Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


The Invention of Love. By Tom Stoppard. New York: Grove Press, 1998. Pp. 102 + x.

J.E. Lendon
The University of Virginia

In The Invention of Love, recently come to these shores, Tom Stoppard has Oscar Wilde berate the classicist and poet A. E. Housman: "Better a fallen rocket than never a burst of light." "Your honour is all shame and timidity and compliance." "I awoke the imagination of the century." "I lived at the turning point of the world where everything was waking up new.... Where were you when all this was happening?"  Whereupon Stoppard compels the humiliated Housman to reply:   "At Home."  Stoppard's easy trouncing of the reserved Housman, his contempt for Housman's restraint of his sexual feelings, his arraigning of the old at the bar of the new, should ensure US productions--which follow on a long run in the West End of London--full audiences of the type of academic who clucks at the past and calls it scholarship.

But even those satisfied by modish politics in Edwardian dress may come away disappointed. The Invention of Love is static and declamatory; caricatures--one can hardly call them characters--roll on and off stage spouting boring artistic manifestos and slogans. Ruskin: "The Medieval Gothic!" Walter Pater: "Burn with a gemlike flame!" How Pater must now regret supplying idle eternity with an epigrammatic license to ignore all his others words together. Stoppard is tired: we look in vain for the verbal coruscation of Jumpers or the moving humanity of The Real Thing

Stoppard has done his research, but rather than writing a proper play around it, he simply forces his characters to mouth it as long speeches. The play is a patchwork, but even as a patchwork disappointing, for more colorful patches were for sale. In the best scene Housman vituperates the work of other classical scholars while elsewhere on stage a selection committee considers him for an academic post. The lines Stoppard gives to Housman draw heavily from the real Housman's prose writings: paraphrasing the preface to the first volume of Housman's edition of the Latin poet Manilius (1903, at p. xxxi) Stoppard has him reflect upon a certain type of textual critic:

Confronted with two manuscripts of equal merit, he is like a donkey between two bundles of hay, and confusedly imagines that if one bundle were removed he would cease to be a donkey.
This is competent Housmanian invective, certainly. But Stoppard did not have to leave the pages of that same preface to do far better. Lamenting the critic Friedrich Jacob, Housman wrote:
Yet the virtues of his work are quenched and smothered by the magnitude and monstrosity of its vices. They say he was born of human parentage; but if so he must have been suckled by Caucasian tigers. ... Not only had Jacob no sense for grammar, no sense for coherency, no sense for sense, but being himself possessed by a passion for the clumsy and the hispid he imputed this disgusting taste to all the authors whom he edited; and Manilius, the one Latin poet who excels even Ovid in verbal point and smartness, is accordingly constrained to write the sort of poetry which might have been composed by Nebuchadnezzar when he was driven from men and did eat grass as oxen. (xxi).
And comparing a good critic, Bentley, to Stoeber, a bad one, Housman observed:
If a man will comprehend the richness and variety of the universe, and inspire his mind with a due measure of wonder and of awe, he must contemplate the human intellect not only on its heights of genius but in its abysses of ineptitude; and it might be fruitlessly debated to the end of time whether Richard Bentley or Elias Stoeber was the more marvellous work of the Creator:  Elias Stoeber, whose reprint of Bentley's text, with a commentary intended to confute it, saw the light in 1767 at Strasburg, a city still famous for its geese.  (xix)
It is not from confidence in his own invention that Stoppard has refrained from plundering passages such as these, nor because they are too long: The Invention of Love abounds with interminable speeches, and Housman with brief bursts of vitriol:  "How the world is managed, and why it was created, I cannot tell; but it is no feather-bed for the repose of sluggards" (xxxii). Instead the logic of Stoppard's play denies Housman any dialogue which might make a percipient hearer suspect that Housman was a greater mind and a greater wit than Wilde; quite another logic denies Housman any dialogue which might make the hearer suspect that Housman was a greater mind and a greater wit than Stoppard. Best, then, to deny the audience passages like Housman's judgment on Buecheler, Vahlen, and their school: 
In racing back the feet of Alschefski Messrs. Buecheler and Vahlen are hampered by two grave encumbrances: they know too much Latin, and they are not sufficiently obtuse. Among their pupils are several who comprehend neither Latin nor any other language, and whom nature has prodigally endowed at birth with that hebetude of intellect which Messrs. Vahlen and Buecheler, despite their assiduous and protracted efforts, have not yet succeeded in acquiring. Thus equipped, the apprentices proceed to exegetical achievements of which their masters are incapable, and which perhaps inspire those masters less with envy than with fright: indeed I imagine that Mr. Buecheler, when he first perused Mr. Sudhaus' edition of the Aetna, must have felt something like Sin when she gave birth to Death. (xliii-xliv)
The most casual dabble in Housman's prose (conveniently gathered in J. Carter ed. A. E. Housman: Selected Prose [CUP 1961], available as The Name and the Nature of Poetry and Other Selected Prose [New Amsterdam Books, 1989]) reveals him as one of the half-dozen greatest prose stylists in English, his genius for malevolent humor perhaps matched but never conquered; but for Stoppard's purposes Housman must be a mean old pedant and a bore.  We should be grateful, I suppose, that Stoppard held his paws from Housman's verses, poetry to which he is so indifferent that he does not even stop to jeer. For among the gold there is some lead, and much to mock, who would: 
Once in the wind of morning 
I ranged the thymy wold
(A Shropshire Lad 42.1-2).
Stoppard is sullen chiefly at Housman's work as a textual critic of the Classics, mystified by a man who would spend his life and passion correcting the manuscripts of works of literature. Stoppard here betrays his own awareness of the leaking of his powers. For it is hard to imagine that the young Tom Stoppard, justly proud of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead, of The Real Inspector Hound, of Travesties, would not want the posterity of their texts defended by the ferocity of a Housman. Housman devoted his life to vindicating literature from oblivion. This is an office for which any man of letters must be grateful, unless he be so mortified by his own decline as secretly to hope that the worms will save his writings from the snickers of eternity. 

September 1, 2000

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