Audi Alteram Partem: The Wild(e) Unearthing of A.E. Housman’s Other Side

“Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance” — Oscar Wilde, final line in The Invention of Love

According to the Symposium, Aristophanes believed that humans originally had four arms, four legs, one head, and two faces before Zeus split them into two, condemning them to a life spent searching for their other half.

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates renounces cultural gravitation to sexual love, arguing that philosophy, an asexual love for wisdom, is the most valuable pursuit. This theory is contradicted by Diotoma, who believed love is a title restricted to interpersonal romantic relationships. Both theories, though reductive, remain the major pillars of metaphysical thought on love to this day. Within most of us is a spectrum connecting these polarities, and it is our job to contend with their competing energies in the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment.

No one represents this dichotomy more agonizingly beautifully than A.E. Housman: classicalist, poet, and timid protagonist of Tom Stoppard’s Invention of Love. Housman was a devout student, whose one-dimensional life of dry, dreary academia is contrasted in the play against that of Oscar Wilde, a dithyrambic amalgam who represents everything Housman was too timid to accomplish in his time on Earth.

A ‘dithyramb’ was a hymn performed in honor of Dionysus, God of wine. Renowned play critic Daniel Menelsohn once called Wilde a “heroic and tragic representation of ‘poetry’ and ‘emotion’ — a dithyrambic type for whom the playwright evidently has more feeling.” In The Laws, Plato also mentions the song, citing it is as the birth of Dionysus.

Wilde, ever the peacock. (illustration from Fairytales by Oscar Wilde)

Though Wilde is discussed amongst Housman’s friends, he and the poet never met in real life. This coaxes me to regard Stoppard’s Wilde not in a literal human form, but as a psychological apparition within Housman himself, an alternate personality that had been present in the poet’s psyche at all times, but not dominant enough to control his actions in life. I think that it is possible that the banality of Housman’s existence forced him into adopting this split identity, a manifestation of his starved craving to be spontaneous, fearless, flamboyant. I imagine the play to take place in the final surge of brain activity that occurs just after death — a time, it seems to me, Housman used to reflect on his earthly shortcomings. In an interview, Stoppard once revealed that “the appeal was to write the play about two people who inhabited the same person.” While Stoppard’s intent may have been to refer to Housman’s inner struggle with accepting his own homosexuality (or inversion, as it is known in the play), I am inclined to think that it gestures to Housman’s dissociative identity and the role Oscar Wilde plays in this disorder. Now that Housman has shed his shameful, fleshy prison, he is free to speak freely and easily with this suppressed side of himself.

A.E. Housman’s poetry was wildly popular, but the man himself was invisible; during his time at Oxford he lusted over classmate Moses Jackson, a tragically heterosexual jock incapable of reciprocation. This tortured Housman endlessly, especially when he first began grappling with accepting his homoerotic feelings. At the play’s twilight (in what I perceive as an internal encounter, displayed on stage with the visual aid of Marco Barricelli as Oscar Wilde), Housman comments “it would be a shame if inversion is all he was known for.” Here, at first glance Housman is referring to Wilde’s comment on the striking visual similarity between Hades and Paddington; however, inversion is a dated synonym for homosexuality, revealing a deeper meaning. Whether it be intentional or subconscious, this bon mot sheds light on Housman’s cold, shameful, remissive feelings towards his sexuality.

As a scholar of the Classics, Housman undoubtedly read the Symposium and was therefore influenced by its teachings. While he may have taken a degree of solace in Socrates’ view that academia was a bold and noble love, he recognized the perspective was innately diminutive when it stood alone. Diotima’s words, “It’s only when people are devoted exclusively to one special kind of love that we use these words that really belong to the whole of it; ‘love’ and ‘in love’ and ‘lovers,’” perhaps struck a deeper chord with Housman, whose thoughts were plagued with the omnipresent knowledge of his solitude. Perhaps this is why he turned to poetry, a sort of private, internal version of talk therapy. Poetry records the interior life, the author’s deepest vulnerabilities; Housman released much of his stifled romantic energy into this medium. In A Shropshire Lad, perhaps his most notable work, Housman proses:

Because I liked you better than suits a man to say, it irked you, and I promised to throw the love away. To put the world between us we parted, stiff and dry; ‘Goodbye,’ said you, ‘forget me.’ ‘I will, no fear,’ said I. If here, where clover whitens, the dead man’s knoll, you pass, and no tall flower to meet you, starts in the trefoiled grass, halt by the headstone naming, the heart no longer stirred, and say the lad that loved you, was the one that kept his word.

This poem drips with the thick, staining blood of unrequited love, it illustrates the noble yet heartbreaking act of recognizing when reciprocation is hopeless and deciding to set free the object of infatuation. Whether the death of the poem’s subject is literal or a metaphorical passing on from the loved one’s life, I believe that the mere prospect of a love interest thinking fondly of him after their paths diverged was a comfort to Housman.

A.E. Housman, 1896 (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

A.E. Housman’s life was a long, slow journey to internal approval of his own sexuality; even in the afterlife, Housman spends his first moments regretting the suppression of his identity. However, Plato’s teacher and greatest influence, Socrates, believed that it was not wisdom itself that would bring one fulfillment, but the lifelong pursuit of wisdom. Perhaps the same goes for happiness, for fulfillment, completion, love. And while Housman’s journey on Earth has come to a close, Tom Stoppard has propagated the roots of belief that it continues for him in the afterlife; for all of us. As Aristophanes said, “love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole.”

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Julianna Tyner

Julianna Tyner

Student interested in psychology, politics, alternative medicine, and the human condition. I have a lot of thoughts, here are the filtered ones.