Housman, Horace, and Metre

In Peter Parker’s 2016 work Housman Country: Into the Heart of England, he includes, and subsequently returns to, an incredibly significant anecdote when it comes to unpacking the complex life of the classicist-poet A. E. Housman. Parker describes the event, quoting a description written by one of Housman’s students:

“Having dissected Horace’s ode Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis ‘with the usual display of brilliance, wit and sarcasm’, Housman ended his class on a wholly unexpected note:

…for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in a quite different voice said: ‘I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.’ Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt. He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own. ‘That,’ he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, ‘I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,’ and walked quickly out of the room. A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us. ‘I felt quite uncomfortable,’ he said. ‘I was afraid the old fellow was goint to cry.’

The poem, in other words, had done just what Housman felt poetry ought to do.”(Parker, 2016)

The poem in question, Horace Odes 4.7, reads

Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis
arboribusque comae;
mutat terra vices et decrescentia ripas
flumina praetereunt;

Gratia cum Nymphis geminisque sororibus audet
ducere nuda choros:
inmortalia ne speres, monet annus et almum
quae rapit hora diem.

frigora mitescunt Zephyris, ver proterit aestas
interitura, simul
pomifer autumnus fruges effuderit, et mox
bruma recurrit iners.

damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae:
nos ubi decidimus
quo pius Aeneas, quo dives Tullus et Ancus,
pulvis et umbra sumus.

quis scit an adiciant hodiernae crastina summae
tempora di superi?
cuncta manus avidas fugient heredis amico
quae dederis animo.

cum semel occideris et de te, splendida, Minos
fecerit arbitria,
non, Torquate, genus, non te facundia, non te
restituet pietas;

infernis neque enim tenebris Diana pudicum
liberat Hippolytum
nec Lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro
vincula Pirithoo. (Horace, 65-8BC)

This ode evidently exemplified what Housman described in his Leslie Stephen lecture as poetry’s consummate power to “transfuse emotion—not to transmit thought but to set up in the reader’s sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer” (1933). In this selfsame lecture, Housman notes that poetry seems to him “more physical than intellectual”, and the anecdote above delineates a distinctly ‘physical’ reaction. Housman was clearly in touch with the intimate, personal layer of poetry, despite his career-long self-constraint to the relatively banal field of textual criticism. It is telling, therefore, that this poem had such an impact on Housman. There is something in Horace’s poem on mortal fragility (pulvis et umbra sumus) that resonated deeply with Housman, and went through him, in the words of Keats in his last letters, ‘like a spear’.

Llewelen Morgan’s 2010 Musa Pedestris begins with this famous anecdote, and the ensuing metrical analysis serves, for Morgan, as a demonstration of his extensive argument, but might also go a long way in explaining why Housman perceived such raw emotion in these select lines of Horace. Odes 4.7 is written in a metre known as a “First Archilochian”, which consists of a dactylic hexameter followed by essentially half of a dactylic hexameter. The lines therefore alternate between all the gravity and impact of the epic of Homer and Virgil, and an abbreviated line which acts contrapuntally to those associations. This mirrors what Morgan describes in his lucid introduction as “the inevitable truncation of human felicity and hope” (2010).

It appears to me that there may well be a correlation between the metre of this poem and Housman’s famous reaction to it. Though 4.7 invites endless further analysis and commentary, it may be said that in this metrical observation of Morgan’s, the core of the poem’s impact is found. The juxtaposition between the potent cycle of life in lines 1-14 and the human insignificance of 15-16 is the thrust of the poem, and is replicated by the ‘physical’ sensation of metre. Thus, Housman’s ‘transfusion of emotion’ is something which, in 4.7 and elsewhere in poetry, is in part dependent on metrical patterning. Hence, although Professor Morgan describes the relationship between ‘metre and meaning’, coupled with Housman’s observations and behaviour, it might be suggested that there is also a strong correspondence between ‘metre and feeling’.

Below is Housman’s own translation of ‘Diffugere nives’, which I will leave untouched to be enjoyed, in his own words, “simply as poetry”.

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn with his apples scattering;
Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate’er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams;
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
The stern assize and equal judgment o’er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain
The love of comrades cannot take away. (Housman, 1936)

Works cited

Horace [Ed. Shorey, P. and Laing, G. J.] (1919) Horace, Odes and Epodes,Chicago: Benj. H. Sanborn & Co.

Parker, P. (2016) Housman Country: Into the Heart of England, Great Britain: Abacus

Housman, A. E. (1956) [1936] A Shropshire Lad and Other Poems, London: Penguin Classics

Housman, A. E. (1950) [1933] The Name and Nature of Poetry, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Morgan, L. (2010) Musa Pedestris: Metre and Meaning in Roman Verse, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s