Hunting down the source of the Latin maxim with which Wharton closes "The Descent of Man"—"labor est etiam ipsa voluptas" ("toil is itself a pleasure")—I came across numerous articles by A.E. Housman, best known to high-schoolers as the author of "To An Athlete Dying Young." Regrettably, before tonight I knew little more about Housman now than I did in high school; by which I mean, it could've been summarized "'we chaired you through the market-place' taught me how to verb." Now that I've become acquainted with him as a classical scholar, however, that's certain to change. If the below's indicative of his professional correspondence, I can't wait to read his letters.
Perhaps this is well-known to all them what ain't rubes like me, but Housman tore his contemporaries new ones faster and harder and bigger than anyone this side of Stanley Fish. Strike that. His is the withering to which Fish-wit aspires. Consider his introduction to Juvenal:
Frailty of understanding is in itself no proper target for scorn and mockery ... but the unintelligent forfeit their claim to compassion when they begin to indulge in self-complacent airs, and to call themselves sane critics, meaning they are mechanics. And when, relying on their numbers, they pass from self-complacency to insolence, and reprove their betters for using the brains which God has denied them, they dry up the fount of pity. (xiii.)
W.M. Lindsay's shriveled riposte?
If [Housman's] preface, in spite of the unfortunate1 style in which it is written ...
1 I suppose it is useless to express a wish that Mr. Housman would cease to speak about veteran scholars of eminence ... in that fashion.
Fortunately for us, Lindsay's wish was useless. In the preface to his translation of Manilius' Astronomica, Housman first lights into Elias Stoeber of Strassburg, "a city still famous for its geese":
"Stoeber's mind, though that is no name to call it by, was one which turned as unswervingly to the false, the meaningless, the unmetrical, and the ungrammatical, as the needle to the pole." (xix)
A later translator, Friedrich Jacob, fairs no better:
Not only had Jacob no sense for grammar, no sense for coherency, no sense for sense, but being himself possessed by a passion for the clumsy and the hispid he imputed this disgusting taste to all the authors whom he edited; and Manilius, the one Latin poet who exceeds even Ovid in verbal point and smartness, is accordingly constrained to write the sort of poetry which might have been composed by Nebuchadnezzar when he was driven from men and did eat grass as oxen. (xxi)
As to how Jacob and Stoeber compared:
In [Jacob's] short book, if only its vices are considered, is a scarce less woeful piece of work than Stoeber's: the difference is that while Stoeber never reminds one of a rational animal, the fog of Jacob's intellect is shot through, and not that seldom, by flashes of conspicuous and startling brilliancy. (xxii)
Of the conservative critic, Housman opined:
His trade is one which requires, that it may be practiced in perfection, two qualifications only: ignorance of language and abstinence from thought. (liii)
My admiration aside, I don't covet a return to this sort of scholarly interaction. However much I may yearn for the passion of the craft, I can't countenance this sort of open insult. But there are moments—deny it if you will, but you lie only to yourself—when you wish you possessed license and skill to roast your contemporaries as finely as Housman's roasted his. Who doesn't want to decry a laurel-rester as Housman did, claiming that this book offers readers "perpetual contact with the intellect of an idiot child" (xxiii), or that this scholar's
eyesight was evidently feeble, and did not serve him well in collating MSS or correcting proofs; but that is not enough to account for the bucketfuls of falsehood which he discharged on an ignorant and confiding public. (xxiv)
Much as we hate to admit in polite company, we all share Housman's sentiment sometimes. We merely lack wit and gumption enough to act on it.* As for the title of this post: one half's an homage to a legendary rap battle; the other's a reference to Housman's essay on "The Latin for Ass" (1930). Setting aside the joke others would've cracked at its appearance, you can't help but love the opening paragraph:
In English, down to the 19th century, the beast which carried Balaam was generally and almost universally, both in speech and in writing, denominated the ass. It is no longer: the name ass, except in metaphor as a term of contempt or insult, has disappeared from conversation and from most kinds of print, and survives only in serious poetry and in prose of some solemnity. The name donkey, first printed in 1785 in a dictionary of slang, has usurped its place.