Housman on Thought #4



There is one special province of textual criticism, a large and important province, which is concerned with the establishment of rules of grammar and of metre. These rules are in part traditional, and given us by the ancient grammarians, but in part they are formed by our own induction from what we find in the manuscripts of Greek and Latin authors, and even the traditional rules must of course be tested by comparison with the witness of the manuscripts. But every rule, whether traditional or framed from induction, is sometimes broken by the manuscripts, and critics may then say that the manuscripts are wrong, and may correct them in accordance with the rule. This state of affairs is apparently, nay evidently, paradoxical. The manuscripts are the material upon which we base our rule, and then, when we have got our rule, we turn round upon the manuscripts and say that the rule, based upon them, convicts them of error. We are thus working in a circle, that is a fact which there is no denying, but, as Lachmann says, the task of the critic is just this, to tread that circle deftly and warily, and that is precisely what elevates the critic's business above mere mechanical labour. The difficulty is one which lies in the nature of the case, and is inevitable, and the only way to surmount it, is just to be a critic.

The paradox is more formidable in appearance than in reality, and has plenty of analogies in daily life. In a trial or lawsuit the jury's verdict is based upon the evidence of witnesses, but that does not prevent the jury from making up its mind, from the evidence in general, that one or more witnesses have been guilty of perjury and that their evidence is to be disregarded. It is quite possible to elicit from the general testimony of manuscripts a rule of sufficient certainty to convict of falsehood their exceptional testimony, or of sufficient probability to throw doubt upon it. But that exceptional testimony must in each case be considered. It must be recognised that there are two hypotheses between which we have to decide: the question is whether the exceptions come from the author, and so break down the rule, or whether they come from the scribe, and are to be corrected by it, and in order to decide this we must keep our eyes open for any peculiarity which may happen to characterise them.

In particular, scribes will alter a less familiar form to a more familiar, if they see nothing to prevent them. If metre allows, or if they do not know that metre forbids, they will alter nil to nihil, deprendo to deprehendo. Since metre convicts them of infidelity in some places, they forfeit the right to be trusted in any place; if we choose to trust them we are credulous, and if we build structures on our trust, we are no critics.

Even if metre does not convict them, reason sometimes can. Take the statement, repeatedly made in grammars and editions, that the Latins sometimes used the pluperfect for the imperfect and the perfect. They did use it for the imperfect, they used it also for the preterite or past aorist, but for the perfect they did not use it, and that is proved by the very examples of its use as perfect which are found in manuscripts. All those examples are of the 3rd person plural. Why? We must choose between the following two hypotheses:

(a) The Latins used the pluperfect for the perfect in the 3rd person plural only.
(b) They did not use the pluperfect for the perfect, and these examples are corrupt.

If anyone adopted the former, he would have to explain what syntactical property, inviting the author to use pluperfect for perfect, is possessed by the 3rd person plural and not by the two other plural or the three singular persons, and I should like to see someone set about it.

If we adopt the latter, we must show what external feature, inviting the scribe to write pluperfect for perfect, is possessed by the 3rd person plural exclusively, and that is quite easy. The 3rd person plural is the only person in which the perfect and the pluperfect differ merely by one letter. Moreover, in verse the perfect termination -erunt, being comparatively unfamiliar to scribes, is altered by them to the nearest familiar form with the same scansion, sometimes -erint, sometimes -erant. In Ovid's Heroides there are four places where the best manuscript gives praebuerunt, steterunt, exciderunt, expulerunt, and the other manuscripts give -erant or -erint or both. Accordingly, when the much inferior manuscripts of Propertius present pluperfect for perfect in four places, fuerant once, steterant once, exciderant twice, Scaliger corrects to fuerunt, steterunt, exciderunt. Thereupon an editor of this enlightened age takes up his pen and writes as follows: "It is quite erroneous to remove the pluperfects where it can be done without great expenditure of conjectural sagacity (steterunt for steterant and the like), and not to trouble oneself about the phenomenon elsewhere." I ask, how is it possible to trouble oneself about the phenomenon elsewhere? It does not exist elsewhere. There is no place where the manuscripts give steteram in the sense of the perfect steti, nor steteras in the sense of the perfect stetisti. Wherever they give examples of the pluperfect which cannot be removed by the change of one letter — such as pararat in 1/8:36 or fueram in 1/12:11 — those are examples where it has sometimes the sense of the imperfect, sometimes of the preterite, but never of the perfect. And the inference is plain: The Latins did not use the pluperfect for the perfect.


Scaliger knew that in the sixteenth century; Mr Rothstein, in the nineteenth and twentieth, does not know it; he has found a form of words to prevent himself from knowing it, and he thinks himself in advance of Scaliger. It is supposed that there has been progress in the science of textual criticism, and the most frivolous pretender has learnt to talk superciliously about "the old unscientific days." The old unscientific days are everlasting; they are here and now; they are renewed perennially by the ear which takes formulas in and the tongue which gives them out again, and the mind which meanwhile is empty of reflexion and stuffed with self-complacency. Progress there has been, but where? In superior intellects; the rabble do not share it. Such a man as Scaliger, living in our time, would be a better critic than Scaliger was, but we shall not be better critics than Scaliger by the simple act of living in our own time.

Textual criticism, like most sciences, is an aristocratic affair, not communicable to all men, nor to most men. Not to be a textual critic is no reproach to anyone, unless he pretends to be what he is not. To be a textual critic requires aptitude for thinking and willingness to think, and though it also requires other things, those things are supplements and cannot be substitutes. Knowledge is good, method is good, but one thing beyond all others is necessary, and that is to have a head, not a pumpkin, on your shoulders, and brains, not pudding, in your head.

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24 Dec 2005 / Contact The Project / Exit to Home Page