Literary Criticism

Critics and Professors

In the last chapter, we saw that a number of models of English were starting to emerge from the earliest degree courses, as staff in the new university departments tried to decide what kind of academic syllabus would be most appropriate to the study of English literature. Wallace Martin has identified three distinct conceptual structures as dominating these early courses – the historical, philological and classical conceptions of literary study1 – and these structures are clearly supported by the archival research outlined in Chapter 2. The new institutions repre- sented by King’s, Nottingham and Manchester were the home of a version of literary study that was dominated by remembered historical facts, while the early course at Oxford had been philological in content. At Cambridge, meanwhile, Quiller-Couch had promoted a version of English that emphasised the continuum between classical and modern civilisations, centring on the power of culture to communicate a humane understanding of life. More importantly, however, the Cambridge Tripos had also initiated a belief in the centrality of individual judgement and argument that attempted to address the problem of enabling the discipline of English Literature to gain independence from other, related subjects. The concep- tual structures outlined above, particularly history and philology, succeeded in making English examinable, but they did not help to make the study of literature an independent academic subject. Philology focused attention on the linguistic properties of Anglo-Saxon and medieval texts, approaching the study of language in a systematic and objective manner. A historical method of organisation gave English a clear chrono- logical shape, and therefore provided a convenient outline for degree courses to follow. However, it often resorted to a reliance on categories of factual knowledge that were not strictly ‘literary’, treating the text as

simply another kind of historical document. A classical philosophy, meanwhile, restored a sense of the ‘literariness’ of the text but demanded (as at Oxford) that students make a preliminary study of Classics before progressing to English, casting English literature in a subsidiary role. In order for English to be truly independent, it would need to be seen in terms of a self-sufficient body of knowledge with a methodology of its own. Quiller-Couch’s vision of the English Tripos as a vehicle for the encouragement of evaluation and debate, rather than the mere accretion of factual knowledge, was a sign that this new methodology was begin- ning to emerge; but the nature of this vision – and its timing – raise a number of questions that need to be examined. These questions focus on a broader set of changes (themselves part of the trend towards specialisation) that had taken place in literary criticism during the nine- teenth century, and concern the ways in which the activity of criticism was theorised and explained, both for fellow practitioners and for the wider reading public. In the mid-nineteenth century, according to Laurel Brake, the terms ‘critic’ and ‘criticism’ functioned in much the same way as the contemporary terms ‘reviewer’ and ‘review’, with their connotations of generalist writers, general audiences and subjective judgements.2 In the second half of the century, the concept of ‘criticism’ became more specialised, with many critics embarking on attempts to define their role through ‘articles in which they grope their way through problems of identity, method and language’.3 Leslie Stephen, for example, heralded the prospect of a more rigorous critical method in the Cornhill Magazine in 1877, stating that
though criticism cannot boast of being a science, it ought to aim at something like a scientific basis, or at least to proceed in a scientific spirit. The critic, therefore, before abandoning himself to the oratorical impulse, should endeavour to classify the phenomena with which he is dealing as calmly as if he were ticketing a fossil in a museum. The most glowing eulogy, the most bitter denunciation have their proper place; but they belong to the art of persuasion, and form no part of scientific method.4
Such definitions suggest that a more rigorous, specialised form of criticism had begun to emerge well before the foundation of the Cambridge Tripos. Furthermore, the popularity of volumes of collected critical essays, such as Leslie Stephen’s Hours in a Library (1874) and George Saintsbury’s Miscellaneous Essays (1892), also hints that there was a readership for criticism that treated such essays as more than just occasional writing. Yet if criticism was becoming a more specialised activity, with practi- tioners who sought to give it an increasingly scientific rationale and methodology, why had it not been included in any of the degree courses that were founded before 1917? If the reasons for its exclusion were so persuasive, why was it that Quiller-Couch was able to give it such a central role in the English course at Cambridge? And was the English Tripos successful in establishing a different kind of conceptual structure for the study of English: did it solve the problems associated with making literary criticism part of an academic discipline? The next three chapters will attempt to address these questions by setting the development of these early English degrees in the context of wider debates about the function of literature and the nature of the reading process. These debates will include, specifically, the issue of criticism’s role in bringing about social and spiritual harmony, developed in detail in the work of Matthew Arnold; the belief in the importance of aesthetic experience that was formulated by Walter Pater; and the insistence on the difficulty of understanding ‘high’ culture that formed an important element of Modernist philosophy. My decision to focus on Arnold requires some explanation, given my earlier acknowledgement of the misgivings about Arnold’s status within the disciplinary history of English that have been raised by Franklin Court. While I endorse court’s view that Arnold has been ‘dehistoricised’, to some extent, by political interpretations of the subject’s history, Arnold is nevertheless a crucial figure: in drawing attention to the role of criticism within society, he raised the profile of both literary criticism and literary critics. Later in the century, Walter Pater performed a similar function, drawing attention to the intellectual rigour involved in the critical process. On a number of other points – as I shall discuss later in this chapter – Arnold and Pater differed radically. Even so, what they shared with each other – and with the Modernists – was a belief that the critical process was essentially unteachable, and this similarity is crucial to the next phase of my discussion. In the next two chapters, I will argue that the central problem facing literary criticism was the fact that the rationalism sought by Leslie Stephen – that of a discipline motivated by a ‘scientific spirit’ – was by no means universally accepted or practised: that debates about literary criticism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were problematised by continually-contested perceptions of what criticism was, what it was supposed to achieve and who was best equipped to carry it out. The philosophies of Arnold, Pater and the Modernists stood at odds with the need to define a paradigm for the study of English as a systematic and clearly defined academic discipline. Nevertheless, they also helped to shape an important philoso- phy of resistance that was embraced by many critics and academics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Put simply, this philosophy rested on the paradoxical belief that while criticism was important enough to warrant a place within the universities, it also rested on special qualities that set it apart from other academic disciplines. As a result, it did not need to fulfil the same criteria as other subjects: if it were to be restricted to these criteria alone, a large part of its ‘special- ness’ would be lost.

10 thoughts on “Critics and Professors

  1. Steampunk furries! Any good literature out there? I have a good idea brewing in the old noggin & would like some guidance.

  2. Coming out of an exam and then having to learn 9 literature reviews for tomorrow morning’s one.

  3. Looking forward to tweetchat w/Michael Schellenberg Wed May 15 2-3pm on Ontario Arts Council literature…

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