One of the most fascinating, and frustrating, footnotes I’ve ever come across—to my mind, one of the most beguiling footnotes in English literature—is found in A. E. Housman’s “The Name and Nature of Poetry,” a lecture he delivered at Cambridge in 1933. As its title suggests, the lecture was speculative and broad-ranging, and hence was a departure for Housman, who repeatedly called himself “no literary critic” and who usually restricted his lectures to tightly focused examinations of classical texts, about which he spoke, according to one of his students, in a “level, impassive voice … without enthusiasm but with an athletic spareness.” By temperament a surpassingly wary and punctilious man, Housman had profound reservations about presenting to the public anything that might resemble breezy, insupportable...


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