The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Jennifer Ingleheart
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Particularly in these times of separation and missing those who are dear to us (and in my chronic insomnia), I find myself turning over and over to an act of classical reception, two poems by A. E. Housman, More Poems X and XI (‘The weeping Pleiads wester’ and ‘The rainy Pleaids wester’).
These are his responses to a fragment supposed to be by Sappho, fr. adesp. 976 P. M. G, which I would translate as: ‘The moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is the middle of the night, the hours are passing by, and I lie down to sleep alone’.
The Housman poems and some other versions of the Sapphic poem can be found here.
When did you first come across these poems?
I ‘discovered’ Housman when I was maybe aged 13. His themes of unhappy love, loss, nature, and sorrow – and his homoeroticism – immediately spoke to my teenage self. I wasn’t then consciously aware of the homoerotic nature of his poems and of my attraction to them, nor of the fact that Housman was a professional classicist, but I loved his poems then and I have ever since, more and more as time goes by.
Can you tell me a bit about these poems and their context?
These are typical Housman poems in many ways: they contain beautiful and sometimes archaic language, and great musicality, and they convey a lot of feeling. They are also apparently very simple, but mask great complexity. They’re also typical of his classical engagement in his verse, in that they are multifaceted and subtle in the way in which they respond to antiquity. And they concern, like so many of his poems, his unrequited love for his best friend, Moses Jackson.
What is it about these poems that appeals to you most?
My first research was on Latin love poetry, and verse about love (particularly unrequited love) remains one of my favourite things in Classics. But what most appeals about these poems is the way in which Housman is so clearly responding to, and expanding, the homoerotic yearning and misery that are only hinted at in the Sapphic original, setting himself in a tradition of queer people who have found in Sappho both an ancestor and some comfort.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Walking in nature has always cheered me up immensely. As do friends, tea, music, the sea, novels (preferably novels with no connection to the classical world, although I find classical reception sneaks into my leisure reading despite my best efforts), and beer.
Jennifer Ingleheart is Professor of Latin and (currently) Head of Department at Durham University’s Department of Classics and Ancient History. When not reading emails or spreadsheets, she would like to be reading ancient love poetry and thinking about how the modern world has responded to ancient ‘homosexuality’. She is working on a book project on A. E. Housman.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.