Passion and Pedantry

"Lord, what would they say Did their Catullus walk this way?"
—W.B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats's picture of the scholar is not a pretty one ("All cough in ink. All wear the carpet with their shoes.") and literature does not give us many scholarly heroes. Most literary pedants are like George Eliot's Casaubon; boring, impotent in the face of the real world, and, ultimately, not even a very good scholar. The rare positive image comes from popular entertainment—Van Helsing and Indiana Jones. Even as men of letters, few academics have any impact outside university circles.

It was different in the last Silver Age of Western civilization, before World War I. To take England and the field of classics, for example, it is easy to think of three men with solid scholarly reputations whose names were well known outside the groves of academe: A.E. Housman, Sir James George Frazer, and Gilbert Murray!

Of the three, Housman's work has stood up best. On either side of the Great War there was a popular frenzy for his poetry and there still remains a committed group of readers and reciters, some of whom, such as John Sparrow and Christopher Ricks, are distinguished critics. His scholarly writings and critical editions are still important for the subjects he worked on, and his prose is read with pleasure. His academic career was spotty. As an...

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