David and Goliath at Trinity

"I am a Cyrenaic or egoist hedonist, and regard the pleasure of the moment as the only possible motive of action." -- A.E. Housman

Housman was a poet and a scholar, and was often called the greatest Latinist of his age. This might almost be considered run-of-the-mill for a student who had read Literae Humaniores, or Greats, at St. John's College, Oxford; not so run-of-the-mill however, for a student who had failed his final examinations. Housman failed to graduate, having not done enough work on the syllabus and producing work on philosophical topics "so ludicrously bad as to show that he had not made any effort", as one lecturer said of him.

Freshmen at Oxford were required to take part in a matriculation ceremony. Housman was amusingly insulting about the Vice-Chancellor's so-called "superior scholarship", remarking upon a document he had been handed at the ceremony that it was "written in Latin, or what passes for Latin at Oxford."

Housman's amused contempt and elaborate sarcasm did not stop at his peers either. On being described by a colleague as the greatest living Latin scholar, Housman retorted "Well, if I were, he would not know it". 

Housman's wit was caustic and he could be severe, but he was also shy and taciturn. In his work he was punctilious; accuracy, he believed, being a duty not a virtue. In appearance it was said of him that he looked as if he came from a long line of maiden aunts. 

Whilst a don at Cambridge University, Housman shared a staircase at Trinity College with Ludwig Wittgenstein. In many respects, the poet and the philosopher were not unalike, both of them austere in their intellect. One of Housman's ex-students reports

The philosopher Wittgenstein, who had rooms above Housman, had no private lavatory; Housman had. Wittgenstein had to go downstairs and cross Whewell's Court to find one. Once, when Wittgenstein had an attack of diarrhoea, he asked through his bedmaker if he might make use of Housman's lavatory. ... the answer came back that Housman was a philosophical hedonist, and [he] refused Wittgenstein's request. 

One of the twentieth century's greatest philosophers, refused the use of his loo by one of the twentieth century's greatest classicists. 

 Sources: Alan Bennett, Writing Home; Richard Perceval Graves, A.E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet

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