Scholia Reviews ns 20 (2011) 14.

David Butterfield and Christopher Stray (edd.), A. E. Housman: Classical Scholar. London: Duckworth, 2009. Pp. x + 288. ISBN 978-0-7156-3808-8. UK£50.00.

John Jacobs
The Montclair Kimberley Academy, Montclair, U.S.A.

A. E. Housman (1859-1936) is widely regarded as one of the most important British poets (viz. A Shropshire Lad) and as one of the most influential British Classicists (viz. his critical editions of Manilius, Juvenal, and Lucan) of the past century or so. As a scholar, Housman was (in)famous for his surgical precision, trenchant observations, and acerbic wit -- as well as for his haughty arrogance, biting criticisms, and irritating overconfidence. Whether or not Brink ought to have ranked Housman with the likes of such luminaries as Bentley and Porson[[1]], the fact is that Housman’s legacy remains a potent force, especially, of course, in the realm of textual criticism. Indeed, few other scholars can claim to have inspired the founding of a society in their honor (viz. The Housman Society), complete with its own website[[2]] and journal (The Housman Society Journal). In the volume under review, Butterfield and Stray undertake, in their own words, 'an assessment of Housman's contribution to classical studies now that the dust which he threw up has largely settled' (p. vii). Equal parts biography, bibliography, and prosopography, the book succeeds in offering a balanced appraisal of Housman’s lingering impact on the field.

In 'Part I. Housman the Scholar' (pp. 9-152), by far the longest of the three sections in the book, the various contributors examine aspects of Housman’s work on a specific Latin author or on a specific element of textual criticism. Heyworth (pp. 11-28) opens the collection with an informed and informative treatment of Housman’s life-long engagement with the text of Propertius, from the early publication of a host of emendationes Propertianae to the later publication of a series of articles about the manuscript tradition (generally contra Postgate), as well as the plethora of other emendations, both published and unpublished, which Housman recorded in the margins of his various editions of the poet during the course of his reading. Courtney (pp. 29-44) similarly recounts the lengthy history of Housman’s work with Manilius, punctuated by the five volumes of text and commentary published between 1903 and 1930, and offers a fair assessment of their merits and flaws. Nisbet (pp. 45-64[[3]]) likewise tackles Housman’s engagement with the text of Juvenal, including his two editions of the poet, which appeared in 1905 and 1931, through a careful passage-by-passage analysis of his (often dubious) conjectural emendations in light of the manuscript evidence and in light of other major editions.

Oakley (pp. 65-94), rather than confining himself simply to a study of Housman’s two editions of Lucan, which were published in 1926 and 1927, also explores how Housman’s work with this poet affected his professional, and personal, relationship with Eduard Fraenkel, including, most notably, Fraenkel’s review of Housman’s Lucanus[[4]]. Thereafter, Williams (pp. 95- 116) shifts the focus from Housman’s major critical editions to his engagement, via the work of Robinson Ellis, with a lesser known poem, Ovid’s Ibis. In the first of his two contributions to the volume, Butterfield (pp. 117-38) pursues the broader topic of Housman’s approach to Greek and Latin meter and prosody, from his early pieces on the intricacies of the odes of Bacchylides to his later papers on 'prosody and method'. In the final article in this first section of the book, Reeve (pp. 139-152) considers Housman’s hostile attitude towards Überlieferungsgeschichte, which he famously mocked as 'a longer and nobler name than fudge' in the introduction to his Lucanus. While the nuts and bolts of textual criticism certainly remain the primary focus, many of the contributors to this section perform the admirable service of complementing their treatment of the technical aspects of Housman’s work, especially in his major editions of Manilius, Juvenal, and Lucan, with an equally thorough and meaningful treatment of Housman’s place in the field and his various professional connections.

In 'Part II. Housman’s Scholarly Environment' (pp. 153-244), the various contributors further develop the theme of Housman’s interactions with his colleagues. Stray (pp. 155-74), building on Butterfield’s brief discussion about Housman’s intermittent forays into Bacchylidean metrics, uses the debate between Housman and Jebb over the text of the odes as the starting point for his own analysis of the system of shifting alliances which served to motivate those critics embroiled in the controversy. Similarly, Hopkinson (pp. 175-92), building on Heyworth’s masterful piece about Housman’s (and, therefore, Postgate’s) work with Propertius, uses their frequent clashes over the text of the elegist as the starting point for his own comparative analysis of their careers and publications in the field. In the second of his two contributions to the volume, Butterfield (pp. 193-216) likewise undertakes a syncrisis between Housman and Lindsay, the great proponent of Housman’s dreaded Überlieferungsgeschichte. Thereafter, Lehnus (pp. 217-28) presents a series of intriguing, previously unpublished, letters which Housman sent to the eminent papyrologist Hunt as a part of his work with the Oxyrhynchus papyri and, especially, Callimachus -- the correspondence provides still further evidence, not that more was needed, that Housman was as proficient in Greek as he was in Latin. In the final article in this second section of the book, Leach (pp. 229-44) surveys Housman’s letters for other evidence of his continuing engagement with the minutiae of textual criticism, including, perhaps most notably, his extensive correspondence with J.D. Duff about the text and translation of Silius Italicus’s Punica.

In 'Part III. Housman’s Legacy' (pp. 245-64), three senior scholars offer personal reflections on Housman’s enduring significance. First, Luck (pp. 247-54) examines various recent editions of Propertius, including his own, as well as Heyworth’s, in order to gauge the extent to which Housman’s emendationes have found a place in the text or, at least, in the apparatus criticus. Then, Kenney (pp. 255-60), in a more light-hearted vein, prints a revised version of a speech first delivered during a toast to Housman’s memory during a Housman Society dinner at Cambridge in 1976. Finally, Diggle (pp. 261-63) provides a charming account of how he acquired Housman’s cap and pen, a picture of which graces the front cover of the book.

All in all, the editors are to be congratulated for what will prove to be a welcome contribution to the growing body of scholarship about Housman’s scholarly activity. Apart from the usual slips in punctuation and orthography (all minor), as well as the use of medial sigma where either final or lunate sigma would have been preferred, the book is well produced. In his review of Brink’s English Classical Scholarship, Calder claimed 'that he [i.e., Housman] is scarcely known outside of English- speaking circles' (p. 260), and it is certainly true that most of the contributors to this collection are members of the Oxbridge 'in' crowd. Nevertheless, despite the inevitable air of provincialism which pervades the volume, there is every reason to believe that the papers therein collected can and will serve to bring Housman and his unique brand of scholarship to a broader audience, not only those rarest of birds, the textual critics, but also Classicists in general.


[[1]] See Calder’s scathing review of Brink’s English Classical Scholarship in Mnemosyne 4th ser. 42.1-2 (1989) 256-62.


[[3]] Cf. Illinois Classical Studies 14 (1989) 285-302.

[[4]] In Gnomon 2.9 (1926) 497-532.