Recommended Reading: Anthony Lane on A.E. Housman


Anthony Lane and The New Yorker

Anthony Lane,1 a film critic for The New Yorker whose credentials as a serious thinker were rendered suspect in the eyes of some simply by virtue of his being hired by Tina Brown during her tenure as that periodical’s Editor, has confirmed the validity of that indictment in those same circles by his convincing portrayal of a man who enjoys his work, even when that work is reviewing the latest Adam Sandler vehicle. If, however, Lane’s failure to steep his work in a mournfulness that transforms essays into jeremiads on the failings of modern cinema is a limitation, it is also, on occasion, a delight.

This is one of those occasions.

The February 19, 2001 issue of The New Yorker included Anthony Lane’s “Lost Horizon – The sad and savage wit of A. E. Housman,” which I found insightful enough to compel me, when I couldn’t find a copy online, to scan the piece and save it as a PDF for future use. It was, in fact, after re-reading that article this past weekend in what has become, quite unintentionally, an annual event that I performed a quick search which found the good folks at The New Yorker now offer it for viewing on their web site.

So view it already.

Oh, you want reasons to read it, eh?

OK, here’s a quick look at the material Lane has packed into a document of just over 6 pages (when transformed into my PDF copy).

A Glimpse Of Lost Horizon

“Lost Horizon,” published on the occasion of the then impending Broadway opening of Tom Stoppard’s “The Invention of Love,” has as its focus the same subject as Stoppard’s play – A.E. Housman, whom Lane describes as “poet, clerk, classical scholar, and gourmet, with a palate so fearless that he once dined on hedgehogs.”2

Lane goes on to address Housman’s ongoing popularity, especially in England during World War I, with explanations that are perceptive and penetrating albeit incomplete, his deserved ascendancy in the hegemony of literary scholarship, and his brutal, jubilantly devastating critiques of fools who dared publish work in his area of expertise (e.g., Of one editor, Housman wrote, “Mr. Owen’s innovations, so far as I can see, have only one merit, which certainly, in view of their character, is a merit of some magnitude: they are few.”).

On a more literary line, Lane convincingly challenges Edmund Wilson’s famous criticism that “Housman has managed to grow old without in a sense ever knowing maturity.”3

Lane enticingly introduces facts about Housman that may not qualify as arcane but are certainly not routinely taught to undergraduates – at least not to undergraduates attending state-funded colleges in southwest Missouri. For example, who knew Housman was “a devotee of American humor” or that he proudly informed his colleagues that Clarence Darrow, who visited Housman in 1927, “often used my poems to rescue his clients from the electric chair?”4 Lane also discloses that there was a sweetness to Housman’s father until his wife’s death triggered a siege of alcoholism, that friends of Oscar Wilde would memorize Housman’s verses to recite to the imprisoned Wilde who was denied reading material, and that in 1897, Housman began spending his vacations gleefully traveling throughout the Continent by car and plane.

Lost Horizon not only limns Housman’s obsessive love for Moses Jackson5 that serves as the foundation of Stoppard’s play but goes on to deal with speculations about other liaisons to which Housman may have been a party.

And, how about Lane’s fantasy, casually dropped between a set of parentheses,

If I could sit him down to dinner with anyone, it would be Emily Dickinson: the master and mistress of the short line and the sensory jolt, each with immaculate manners. You never know; it might work.

It’s wonderful stuff.

The article can be found at Lost Horizon – The sad and savage wit of A. E. Housman.


Note: Originally posted Aug 7, 2007 at, a predecessor of

  1. Anthony Lane is pictured on the reader’s right in the composite graphic atop this post. That’s Housman on the far left. The monocle-embracing chap in the middle is the representative of The New Yorker and is officially known as Eustace Tilley. []
  2. In retrospect, I should have ended my post here. I suspect readers not lured into reading Lane’s article by a line depicting A.E. Housman as “poet, clerk, classical scholar, and gourmet, with a palate so fearless that he once dined on hedgehogs” are invulnerable to any charms of entertaining scholarship that I am able to portray in a post. []
  3. No, I’m not going to provide Lane’s argument here. For one thing, I’m likely to do Lane and the reader a disservice by offering an inadequate representation of his perspective. For another, the point of my note is to entice viewers to read Lane’s article. []
  4. A specific case of this sort was Darrow’s defense of Leopold and Loeb. []
  5. Moses Jackson was a college classmate, who was one year older than Housman and was much admired as a student and an athlete. He never knew of Housman’s feelings for him []

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