Tuesday, 17 July 2007

A.E. Housman & The Latin for Ass; or, the Kool Moe Dee to Our Busy Bees 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...
What AM I Trying to Say? or, Henry James DID Do It, So Why Can't I? In the comments to the first of Ogged's two posts about "serious reading," A White Bear writes: One of the reasons I think it's important to teach pre-1800 texts is that it takes practice to tease out long sentences if all you've been reading is Chuck Palahniuk. Long, well-crafted sentences are more likely to offer examples of subtle, careful rhetoric. I've said before that I'm really attracted to dudes who know how to use a subordinate clause—not because I like Ivy-League dudes who are way into Milton, but because it's a sign that the mind is supple and sees in more colors than black and white. Later, JL quotes Donald Hall on late Henry James: Late James is the best prose for reading aloud. Saying one of his interminable sentences, the voice must drop pitch every time he interrupts his syntax with periphrasis, and drop again when periphrasis interrupts periphrasis, and again, and then step the pitch up, like climbing stairs in the dark, until the original tone concludes the sentence. One's larynx could write a doctoral dissertation on James's syntax. Sandwiched between these two statements are numerous complaints about Twitter, text-messaging, and how they rob one of the ability to discern the subtleties of long sentences generally and late James specifically. When AWB or Hall praises complex sentences, they do so because such sentences require an ear for subtlety the dessicated literalism of a pay-per-word culture deafens one to, i.e. you wouldn't catch James resorting to ALL CAPS for emphasis, because his readers could tease the emphasis from contextual clues. Only as the transcription guide [.pdf] to "Dear Henry James" attests, James frequently employed the nineteenth century equivalent of ALL CAPS: the underline. When his letters are transcribed, his underlining is preserved using ALL CAPS or italics for single underlines, ALL CAPS for double, UNDERLINED ALL CAPS triple, &c. So James' famous exhortation to Edith Wharton usually looks like this: "DO NEW YORK!" The ALL CAPS is understandable there, as it marks the exhortatory nature of an exhortation; however, James regularly underlined words which are already emphatic, such as the emphatic do: "DO be so far as possible his Lady Ripon." Happens quite a lot. Perhaps this double emphasis is conventional, and that in the course of one of his long, winding late-period sentences he would include no twitter-markers. Here's his 1907 account of a car accident (from a letter to Wharton): Apropos of smashes, two or three days after we had crossed the level crossing of Caianello, near Caserta, SEVEN Neapolitan "smarts" were ALL killed dead—and this by no coming of the train, but simply by furious reckless driving and a deviation, a SLIP, that dashed them against a rock and made an instant end. The Italian driving is CRAPULOUS, and the roads mostly not good enough. I don't think anyone would accuse Wharton of being an unsubtle reader, yet James writes as if his emphasis couldn't be gleaned from contextual clues. All of which leads me to...

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