Housman on How to Become a Scholar

“It will be noted that Housman’s work in the years immediately preceding his escape from the Patent Office had been as much on Greek poetry as on Latin, and that, though he had expressed a preference for the chair of Latin, he had contemplated also that of Greek. He was once asked why, when his early work had been so impartially distributed between the two languages, he had ceased to write about Greek; his reply was ‘I found I could not attain to excellence in both.’ Excellence, as Housman used the word and exhibited the quality, involved so complete a mastery of the tools of scholarship that by the side of his the work of other scholars tends to look amateurish; and that mastery demands unremitting labor. ‘A scholar’, he wrote in his memoir of Platt, ‘who means to build himself a monument must spend much of his life in acquiring knowledge which for its own sake is not worth having and in reading books which do not in themselves deserve to be read.’ And if excellence is to be judged by such standards as these, it is certainly doubtful whether one man can any longer attain it in the two languages.”

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