Monday 14 November 2011

A Knox and The Housman

I'm reading The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald's affectionate biography of her father and his three brothers, all of them extraordinarily gifted men. It's a brilliant piece of work that brings its subjects vividly alive - beautifully written, of course, but also hugely entertaining. This passage, about her classicist uncle Dilwyn (Dilly) and A.E. Housman, who encountered each other at Cambridge, had me laughing out loud...

'Housman, too, could be allowed to understand English metre. The three-stress rhythm of Is My Team Ploughing affected Dilly so much that he bit right through the amber mouthpiece of his pipe, which was heard by those in the rooms below him to crash to the ground...
His Fellowship dissertation had been on the prose rhythms of Thucydides; his argument was said to be unacceptable but so clever that nobody could contradict it. Then he returned to Greek poetry. Mr Ian Cunningham, a recent editor of Herodas [Dilwyn's speciality], writes:
'He discovered, more or less simultaneously with one of the greatest, if not the greatest, modern classical scholars, U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, what is now known as the Wilamowitz-Knoxian bridge. This is a highly technical point of Greek metre. A bridge is a point in the verse where word-end is forbidden. This one relates to the iambic trimeter of the early period...'
To be remembered by a few because of a rule about a word that doesn't end in lines of poetry that scarcely anyone reads - if Dilly ever desired immortality, it would be of this kind. In Housman's words, all exact knowledge 'pushes back the frontiers of the dark' and consoles mankind for his discovery that 'he does not come from the high lineage he fancied nor will inherit the vast estate he looked for'.

I might be returning to this subject - The Knox Brothers, that is - not the Wilamowitz-Knoxian bridge.

1 comment:

  1. And here's a limerick on determinism by Ronnie Knox -

    There was a young man who said 'Damn!
    I have suddenly found that I am
    A creature that moves
    On predestinate grooves -
    Not a bus, as one hoped, but a tram.'

    He said later that he didn't remember writing it, but 'regretted the implied betrayal of the Birmingham tram system' (one of his early enthusiasms).