Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936) has long fascinated a series of biographers, not least because of the apparent mismatch between the rigorous and polemical scholar Professor Housman, editor of difficult texts, and the full-voiced lyrical poet Mr Housman, whose elegiac A Shropshire Lad (1896) is seen by many as capturing the essence of Englishness. The love of his life was a man, and Housman’s dislike of women has been noted by many of those who have written about him. His most recent biographer, the late Edgar Vincent, refers to his “general intolerance of women”, and remarks of Housman’s time as Professor of Latin at University College London (1892–1911) that “there were women students at University College but Housman evidently saw no need to encourage them. He probably qualified as a misogynist of the first order.”
But it is hard to reconcile this with a reference Housman wrote for one of his female pupils on 26 March 1900:
Miss A.M.B. Meakin has during the last three years attended many of my Senior and Junior Latin classes in this college. She has displayed not only much intelligence but also an interest in and even an enthusiasm for her work such as I have seldom known. Her progress in general grasp of the subject has been steady and in some respects rapid. I have been particularly struck by the zeal with which she applied herself to Latin composition, not only in prose but in verse. It was at her own wish that she began the study of the latter art, which is not usually practiced by students here; and she soon attained a fair degree of proficiency in more than one of the metres. If Miss Meakin should herself engage in the teaching of Latin, I have no doubt she will be found both a careful and an effective teacher.
Who was “Miss A.M.B. Meakin”? Annette Mary Budgett Meakin was the daughter of Edward Meakin, a tea planter in India, and his wife Sarah, whose father Samuel Budgett, a Bristol merchant and pious Methodist, had been celebrated in a biography, The Successful Merchant (1852) which became a runaway bestseller, reaching a 43rd edition by 1878.
Annette Meakin was born in 1867, so was 30 when she enrolled in Housman’s Latin class at University College London in 1897. She was already much-travelled, having lived in the Moroccan city of Tangiers for several years, and, after her return to England, she had studied music in London and Berlin. Just before Housman wrote his glowing reference, Annette and her mother left London to travel on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the first English women to do so. On reaching Vladivostok they went on to Japan to avoid the insurrections in China, and returned to England via North America; Meakin wrote about this round-the-world trip in The Ribbon of Iron (1901).
She also travelled to and wrote about Spain, Portugal and Russian Turkestan, and in Woman in Transition (1907) she compared the social and political position of women in several different countries. Meakin’s output also included Polyeuctes (1929), a translation of a play by the seventeenth-century dramatist Pierre Corneille; Inez de Castro (1930), a historical drama set in Portugal; and Nausikaa: A Love Story from Homer Done into English Verse (1926, rev. 1938), a translation of Book 6 of the Odyssey. Her final work, based on several years’ research in Germany, wasGoethe and Schiller, 1785–1805, The Story of a Friendship, a three-volume survey published in 1933. This talented and versatile woman knew several languages, including Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Russian.
Thirteen letters from Housman to Meakin have been preserved, dating from 1926 to 1935; they give the impression that the two had corresponded previously. In most cases, Housman is responding to enquiries from Meakin or to gifts of her books. His responses are unfailingly polite, but at times critical of what he saw as her failures in language, translation, and (in particular) metre in her English verse translations. He is at pains to emphasise that the structures of Greek and English verse are very different: the appearance of her Nausikaa in 1926, which rendered Homer into English poetry, naturally provoked these discussions.
The very first letter shows Housman careful to offer some praise, before dwelling on what he sees as the defects in what she has sent him. He also comments on other writers, often in characteristically trenchant fashion: “T.S. Eliot, whom I know and like, is a sober and thoughtful critic, though he does not write what I call poetry” (22 June 1928).
Housman’s first surviving letter, of 16 December 1926, illustrates this combination of positive and negative comment:
Dear Miss Meakin
I am glad to hear of you again, as living and I hope flourishing; and it is very kind of you to send me your translation.
Its style is pleasantly simple and straightforward, and if sometimes it is rather prosaic, that is a fault on the right side. But as verse I cannot speak well of it. To write hexameters in English requires very great skill and care, and the only person I know of who has made even a respectable job of it is Charles Kingsley in his Andromeda. Many of your verses are positively unpleasant to my ear. … To find syllables in English which are definitely quite long or quite short like Greek syllables is so difficult that versifiers who take the pains to do it are obliged to write an odious jargon, like Robinson Ellis in his Catullus; yet, if it is not done, the hexameters are not true hexameters; and even Kingsley’s require indulgence. If the infidelity gave me pleasure, I should not quarrel with it, but the verses, whether hexameter or not, sound ill to me. So you must forgive me for not approving.
Despite these remarks, it is worth noting that when the second edition of Meakin’s Nausikaa appeared in 1938, she reported in the prefatory note that Housman had declared, “She has caught something of Homer!”
In January 1929 he wrote to lay down the law on metre:
Dear Miss Meakin
All English verse is regulated not by quantity but by stress. In what we call iambic and trochaic metres, quantity is almost negligible. In dactylic and anapaestic metres it is not: long syllables in the place of short ones make the verse lumber, and short ones in the place of long ones make it crumple up. An hexameter beginning with the defies both quantity and stress. Kingsley respects both: you may not like black blank, but it is a real spondee, and that is a great rarity not only in English verse but in English speech.
Coleridge in Wallenstein plays tricks with good effect, as ‘Shattering that it may reach and shattering that it reaches’, but he could do as he pleased. When one has the Holy Ghost within, one need not keep the Ten Commandments.
In March 1932 Housman held forth again about metre, comparing Greek with English:
The difficulty of writing English hexameters is that the Greek hexameter was quantitative and English verse is not. English verse is regulated not by quantity but by recurrent stress, and ‘No better a musician the wren’ is the same metre as ‘Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death’. Moreover the English language has not, as Greek had, or as the Greeks thought it had, two quantities only (♩ and ♪ in musical notation), but ever so many intermediate quantities; and therefore it is not stuff out of which hexameters can easily be made. But slowly is a perfect trochee, and cannot be anything else; and when you use it in ’Slowly dying are they’ you are interposing a bar of triple time in a piece which should be in common time. There are few true spondees among English words, and they are mostly compounds. House-leek is one, but hardly household. Your favourite, however, is, as I said, treating long syllables as short, as in ‘storm rǎge at’.
In Housman’s last letter to Meakin, dated 7 December 1935, he reported that he was “in poor health with weakness of heart… I find that I can lecture all right, but my walking is slow and feeble.” His health continued to decline, and he died on 30 April 1936. Meakin herself, who moved from one rented room to another while supporting herself as a piano teacher, eventually settled in a niece’s home, where she died in 1959. Her accomplishment and versatility deserve to be remembered; but we should also take note of Housman’s respect for them, however much he felt obliged to criticise some aspects of her work.
Christopher Stray works on the history of Classical scholarship, and is Honorary Research Fellow of the Department of History, Heritage and Classics at Swansea University, Wales. He is currently preparing chapters for a new history of Trinity College, Cambridge.
|⇧1||E. Vincent, A.E. Housman: Hero of the Hidden Life (Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2018) 118–19.|
|⇧2||In fact, we know of no other pupil to whom Housman taught verse composition, at London or Cambridge.|
|⇧3||A. Burnett, The Letters of A.E. Housman (Oxford UP, 2007), I 118–19. The reference is dated 26 March 1900, Housman’s 41st birthday.|
|⇧4||These letters were not available to Archie Burnett (as n.3), so were not published in his edition of Housman’s letters; they will be published in full in the next volume of the Housman Society Journal, which will appear in 2022.|
|⇧5||The reference is to Meakin’s Nausikaa, published earlier that year. Her translation began: There he laid himself down, the much-tried, godlike Odysseus. / Soon he had fallen asleep, overcome by fatigue and exhaustion. / Meanwhile Athene set out for the Phaakan city and people. / Formerly they had dwelt in the far-stretching land, Hypereia, / Hard by the Cyclopes; most rapacious and unpleasant neighbours. In her later edition of 1938, Meakin changed the first line to Weary he laid him down, our much tried godlike Odysseus but retained Meanwhile in verse 3, and kept verse 5 unaltered.|
|⇧6||Kingsley, Andromeda and Other Poems (1858).|
|⇧7||Catullus 64, written in hexameters. Robinson Ellis’ translation (1870) began: Born on Pelion height, so legend hoary relateth, / Pines once floated adrift on Neptune’s billowy streaming / On to the Phasis flood, to the billows Aetean.|
|⇧8||Whether this remark was made in a lost letter, or perhaps at an unrecorded meeting, is not known.|
|⇧9||Wilt though follow me down? Can we love in the black blank darkness?: Kingsley, Andromeda, 44.|
|⇧10||The nightingale, if she should sing by day / When every goose is cackling, would be thought / no better a musician than the wren: Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, V.1; O’er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp / Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death / A universe of death: Milton, Paradise Lost. 2.620–3.|
|⇧11||For a short introduction to the principles of Greek and Latin metre, you could try this Antigone article.|
|⇧12||My thanks to Annette Meakin’s collateral descendants Jess Mortimer and Margaret Tompsett for information and assistance, and in particular to Margaret Tompsett for copies of Nausikaa and for supplying the two images used in this article, with permission to use them, and to David Butterfield for helpful comments on a draft.|