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A.E. Housman's Fragment of a Greek Tragedy

A historical note, and the first version of the text


Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) is best known for his collection of love and nature poetry A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896. He was also a classical scholar, being Kennedy Professor of Latin at Cambridge from 1911-1936, most notably working on the Astronomica of Manilius. Fragment of a Greek Tragedy is an early work, published in his old school magazine The Bromsgrovian in 1883.

A revised version appeared in The Cornhill Magazine in 1901. This is the version which is most widely known, being published again in The Yale Review in 1928, and is also posted on James O'Donnell's site at the University of Georgetown.

The original version is posted here, so a textual comparison may be made. It was re-published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1946 by Alfred's brother Laurence, who preferred it to the more polished revision.



The parody wittily captures many features of tragic style, and particularly the grandiloquent weight or onkos of Aeschylean language. The spoken lines, which in tragedy would be iambic trimeter blank verse (six units of short and long syllables), are composed in iambic pentameter (five units of weak and strong stress), the most common metre of English blank verse (used by Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton). Aristotle (Poetics 1449a24-5) regarded the iambic as the rhythm naturally suited to speaking.

Rhetoricians may notice the use of tropes including periphrasis, catachresis, hypostatsis, and paralepsis. Students of tragedy will notice many semi-quotations: I see references to Agamemnon 52, 495, 1059, 1130, 1343; Choephoroi 22ff, 175; Prometheus 589ff; Sophocles' Electra 733 and 1444, Ajax 309, and I'm sure the Bacchae is in there too.


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