Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Invention of Love

A. E. Housman, a poet and classical scholar, was born 150 years ago today. He’s best remembered, perhaps, for his cycle of poems A Shropshire Lad - certainly not for his diaries, which don’t seem to have been published. However, these diaries did inspire Tom Stoppard, one of Britain’s best contemporary playwrights, to write The Invention of Love.

Housman was born in Fockbury, Worcestershire, to a solicitor’s family on 26 March 1859, exactly one and a half centuries ago (and one century before my brother - who is 50 today!). He won an open scholarship to Oxford, but, for reasons that are much debated, he failed to finish his degree. While at Oxford he met Moses Jackson, another student and an athlete, who became the object of his unrequited love, and the inspiration for some of his poetry.

For a decade or so, in the 1880s, Housman worked at the Patent Office, London, but continued studying and publishing on classical subjects. In 1892, he was appointed professor of Latin studies at University College, London; and 20 years later he moved to Trinity College, Cambridge, as Kennedy Professor of Latin. According to Wikipedia, his editions of Juvenal, Manilius and Lucan are still considered authoritative.

Although Housman thought of classical scholarship as his main work, he also developed a significant reputation as a writer of poetry. His cycle of poems called A Shropshire Lad has been much loved over the decades, and been printed many times. Currently, Abebooks has over 1,000 copies available for sale, the most expensive of which is a first edition inscribed by Housman to Jackson - a bargain at just over £60,000 (price converted from dollars).

Housman has also become an icon in the history of homosexuality. The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage says his poetry ‘is inextricably rooted in homosexual experience and consciousness and is also a significant reflector of gay history’. This was sensed at the time, it says, by ‘knowing readers’, and understood latterly because of two candid posthumous volumes that Housman’s brother Laurence, his literary executor and also homosexual, assembled from Housman’s unpublished manuscripts.

There are a number of references online to Housman’s diaries - archived at the British Library - but I can find no trace of them having been published in book form. Richard Perceval Graves quotes from them in his biography A. E. Housman: the scholar-poet published by Taylor & Francis in 1979 (viewable on Googlebooks).

Graves says this: ‘The few diary entries made between 1888 and 1891 which did not refer to the Jacksons [Moses and his brother Adalbert] were indeed about the changing seasons, showing how he had maintained that interest in botany which had been his since early schooldays. The complete entry for the day in October when Moses Jackson’s eldest son was born, reads:
‘Epping Forest
Hornbeam shows some yellow
One honeysuckle bloom
A tree with red berries and leaves turning partly yellow heather mostly faded
His son born.’ ’

Another person who has seen at least some of Housman’s diary is Tom Stoppard, one of Britain’s foremost playwrights. He’s justly famous for plays such as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, and Jumpers. According to Wikipedia, however, ‘many’ consider The Invention of Love to be his finest play. It premiered in London (at the National Theatre) in 1997, and on Broadway (at the Lincoln Centre) in 2001.

The New York Times called The Invention of Love ‘a memory play’, one that follows Housman ‘as he looks back on his frustrated lifelong love for Moses Jackson’. In making this journey into the past, it says, the play reflects both an interest in the literature and myth of classical antiquity and Oxford intellectual life of a century ago.

Various articles on the US opening explained that Stoppard was inspired to write the play after discovering a book containing some of Housman’s letters and lectures which also contained brief excerpts of Housman’s diary. The New York Times, for example, quoted Stoppard himself: ‘Most of the time, there were little notes about what flowers were in bloom or his walks. But during a particular year, sporadic days began to include reference to an unnamed man he’d fallen in love with as a student. . . It was so cryptic and so reticent and suppressed, it suggested a tremendous amount of emotion.’

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