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May 24, 2014

#40:  A COUPLE OF STOPPARDS.  And speaking of scholar-poets….  In the first minutes of Tom Stoppard’s play "The Invention of Love," Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx, has been sent to meet a scholar and a poet, and it takes him a minute to figure out that they are…one person.  This unlikely and irascible combination turns out to be A.E. Housman, remembered as the poet of A Shropshire Lad but known in his day as an exacting scholar of classical texts.  “Oh!  I’m dead then,” are his first words.  “Good.”  Stoppard is the intellectual pinwheel of contemporary drama—he loves ideas, the history of ideas, science, math, political philosophy, you name it, and it all clambers into his plays.  When he’s bad you want to tell him to stop that and go home; when he links it successfully to character and emotion, you get the rare and thrilling pleasure of racing to keep up with his range of references and his cheek.  With Housman at its center "The Invention of Love" is peopled with Wilde, Ruskin, Benjamin Jowett, the Aesthetic Movement, homosexuality, Greek classical culture, love, death and textual criticism.  It’s heady and rending stuff.

     "Arcadia," which precedes the Housman play, also touches the empyrean:  it’s love, death and mathematics.  Oh, and gardening.  And a publish-or-perish search for a lost Byron manuscript.  It’s hard to think of a dramatic romance built on Fermat’s Last Theorem, but Stoppard specializes in this kind of unlikeliness.  (In a way it’s the dramatic opposite of the film “A Beautiful Mind,” which professed to be about John Nash and displayed not one second of interest in mathematics.)  You could praise the play purely for its technical brio, slipping back and forth between 1809 and the present, or for its witty dialogue—nobody beats Stoppard these days at the winged, stinging epigram.  But what raises "Arcadia" up is that it’s romantically and emotionally satisfying—Stoppard’s intellectualism never betrays him into Puritan emotional stinginess.  "Arcadia" takes your breath away, and it’s lovely.

      Oh, for Housman—the Penguin edition Complete Poems and Selected Prose (1999) edited by Christopher Ricks gives you all of the poems and a selection of the baleful, witty letters.  Housman is still the great poet of bitter romantic loss—classical balance, Saxon bluntness and the iron shards of death and disappointed love.  Richard Perceval Graves’s biography A.E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet (Scribner’s, 1979) is still the most sensible, candid and intelligent biography.  Peter Parker’s book Housman Country: Into the Heart of England (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017) is an interesting and readable study, not just of the particularly English quality of Housman’s work but of the publication, reception, musical settings, and continued influence of A Shropshire Lad, with nary a taint of the must of academe.

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