Literary Criticism

English in the Universities

It is easy to see why the paradigms of disciplinary development outlined in Chapter 1 have played such an important role in accounts of the ‘rise of English’. Offering on the one hand an overarching vision of the ‘social mission’ of English studies, and on the other an abstraction extrapolated from other disciplines, they are attractive in their simplicity: their accounts of the subject’s development are neat, persuasive and easy to grasp. Nevertheless, this neatness can also be deceptive; and it is significant that many of the flaws contained in these paradigms stem from their tendency to remain at a distance from the day-to-day business of ‘doing English’. What these accounts do not engage with is precisely what is needed in order to bring the subject’s early years to life: the vexed and complex questions of what students were actually taught, who they were taught by and what they were expected to learn. Relatively few disciplinary historians have tried to use this kind of evidence. D. J. Palmer’s The Rise of English Studies (1965) offers what is probably the most comprehensive account of how English came to be established as a university subject, but its main focus is on how English achieved this status at Oxford, meaning that it does not explore the different ways in which English Literature was envisioned, taught and experienced elsewhere. Personal memoirs and biographical approaches have made a useful contribution to this field, but display varying degrees of tendentiousness. Stephen Potter’s The Muse in Chains (1937), an account of Potter’s own experiences as a student in the English School at Oxford, is coloured by its author’s scorn at what he disparagingly refers to as ‘Ing. Lit.’: for Potter, the institutional study of literature was to be deplored, not welcomed.1 E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Muse Unchained (1958), a response to Potter from the very different perspective of English at Cambridge, remains limited to one institution and pays little attention to wider developments in the study of English at other universities. Meanwhile, Jo McMurtry, in English Language, English Literature (1985), explores the subject’s academic history in a manner that is emphatically liberal-humanist, aiming to allow her readers to ‘communicat[e] with a part of [them]selves’ rather than offering ‘columns of figures stating how many students enrolled in what courses, in what institutions, during what years’.2 And crucially, while all four of these texts offer much that is of interest, none acknowledges the broader institutional and intellectual contexts within which the professional- isation of literary studies took place. What I hope to provide in this book is an analysis of the subject’s development that restores a sense of these broader contexts, comparing the forms English took in different institutions and relating these forms to wider debates about the nature and purpose of literary criticism. In doing this, I will focus on five English universities, selected to represent both the ancient universities and the nineteenth-century foundations that were seen as the natural home of the ‘poor man’s Classics’: Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, Nottingham and King’s College, London. Such an endeavour is itself, of course, fraught with problems. A complete picture of the experience of studying English at any place and time (of the way in which English is ‘actualised’ by both teachers and learners) is gained only through an awareness of the interactions between staff, students and texts, and the philosophies that govern them – an awareness that not even the most detailed of archival sources can provide. My attempt to grasp the richness of the subject’s past will therefore draw on a range of different sources, including primary data such as lecture lists, syllabuses and examination papers, and the secondary evidence pro- vided by personal memoirs and biographies, bearing in mind that the personal nature of such evidence may lead to distortions. While Heyck’s general framework of the professionalisation of academic life (an abstract account of institutional developments) is crucial in providing a context for my interpretation of archival material, the nature of English was also shaped by the individual contributions and philosophies of its early professors and lecturers – some trailblazing, some idiosyncratic and some profoundly mistrustful of the very subject that they were helping to establish. These contributions may have taken place in institutional settings, and been influenced by institutional concerns, but they were undoubtedly infused with the same kind of personal authority that had underwritten the work of the men of letters. It may be significant that F. R. Leavis, I. A. Richards and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the best- remembered of those early academics, were possibly those who were most adept at using their personal authority to further their critical philosophies. This approach becomes more problematic where the nineteenth- century civic foundations are involved. Those who taught English at London and the regional institutions are largely shadowy figures whose work has generated much less critical and biographical interest.

This dearth of secondary material means that the business of fleshing out the philosophies and opinions that would have shaped English at these colleges is much more a matter of conjecture. Nevertheless, what the archival material does suggest is that the course taken by English literature at the regional universities – using King’s, Nottingham and Manchester as a representative sample – was markedly different to its counterparts at Oxford and Cambridge. Moreover, these differences represent aspects of the subject’s development that cannot be elided into the familiar narrative that sees ‘the rise of English studies’ in terms of a straightforward ideological project passing directly from the ‘poor man’s Classics’ through John Churton Collins to F. R. Leavis. In my account, the discipline of English will appear as more fragmented – and more dependent on local practices and concerns – than it does in the ‘grand narratives’ discussed in Chapter 1. While this account will focus on the differences between my chosen institutions, this does not mean that similarities did not exist. In each of the early English degrees I shall consider, there are a number of common strands. One is the appearance of a recognisable canon of authors and genres, representing not only a core body of knowledge that students were expected to master but also a certain kind of difficulty that in turn represented a particular kind of value. Another, particularly in the earliest stages of the subject’s development, is a reliance on bodies of knowledge borrowed from other disciplines, providing English with an intellectual validity that helped to rescue it from the accusations of ‘nebulousness’ that formed a major part of the opposition to the study of English literature. However, in several important respects the new university colleges differed radically from Oxford and Cambridge. One of these differences lies in the system of tuition: while teaching at the new institutions was lecture-based, the tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge allowed for a more discursive and individual approach that demanded different skills and different kinds of knowledge. In addition, English was only one part of the Bachelor of Arts programmes at the new colleges, which offered a general, broadly based programme of studies. Oxford and Cambridge, with their increasing focus on English as an independent subject, offer a different kind of scope to study the

process by which it became a specialist academic discipline – and the problems that formed an inevitable part of this.
English at the new universities
Histories of the development of English have paid relatively little attention to London and the regional institutions. The new universities, when mentioned at all, tend to be cast as special agents in the subject’s ‘social mission’, spreading the benefits of a literary education to the provinces and the working classes, and encouraging the study of literature as a counterbalance to the technical and vocational subjects in which these institutions often specialised. It is true that these new institutions – including the colleges at Manchester (founded in 1851), Leeds (1874), Sheffield (1879), Birmingham (1880), Liverpool and Nottingham (both 1881), and the London colleges, University (1826) and King’s (1831) – all made some kind of provision for the study of English literature, often well before the subject was admitted into syllabuses at Oxford and Cambridge. It is also true that this provision was frequently under- pinned by an Arnoldian conception of literary culture as an antidote to the perceived philistinism of the middle classes and the demands of industrial and economic expansion. Literature was regularly depicted as a ‘humane, moralizing subject which could harmonize an otherwise anarchic profusion of “dry facts”’3: Alan Bacon has argued that the study of literature at King’s College was a vital part of the college’s anti-utilitarian stance.4 Yet accounts which focus on this rhetoric often fail to attend to the problems that occurred when supporters of English tried to convert these ideals into practice. For example, Bacon’s analysis of the origins of English at King’s emphasises the role of the Reverend Hugh James Rose in securing literature its place in the college’s curriculum, quoting Rose’s elevation of literature’s capacity to ‘correct the taste […] strengthen the judgement […and] instruct us in the wisdom of men better and wiser than ourselves’.5 Yet Rose’s conception of literary study was dominated by its moral and spiritual power: he failed to define it in epistemological terms. It was precisely this failure that was seized on by Edward Copleston, who later became part of a ‘ruling triumvirate’6 at King’s, when he objected to the importance Rose placed on the study of English: for Copleston, ‘the enjoyment of English literature’ was merely a ‘recreation’, as the skills it drew on were ‘not of [a] lengthened or systematic kind’.7 As Bacon later acknowledges, Copleston’s arguments ‘hinted at what became one of the major objections to the academic study in later debates […namely], that as a subject [English] was not sufficiently rigorous’.8 Yet what Bacon does not explain fully is how English did finally achieve its place within the syllabus at King’s. In Bacon’s account, F. D. Maurice, who became Professor of English Literature and Modern History at King’s in 1840, is credited with creating ‘a subject recognizably akin to modern English studies’,9 with King’s therefore being cast by Bacon in the role of ‘pioneer’. Yet there was still a significant gap between Maurice’s ideals and the form that English at King’s eventu- ally took. Like Rose, Maurice had great faith in the power of literature to connect its readers with ‘what is fixed and enduring’ by ‘emancipat[ing] us from that which is capricious and changeable, from the notions and habits which are peculiar to our own age’.10 However, such claims sit uneasily alongside a curriculum that was, for many decades, dominated by factual knowledge – and therefore open to the kind of ‘cramming’ that in turn undermined the college’s anti-utilitarian, anti-functionalist agenda. At King’s, the practical demands of teaching and learning appear to have meant that the ideal of spiritual renewal was a difficult goal to pursue: the study of literature was shaped instead by more mundane institutional concerns.

The study of English
The three nineteenth-century foundations analysed here have very different origins. King’s College, London, which was founded in 1831, was established as an Anglican alternative to the secular University College, founded five years earlier. It prepared students for a range of internally validated qualifications and, later, for University of London degrees, as well as entry to Oxford, Cambridge and the professions. University College, Nottingham, was founded in 1881 and granted its charter in 1903: it also entered students for University of London degrees, and offered a range of vocational courses designed to serve the region’s mining and manufacturing industries. Owens College in Manchester was founded in 1851 and later became the nucleus of the Victoria University of Manchester, a federal institution whose other constituent colleges, at Liverpool and Leeds, formed the basis of their respective cities’ universities when they were granted independence in 1903. All offered courses in English from their earliest foundations, although this was as part of a wider programme of studies rather than as an independent subject. Any attempt to study the development of English at the new university colleges is complicated by the incompleteness of the surviving evidence as to what their early degree courses would have included. The records that do exist are concerned largely with course content rather than with philosophies of teaching and learning, and this means that conclusions about pedagogical and methodological approaches – and therefore about the kinds of intellectual authority that underpinned the early forms of English at these institutions – are, at best, tentative. It is clear, nevertheless, that English would have formed only a small part of the BA course at each institution. The University of London BA, taken by students at King’s and Nottingham, offered English as an option alongside Latin, Greek, Mathematics, Logic, History, Political Economy and various modern languages, with students having to offer four subjects at Intermediate and Pass levels.11 English could also be studied on its own for Honours, which involved a further year’s study after completion of the Pass course. The University of Manchester BA allowed for a little more specialisation, with students being allowed to opt for courses that were broadly historical, classical, philosophical or literary and linguistic in character, but within these groups students still had to follow a relatively broad curriculum. The literary and linguistic course, for example, covered not only English language and literature, but also ancient and modern history, Latin, French, German and mathematics.12 The English Literature component of these courses helped to establish a model of the subject that still dominates many degree courses in English Literature today.

In this model, the literary canon was divided into a number of broad historical periods, with the syllabus for each year typically consisting of a period of literary history and the study of a number of canonical authors.13 At King’s and Nottingham, students were also examined on Anglo-Saxon, while their counterparts at Manchester studied the history of criticism.14 In 1892–3, undergraduates at King’s would have studied Anglo-Saxon, the history of English liter- ature from 1815 to 1830, Wordsworth’s ‘White Doe of Rylstone’ and Scott’s ‘Essays on Chivalry and Romance’.15 Honours students at Manchester in 1910 were examined on the outlines of English literature (a survey course running from Anglo-Saxon to the Romantics), English literature from 1558 to 1630, Shakespeare, and the history of literary criticism, as well as sitting a number of special papers.16 Assessment was generally by examination, although Manchester undergraduates had to submit a dissertation on an approved topic: exams typically lasted three hours and invited students to answer between five and seven questions.17 This historical approach helped to map the scope of literary study, defining a body of knowledge that gave English Literature its disciplinary shape. Significantly, this body of knowledge extended beyond the purely textual. Examination papers indicate that students had to gain a great deal of historical and biographical knowledge: students were invited to outline ‘the impressions which might have been made upon Chaucer by the general aspect of national affairs in the time of his early manhood’, and to explain Shakespeare’s allusions to current affairs.18 Many of the most factual questions were set by the University of London: ‘What is known of Shakspeare’s life? Carefully distinguish the facts from the fictions’; ‘Mention some of the chief public events that happened during Shakspere’s boyhood’; ‘Make a list of Pope’s chief works in chronological order, with brief descriptions.’19 In 1883, students at London were asked to comment on the significance of Baynard’s Castle, Pomfret, Chertsey, Stony Stratford and Crosby Place to Shakespeare’s history plays; in 1885, they were asked to discuss Langland’s relation to the views of Wycliffe.20 Questions were also set on the influence of various authors on their successors, on metre and rhetoric and on the definition of various technical terms.21 The ability to condense one’s knowledge was also important: one common instruction was to ‘write notes’ on a number of topics such as ‘the Interlude, the Heroic Play, the Opera, and the burlesque or satiric drama before 1800’.22 And if such formulae seem to encourage the simple ‘downloading’ of facts, this impression can only be strengthened further by questions that asked students to quote and summarise, inviting them to give an outline of any one of the Canterbury Tales or to ‘quote any passage’ from ‘Christabel’.23 There are a number of factors that help to explain this emphasis on factual knowledge. One is the limited amount of time students would have had to spend on English. It seems that most students would have attended classes in English for about two hours each week, and that these classes were effectively lectures (the fact that by 1910 Manchester’s Honours students were also expected to attend weekly seminars so that ‘subjects arising out of the English studies of the year [could be] reported on and discussed’ indicates that such discussion would not have formed part of regular classroom activities).24 If tuition time was limited, and if students had a range of subjects to master, then the straightforward knowledge of facts would have lent itself neatly to the demands of both teaching and assessment. The knowledge demanded by the questions cited above would have been relatively simple to disseminate at lectures, or to learn from the literary histories that formed the basis of students’ recommended reading.25 They would also have been quick and easy to examine. It may even be the case that those questions that did seem to invite a more personal, discursive response – ‘Describe and discuss Caliban’, ‘Show exactly why Pope fails comparatively as a writer of prose’, ‘To what extent is the great length of Hamlet necessary?’26 – could be answered by means of a set interpretation that had been learned in advance. In the absence of any Examiners’ Reports, it is difficult to judge whether what was sought was a genuinely individual response, or a regurgitation of judgements handed down in classes. It is likely that wider arguments concerning the value of certain types of knowledge also played their part. The emphasis of verifiable, factual knowledge helped English to ward off the accusations of subjectivity and ‘gossipiness’ that were often mounted by its detractors. E. A. Freeman, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, commented in 1887 that the study of literature was ‘all very well in its own way, perhaps amusing, perhaps even instructive, but […] not quite of that solid character which we were used to look for in any branch of a University course’. Instead, Freeman went on, the university ‘must have subjects in which it is possible to examine’.27 Literary history and bio- graphy were eminently examinable subjects, especially in the rather crude forms in which the early degree courses often interpreted them: questions asking students to put lists of texts in chronological order allowed no room for the kind of vagueness that English was frequently accused of showing. For English to achieve parity with other academic disciplines, it would have to demonstrate its amenability to testing; and such methods certainly rendered this possible.

The intellectual value of this kind of knowledge must be distinguished from the moral purpose that is seen by Eagleton as the central force behind the entry of English Literature into higher education syllabuses. As stated earlier, Eagleton’s interpretation of the origins of English concentrates on the importance of the traditional canon in relation to the moral functions of literary study, emphasising its perceived role in engendering ‘solidarity between the social classes, the cultivation of “larger sympathies”, the instillation of national pride and the trans- mission of “moral” values’.28 However, the factual nature of these early programmes of study, coupled with the absence of any kind of moral rhetoric in official university documents (as distinct from that which is present in the ‘metadiscourses’ offered by figures such as John Churton Collins and F. D. Maurice), suggests that the canon and the knowledge associated with it were important for markedly different reasons. It is useful at this point to consider the analysis of canon-formation carried out by John Guillory. Guillory argues that the wider ‘capital’ represented by the canon is more important than the narrower sense in which the canon is usually analysed, in which the ideological content of those texts included and excluded by the traditional canon is brought under scrutiny. For Guillory, points of change in the education system are crucial to understanding the kinds of value that are being promoted. One such point is represented by the evolution of the vernacular canon in the eighteenth century, an event that saw educationalists trying to negotiate the gap between what Raymond Williams has termed ‘residual’ and ‘emergent’ cultural formations: in this case, the classical learning of the traditional elite and the desire for an alternative vernacular education shown by the new middle classes. Guillory states that this negotiation was achieved through the use of poems which preserved a sense of the traditional learning (and hence the ‘cultural capital’) of the elite – such as Gray’s Elegy, whose normalising of classical and Renaissance sources lent it an ‘immediate but sophisticated accessibility’.29 Guillory’s analysis focuses on a much earlier period than the one considered here, but raises ideas that are relevant to the development of English in the universities. The writers who featured most heavily in university syllabuses were poets and essayists, with a familiar canon whose mainstays included Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, Pope, Dryden, Addison, Gibbon and Johnson. More specifically, most of the poets studied were writers whose work drew on classical, Biblical and folkloric sources, meaning that students could be examined on both the poets’ own work, and their knowledge of the texts from which they borrowed. Meanwhile, questions on essayists frequently tested a knowledge of history and philosophical thought. This presented students with an additional body of knowledge and an extra level of ‘difficulty’: the texts in question could not be read on a transparent, personal level but needed to be seen against the background of their sources and the ideas on which they drew. On a simpler level, there is also a sense in which poetry as a genre possesses a kind of difficulty that sets it apart from prose: metre and versification offer themselves as a definite field for analysis in a way that the more diffuse-seeming language of prose does not. As Guillory goes on to explain in his analysis of the New Criticism, such difficulties possess a kind of ‘cultural capital’ ‘by virtue of imparting to cultural objects a certain kind of rarity; the very difficulty of apprehending them’.30 While the sustained analytical skills of close reading had not yet gained the emphasis that would be placed on them in the 1930s and later, the existence of questions on metre and poetic diction in exams at both London and Manchester31 suggests that the ability to analyse the language of poetry was part of the package of skills that students of literature were expected to acquire. Such factors help to explain the nature of both the particular body of knowledge that was central to the earliest English degrees, and the practices used to study it, which employed the methods and techniques of other disciplines and practices (history, Classics, text-editing) to produce further kinds of knowledge that could be learned and assessed. Never- theless, such methods were not exhaustive. Some elements of the new degrees drew on forms of knowledge not produced by the methods outlined above – namely, the judgements implied by questions such as ‘Compare or contrast Beatrice and Benedick as wits and humorists’ and ‘What do you consider the real importance of Spenser in English liter- ature?’.32 However, the evidence that is available suggests that the development of individual judgement was not considered a priority, and that the judgements students were expected to discuss were actually made by others, transmitted to students through lectures and reading and reproduced by them in examinations. If this was indeed the case, then the effect of this is that the subject’s methodology is reduced to little more than rote-learning, with the process of making judgements being placed implicitly beyond the student’s grasp. This commodification of knowledge was, in fact, part of the general character of university life in the nineteenth century, and a factor that eventually played its part in the reform of the tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge. Heyck sees the ancient universities’ focus on examinations as reflecting the wider ideals of industry and seriousness that were current in the nineteenth century, providing the student body with a measure of discipline and emphasising the value of hard work and productivity.33 On the other hand, this emphasis on examinations was also blamed for narrowing the syllabus and encouraging students to ‘cram’, rather than to acquire a genuine understanding of their subjects. In 1878, Alfred Barry, a former Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, warned that a truly liberal education should value the ‘general culture of the human character’, rather than simply the ability to pass exams.34 At Oxford and Cambridge, such concerns led individual colleges to develop new methods of tuition that included individual supervisions and the adoption of the dialogic or ‘catechetical’ style of teaching.35 But at the new universities, the focus on factual knowledge appears to have persisted. The practical expediency of such an approach may have been crucial in securing its continuing importance, with the transfer of facts being the only realistic means of instruction and assessment available to lecturers with limited amounts of time. Another explanation may lie in the nature of the new institutions and their student constituencies. Institutional and departmental aims and charters reflect the new colleges’ intention of providing technical and vocational education and educating students for entry into the professions, and it is likely that many of their students would have been motivated by the same aims, enrolling for vocational reasons rather than pursuing knowledge for its own sake. King’s College and Manchester both intended to prepare students for entrance to professional careers. The Department of General Literature and Science at King’s stated that its purpose was ‘to prepare Students (1) for the Universities, Holy Orders, the Bar, and other professions, (2) for the Indian Civil Service, (3) for the examinations for admission to Woolwich and Sandhurst, (4) for Direct Commissions, and (5) for appointments in the Civil Service of Her Majesty’s Government at home, and in the Colonies’.36 The Arts course offered by Owens College before its incorporation into the Victoria University of Manchester was ‘suitable to persons preparing for the learned professions, to those who contemplate offering themselves as candidates for the Civil Appointments of Her Majesty’s Government, and to persons whose aims in educatio
n are general rather than specific’.37 The aims of University College, Nottingham, were rather more abstract, and included the intention to ‘establish classes at which the working men of Nottingham might have advantages offered to them for becoming instructed in those subjects which are most important to them as workmen, as fathers of families, and as sharers in the political power of the country’.38 Arguably, the desire of Owens College to provide for a ‘general’ education and of Nottingham to enable working men to share in the country’s political power do encompass the transmission of cultural heritage that is often associated with the study of literature in the civic universities. Nevertheless, all three institutions also placed a strong emphasis on utility; and this may have presented a problem for disciplines which (like English) did not lead directly to any recognisable end or profession. English had to avoid charges of uselessness, as well as of frivolity.

In order to escape these charges, it would have been extremely important for students of English to be able to demonstrate that in the course of their studies, they had also acquired a body of transferable skills that would prepare them for the demands of certain careers. If the new English graduates could learn facts, paraphrase and summarise, and quote accurately, they would certainly fulfil this need, justifying their decision to spend part of their degree on a subject that had little else to demonstrate in the way of practical utility. The new universities, then, appear to have been the home of a version of literary study that emphasised factual knowledge rather than the process of judgement and analysis implied by the activity of ‘literary criticism’. As a result, the role they played in the development of academic English needs careful assessment. They undoubtedly helped to raise the profile of English literature as an area of study and educated future generations of teachers (a role which, as we shall see, was given much emphasis by John Churton Collins in his campaign on behalf of English at Oxford). They also helped to define the basic shape of English by consolidating its canon and establishing the chronologically based form of its typical degree course, drawing on the conceptual framework offered by literary history. However, their contribution to the develop- ment of literary criticism seems to have been much smaller. At the new institutions, criticism appears to have been neither explicitly theorised nor particularly welcomed.

9 thoughts on “English in the Universities

  1. There is a place where you can travel through historic places immortalized in literary works. …

  2. My piece now updated to take in his attack on English literature, and why it’s (again) just plain dishonest: http:/…

  3. The world would be a better place if everyone did something they were as passionate about as Mooberry is about literature

  4. Time’s millennials story misses a key point from the academic literature: Generational cohesion may not exist at all.

  5. Lol 😛 RT”: Pornography is literature designed to be read with one hand. -Angela Lambert

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