Literary Criticism

Literary history: Scholarship and narrative

The personal forms of authority to which these professors clung stand at an ironic distance from the courses outlined in Chapter 2, in which the factual bodies of knowledge associated with the text’s language, sources and historical background offered themselves as a ready solution to the problem of how literary knowledge could be taught and examined. As we have seen, such knowledge soon became central to the emerging discipline of English, a discipline that was very different from the way it was envisaged in the rhetoric of early supporters such as Hugh James Rose (at King’s) and John Churton Collins (at Oxford). This factual knowledge was codified and elaborated upon in a range of publications, many of which were written by staff of the new English departments and aimed at a student audience. Two genres that underwent a particular expansion at this time were literary history and literary biography. Both genres helped to contribute to the body of knowledge drawn upon by the new English degrees. They also had the potential to draw on the methods and practices that were being established in history proper, such as an emphasis on documentary sources and the systematic collection and referencing of evidence. As a result, their authors were able to claim for themselves the professional authority that was associated with a command of specialist knowledge and methodology. Such a command was clearly valued by many writers and editors of literary biography. One series of biographical studies, the ‘Great Writers Series’ established by Eric S. Robertson in 1887, drew attention to its adoption of scholarly methods in listing its main features as ‘a chronicle of the chief events in a famous author’s life […] a critical history of that author’s works […] a full bibliography of these works; and [. . .] an analytical Table of Contents, that will summarize the biography on a new plan’.60 Edmund Gosse’s 1882 study of Thomas Gray, his contribution to the ‘English Men of Letters’ series published by Macmillan, paid meticulous attention to the details of Gray’s career at Cambridge and the composition and publication of his poems, including dates and financial particulars: Gosse also included a Prefatory Note in which he listed his sources, acknowledged the various holders of Gray’s manuscripts and reviewed the available editions of his works.Similar conventions of referencing and bibliography are also apparent in the work of the literary historian W. J. Courthope. In A History of English Poetry (1895), Courthope paid meticulous attention to the sourcing of texts and the quoting of other authorities, using footnotes and specifying dates and editions. Courthope was also careful to explain aspects of his terminology, such as his classification of pre-Renaissance texts as ‘Early English Literature’; to supply translations of passages quoted in the original; and to clarify his elucidation of metrical patterns.62 Such tech- niques reflect a growing concern for objectivity and the verifiability of evidence, and indicate that Courthope was keen for his methods to be transparent: his Preface records his intention to draw on the methods being established in the social sciences, and to ensure that scholarly accuracy was allowed to take precedence over the ‘personal sympathy and intuition’ of contemporary aesthetics.63 Courthope’s treatment of the works and authors included in his text reflects a similar emphasis on analysis over narrative. His decision to trace particular movements within the literary tradition rather than analysing authors in isolation leads him to carry out a detailed examin- ation of topics such as the metrical patterns of the chansons de geste, the tradition of the scop in Anglo-Saxon heroic verse, the influence of Pagan mythology on early English literature, and connections between allegory and drama. When canonical writers do appear, they are dealt with in terms of facts rather than in the laudatory, anecdotal judge- ments present in the work of the men of letters. Chaucer’s career, for example, is recounted in meticulous detail, with attention given to the publishing history of his works and the provenance of some of the translations credited to him: of the Romaunt de la Rose, for instance, we are told that ‘Chaucer himself says that he translated it in his youth; but there is no external evidence to show that the translation included by Stowe in his works was made by him, while the omission of the piece from Shirley’s MS. and from Thynne’s edition raises a presumption against its authenticity.’64 While Courthope’s only academic role was that of the honorary post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford, his scrupulous recording and dating of factual events, along with the attention paid to sources and references, exemplifies the professional authority that stems from a command of a specialist subject area and the methodology that accompanies this. Nevertheless, while many literary histories and biographies drew on similar kinds of evidence and similar techniques, others continued to emphasise the markedly different forms of authority that belonged to the generalist. This generalist orientation was arguably part of the nature of both genres, as their authors frequently presented them as introductory studies aimed at a broad readership rather than writing for an audience of fellow experts. Indeed, many early literary biographers and historians belonged to the group of academics whose early careers had been in journalism or schoolteaching, and who therefore viewed the general public as their natural audience. If literary history offered itself as a way of outlining the new discipline of English, it could also be used to introduce this discipline to an audience new to literature. Literary biography, meanwhile, helped to establish a body of knowledge about a canonical author: it also drew on a concept of individual agency that was central to popular notions of the writer as autonomous creator, and allowed for an imagina- tive identification with the subject that was central to many generalist critics’ vision of the ideal act of reading. The literary biographies that made up the ‘English Men of Letters’ series were sold in 1907 at a price of two shillings per volume, within the reach of a broad range of readers: their generalist reach is reflected in the fact that they were reviewed in journals and newspapers as wide-ranging as the Westminster Gazette, the Athenaeum, The Times, the Daily Graphic, the Globe and the Morning Post, rather than in specialist publications. Many of these reviews praised the authors of this series for qualities that would help them to appeal to such an audience, such as their ‘tolerant sympathy’, ‘sanity and virility of temper’ and their ‘safer, kindlier, [and] more sympathetic keeping’ of their subjects.65 Such reviews indicate that what was prized was a sober and balanced account of an author’s life that combined clarity of expression with an imaginative capacity to ‘illuminate’ the subject, rather than any overt evidence of scholarly methods. A similarly generalist slant is apparent in Edmund Gosse’s Preface to A Short History of Modern English Literature (1897), in which he states his aim to give his audience, ‘whether familiar with the books or not […] a feeling of the evolution of English literature in the primary sense of the term, the disentanglement of the skein, the slow and regular unwinding, down succeeding generations, of the threads of literary expression’.66 Meanwhile, in A History of Nineteenth Century Literature 1780–1900 (1896), George Saintsbury, Gosse’s contemporary, adopts the genial role of the knowledgeable amateur, distinguished from his readers by the breadth of his reading rather than by his command of professional methodologies. Nonetheless, Gosse and Saintsbury differed in the methods they adopted and the narrative paradigms on which they drew, and it is worth exploring these differences in detail, as they (together with Courthope) demonstrate that the genre of literary history was not c
har- acterised by any unifying set of principles. Instead, it remained a form

that was susceptible to individual differences and intentions, and to variations in the nature of the intellectual authority upon which its authors chose to draw. Saintsbury’s work, for example, takes the form of a straightforward historical survey that provides biographical details of authors along with information about their major works and the style in which they were written. Unlike Courthope, whose references to the historical and political background of literature enabled him to draw on the method- ology of another academic field, Saintsbury defined his task as being to ‘preserve a perfectly independent, and, as far as possible, a rationally uniform judgement, taking account of none but literary characteristics, but taking account of all characteristics that are literary’.67 The desire to focus on ‘literary’ qualities alone means that Saintsbury does not set such information within any historical or social context; nor does he give any detailed information about other aspects of the various authors’ lives. In fact, his treatment of his chosen authors often eschews verifiable evidence altogether, resting on a mythologised version of their lives rather than on the kind of detailed research evident in Courthope’s history. Saintsbury’s discussion of Blake is representative of this approach. We are informed, for example, that it ‘has never been doubted’ that ‘Blake was not entirely sane’; that ‘though he had the finest gift of literary expression, he chose often to babble and still oftener to rant at large’; and that much of his work was marred by the effects of his instability:
After the Songs Blake did not care to put forth anything bearing the ordinary form of poetry. We possess indeed other poetical work of his, recovered in scraps and fragments from MSS.; and some of it is beautiful. But it is as a rule more chaotic than the Sketches themselves; it is sometimes defaced […] by personality and coarseness; and it is constantly puddled with the jargon of Blake’s mystical philosophy, which […] spreads itself unhampered by any form whatever over the Prophetic Books.68
Saintsbury’s critical vocabulary has a judgemental, almost gossipy tone (shown here in terms such as ‘chaotic’, ‘beautiful’, ‘defaced’ and ‘puddled’, and continued further in his description of Blake as ‘distinctly non compos on the critical, though admirably gifted on the creative side of his brain’) that is continued elsewhere: Wordsworth is ‘absolutely destitute of humour’; the merit of Browning’s lyrics lies in their ‘charm’, ‘beauty’, ‘variety’ and ‘vigour’, despite their ‘outrageous rhymes’; the work of Wilkie Collins shows an ‘aberration of taste and sentiment’.69 This manner of expression conveys a kind of authority that rests not on Saintsbury’s superiority as a scholar (his text does not share the historical and editorial knowledge evident in Courthope’s literary history) but on the breadth of his knowledge and his assumption of a superior taste, as conjured by the evaluative tone of his critical method. As such, it recalls the personal authority of the old ‘man of letters’ rather than the profes- sional authority of the academic. This dependence upon personal authority is also apparent in Gosse’s literary history, although his narrative method is markedly different to that of Saintsbury. Gosse’s decision to ‘show the movement of English literature […] to give the reader […] a feeling of the evolution of English literature in the primary sense of the term, the disentanglement of the skein, the slow and regular unwinding, down succeeding gener- ations, of the threads of literary expression’ drew on an evolutionary, Whig paradigm that replaced Saintsbury’s evaluative vocabulary with metaphors of disentanglement, growth and ascent.70 This is particularly apparent in Gosse’s analysis of Shakespeare, in whom ‘an heroic epoch culminates; he is the commanding peak of a vast group of mountains [. ..] More than any other of the greatest poets of the world, he rises, by insensible degrees, on the shoulders and the hands of a crowd of precursors’. The allusive, Romantic imagery continues in an extended metaphor that is almost self-parodic: we are told that by the time he wrote Hamlet, Shakespeare had ‘reached the very summits of his genius’;71 and of the other major tragedies, we are informed that King Lear is a ‘colossal peak […] with Othello on our right hand and Macbeth on our left, the sublime masses of Elizabethan mountain country rolling on every side of us, yet plainly dominated by the extraordinary cluster of aiguilles on which we have planted ourselves. This triple summit of the later tragedies of Shakespeare forms the Mount Everest of the poetry of the world.’72 While the evolutionary model Gosse seems to be proposing is not a consistent one (he refers to the ‘evil taint’ of Donne’s poetry and the ‘decline’ represented by the period from 1620 to 1660), it nevertheless means that the reader is constantly kept aware of the presence of Gosse himself.73 As with Saintsbury ’s highly personal tone, it appears that Gosse used this narrative method to remind his readers of his own status, in a manner associated more with the ‘men of letters’ than with the professional academic. These three texts suggest, then, that the methods being developed in history proper were not being transferred to literary studies with any degree of consistency. Instead, their adoption seems to have been more a matter of personal preference. The differing techniques of personal and professional authority produced different interpretations of literary history. Gosse and Saintsbury were writing primarily as literary critics, explaining the development of the canon in terms of the ‘greatness’ of its constituent authors. Courthope, meanwhile, offered a factual exam- ination of the circumstances in which individual authors worked, which would have lent itself more readily to the demands of the new university syllabuses. The existence of these variations in practice is in itself a sign that the objectivity sought by Courthope was not a universally desirable form of literary knowledge, even for critics working within the universities. Even though Gosse and Saintsbury both held academic posts, the manner in which they themselves chose to ‘possess’ the canon differed radically from the scholarship practised by Courthope: their ownership of literature took the form of an assertion of personal sympathy, resulting in a type of knowledge that was both mysticised and incontestable.

4 thoughts on “Literary history: Scholarship and narrative

  1. 1 i feel ya 🙁 its just so much bullshit and im not even near the ‘evaluate the literature’ bit yet uggghhh

  2. . SUCH a pleasure to read South African fiction because it’s good, not just PC. Thank you for reviving SA Literature,

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