Literary Criticism

The new professors and professional criticism

The careers of many of the early professors of English blur the boundaries between the terms ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’. The literary historian W. J. Courthope was a civil servant and assistant editor of the National Review before becoming Professor of Poetry at Oxford (although this was an honorary post rather than one that carried ‘professional’ academic status); George Saintsbury worked as a schoolmaster and journalist until his election to the post of Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at Edinburgh; and Edmund Gosse had a varied career as translator, biog- rapher and transcriber at the British Museum before being elected Clark Lecturer at Cambridge. Indeed, the structure of professorial stipends (which, at some institutions, were calculated on an hourly basis) meant that some of the new class of academics were forced to continue their journalistic writing in order to make a living. Professors and men of letters often engaged in the same kinds of intellectual activity, such as text-editing, biography and literary history, and publishing enterprises such as Macmillan’s ‘English Men of Letters’ series, whose first editor was the politician and man of letters John Morley, brought together representatives of both spheres in producing critical biographies intended to appeal to both the student and the general public. Given the varied nature of their careers, it is hardly surprising that many of these professors continued to draw on the personal authority that had underpinned their work as men of letters, and that they adopted strategies – such as the creation of a certain kind of authorial persona, and the address- ing of a wide and non-specialist audience – that gave their writing a distinctly generalist tone. A number of the subject’s early professors were also engaged in more direct challenges to the authority of the institution, of the kind outlined earlier in this chapter. W. P. Ker’s suspicion about the application of scholarly methods of research, analysis and presentation is also apparent in the work of Sir Walter Raleigh, who became Oxford’s first solely literary professor – the Merton Professor of English Literature – in 1904. Raleigh devoted much of his career to challenging the norms of academic analysis that were being established in other disciplines, and was also sceptical about the claims made on behalf of literature by writers such as Arnold and Churton Collins. Chris Baldick describes him as being contemptuous of the institutionalised study of literature and prizing ‘what he took to be the real human presence of an author over against the boring technicalities of literary works themselves’, with his cynical attitude arising from ‘a very clear-headed understanding of the ridicu- lousness of literary culture’s ambitions for bringing about social change’.46 Certainly, Raleigh was dubious about the value of the ‘systems, rules, standards, and principles’ of academic analysis, and felt that the claims made on behalf of textual scholarship were misleading, describing its results as ‘command[ing] no general assent, and depend[ing], for the most part, on a chain of ingenious hypotheses’.47 His successor, George Gordon, echoed these sentiments, hoping to rescue literary study from the ‘nightmare of organized boredom’48 represented by German schol- arship. For Gordon, English was too important a subject to concern itself with the minutiae of academic life. Its preoccupation with scholar- ship was an ‘unlovely adolescence’ that would soon (so Gordon hoped) give way to the subject’s ‘manhood’, a time ‘when a maturer scholarship shall make amends to life, when, even in literary treatises, a smile shall play about the lips of truth, and learning, having digested (preferably in concealment) the accumulations of a century, shall be once more polite’.49 This ‘politeness’, recalling both Arnold’s ‘disinterestedness’ and Ker’s emphasis on the need to preserve ‘a certain dignity’, offered to return criticism to a position of social removal that challenges ideologically motivated readings of disciplinary history: Gordon’s attack on the Newbolt Report and ‘the growth of a religious jargon about literature and literary genius’50 was motivated by his doubts about the moral and social benefits of literature, and his feeling that for many working people, the pressures of everyday life were so great that literature was at worst irrelevant, and at best a luxury that was easily dispensed with. Gordon’s dismissal of the Arnoldian concept of the civilising power of literature can be seen as embodying one of two opposing strands of thought about the nature of criticism that were voiced by its early professors, deriving from the philosophies of Arnold and Pater. These two views can be interpreted as emphasising, respectively, a ‘public’ conception of literature (as both a civilising force, and a way of keeping alive ‘the best which has been thought and said’) and an opposing, ‘private’ conception, in which the reading of literature becomes a solip- sistic act that need justify itself only to the individual. Despite their underlying differences, both philosophies shared a sense of anxiety about the value of literary scholarship, and it is significant that their proponents often drew on similar arguments and rhetorical techniques, offering a covert challenge to the objective methods of academia. Two of these proponents were W. P. Ker and A. C. Bradley, and a detailed consideration of their critical philosophies will show how these Arnoldian and Paterian tendencies were borne out in practice. Ker’s critical stance was Arnoldian in nature. His vision of literary criticism as ‘executor to a dead genius’51 recalls Arnold’s emphasis of ‘the best which has been thought and said’ and also defines it as a generalist activity aimed at a non-specialist readership, in contrast to the increas- ingly specialised nature of other kinds of academic writing. The mistrust that he displayed for scientific methods of presentation and research was accompanied by the sense that scientific writing could be excused its uncouthness, as it would be read only by other scientists: literary criticism, with its more general audience, was called on to provide a kind of guidance that surpassed mere scholarly knowledge, and should there- fore strive to maintain its dignity. Such a dignity gave Ker’s ideal critic a mystique that was closer to that of the Victorian sage than to the newly professionalised academic. This mystique was heightened by the nature of the task that the critic had to fulfil. In outlining this task, Ker gave a clear indication as to his view of the role of scholarly methods in literary study: they were to be little more than tools, and not the ends in themselves that some academics believed them to be. The distinction between generalist and academic criticism that Ker drew in his inaugural lecture seemed initially to favour the latter, which was described as ‘infinitely more interesting’ and praised for its incorporation of the advances made in other disciplines. However, Ker was also anxious to define disciplines of knowledge in a manner that played down the importance of academic specialism, and saw them instead in terms of the humanist understanding they could offer.52 In a passage that recalls Arnold’s emphasis on the need to yoke ‘scientific passion’ with ‘the moral and social passion for doing good’, Ker states that while literary criticism, history and the natural sciences all drew on ‘methods of observation’ and a ‘regard for the minutest particulars bearing on their study’, such methods were only valuable for their potential to offer a ‘sense of the vastness of the world, and the power of time to work changes’. Such a sense, significantly, could be provided by a range of different writers – by scientists such as Darwin, and also by ‘historians […] poets and romancers’, a list that becomes increasingly non-specialist as it progresses.53 Ker therefore diminished the im
portance

of the structured and systematic accumulation of knowledge associated with academic specialism, and asserted instead a more abstract object- ive – the enlargement of a student’s appreciation of the world – which could be produced by many ‘widely different subject matters’. Developments in academic methodology were not seen as a means of adding to the specialist knowledge associated with the new disciplines, but as a way of validating a vision of the world that could ultimately be produced, so Ker claimed, by any discipline. In essence, the specialist knowledge that distinguished one subject from another was denied by Ker in favour of a kind of insight that belonged to the world of the generalist, one which promised to civilise and enlighten those who entered into it. Ker’s philosophy of criticism did also display some traces of Pater’s influence, most notably in his statement that the most important skill required by the critic – the ‘essential valuable part of modern criticism’ – was the capacity to empathise with the world of the author. This empathy involved the ability to ‘reckon every author as one individual, with his own particular story to tell, his own individual manner, his own value’, and stemmed from the view that the critic’s task was ‘not to judge abstractedly, but to see concretely’,54 echoing Pater’s statement that the critic needed to define beauty ‘in the most concrete terms possible’ rather than possessing ‘a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect’.55 However, Ker’s insistence on the critic’s role in communicating a sense of this genius to a wider audience – a very Arnoldian role – means that his concept of criticism differs significantly from that of Bradley, as the latter pleaded – like Pater – for the reading of poetry to be a unique, autonomous act. Bradley, who held professorships in literature at Liverpool and Glasgow before his election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1901, was vehement in his opposition to attempts to make literature into a key to philosophy or morality, seeing its ‘poetic value’ as ‘[its] intrinsic worth alone’.56 He defined the act of reading as a process of entering into the text on its own terms, and stated that this process offered a satisfaction that needed to be judged ‘entirely from within’ rather than against any external standards.
Poetry may have also an ulterior value as a means to culture or religion, because it conveys instruction, or softens the passions, or furthers a good cause; because it brings the poet money or fame or a good conscience. So much the better: let it be valued for these reasons too. But its ulterior worth neither is nor can directly determine its public

worth as a satisfying imaginative experience; and this is to be judged entirely from within […] its nature is not to be a part, nor yet a copy, of the real world (as we commonly understand that phrase), but to be a world by itself, independent, complete, autonomous; and to possess it fully you must enter that world, conform to its laws, and ignore for the time the beliefs, aims, and particular conditions which belong to you in that other world of reality.57
Furthermore, the personal nature of this experience meant that poetry could not be explained to a third party, but had to be experienced at first hand by a sensitive reader who could appreciate the text’s mysterious and complex qualities.
Pure poetry is not the decoration of a preconceived and clearly defined matter: it springs from the creative impulse of a vague imagina- tive mass pressing for development and definition. If the poet already knew exactly what he meant to say, why should he write the poem? […] Only its completion can reveal, even to him, exactly what he wanted. When he began and while he was at work, he did not possess his meaning; it possessed him. It was not a fully formed soul asking for a body: it was an inchoate soul in the inchoate body of perhaps two or three vague ideas and a few scattered phrases. The growing of this body into its full stature and perfect shape was the same thing as the gradual self-definition of the meaning. And this is the reason why such poems strike us as creations, not manufactures, and have the magical effect which mere decoration cannot produce. This is also the reason why, if we insist on asking for the meaning of such a poem, we can only be answered ‘It means itself.’58
Such a view of poetry clearly insists on the self-sufficiency of the experience of reading, and ironically threatens to undermine one important role of the critic (that of explicator) by defining this experience as something that cannot be communicated to another person. It also, importantly, makes use of allusive, metaphorical terms that refer the audience to a personal world in which the individual is paramount, while at the same time emphasising the primacy of the ‘unique expression’ contained within the text. Like Pater, Bradley makes use of an impressionistic prose style that oscillates between vagueness and the illusion of precision: the sense is that the skilled reader will recognise what he is referring to without needing it to be explained. The ‘atmosphere of infinite suggestion’ that surrounds the text is something

that must be entered into by the individual reader in order for its full value to be appreciated:
The poet speaks to us of one thing where seems to lurk the secret of all. He said what he meant, but his meaning seems to beckon away beyond itself, or rather to expand into something boundless which is only focussed in it; something also which, we feel, would satisfy not only the imagination, but the whole of us; that something within us, and without, which everywhere
makes us seem To patch up fragments of a dream, Part of which comes true, and part Beats and trembles in the heart.59
In formulating this Paterian definition, Bradley also draws on a technique that was used by Arnold and would be adopted later by Quiller-Couch. Arnold’s insistence that his readers should recognise the qualities of the ‘Grand Style’ without needing it to be explained, Quiller-Couch’s appeal to his audience’s awareness of the golden age of Athenian culture and Bradley’s call to the individual’s own emotional experience of reading all operate on the same level: namely, that of implying that the phenomenon in question should not need to be defined explicitly, but should simply be recognised and appreciated by those who are adequate to it. As a result, the explicit, objective grounds on which scholarly enquiry is built are rejected in favour of a form of expression that appeals to subjectivity, a secret that can only be understood by a suitably sensitive minority. These particular professors, then, were not arguing in favour of an aca- demic version of literary criticism, but theorising an experience of reading that belonged to both private and generalist worlds, and depended on the possession of the kind of temperament that would give the reader access to the personal ‘truths’ contained in the text. Their views empha- sised the aesthetic nature of literature and saw it as having a value that stood apart from the objective facts revealed by literary scholarship. Crucially, they frequently expressed their sense of this value through a mysticised, impressionistic rhetoric that seemed to test out their own readers’ possession of this temperament, elevating personal over profes- sional authority by speaking not to an academic peer group but to a circle of fellow sages. As a result, their philosophies exemplify the uneasy relationship between literary criticism and academic institutions, and the difficulty of separating the ‘amateur’ from the ‘professional’: while they were employed by the universities, they were promoting and produ- cing versions of criticism that attached little importance to the methods of scholarship that were being developed in other disciplines of knowledge.

8 thoughts on “The new professors and professional criticism

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