Housman built his career as a scholar on the textual criticism of Latin poetry. Even our earliest manuscripts of ancient poetry are separated from their authors by many centuries; the texts have been copied again and again from generations of exemplars that have long been lost. The work of the textual critic is to reconstruct the original text from the conflicting evidence of the manuscripts and, where the manuscripts do not help, by force of imagination. Housman exemplified a school of thought which holds that the text of Propertius not only has localised problems; it also exhibits large-scale dislocation of couplets from their original position and places where couplets are obviously missing. Housman’s early work as a scholar made his name, but it was not widely known beyond specialists until Tom Stoppard’s brilliant dramatisation in The Invention of Love of the young Housman’s struggle with Propertius: ‘He’s difficult – tangled-up thoughts, or, anyway, tangled-up Latin – ’.
Jan Ziolkowski has recently observed that there are surprisingly few echoes of Propertius in Housman’s own poetry. Indeed, they share very few themes in common. Housman’s melancholic reflections on the passage of time and his evocation of the countryside as a place of lost innocence have strong echoes of Horace, Tibullus and Vergil; but Propertius is a poet of the city, of elegant salons and urban decadence. When Propertius and Cynthia go to the countryside, they are fish out of water. Housman spent much of his life working the text of Manilius, a poet he considered deeply mediocre, but that was not his view of Propertius, despite their difference in outlook. Rather, as Stoppard has seen, Housman’s work on Propertius is linked with his own poetry on a deeper level: they both stand as quixotic efforts to resist and repair the passage of time. Not infrequently, however, his struggle with the forces of decay turned into a struggle with Propertius himself. Where Housman sees nonsense, others would see those genuine aspects of Propertius’ style that Pound