A. E. Housman on Editorship

I’ve always felt that Housman was one of the sharpest and most insightful intellects of his day and certainly beyond, a caste of mind not terribly dissimilar to that other danger man, Bernard Williams. In critical mode reading them is akin to handling razor blades. Below is Housman as scathing classicist. After that is Richard Dawkins reading some Housman, which he delivers very well and meaningfully indeed. Though Housman is coopted by the atheist movement (fair enough since AE was one) they gloss over the very subtle threads that inform Housman’s atheism: a deeply tragic, frustrating personal life informed by his traditionalist outlook, a world away from the prevailing table-thumping rationalistic ideological atheism.

His poetry and scholarship were written not by a militant atheist or a gay rights activist like his brother, but by a man who was outraged by failure in the search for truth, and even lapses in accuracy. (“Accuracy is a duty and not a virtue.”)” He treated the moral virtues, including patriotism, the love of beauty, the search for truth, and friendship as realities that imposed lifelong obligations. He lived and wrote as though morality and duty were real, not “hollow fictions.” E. Christan Kopff

The extract below from Selected Prose. Cambridge University Press, 1961, pp. 35-37.

An editor of no judgment, perpetually confronted with a couple of MSS. to choose from, cannot but feel in every fibre of his being that he is a donkey between two bundles of hay. What shall I do now? Leave criticism to the critics, you might say, and betake himself to any honest trade for which he is less unfit. But he prefers a more flattering solution: he confusedly imagines that if one bundle of hay is removed he will cease to be a donkey.

So he removes it. Are the two MSS. equal and do they bewilder him with their rival merit and extract from him at every other moment the novel and distressing effort of using his brains? Then he pretends that they are not equal: he calls one of them ‘the best MS.,’ and to this he resigns the editorial functions which he is himself unable to discharge. He adopts its readings when they are better than its fellow’s, adopts them when they are no better, adopts them when they are worse: only when they are impossible, or rather when he perceives their impossibility, is he dislodged form his refuge and driven by stress of weather to the other port.

This method answers the purpose for which it was devised: it saves lazy editors from working and stupid editors from thinking. But someone has to pay for these luxuries, and that someone is the author; since it must follow, as the night the day, that this method should falsify his text. Suppose, if you will, that the editor’s ‘best MS.’ is in truth the best: his way of using it is nonetheless ridiculous. To believe that wherever a best MS. gives possible readings gives true readings, and that only where it gives impossible readings does it give false readings, is to believe that an incompetent editor is the darling of Providence, which has given its angels charge over him lest at any time his sloth and folly should produce their natural results and incur their appropriate penalty. Chance and the common course of nature will not bring it to pass that the readings of a MS. are right wherever they are possible and impossible wherever they are wrong: that need divine intervention; and when one considers the history of man and the spectacle of the universe I hope one may say without impiety that divine intervention might have been employed better elsewhere. How the world is managed, and why it was created, I cannot tell; but it is no feather-bed for the repose of sluggards.

Apart from its damage to the author, it might perhaps be thought that this way of editing would bring open scorn upon the editors, and that the whole reading public would rise up and tax them, as I tax them now, with ignorance of their trade and dereliction of their duty. But the public is soon disarmed. This planet is largely inhabited by parrots, and it is easy to disguise folly by giving it a fine name.