Literary Criticism

Oxford and Cambridge: The development of criticism

Unlike London and the regional institutions, Oxford has played a central role in accounts of ‘the rise of English’. It is easy to see why this is the case. For one thing, its story has the attraction of controversy, in the form of the lengthy battle against the university authorities that was led by the lecturer and critic John Churton Collins. In addition, Oxford’s initial rejection of English on the grounds of its perceived lack of rigour, followed by its adoption of a version of the subject that rested on the ‘difficulty’ provided by existing disciplines, has a neatness that lends its support to the linear model of disciplinary development offered by Heyck. One result of this is that the events at Oxford in the second half of the nineteenth century have come to assume an almost mythical importance that obviates the need to describe the foundation of English at other institutions. Another is the perception that once Oxford had gained its Honours course in English, it then stood aside to let Cambridge get on with the difficult work of making the developments in literary criticism that Oxford’s English Faculty never quite managed. This has the effect of casting Oxford in the role of a rather primitive precursor, an institution whose failure to develop an adequate method- ology for the critical study of literature meant that English remained torn between the philologists and the belletrists. Eagleton’s comparison of Cambridge’s ‘rationally demonstrable’ criticism with Oxford’s ‘mystically ineffable’ style neatly epitomises this view, exposing the perceived differences between the intellectual cultures of the two institutions.39 It is certainly true that the perceived innovators of early twentieth-century literary criticism – Leavis, Empson, Richards – were all Cambridge men, while the ‘big names’ of the Oxford English

Faculty, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, are remembered more for their fiction than their work as literary critics and university teachers. However, this does not mean that Oxford lacked any kind of critical philosophy. In fact, if academic disciplines are to be judged by factors such as their objectivity and systematisation, it could be said that the ‘Oxford English’ of the 1920s was more strictly codified than its counter- part at Cambridge – which, in turn, possessed more ‘mystical ineffability’ (to paraphrase Eagleton) than Oxford. The English courses at Oxford and Cambridge actually had very similar beginnings. In their early days, both were dominated by philology, a discipline that had no difficulty in proving its academic credentials: philology drew on specialist knowledge and specialist practices, and was a subject one mastered through a prolonged period of systematic study. Oxford’s Honour School of English Language and Literature, established in 1894, was heavily weighted towards this study of early forms of English. It contained papers on Old and Middle English texts and translations, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Piers Plowman, the history of the English Language and of English Literature to 1800, and two special topics, as well as a Critical paper. And although Cambridge only gained an inde- pendent English Tripos in 1917, it had, since 1890, allowed students to specialise in English as part of the Medieval and Modern Languages Tripos. This course consisted of two parts: English language and literature from Anglo-Saxon to the present; and English language and literature from Anglo-Saxon to the Middle English period, along with Anglo-French or Icelandic, and Gothic. Only two papers dealt with authors after 1500, and one of these was exclusively on Shakespeare. The evolution of English at both universities can be seen in terms of a gradual movement away from these philological beginnings. However, English developed along markedly different lines at each university, in response to localised cultural and academic factors and the work of those responsible for the subject and its teaching. These early developments determined the course of the later divisions between the two institutions, and the differing critical philosophies they espoused.
John Churton Collins and the campaign for English
The campaign to have English literature established as an academic subject at Oxford was dominated by John Churton Collins, a Balliol Classics graduate who worked as an extension lecturer and tutor for the Civil Service examinations before his appointment as Professor of English Literature at the University of Birmingham in 1904. In the

1880s and 1890s Collins mounted a number of attacks on Oxford and Cambridge for their refusal to teach English literature as a separate subject, including a series of very public broadsides in the Press and a questionnaire circulated in 1886 to eminent figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, leading headmasters and politicians and distinguished writers and scientists. As a result, he is one of a group of proselytisers whose Arnoldian rhetoric about the moral value of literature is often drawn upon in Marxist interpretations of the subject’s history – precisely because the force of this rhetoric lends itself to readings which privilege the subject’s supposed ideals over the forms it took in practice. What is most significant about Collins is the fact that his vision of English could not be translated into any actual programmes of study – which, in turn, reflects the increasing importance of academic specialisation, and the criteria that fields of knowledge had to demonstrate in order to achieve disciplinary status. In many respects Collins’s vision seems plausible enough. His main argument was that the enormous popularity of English literature on the extension lecture circuits made it essential for Oxford and Cambridge to include it in their syllabuses, so that a new generation of teachers could be educated in preparation for the future. He was also vehemently opposed to the dryness of philology, and to the narrow, factual approach that had been adopted by the University of London exams, believing that literature’s humanising potential had been ‘pervert[ed…] into material for unprofitable teaching’.40 He was keen to find a way in which the study of English literature could be made more rigorous, while avoiding the sterility of a fact-laden curriculum. His own educational background meant that it seemed natural to him to do this by drawing on the model offered by Classics, in which literature was seen as inextri- cable from the study of culture as a whole, giving the student an insight into the ‘sentiment, ethic and thought’ of a society.41 This model was marked by an insistence on analytical skill: for Collins, a curriculum that focused on knowledge alone was useless, encouraging the narrowness of ‘cramming’. In theory, Collins’s ideal programme of study would be both scholarly and humane, retaining the potential of literary study to civilize and enlighten. As a result, his claims for the subject were grandiose. On the one hand, it was to be ‘as susceptible of serious, methodical, and profitable treatment as history itself’.42 Yet it was also to be ‘a powerful instrument of popular education’ that could
contribute to the formation of sound conclusions on social and political questions; to right feeling and right thinking in all that

appertains to morality and religion; to largeness, to sanity, to elevation, to refinement in judgement, taste and sentiment, to all, in short, which constitutes in the proper sense of the term the education of the British citizen.43
Nevertheless, this dualistic conception of English – as both a serious academic discipline and an instrument of spiritual and moral enlightenment – only served to weaken it. Collins was ambitious in his plans for English, but was ultimately unable to convert his ideals into a practical programme of study that would justify giving English disciplinary status. There are a number of reasons for this. One is a sense of confusion over the importance of literary texts themselves. In seeking to profes- sionalise literary study by borrowing the methodology of Classics, Collins paradoxically demoted the text to the status of historical document, valued primarily for its capacity to offer insights into the past. However, he also wanted the text to be much more than this, a ‘masterpiece’ (a recurring term in Collins’s essays) that carried with it a significantly different kind of value. The second problem, which stems directly from this ambivalence about the identity of the text, is a blurring of the arguments Collins used to justify the place of English in the university. Many of his statements about the importance of literary study rest not on its intellectual credentials, but on its capacity to influence and mould character and beliefs. It is important to note, for example, that Collins’s dualistic conception of English – defining the subject as both a ‘serious’ and ‘methodical’ intellectual discipline, and an ‘instrument’ of ‘right feeling and right thinking’ – contains a shift from an academic proposition to a humanist statement about the moral benefit of literary study. The fervent tone of Collins’s credo – virtually a manifesto for the ‘poor man’s Classics’ – indicates that while Collins duly acknowledged the place of the new scholarly practices in the academic study of literature, he was much more concerned with the subject’s power to shape character and provide moral guidance. His definition of literature as an ‘instrument’ is particularly telling, for it indicates that he saw literary study as being about much more than academic knowledge. Consequently, this set of arguments undermined any claims Collins wished to advance about the specialist nature of the study of literature. If literature was to enter university syllabuses, it had to do so on the same grounds as other newly professionalised disciplines: it had to demonstrate that it was marked by objective methods of enquiry and a concern for the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake, and possess a recognisable structure that would map the student’s progress from novice to expert through a succession of lessons, examinations and qualifications. In insisting on another version of literary study – one marked by a concern for what A. C. Bradley would later term the ‘ulterior value’ of morality and spirituality44 – Collins also insisted on defining English in terms of a kind of knowledge that could not possibly be considered professional or specialised. The importance of particular kinds of academic rigour in relation to the proposals for English is evident in another, related set of debates taking place in late nineteenth-century Oxford: those concerning the establishment of the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature in 1885. Collins was an unsuccessful candidate for this post, and the reasons for his lack of success are apparent in the arguments that circulated about the exact nature of the incumbent’s duties. The University Statutes pertaining to the Merton Professorship are unspecific, stating only that the role of the professor was to ‘lecture and give instruction on the history and criticism of English Language and Literature, and on the works of approved English authors’.45 This vagueness allowed room for a great deal of argument as to what kind of person should be appointed. A very public debate in the pages of the Academy (a weekly review founded by the Oxford don Charles Appleton in 1869 to ‘serve as an authoritative intellectual organ to which serious readers could turn for reliable judgments on matters of high culture’46) saw the issue polarised between advocates of philology on the one hand, and supporters of literature on the other. One applicant, the Oxford medievalist Henry Sweet (now remembered mainly as the author of the Anglo-Saxon Primer), claimed that if a ‘literary’ man were to be appointed, ‘the general opinion seems to be that we shall get a man who will add to the social attractions of Oxford, and pose as a kind of high priest of literary refinement and general culture, but will be otherwise sterile, neither adding to knowledge himself nor training others to do so’.47 The author Andrew Lang, on the other hand, argued that the ‘literary’ man did have a valid claim to the post, and ‘should […] not be regarded as a mere trifler’.48 Nevertheless, it is a mark of the strength of the counter-arguments that the first appointment to the Merton Professorship was the philologist Arthur Sampson Napier, then a lecturer at the University of Göttingen. Sweet’s disappointment that his own application had been turned down was mitigated by the knowledge that ‘the mythic claims of the light literaries’ had also been rejected.49 It is worth pausing to consider the nature of Sweet’s objections to literary study in more detail, since the nature of these objections helps to illuminate the readiness with which the struggle for literature at Oxford can be assimilated within Heyck’s paradigm of disciplinary development. These objections were threefold. First, there was the belief that the study of literature was not a specialised academic pursuit, but a social grace – an ‘accomplishment’ that was genteel and generalist, but lacking in intellectual calibre. Second, linked to this, was the accusation of sterility, the belief that the study of literature was not designed to produce the kinds of knowledge that could be considered ‘useful’. Finally, there was Sweet’s belief that in failing to add to knowledge himself, the professor of literature also failed to train others to do so – and therefore lacked any kind of academic and pedagogical purpose. With the benefit of Heyck’s paradigm in mind, it is easy to explain why Sweet failed to find any intellectual validity in the study of literature, as it clearly did not fulfil the essential criteria for disciplinary status: it possessed neither a methodology nor a clearly defined body of know- ledge, and was unable to demonstrate any kind of social utility. Sweet’s dismissive image of ‘the high priest of literary refinement’ represents a vision of literary study as based on a solipsistic aestheticism, a view that was common currency in some late nineteenth-century academic circles and which – perhaps significantly – some critics and men of letters did little to contradict.50 It explains why the degree course in English Language and Literature that was eventually established at Oxford took the form that it did – and why, well into the twentieth century, there were continuing anxieties about the value of the knowledge that it represented. In spite of the weight of the opposition to English, and the derision heaped on Collins for his continuing espousal of literature’s case, it was not long before Oxford finally gained its English degree. Collins’s campaign had drawn the attention of public figures such as John Morley and Lord Goschen, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and President of the London Extension Society, who wrote to Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor on 15 January 1887 demanding that English be given the same academic status as other subjects.51 At the same time, discussions were taking place in Oxford about the foundation of an Honour School of Modern Languages and Literature in which English was to be one option.52 In 1891 this was followed by a petition signed by 108 members of the university’s Congregation, supporting the foundation of an independent Honour School of English Language and Literature.53 Significantly, the case this petition made was pragmatic rather than intellectual, and ech
oed a central tenet of Collins’s arguments, pointing to the ‘increasing stress’ on English elsewhere in the education system. The subject’s rapid growth had led to ‘an increasing demand for teachers or lecturers competent to handle the subject efficiently […] It would [therefore] seem to be the plain duty of an English university to give English Studies a recognised place in its ordinary curriculum’.54 These arguments formed part of a wider debate about the role of the ancient universities in relation to the nation as a whole, borne out of complaints about academic torpor, the inadequacies of the tutorial system and the failure of the universities to prepare students for careers in the professions. They also, inevitably, lend credence to accounts such as Eagleton’s, which depict the establishment of Oxford’s English degree in terms of the subjugation of the ivory tower to the ‘poor man’s Classics’. However, it is significant that it was another three years before the petitioners’ wish was granted – and then only in a heavily revised form. The original Statute detailing the structure and requirements of the English School, submitted to the University for approval on 1 May 1894, went through a series of amendments before it was finally passed, with the most notable additions being the recommendations that students should be required to show a knowledge of history, and of Classical languages and literature, to support their study of English.55 These were joined later by the stipulation that the English School would only admit candidates who had either passed the First Public Examination of another Honour School, or obtained Honours in another subject. In practice, this was to mean that the English School would recruit mainly from those who had passed the First Public Examination (Honour Moderations) in Classics.

9 thoughts on “Oxford and Cambridge: The development of criticism

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