Housman’s Contempt for Jowett

A.E. Housman is famous for three things: his scholarship, his poetry, and his scorn. He directed his venomous criticism at countless people over the years, but one of the early targets of his youth was Benjamin Jowett:

“The Regius Professor of Greek throughout Housman’s time was Jowett, and from the single lecture of Jowett’s which he attended, Housman came away disgusted by the Professor’s disregard for the niceties of scholarship.” [A.S.F. Gow, A.E. Housman: A Sketch (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press) p.5]

In his review of Gow’s book, G.L. Hendrickson circulates a rather embarrassing story about Jowett:

“The story is current in Oxford, I am told, that the particular offense of the Regius Professor was a false quantity, that cardinal crime of English tradition, the pronunciation of ἀκριβῶς, which from the English habit of applying Latin rules to Greek pronunciation yielded a monstrosity…” [G. L. Hendrickson, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 58, No. 4 (1937), pp. 463]

This is not the only instance of Housman’s contempt for Jowett, who produced translations of Plato’s works, as well as a large commentary on The Republic. Housman noted of Jowett’s Platonic endeavours:

“Jowett’s Plato: the best translation of a Greek philosopher which has ever been executed by a person who understood neither philosophy nor Greek.” [C.O. Brink, English Classical Scholarship (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1986), p. 130]

In a more poetical vein, the following rhyme was popularly circulated when Jowett was Master of Balliol College:

“Here come I, my name is Jowett.
All there is to know I know it.
I am Master of this College,
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge!”

Benjamin Jowett by Sir Leslie Ward

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