Literary Criticism

Literary judgements: The Tripos at Cambridge

The early years of English at Cambridge are dominated by the figure of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Appointed to the King Edward VII Professorship after the death of Verrall, he seems, in some respects, an odd choice. He had spent only five years in academia (four of them as an undergraduate at Oxford) at the time of his appointment, and his career certainly has more in common with the Victorian man of letters than with the newly professionalised academic of the early twentieth century. His vast output includes editions of Shakespeare’s comedies for the New Cambridge Shakespeare series, volumes of letters and three series of Studies in Literature, as well as the compilation of anthologies such as the Oxford Book of English Verse. He was also a novelist, freelance journalist and assistant editor, from 1890, of the Liberal weekly paper The Speaker. His knighthood, in 1910, was for his services to local government, and E. M. W. Tillyard suggests that his appointment at Cambridge was a similar kind of reward. One of his proudest achievements was his appointment as Commodore of the Fowey Yacht Club – a fact that did not cease to amuse F. R. Leavis, who remembered Quiller-Couch with affection.76 Opinion is divided as to the precise extent of Quiller-Couch’s influence over the English Tripos. While many accounts place him at the social and emotional centre of Cambridge English – Ian MacKillop refers to him as its ‘master of ceremonies’77 – it is also acknowledged that he disliked the administrative spadework of curricular reform, and left the bulk of this to H. M. Chadwick, Cambridge’s professor of Anglo-Saxon.78 In the early years of the English Tripos Cambridge’s English staff consisted only of Quiller-Couch, Chadwick and the medievalist G. G. Coulton; they were accompanied by a shifting network of tutors and supervisors who were employed by individual colleges but did not hold university posts. In such circumstances it would have been natural for Quiller-Couch to play a role that was very public, drawing on the personal authority he had consolidated in his earlier career as a writer. It is easy to see why he is often presented as an amateur, a genial sentimentalist who, in John Gross’s words, ‘seldom did much more than ramble cheerfully round the subject, shedding a vague glow of enthusiasm’.79 However, he used this eclecticism to his advantage, developing the persona of an amused observer who knew much more than was initially apparent. Quiller-Couch’s lectures also suggest that he was aware of the problems encountered by the emerging discipline of English. He was anxious to preserve a sense of the ‘specialness’ of literature, and to demonstrate that it could not be reduced to the impersonality of a science or a mere checklist of facts for rote-learning. What Quiller-Couch valued, rather than the accumulation of received knowledge, were the qualities of ‘understanding’ and ‘appreciation’. Such skills were treated with suspicion at Oxford, where J. R. R. Tolkien was to remark that if ‘the primary end of English as a scholastic and academic discipline is to teach “appreciation” […] it might as well be asserted that the direct end of Scripture lessons is Conversion’.80 However, they were to become the bedrock of Cambridge’s course, placing increased emphasis on the student’s own experience of the text. What distinguished Cambridge’s early English degree from Oxford’s was a different conception of the kinds of knowledge and skills that a degree course should value and validate, emphasising individual judgement over the received order of the canon. Tillyard describes the new Tripos as pervaded by a spirit of liberalism that meant that ‘the barriers were down: there was to be no academic distinction between a good short story written yesterday and a Petrarchian sonnet in the age of Elizabeth; and the learner had the right to sport in every glade and green pasture’.81 This is borne out by the nature of the questions students were expected to answer in examinations, demanding reasoned argument and a certain amount of playful lateral thinking. Ian MacKillop has described Cambridge’s English Literature exams as ‘garrulous’ in tone, seeing this as epitomising Quiller-Couch’s idiosyncratic approach.82 If this implies a lack of rigour, then MacKillop is rather unfair: the exams certainly demand an amount of intellectual ability, but often not in a form that would be easy to quantify, according to any recognisable disciplinary criteria. The first candidates for the English Tripos were invited to consider ‘With the substitution of which of the three characters Rosalind, Celia and Miranda for Desdemona as the wife of Othello would the play have been least likely to culminate in a tragedy?’.83 A few days later, in the exam on the English Literature from 1785 to 1840, they were asked ‘What were the idealistic Utopias of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake respectively? Which of these Utopias would you prefer to inhabit, and for what reasons?.’84 If such questions carry overtones of fireside gossip, it was gossip with an edge. Key verbs in the Cambridge exam papers include ‘examine’, ‘estimate’, ‘contrast’, ‘criticize’ and ‘discuss’, all with their suggestions of rational debate, and their explicit invitation of students’ own judgements.85 At the heart of Quiller-Couch’s professorial lectures and writings is an attempt to define the kind of knowledge that such a course would encourage. His response to the objections voiced by Mayo and others was to raise the status of the skills he saw as being fundamental to a true understanding of literature, creating an opposition between the artificial rote-learning of factual information and the less tangible qualities of a more personal appreciation. Students were told that the School of English ‘should train men of your age in understanding, rather than test them in memorised information; should teach you less to hoard facts than to deal with them, to sift out what you accumulate and even to accumulate with economy’.86 An emphasis was placed on the capacity to judge, with the reading of Shakespeare being seen as essential in enabling students to learn ‘what the first-rate truly is, and to discern what marks it above the second-, third- and fourth-rate’.87 They were advised to skip lectures if they felt that their time could be spent more profitably in independent study, and to read literary histories in order to gain ‘a general sense’ of the relationships between authors and texts rather than to acquire the less important factual details of names and dates.88 What Quiller-Couch wanted was to facilitate students’ first-hand experiences of texts rather than encouraging them to rely on ‘massed information which at best can be but derivative and second-hand’.89 Significantly, this involved a rejection of what were becoming accepted elements of academic practice: the amassing of facts and details, and a knowledge of the work of experts in one’s chosen field. In his own tripartite formulation, explained at length in the first lectures in the collection On the Art of Reading, ‘What Knows’ and ‘What Does’ – the essence of academic and professional life – were to be subordinated to ‘What Is’, ‘the spiritual element in man’ that represented a longing for universal harmony surpassing all worldly ambitions.90 This was clearly a departure from the norms of academic life that were establishing themselves at Cambridge and elsewhere. Underlying Quiller-Couch’s definition of the study of English is a more general concept of what the ideal education should be, resting on an etymological exploration of the word ‘education’ that in turn challenges the notion that ‘knowledge’ (as defined and validated by Quiller-Couch) can ever be a professional domain. This sense of the word is articulated in On the Art of Reading, in which reading is described as a force that is able to encourage ‘that spark, common to the king, the sage, the poorest child – to fan, to draw up to
a flame, to “educate” What Is – to recognise that it is divine, yet frail, tender’.91 Education, so Quiller-Couch implies, should be concerned less with the acquisition of a body of knowledge than with ‘a leading-out, a drawing-forth’ of what is already latent within the individual.92 This is supported by the use of metaphors of natural growth and the body – of ‘incorporating’ literary masterpieces within the self – that express how literature should be bound up with individual selfhood and the concept of ‘What Is’. Quiller-Couch redefined the notion that intellectual authority was located within a professional system: for him, knowledge was only valued inasmuch as it contributed to the perfection of the soul, and was not to be treated as an external acquisition, a mere scholarly accomplishment. Of course, a logical consequence of this argument is that as well as questioning the idea that knowledge can be professionalised, it also makes the concrete agents of this professionalisation – universities and professors – redundant. This is a paradox that Quiller-Couch never really managed to resolve. On the one hand, he was convinced of the need for tutors of English, and did much to promote their importance, instructing students to treat their tutors as elder brothers and to seek their advice and companionship.93 In so doing he was acting in the spirit of the reforms that had altered college life in the Cambridge of the late nineteenth century, promoting the college (and the tutor) as important figures in the life of the undergraduate and the agents of his moral and spiritual welfare.94 However, this suggests that the tutor’s primary role was pastoral rather than pedagogical, concerned with the student’s personal and spiritual development rather than with passing on and regulating a clearly defined body of knowledge. For all his insistence on the power of the English Tripos to ‘train’ and ‘teach’, Quiller-Couch returned again and again to a model of literary knowledge that valued above all, that which was not teachable, which was innate rather than learned. On several occasions, for example, he conflates education with ‘breeding’. His vision of the ideal Cambridge English graduate, described in his inaugural lecture, is of a man who ‘will be remarkable less for anything he can produce from his wallet and exhibit for knowledge than for being something, and that something a man of unmistakable breeding, whose judgement can be trusted to choose the better and reject the worse’.95 When informing students of what their degree would involve,

he stated that his intention was to ‘train capacity, to breed men of a certain intellectual quality rather than to give them, or to expect from them, reams of memorised facts and dates’.96 In both cases, the shift from education (or training) to breeding is a subtle one, but the emphasis is clearly switched from knowledge gained through learning to a talent that is either there or not there – and if not, cannot be acquired artificially. The effect of Quiller-Couch’s insistence upon innate forms of know- ledge and skill is to endow literary study with a certain mystique. This contrasts with the increasing professionalisation of other areas of academic life in that it resists any kind of need to make the skills and knowledge that were central to English objective or easily verifiable. It also insists on a ‘specialness’ particular to English, marking it out as different from those disciplines whose defining qualities were easy to enumerate. This often leads to a kind of discourse that seems highly reactionary, linking Quiller-Couch to the persona of the Victorian sage. His lectures often have an oracular, sermonic tone that confers a spiritual authority on his words, suggesting that he is communicating truths of an eternal and intuitive kind and thereby heightening the mystique of his role. He also adopts an assumed vagueness that allows him to dispense with facts, hinting again at a superior kind of knowledge. Lectures that purport to deal with the nuts and bolts of elementary education or preparing for exams often digress into prolonged reminiscences and paraphrases: audi- ences are apostrophised and texts quoted at length, but rarely are straight- forward answers given. Moreover, when Quiller-Couch tries to defend the English Tripos against charges of triviality, he does so not by marshalling facts about what students were expected to know and do, but by present- ing his audience with an idealised image of what the study of English could provide. Speaking of those critics who scorned the academic study of vernacular literature, he offers a vision of the English School that transforms early twentieth-century Cambridge into classical Greece:
I imagine that, as well-intentioned men, these a priori critics would be happy indeed if we and they together could in modern England recreate that spirit of intellectual curiosity, that thirst for truth, that passion for beauty governed by temperance, that energy of experiment in art, politics, poetry and the comely adornments of life, civic, social, domestic and all that efflorescence of the human mind which broke over Hellas in the fifth century B.C., and especially over Athens. […] If our friends share this hope, let them consider the astonishing fact that all these marvels were achieved by a race which knew its own language and that language alone.The English Tripos at Cambridge therefore seems to have given students much more interpretive freedom than their Oxford counterparts, lacking Oxford’s focus on the received critical judgements embedded in the canon and its related version of literary history. Even though the Stud- ent Handbook contained lengthy lists of secondary reading – including texts such as A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) and C. E. Vaughan’s Types of Tragic Drama (1908) – it was clear that such reading was of secondary importance, as it was better for the student ‘to make himself acquainted at first hand with the leading works of the principal authors in each period than to spend his time on minutiae of literary history and biography or on appreciations by secondary author- ities’.98 While most staff acknowledged the importance of facts over ‘vague appreciation’, some were sceptical about the value of modern scholarly editions of texts, and particularly about the interpretive assistance (especially in the form of historical and linguistic information) that they offered. Tillyard saw such editions as hiding the ‘pure text’ and emphasised instead the importance of ideas, linking this to the wider education he hoped students would receive: ‘We thought that if a man entered his subject in this way he could learn to deal with the experience of life better than if he had been trained to accumulate the facts of vowel-changes in Middle English dialects or of literary biography.’99 The scholarly value of such texts was therefore downgraded in favour of a more personal form of understanding. This gives the impression of a subject that was developing along very different lines from its Oxford equivalent. Moreover, as stated above, this is also a subject that sits uneasily alongside a concept of ‘profes- sionalism’ as rooted in verifiable knowledge and skills that could be recognised objectively. It does, however, help to explain some of the differences in the content of the two courses. Oxford’s insistence on the canon’s centrality was countered by Cambridge’s more liberal attitude towards the body of texts that constituted ‘literature’: not only the ‘good short story written yesterday’, but also other contemporary forms.100 The 1919 History of English Literature paper at Cambridge includes a question on the Irish literary renaissance of the twentieth century, and invites students to ‘Review and estimate the more consider- able additions which have been made to English Literature as a result of the war.’101 In the same year, the Tragedy paper included a question on the condition of malaise in modern theatre;102 while the following year students were asked to consider the potential of the cinema as a medium for tragic drama.103 Cambridge’s emphasis on judgement over knowledge means that it was entirely logical that students were expected to apply this skill to as wide a range of material as possible. In turn, this flexibility helps to challenge the traditional Marxist view of a fixed canon whose constituent texts were used to promote a certain set of values. Cambridge’s course seems strikingly modern in its breadth: the use of contemporary material would require students to see their subject as a living one, changing and developing even as they studied it. The reasons why such an approach was, and could be, adopted at Cambridge are unclear. Certainly, the university’s tutorial system would have fostered the skills of argument and personal judgement that such a programme required; but this does not explain why similar skills were not the focus of teaching and learning at Oxford, where the approach to English seems to have been altogether more cautious. One notable difference, however, seems to have been the role played by Quiller-Couch himself. He seems to have carried out the same kind of ‘evangelising’ on the subject’s behalf as Collins did at Oxford – with the crucial difference being, of course, that while Collins’s ideas were rejected by Oxford, Quiller-Couch was able to play a much more active and decisive role at Cambridge. While Oxford’s early English degree was defined by its insistence on certain given kinds of knowledge, Cambridge’s was marked out by its encouragement of judgement – and with this a set of ideals, about personal development and its place within a university education, that seem in many ways to belong to a much earlier stage in the subject’s history. Tillyard’s comments on text-editing offer a useful perspective on these differing philosophies. His objections to the scholarly apparatus of edited texts would not have been accepted at Oxford, where biographical and editorial skills were central to the training of graduate students. By the late 1920s the English Faculty offered classes in bibliography, manu- script work, textual criticism and the history of scholarship to all its graduate students, with this course being described by David Nichol Smith, the Merton Professor of English Literature, as a ‘school for editors […] a technical school in which students are instructed in the handling of manuscripts and printed evidence, and in the methods and stages by which our knowledge of our older literature have been accumulated, as well as in the ways and means by which our knowledge may be advanced’.104 This emphasis on tangible, objective skills can be linked to the mechanisms of professionalisation and specialisation identified by Heyck and Levine: it is evidence of a concern with the ways in which knowledge is acquired and validated. Heyck’s use of history as an example of the influence of scientific method on other fields of know- ledge, and Levine’s more detailed study of the professionalisation of history, both point to an increasing focus on the verification and inter- pretation of original sources, the accumulation of bibliographies (central to the definition of a body of ‘required reading’ on a particular topic) and the editing of manuscripts as activities that helped to define the scope of academic history, distinguishing it from earlier, narrative-driven forms. The importance of these methods is certainly apparent in Examiners’ Reports on BLitt and DPhil candidates in English Literature. Students are praised for qualities such as close attention to manuscript sources,105 bibliographical skills,106 close textual study107 and a wide know- ledge of relevant literature,108 and criticised for a reliance on unsound editions of texts,109 ‘lack of care in the choice of critical authorities’110 and an insufficient knowledge of historical contexts.111 However, it seems simplistic to infer (following Heyck and Levine) that the importing of these skills points to a corresponding rise in the pro- fessionalisation of literary criticism. It could, in fact, hint at quite the opposite, since the wholesale borrowing of historical methodology does not, in itself, serve to isolate the skills and knowledge that defined literary criticism. Instead, it threatens to treat literature as just another type of historical source; for if literature is studied using the same methods and principles as history, then there is little to justify its existence as an independent discipline. In fact, the increasing praise of a much less tangible set of skills may, paradoxically, tell us much more about the nature of English at Oxford. This praise – of ‘independence of judge- ment’,112 ‘critical insight’,113 ‘unusu
ally sensitive taste and discernment’114 and points that are ‘incisively and brilliantly made’115 – suggests that while the subject’s central skills had not yet been defined in any systematic way, it was also recognised that there was more to literary criticism than the objective knowledge offered by textual study and literary history. It would be easy to argue that these references were little more than a throwback to earlier days, to a time when literary criticism was the preserve of belletrism and gossip. However, the history of Oxford’s English degree suggests that this is not the case. The unease about the intellectual validity of literary study meant that Oxford’s earliest English degree had been dominated by Old and Middle English texts and an emphasis on philological knowledge, plus an insistence on history and Classics that was still enshrined in the First Public Examination. Later, this historical and Classical background was drawn upon in a more concerted way, as a means of envisaging and studying the unfolding tradition of English literature. It is possible that the subjective qualities mentioned in the Examiners’ Reports were not part of a tenacious attempt to cling to aspects of literary criticism that had been challenged half a century earlier, but were, instead, part of a resurgence: a recognition that the study of literature needed something to distinguish it from its related disciplines, however vaguely this was defined. Seen in this way, such qualities become evidence of literary criticism’s complexity, rather than reminders of its ‘gossipy’ past. At Cambridge, the reverse was taking place. The personalised style fostered by the English Tripos under Quiller-Couch was beginning to show its limitations: the increasing craving mentioned by Tillyard, for ‘something that stuck closer to the text and sought to give reasons for a given literary effect’, was the result of a growing dissatisfaction with the impressionism of earlier forms of criticism and the beginning of a movement towards something more objective.116 One possible alter- native would be provided by the Practical Criticism of I. A. Richards, a methodology that sought to remove criticism from a personal context and give it a more scientific basis. Nevertheless, criticism still had some way to go before it would reach this stage. The study of literature may have gained a place within the universities, but the practice of criticism was still not an established part of this study. Indeed, rather than aspiring to academic status, many critics continued to align themselves with the ‘amateur’ discourse of the men of letters. As a result, literary criticism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was by no means a unified practice. Instead, as Part II will demonstrate, it drew on a range of methodologies and was underpinned by differing sources of authority, as the knowledge of the amateur was set in opposition to that of the academic.

11 thoughts on “Literary judgements: The Tripos at Cambridge

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