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I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Mr. A.E. Housman in the Summer of 1927. I spent two hours with him, and before that I had been to the home of Thomas Hardy. Mr. Hardy told me how much he thought of Housman, before I visited Housman; and Housman was a frequent visitor at the Hardy home. Their ideas of life were very much alike; they were what the orthodox people and the Rotary Clubs would call pessimistic. They didn't live on pipe dreams; they took the universe as they found it, and man as they found him. They tried to see what beauty there was in each of them, but didn't close their eyes to the misery and maladjustments of either the universe or man, because they ware realists, honest, thorough, and fearless.
Hardy himself had received the censure of all the good people of England and the world, who, in spite of that, bought his books. They all condemned him when he wrote his 'Tess;' so he determined not to write any more prose. He thought that people probably were not intelligent enough to appreciate him; certainly not his viewpoint, and he didn't wish to waste his time on them.
Housman's viewpoint is much the same, as all of you know. He has written very little. You can read all he has written in two hours, and less than that; but everything is exquisitely finished. met him he was in his study in Cambridge. He is a professor of Latin. I can't Imagine anything more useless than that -- unless it be Greek! He has been called the greatest Latin scholar in the world, and he seemed to take some pride in his Latin; not so much in his poetry. He said he didn't write poetry except when he felt he had to, it was always hard work for him, although some of the things he wrote very quickly; but as a rule he spent a great deal of time on most of them. I asked him if it was true that the latest little volume was what it is entitled -- 'Last Poems.' He said he thought it was true; that it had been published as his last poems in 1922 -- five years before -- and he had only written four lines since: so he thought that would probably be the last. Upon my asking him to recite the four lines, he said he had forgotten them.
Both Hardy and Housman, and of course Omar, believed that man is rather small in comparison with the universe, or even with the earth; they didn't believe in human responsibility, in free will, in a purposeful universe, in a Being who watched over and cared for the people of the world. It is evident that if He does, He makes a poor job of It! Neither Hardy nor Housman had any such delusions. They took the world as they found it and never tried to guess at its origin. They took man as they found him and didn't try to build castles for him after be was dead. They were essentially realists, both of them; and of course long before them Omar had gone over the same field. It is hardly fair to call the Rubaiyat the work of Omar Khayyam. I have read a good many different editions and several different versions. I never read it in Persian, in which it was first written, but I have read not only poetical versions but prose ones. Justin McCarthy brought out a translation a number of years ago which was supposed to be a literal translation of Omar's book. There is no resemblance between that book and the classic under his name that was really written by FitzGerald. There is nothing very remarkable about the Omar Khayyam as found in Justin McCarthy's translation. It is probably ten times as expansive as the one we have, and no one would recognize it from the FitzGerald edition. The beauty of the Rubaiyat is Edward FitzGerald's. He evidently was more or less modest or else he wanted to do great homage to Omar, because no one would ever have suspected that Omar had any more to do with the book than they would have suspected Plato. But, under the magic touch of FitzGerald, it is not only one of the wisest and most profound pieces of literature in the world, but one of the most beautiful productions that the world has ever known.
I remember reading somewhere that when this poem was thrown on the market in London, a long time ago, nobody bought it. They finally put it out in front of the shop in the form in which it was printed and sold it for a penny. One could make more money by buying those books at a penny and selling them now than he could make with a large block of Standard Oil! It took a long while for Omar and FitzGerald to gain recognition, which makes it rather comfortable for the rest of us who write books to give away, and feel happy when somebody asks us for one, although we suspect they will never read them. But we all think we will be discovered sometime. Some of us hope so and some are fearful that they will be. Neither Omar nor FitzGerald believed in human responsibility. That is the rock on which most religions are founded, and all laws -- that everybody is responsible for his conduct; that if he is good he is good because he deliberately chooses to be good, and if he is bad it is pure cussedness on his part -- nobody had anything to do with it excepting himself. If he hasn't free will, why, he isn't anything! The English poet Henley, in one of his poems, probably expressed this about as well as anybody. It looks to me as if he had a case of the rabies or something like that. But people are fond of repeating it. In his brief poem about Fate he says:
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.