restricted access A Scholar’s Essays. A review of Nine Essays, by Arthur Platt, with a preface by A. E. Housman
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[ 283 A Scholar’s Essays A review of Nine Essays, by Arthur Platt, with a preface by A. E. Housman Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1927. Pp. xviii + 220. The Times Literary Supplement, 1343 (27 Oct 1927) 757 John Arthur Platt was born in London in 1860, and died in Bournemouth in 1925.1 From Harrow he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, of which college he became a Fellow, as had been his father and grandfather. He lost this Fellowship by marriage, spent several years in coaching, and finally became Professor of Greek in University College, London. In this post he died. These are the fewest facts about the author of these essays, and we learn them from Professor Housman’s preface. Indeed, this preface alone would be worth notice even if the essays were not; a preface by Mr. Housman is an event. Comparatively few people know that the author of the Shropshire Lad and Professor of Latin at Cambridge University is one of the finest prose writers of our time.2 Those who have the felicity to know his prefaces to certain Latin texts which he has edited have had a pleasure, like that of old port, in his masterly, witty, controversial talent: the preface to this book shows Mr. Housman to be equally accomplished in eulogy. It is short, but several passages are worth quoting, though they cannot show the grace, distinction and tact of the preface as a whole. Of the occasions which provoked these essays – they were all addresses to societies – he says: University College, London, like many other colleges, is the abode of a Minotaur. This monster does not devour youths and maidens: it consists of them, and it preys for choice on the Professors within its reach. It is called a Literary Society, and in hopes of deserving the name it exacts a periodical tribute from those whom it supposes to be literate. . . . Platt, whose temper made him accessible, whose pen ran easily, and whose mind was richly stored, paid more of this blackmail than most of his colleagues , and grudged it less; but the fact is not to be concealed that these unconstrained and even exuberant essays were written to order. [vi] 1927 284 ] No more tactful, disarming and yet wholly just preparation could be given us. Again, of Platt’s residence near Regent’s Park Mr. Housman says: Nearer to his house he made another circle of friends. He was a Fellow of the Zoological Society, frequented its Gardens, and inspired a romantic passion in their resident population. There was a leopard which at Platt’s approach would almost ooze through the bars of its cage to establish contact with the beloved object; the gnu, if it saw him on the opposite side of its broad enclosure, would walk all the way across to have its forelock pulled; and a credible witness reports the following scene: “I remember going to the giraffe-house and seeing a crowd of children watching a man who had removed his hat while the giraffe, its neck stretched to the fullest capacity, was rubbing its head backwards and forwards upon the bald crown. When the object of this somewhat embarrassing affection turned his head Platt’s features were revealed.” [vii] After such a preface only the most austere of critics could regard Platt’s essays harshly. In reading them we are constantly reminded by small and often humorous touches that they were addresses, and good addresses. But they have the charm, the innocence, and the authority which sometimes adhere, long after, to words which were meant only for the delectation and improvement of the immediate audience, without thought of posterity or posthumous fame. They cover many subjects; and though these subjects are mostly well-thumbed, Platt always gives them a fresh dignity which seems to come rather from personality than from intellect. He had no policy, no theory; but he thoroughly enjoyed such authors as Edward FitzGerald, Aristophanes and Cervantes; when he talked of Lucian or Julian he knew what he was talking about; and his essay on Rochefoucauld, in which he alwaysselectsjusttherightquotation,isacapitalintroductiontothatauthor.3 He is never astonishing, but he is usually right. He was a man who not only had read widely but who read lovingly, intently and repeatedly what he liked. An honest man usually has intimate preferences, authors who recur to his mind, when he wants an instance, rather than other authors who would really do just as well. The authors about whom Platt...