Literary Criticism

The importance of Classics: The literary tradition

These suspicions about the academic validity of the study of English literature were also apparent at Cambridge, where once again they crystal- lised around the inauguration of a professorship, the King Edward VII Professorship of English Literature. This Professorship was established in 1910 as the result of a donation from the newspaper magnate Sir Harold Harmsworth (later Viscount Rothermere), and its holder was intended – according to Harmsworth’s stipulation – ‘to deliver courses on English Literature from the age of Chaucer onwards, and otherwise to promote, so far as may be in his power, the study in the University of the subject of English Literature’. Harmsworth also specified that he wanted the Professor to ‘treat this subject on literary and critical rather than linguistic and philological lines’ – a recognition, perhaps, of the fact that the University’s existing English courses (part of the Medieval and Modern Languages Tripos) were heavily language-based.57 The university’s Congregation was eager to accept Harmsworth’s offer, and the Vice-Chancellor even acknowledged that Cambridge’s provision for the study of English Literature had, until then, been inadequate.58 But some dons were more sceptical. Their reluctance may have been fuelled by snobbery about the Chair’s benefactor: Harmsworth was associated with the rash of ‘mass culture’ that was already despised among academic circles, and many felt that the offer was simply beneath the university’s dignity, even ‘positively harm- ful’.59 It was also tinged with a familiar suspicion about the validity of studying literature, an activity that (as we saw in the Introduction) was reduced by one Cambridge don to the level of basic literacy – a skill best gained in the nursery.60 Perhaps because of this dissent, the first appointment to the Chair was a cautious one, just as it had been at Oxford. A. W. Verrall was a noted Greek scholar and fellow of Trinity College, who may, according to Tillyard, have been offered the English chair as a form of consolation after failing in his attempt to become Professor of Greek.61 While Verrall was keen to draw parallels between Classical and modern literature, he was not given the chance to make any lasting impression on the study of English at Cambridge: he died, after only 16 months in the post, on 18 June 1912, aged 61. Nevertheless, the link between English and Classics would be important to the future direction of Cambridge English. In the years that followed Verrall’s death, Cambridge English underwent a series of reforms that led to its eventual separation from the Medieval and Modern Languages Tripos, and to the creation of an independent English Tripos in 1917. These reforms saw a gradual shift away from Germanic philology, and towards a greater integration of English literature with its Greek and Roman background.62 This link was intended to be fostered by the Tripos system itself. Students had to sit two separate parts of a Tripos in order to gain a BA, but these did not have to be from the same subject, and in fact many students chose to combine elements of different courses. The English Tripos that was created in 1917 consisted of two parts: Section A, ‘English Literature, Modern and Medieval’, and Section B, ‘Early Literature and History’. The former was made up of papers on Shakespeare; Literature, Life and Thought from 1066 to 1350 and from 1350 to 1603; a special period of literature (usually the Romantics); a special subject, such as Tragedy; the history of literary criticism; and the history of English literature from 1603. The latter was essentially a revised version of the course that had been offered under Medieval and Modern Languages, consisting of papers on the history, life and literature of the Teutonic and Celtic peoples, early Norse, and the history, litera- ture and antiquities of England before 1066. While these two sections would, in theory, allow students to take a whole degree in English, it was not expected that they would necessarily do so. The assumption, instead, was that they would progress to Section A after taking part of the Tripos in Classics – hinting at a view of English as part of a broad, humane education, rather than the philological study it had been in the past. Both Oxford and Cambridge, then, leaned towards the model of literary study provided by Classics as an alternative to that which was offered by philology. At Cambridge, this movement from philology to Classics seems to have been relatively straightforward, with compulsory philology being absent from Section A of the Tripos and the importance of Middle English being diminished. Cambridge’s version of philology was, in any case, markedly different from its Oxford counterpart: H. M. Chadwick, the Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge, had acquired a dislike of philology as an undergraduate and was keen to develop a syllabus that replaced the study of sound changes and dialects with a broader view of Anglo-Saxon and other early cultures, effectively creating a Germanic version of classical study.63 At Oxford, however, the shift towards Classics was a much more complicated process. While a knowledge of Classics was a prerequisite for the study of literature, it must be remembered that Collins’s vision of an English syllabus underpinned by Classical ideals had received little sympathy within Oxford and that the earliest form of the Honour School was weighted towards philological study. Palmer sees this as a sign of the independence of Oxford English from a ‘poor man’s Classics’ view of the subject, with the emphasis on Anglo-Saxon and philological knowledge being an attempt to distance the Honour School from the arguments about the moral function of literature that had shaped the rise of English in other educational contexts. Palmer interprets the foundation of the Honour School at Oxford as part of a series of attempts to reform the university curri- culum in the face of accusations of academic laxity: he describes the Oxford reformers as trying to emulate German academic methods in their insistence on ‘the concept of a university as an institution for the pursuit of advanced knowledge in all fields’.64 We have seen how the Germanic discipline of philology lent itself to the systematic study of verifiable knowledge that was prioritised within the newly pro- fessionalised academic disciplines, and it is not surprising that these factors, together with the presence of a large body of staff who already specialised in philology and the Germanic languages, influenced the scope and nature of Oxford’s earliest Honours degree in English, with only grudging space given to the study of post-Chaucerian literature. However, this is not to say that the course at Oxford remained in the grip of philology. Records indicate that there was a growing need to define what the study of literature actually involved – the scope of the canon, the knowledge students were expected to demonstrate and the skills that this would draw upon.65 This in turn implies a desire to move away from both a version of literary study that was dominated by linguistics, and its methodological opposite, the ‘chatter about Shelley’ that E. A. Freeman had attacked during the debate over the proposed Honour School of English at Oxford in 1887.66 The new version of English that was created was one that drew on Classics not (as Eagleton argues) as a model of a humane, civilising education, but rather as part of an emerging concept of literary history – one that was central to the direction that Oxford’s English degree continued to take. This concept of English literature as part of an unfolding tradition, with roots and analogues in other European cultures, was evident in many aspects of Oxford’s English course. While it continued to include Old and Middle English (as part of a broad historical survey of literature up to the end of the nineteenth century) the Honour School emphasised that Classics was at its base. The original Statutes’ stipulations about th
e English School’s historical and Classical content have already been noted; and it is significant that even when English gained its own First Public Examination in 1927, thus ending the requirement that students must have passed the First Public Examination of another Honour School, this exam consisted of Old English, a period of English social and political history, Classical texts and translations from two or three modern European languages – meaning that students could not begin to study modern English literature until the second year of a three-year course.67 When the structure of this exam was changed 11 years later, to papers on Old English, Aristotle’s Poetics and a study of either Virgil or Homer, the rationale offered was that the study of Classical literature would ensure ‘a right knowledge of Greek or Latin for literary students […] The general idea underlying our scheme is that some study of the Classics is the best basis for the Honour School of English Language and Literature.’68 In 1922, mean- while, the University’s Vice-Chancellor had expressed concern over the future of Hellenic studies and recommended that students in the Schools of English and Modern Languages should only be awarded first-class Honours if they could ‘successfully offer some study of

relevant Classical originals in connexion with their advanced study of Modern Literature’. Such students, it was claimed,
would be well-equipped for the highest critical work hereafter, as they alone could trace back our modern European literature to its fountain-head. […This knowledge] would more than compensate for any special portion of our modern literature being left unstudied or more lightly studied, because it would give these students a much fuller and finer equipment for higher and more critical studies in the future. […] This ought to be the highest object of our Honour training, not the mere accumulation of half-knowledge.69
This reference to ‘half-knowledge’ sets up a hierarchical vision of the value of certain kinds of learning that can be related to wider develop- ments in the field of literary history, and the emergence of a recognised canon. The period papers – each dealing with about a century of English literature – that made up the bulk of Oxford’s English course were, from 1917, entitled ‘the History of English Literature’, as if literary history, rather than literature itself, was the main object of study.70 Such an approach linked the unfolding of English literary history to its Classical origins, seeing canonical authors as key points within the development of the literary tradition. In turn, certain authors came to be prioritised within Oxford’s conception of what academic English should be. The curricular reforms of 1917 included a recommendation that students should ‘study the greater authors rather than the minor ones’, and the study of some specific authors was made compulsory in a further set of reforms in 1931, with the period papers from 1550 to 1850 focusing on Bacon, Donne, Browne, Dryden, Pope, Johnson, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Examiners’ reports throughout this period also attest to these pri- orities. In 1916 the examiners for the Final Honour School lamented students’ neglect of ‘the greater poets and still more the greater prose writers’: ‘They should be reminded that knowledge of Crashaw or Traherne will not compensate for ignorance of Milton and Bacon.’71 A year earlier, a candidate for the BLitt was failed partly on the grounds of his overestimation of the works of Aphra Behn, the examiners reporting somewhat incredulously that the candidate ‘seriously speaks of her as “worthy to be ranked with the greatest dramatists of her day”, and asserts that she has “a rightful claim to a high and honourable place in our glorious literature”. We think that this shows a complete lack of literary perspective.’72 It appears that what students were expected to develop was not the ability to make independent judgements, but a concrete body of knowledge about a pre-defined literary tradition. In 1916, the examiners bemoaned the fact that ‘owing to ignorance of fundamental facts [students] confused and mis-stated the relations of great writers to each other and to their times’. As a result, the examiners claimed, ‘their critical or aesthetic estimates of the writings of particular authors, while showing some feeling for literature and some acquaintance with the terminology of criticism, frequently revealed the absence of exact knowledge of their lives and works’.73 What is most significant about this comment is the manner in which literary criticism per se is downgraded in favour of an understanding of historical contexts and relationships, with students appearing to have been given most credit for their ability to absorb received opinions about the significance of particular authors to the literary tradition. In view of this, the First Public Examination’s insistence on a knowledge of Old English, Homer and Virgil seems not so much an attempt to increase the subject’s academic credentials as an entirely suitable prolegomenon. It seems that during the Honour School’s first few decades, little attempt was made to theorise what literary criticism might actually involve, beyond the agreement that it must acknowledge historical contexts and the devel- opment of the canon. There clearly seems to have been some reluctance to allow students to voice their own judgements, as the comments about Behn, Crashaw and Traherne indicate. They were certainly not expected (or invited) to contest the values and judgements that defined the parti- cular literary tradition they studied. Yet beyond this, the attempts that were made to isolate the skills involved in literary criticism fell short of describing the critical process itself. Early Examiners’ Reports, for instance, focus almost exclusively on students’ philological knowledge, perhaps reflecting the specialisms of the examiners themselves, with only the most cursory of glances towards the Literature papers.74 While there was a grow- ing dissatisfaction in the 1920s with students’ tendency to consider the early periods of literature from a wholly philological perspective (hinting at a faith in the idea of ‘literary’ criticism as a valuable skill in itself) there was little attempt to define what literary criticism might actually involve. The only sustained definition present in the Examiners’ Reports focuses on the need for a more detailed knowledge of texts, with a report of 1925 com- menting that ‘candidates wrote “round” the subject, often cleverly enough, but without naming the titles of any books, or if books were named, without intimating any definite knowledge of their content’.75 It may be, quite simply, that the early teachers of English at Oxford did not possess a concept of literary criticism that we would recognise

today. Instead, what they seem to have been dealing with was literary knowledge. This knowledge was validated by its emphasis on a canon of authors whose role in passing on a tradition that could be traced to its Classical origins was clear evidence of their worth as objects of study. Critical judgements, therefore, were already implicit in their canonical status. As a result, Oxford was not explicitly teaching the process of making judgements, nor was it enabling undergraduates to contest the judgements handed down to them. This, instead, was what was focused on at Cambridge – thus producing a very different kind of English degree.

10 thoughts on “The importance of Classics: The literary tradition

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