts to the teacher, and the request he makes of him is not tell me how to get rid of error but tell me how to get rid of doubt.  In this there is nothing new: 'as knowledges are now delivered', said Bacon 300 years ago, 'there is a kind of contract of error between the deliverer and the receiver.  For he that delivereth knowledge desireth to deliver it in such form as may be best believed, and not as may be best examined; and he that receiveth knowledge desireth rather present satisfaction than expectant enquiry.'  Blind followers of rules will be blind followers of masters: a pupil who has got out of the habit of thinking will take his teacher's word for gospel, and will be delighted with a state of things in which intellectual scrutiny not only ceases to be a duty but becomes an act of insubordination [40-41].
Not much has changed in the past hundred years -- or in the three centuries before that, as Housman says.  The lecture as a whole is a splendid argument for intellectual autonomy, its necessity and its rarity.