Quote of the moment: Housman, “accuracy a duty” in history

Poet A. E. Housman, with a book - Bryn Mawr College photo

Poet A. E. Housman in 1910, portrait photo by E. O. Hoppé

. . . accuracy is a duty and not a virtue.

A. E. Housman, English poet (1859-1936), Manilius (The Richards Press, 1930), p. xxii ll. 27 sqq


Google the phrase “accuracy is a duty” plus Housman.* You will get several dozen hits.

Historians are fond of citing it, though I suspect that few have actually read Housman’s version of the line. The idea is that historians should not get kudos for accuracy, because in their trade, accuracy is not a virtue, but instead is the baseline duty. Housman arrived at that conclusion in comparing versions of translations of Manilius, and he made the comment in the preface to fifth volume of his own translation of the works of Roman poet Marcus Manilius. Housman’s five volumes were published between 1903 and 1930.

The full quote lacks the punch of the usual truncations, however. The Housman Society in Britain was kind to track down the precise quote and the citation.

p. xxii ll. 27 sqq. I did not quote Brechart’s accuracy, because accuracy is a duty and not a virtue; but if I could have seen the shameful carelessness’ of Breiter and van Wageningen I should have said with emphasis, as I do now, that he was very accurate indeed.

Admit it — like me you were probably unaware that Housman had ever translated Manilius. Perhaps you were unaware that Manilius existed (don’t ask me to recite anything he wrote).
Historians have this further problem: Housman probably was talking about the accuracy of the translation, not accuracy in recording history.

One more quote that has been dragooned into duty in fields unrelated to its usual use. Got a problem with that?

The statement is good advice in every field I can think of.

Update: Go see Elektratrig’s report of Housman’s send-up of Greek tragedy. Well worth the click, just for edification.

*  And if you check it now, you’ll see the search is skewed by this very post; it’s the Heisenberg Principle of the internet.

9 Responses to Quote of the moment: Housman, “accuracy a duty” in history

  1. Geoffrey says:

    By accuracy he meant that all citations, dates, references, punctuation, etc., had to be absolutely right. If you stated as a fact something that wasn’t a fact, eg that he translated Manilius, he had a much stronger word!


  2. Geoffrey says:

    To fill out my previous comment, Housman did not write a translation of Manilius, but five volumes of line-by-line commentary in Latin, with many citations in Greek. The only existing /English translations at that time were in verse, so not exact.


  3. Geoffrey Plowden says:

    Housman did not translate Manilius or comment on other translations of him.


  4. Jackie says:

    Well, I had to revisit ol’ AE Housman after this post. And I could not picture him, at a laptop, editing:
    Quote from poem (Terence, This is Stupid Stuff):
    Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
    I’d face it as a wise man would,
    And train for ill and not for good.
    ‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
    —I tell the tale that I heard told.
    Mithridates, he died old.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Ol’ Hickory said we could take ’em by surprise
    If we didn’t fire a musket ’til we looked ’em in the eyes.
    We waited ’til we seen their faces purty well,
    Then we opened up our squirrel guns and really gave ’em hell!

    Uh, Fritz? Is there any connection between Johnny Horton and A. E. Housman?


  6. Fritz says:

    “In 1814 we took a little trip
    Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
    We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
    And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

    We fired our guns and the British kept a’comin.
    There wasn’t nigh as many as there was a while ago.
    We fired once more and they began to runnin’ on
    Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”


  7. bernarda says:

    Wingnuttery has its own version of history. Uberwingnut Jonah Goldberg has committed a book about the history of “liberal fascism”. Who are these fascists for Goldberg? Why women teachers!

    “The quintessential liberal fascist isn’t an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade-school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.”



  8. Jackie says:

    Another reason to love Mr. Housman. I only knew him as a favored poet, which I still read. Thanks for another angle on this wonderful man.


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