Translating Housman and Housman Translating

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  • Trustees of Boston University

    Translating Housman and Housman TranslatingAuthor(s): Colin SydenhamSource: Arion, Third Series, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring - Summer, 2008), pp. 47-52Published by: Trustees of Boston UniversityStable URL: .Accessed: 17/06/2014 18:17

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  • Translating Housman

    and Housman Translating


    T A he story of A. E. Housman's unrequited love for Moses Jackson, dramatized by Sir Tom Stoppard in The

    Invention of Love, is well known. They were close friends at

    Oxford and, when Housman failed his degree and went to

    work in the Patent Office, they shared lodgings in London

    for a time. But they parted. Jackson left to take up the post of

    principal of Sind College, Karachi (1887), and later he

    moved to British Columbia and took up farming (1911). Al?

    though he made infrequent visits to London, the warmth of

    the old friendship was never resumed, and on a visit in 1889

    Jackson married without giving Housman any prior notice.

    The rupture of an intimacy which had meant so much to

    Housman was a permanently traumatic event which can be

    seen as shaping the whole of his poetic output. This is not

    merely fanciful, for Housman left an explicit acknowledg? ment of the importance of the relationship to him, and did so

    in the most emphatic context he could devise. In 1903, when

    he published the first volume of what he intended to be the

    great work which would make his name, his commentary on

    the Astron?mica of Manilius, he prefaced it by a Latin dedi?

    cation to Jackson, followed by twenty-eight lines of Latin ele?

    giacs. Here is the Latin text.





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    Signa pruinosae uariantia luce cauernas

    noctis et extincto lumina nata die

    solo rure uagi lateque tacentibus aruis

    surgere nos una uidimus oc?ano,

    uidimus: illa prius, cum luce carebat uterque, 5 uiderat in Latium prona poeta mare,

    seque memor terra mortalem matre creatum

    intulit aeternis carmina sideribus,

    clara nimis post se genitis exempla daturus ne quis forte deis fidere uellet homo. 10

    nam supero sacrata polo complexaque mundum

    sunt tarnen indignam carmina passa luem,

    et licet ad nostras enarint naufraga terras

    scriptoris nomen uix tenuere sui.

    non ego mortalem uexantia sidera sortem 15

    aeternosue tuli sollicitare d?os, sed cito casurae tactus uirtutis amore

    humana uolui quaerere nomen ope,

    uirque uirum legi fortemque breuemque sodalem

    qui titulus libro uellet inesse meo. 20

    O uicture meis dicam periturene chartis, nomine sed certe uiuere digne tuo,

    haec tibi ad auroram surgentia signa secuto

    Hesperia trado mu?era missa plaga, en cape: nos populo uenit inlatura perempto 25

    ossa solo quae det dissoluenda dies

    fataque sortitas non inmortalia mentes

    et non aeterni uincla sodalicii.

    And here is a new translation, which attempts to respect Housman's own practice of avoiding whenever possible any word of Latin origin.




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  • Colin Sydenham 49

    Roaming in wide and silent fields we watched

    Rising from ocean points of light, Which as day died away cast fitful beams,

    Fretting the frosty vault of night. And long before our time a poet watched

    Them setting in the Latin sea, And mindful of his earthborn fate he wrought

    In deathless stars his poetry, And thus became a warning for all time

    That none to gods his trust should pay, For though it ranged the holy heavens' breadth

    His work met ill-deserved decay, And though its wreckage beached upon our strand

    It scarce could tell the writer's name.

    Upon the troubling stars and deathless gods

    Myself I scorned to make a claim,

    But, spurred by love of fleeting manhood, sought To make a name by human aid,

    And man for man chose for my title page A stalwart but a brief comrade.

    My friend, who in my words may live or die, But whose own worth will stead you best,

    Who followed to the east those rising lights, This gift I pass you from the west.

    Take it; a day is coming, which our bones

    To the lost throng below will send, The bane of hearts not deathless born, and bonds

    Of comradeship foredoomed to end.

    The Latin is the work not only of an English poet, but of the

    foremost English classical scholar of his generation, an expert

    steeped in Latin poetry. It is no surprise, therefore, to find, as

    has recently been noted,1 that it contains echoes of Ovid, Cal

    limachus, and Catullus among others. What is more remark?

    able is the lack of inhibition with which Housman, the most

    reserved of men, under the cover of Latin hints at, indeed con

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    fronts, the homosexual nature of his attachment to Jackson. It

    must be remembered that he was writing only a few years af?

    ter the notorious trials of Oscar Wilde (1895), when open ac?

    knowledgment of such an attachment was impossible. But

    Housman not only names Jackson in the dedicatory title but

    permits himself strongly suggestive phraseology (tactus vir

    tutis amore, virque virum legi), which leaves little room for

    doubt about the nature of the feelings which he describes.

    And this is the chord which resonates in his plangent closing

    phrase non aeterni vincla sodalicii, for these words surely con?

    tain a reminiscence of the end of the seventh ode of Horace's

    fourth book, the ode which Housman famously pronounced "the most beautiful poem in ancient literature;"2 and he un?

    derlined this judgment by including a translation of it among his published poems.3 Horace's closing words are:

    Infernis neque enim tenebris Diana pudicum lib?r?t Hippolytum,

    nee Lethaea valet Theseus abrumpere caro

    vincula Pirithoo,

    which Housman translates:

    Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain, Diana steads him nothing, he must stay; And Theseus leaves Pirith?us in the chain

    The love of comrades cannot take away.

    The connection does not lie solely in the verbal repetition

    (vinculalvincld), but more in the appeal to "the love of com?

    rades" subsumed within Horace's caro. This is surely the el?

    ement which made the ode so poignant to Housman, and his

    Latin tells us that Jackson was to him what Pirithous was to

    Theseus. We may note too that his translation baulks at Ho?

    race's Lethaea. He cannot bring himself to mention that the

    chains that bind Pirithous are chains of oblivion. The pain of

    being forgotten is too much.

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  • Colin Sydenham 51

    This reminiscence is picked up by my translation in two

    ways. First there is the nearby use of Housman's archaic but

    striking word "stead" in line 22. Secondly the bonds at the

    end of the penultimate line are, by self-reference, a repetition in translation of the same word that Housman repeats, for I

    too have translated the Horace, as follows:

    Diana cannot set the stainless Hippolytus free, from the darkness he cannot abscond;

    nor can Theseus deliver Pirith?us, dear as he is, from the grip of oblivion's bond.4


    i. Stephen Harrison, "A. E. Housman's Latin Elegy to Moses Jackson," TAPA 132 (2002), 209, whose help with my translation I gratefully ac?

    knowledge. 2. Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (Oxford 1949).

    3. More poems (London 1936).

    4. Colin Sydenham, Horace: The Odes (Duckworth 2005).

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