Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch > On the Art of Writing > X. English Literature in Our Universities (I)
  PREVIOUS NEXT  
CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944).  On the Art of Writing.  1916.

X.  English Literature in Our Universities (I)

Wednesday, November 19


ALL lectures are too long. Towards the close of my last, Gentlemen, I let fall a sentence which, heard by you in a moment of exhausted or languid interest, has since, like enough, escaped your memory even if it earned passing attention. So let me repeat it, for a fresh start.   1
  Having quoted to you the words of our Holy Writ, ‘I will sing and give praise with the best member that I have,’ I added ‘But the old Greek was an “all-round” man; he sought to praise and give thanks with all his members, and to tune each to perfection.’ Now a great many instructive lectures might be written on that text: nevertheless you may think it a strange one, and obscure, for the discourse on ‘English Literature in our Universities’ which, according to promise, I must now attempt.   2
  The term ‘an all-round man’ may easily mislead you unless you take it with the rest of the sentence and particularly with the words ‘praise and give thanks.’ Praise whom? Give thanks to whom? To whom did our Greek train all his members to render adoration?   3
  Why, to the gods—his gods: to Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite; and from them down to the lesser guardian deities of the hearth, the field, the farmstead. We modern men suffer a double temptation to misunderstand, by belittling, the reverence in which Hellas and Rome held their gods. To start with, our religion has superseded theirs. We approach the Olympians with no bent towards venerating them; with minds easy, detached, to which a great deal of their theology—the amativeness of Zeus for example—must needs seem broadly comic, and a great deal of it not only comic but childish. We are encouraged in this, moreover, when we read such writers as Aristophanes and Lucian, and observe how they poked fun at the gods. We assume—so modern he seems—Aristophanes’ attitude towards his immortals to be ours; that when, for example, Prometheus walks on to the stage under an umbrella, to hide himself from the gaze of all-seeing Zeus, the Athenian audience laughed just as we laugh who have read Voltaire. Believe me, they laughed quite differently; believe me, Aristophanes and Voltaire had remarkably different minds and worked on utterly different backgrounds. Believe me, you will understand Aristophanes only less than you will understand Æschylus himself if you confuse Aristophanes’ mockery of Olympus with modern mockery. But, if you will not take my word for it, let me quote what Professor Gilbert Murray said, the other day, speaking before the English Association on Greek poetry, how constantly connected it is with religion:
        ‘All thoughts, all passions, all desires’ … In our Art it is true, no doubt, that they are ‘the ministers of love’; in Greek they are as a whole the ministers of religion, and this is what in a curious degree makes Greek poetry matter, makes it relevant. There is a sense in each song of a relation to the whole of things, and it was apt to be expressed with the whole body, or, one may say, the whole being. 1
To a Greek, in short, his gods mattered enormously; and to a Roman. To a Roman they continued to matter enormously, down to the end. Do you remember that tessellated pavement with its emblems and images of the younger gods? and how I told you that a Roman general on foreign service would carry the little cubes in panniers on mule-back, to be laid down for his feet at the next camping place? Will you suggest that he did this because they were pretty? You know that practical men—conquering generals—don’t behave in that way. He did it because they were sacred; because, like most practical men, he was religious, and his gods must go with him. They filled his literature: for why? He believed himself to be sprung from their loins. Where would Latin literature be, for example, if you could cut Venus out of it? Consider Lucretius’ grand invocation:
        Æneadum genetrix, hominum divumque voluptas,
Alma Venus!
   4
  Consider the part Virgil makes her play as moving spirit of his whole great poem. So follow her down to the days of the later Empire and open the Pervigilium Veneris and discover her, under the name of Dione, still the eternal Aphrodite sprung from the foam amid the churning hooves of the sea-horses—inter et bipedes equos:
        Time was that a rain-cloud begat her, impregning the heave of the deep, ’Twixt hooves of sea-horses a-scatter, stampeding the dolphins as sheep.
Lo! arose of that bridal Dione, rainbow’d and besprent of its dew!
Now learn ye to love who loved never—now ye who have loved, love anew!
Her favour it was fill’d the sails of the Trojan for Latium bound,
Her favour that won her Æneas a bride on Laurentian ground,
And anon from the cloister inveigled the Virgin, the Vestal, to Mars;
As her wit by the wild Sabine rape recreated her Rome for its wars
With the Ramnes, Quirites, together ancestrally proud as they drew
From Romulus down to our Cæsar—last, best of that blood, of that thew.
Now learn ye to love who loved never—now ye who have loved, love anew!
   5
  ‘Last, best of that blood’—her blood, fusa Paphies de cruore, and the blood of Teucer, revocato a sanguine Teucri, ‘of that thew’—the thew of Tros and of Mars. Of these and no less than these our Roman believed himself the son and inheritor.   6
  If we grasp this, that the old literature was packed with the old religion, and not only packed with it but permeated by it, we have within our ten fingers the secret of the ‘Dark Ages,’ the real reason why the Christian Fathers fought down literature and almost prevailed to the point of stamping it out. They hated it, not as literature; or at any rate, not to begin with; nor, to begin with, because it happened to be voluptuous and they austere: but they hated it because it held in its very texture, not to be separated, a religion over which they had hardly triumphed, a religion actively inimical to that of Christ, inimical to truth; so that for the sake of truth and in the name of Christ they had to fight it, accepting no compromise, yielding no quarter, foreseeing no issue save that one of the twain—Jupiter or Christ, Deus Optimus Maximus or the carpenter’s son of Nazareth—must go under.   7
  It all ended in compromise, to be sure; as all struggles must between adversaries so tremendous. To-day, in Dr Smith’s Classical Dictionary, Origen rubs shoulders with Orpheus and Orcus; Tertullian reposes cheek by jowl with Terpsichore. But we are not concerned, here, with what happened in the end. We are concerned with what these forthright Christian fighters had in their minds—to trample out the old literature because of the false religion. Milton understood this, and was thinking of it when he wrote of the effect of Christ’s Nativity—
          The Oracles are dumb;
  No voice or hideous hum
Runs through the archèd roof in words deceiving.
  Apollo from his shrine
  Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
  No mighty trance, or breathèd spell
  Inspires the pale-eyed Priest from the prophetic cell.
  
  The lonely mountains o’er,
  And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
  From haunted spring, and dale
  Edg’d with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent;
  With flower-inwoven tresses torn
  The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
—as Swinburne understands and expresses it in his Hymn to Proserpine, supposed to be chanted by a Roman of the ‘old profession’ on the morrow of Constantine’s proclaiming the Christian faith—
        O Gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day!
From your wrath is the world released, redeem’d from your chains, men say.
New Gods are crown’d in the city; their flowers have broken your rods;
They are merciful, clothed with pity, the young compassionate Gods.
But for me their new device is barren, the days are bare;
Things long past over suffice, and men forgotten that were…
Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take,
The laurel, the palms and the paean, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake;
Thou hast conquer’d, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
   8
  ‘Thou hast conquer’d, O pale Galilean!’ However the struggle might sway in this or that other part of the field, Literature had to be beaten to her knees, and still beaten flat until the breath left her body. You will not be surprised that the heavy hand of these Christian fathers fell first upon the Theatre: for the actor in Rome was by legal definition an ‘infamous’ man, even as in England until the other day he was by legal definition a vagabond and liable to whipping. The policy of religious reformers has ever been to close the theatres, as our Puritans did in 1642; and a recent pronouncement by the Bishop of Kensington would seem to show that the instinct survives to this day. Queen Elizabeth—like her brother, King Edward VI—signalized the opening of a new reign by inhibiting stage-plays; and I invite you to share with me the pensive speculation, ‘How much of English Literature, had she not relented, would exist to-day for a King Edward VII Professor to talk about?’ Certainly the works of Shakespeare would not; and that seems to me a thought so impressive as to deserve the attention of Bishops as well as of Kings.   9
  Apart from this instinct the Christian Fathers, it would appear, had plenty of provocation. For the actors, who had jested with the Old Religion on a ground of accepted understanding—much as a good husband (if you will permit the simile) may gently tease his wife, not loving her one whit the less, taught by affection to play without offending—had mocked at the New Religion in a very different way: savagely, as enemies, holding up to ridicule the Church’s most sacred mysteries. Tertullian, in an uncompromising treatise De Spectaculis, denounces stage-plays root and branch; tells of a demon who entered into a woman in a theatre and on being exorcised pleaded that the mistake might well be excused, since he had found her in his own demesne. Christians should avoid these shows and await the greatest spectaculum of all—the Last Judgment. ‘Then,’ he promises genially, ‘will be the time to listen to the tragedians, whose lamentations will be more poignant, for their proper pain. Then will the comedians turn and twist in capers rendered nimbler than ever by the sting of the fire that is not quenched.’ By 400 A.D. Augustine cries triumphantly that the theatres are falling—the very walls of them tumbling—throughout the Empire. ‘Per omnes paene civitates cadunt theatra … cadunt et fora vel moenia in quibus demonia colebantur’; the very walls within which these devilments were practised. But the fury is unabated and goes on stamping down the embers. In the eighth century our own Alcuin (as the school of Freeman would affectionately call him) is no less fierce. All plays are anathema to him, and he even disapproves of dancing bears—though not, it would appear, of bad puns: ‘nec tibi sit ursorum saltantium cura, sed clericorum psallentium.’ 2  10
  The banning of all literature you will find harder to understand; nay impossible, I believe, unless you accept the explanation I gave you. Yet there it is, an historical fact. ‘What hath it profited posterity—quid posteritas emolumenti tulit,’ wrote Sulpicius Severus, about 400 A.D., ‘to read of Hector’s fighting or Socrates’ philosophising?’ Pope Gregory the Great—St Gregory, who sent us the Roman missionaries—made no bones about it at all. ‘Quoniam non cognovi literaturam,’ he quoted approvingly from the 70th Psalm, ‘introibo in potentias Domini’: ‘Because I know nothing of literature I shall enter into the strength of the Lord.’ ‘The praises of Christ cannot be uttered in the same tongue as those of Jove,’ writes this same Gregory to Desiderius, Archbishop of Vienne, who had been rash enough to introduce some of his young men to the ancient authors, with no worse purpose than to teach them a little grammar. Yet no one was prouder than this Pope of the historical Rome which he had inherited. Alcuin, again, forbade the reading of Virgil in the monastery over which he presided: it would sully his disciples’ imagination. ‘How is this, Virgilian!’ he cried out upon one taken in the damnable act,—‘that without my knowledge and against my order thou hast taken to studying Virgil?’ To put a stop to this unhallowed indulgence the clergy solemnly taught that Virgil was a wizard.  11
  To us, long used as we are to the innocent gaieties of the Classical Tripos, these measures to discourage the study of Virgil may appear drastic, as the mental attitude of Gregory and Alcuin towards the Latin hexameter (so closely resembling that of Byron towards the waltz) not far removed from foolishness. But there you have in its quiddity the mediaeval mind: and the point I now put to you is, that out of this soil our Universities grew.  12
  We, who claim Oxford and Cambridge for our nursing mothers, have of all men least excuse to forget it. A man of Leyden, of Louvain, of Liepzig, of Berlin, may be pardoned that he passes it by. More than a hundred years ago Salamanca had the most of her stones torn down to make defences against Wellington’s cannon. Paris, greatest of all, has kept her renown; but you shall search the slums of the Latin Quarter in vain for the sixty or seventy Colleges that, before the close of the fifteenth century, had arisen to adorn her, the intellectual Queen of Europe. In Bologna, the ancient and stately, almost alone among the continental Universities, survive a few relics of the old collegiate system—the College of Spain, harbouring some five or six students, and a little house founded for Flemings in 1650: and in Bologna the system never attained to real importance.  13
  But in England where, great as London is, the national mind has always harked to the country for the graces of life, so that we seem by instinct to see it as only desirable in a green setting, our Universities, planted by the same instinct on lawns watered by pastoral streams, have suffered so little and received as much from the years that now we can hardly conceive of Oxford or Cambridge as ruined save by ‘the unimaginable touch of Time.’ Of all the secular Colleges bequeathed to Oxford, she has lost not one; while Cambridge (I believe) has parted only with Cavendish. Some have been subsumed into newer foundations; but always the process has been one of merging, of blending, of justifying the new bottle by the old wine. The vengeance of civil war—always very much of a family affair in England—has dealt tenderly with Oxford and Cambridge; the more calculating malignity of Royal Commissions not harshly on the whole. University reformers may accuse both Oxford and Cambridge of
        Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade:
but with those sour men we have nothing here to do: like Isaak Walton’s milkmaid we will not ‘load our minds with any fears of many things that will never be.’
  14
  But, as they stand, Oxford and Cambridge—so amazingly alike while they play at differences, and both so amazingly unlike anything else in the wide world—do by a hundred daily reminders connect us with the Middle Age, or, if you prefer Arnold’s phrase, whisper its lost enchantments. The cloister, the grave grace in hall, the chapel bell, the men hurrying into their surplices or to lectures ‘with the wind in their gowns,’ the staircase, the nest of chambers within the oak—all these softly reverberate over our life here, as from belfries, the mediaeval mind.  15
  And that mediaeval mind actively hated (of partial acquaintance or by anticipation) almost everything we now study! Between it and us, except these memorials, nothing survives to-day but the dreadful temptation to learn, the dreadful instinct in men, as they grow older and wiser, to trust learning after all and endow it—that, and the confidence of a steady stream of youth.  16
  The Universities, then, sprang out of mediaeval life, out of the mediaeval mind; and the mediaeval mind had for centuries been taught to abominate literature. I would not exaggerate or darken the ‘Dark Ages’ for you by throwing too much bitumen into the picture. I know that at the beginning there had been a school of Origen which advocated the study of Greek poetry and philosophy, as well as the school of Tertullian which condemned it. There is evidence that the ‘humanities’ were cultivated here and there and after a fashion behind Gregory’s august back. I grant that, while in Alcuin’s cloister (and Alcuin, remember, became a sort of Imperial Director of Studies in Charlemagne’s court) the wretched monk who loved Virgil had to study him with an illicit candle, to copy him with numbed fingers in a corner of the bitter-cold cloister, on the other hand many beautiful manuscripts preserved to us bear witness of cloisters where literature was tolerated if not officially honoured. I would not have you so uncritical as to blame the Church or its clergy for what happened; as I would have you remember that if the Church killed literature, she—and, one may say, she alone—kept it alive.  17
  Yet, and after all these reservations, it remains true that Literature had gone down disastrously. Even philosophy, unless you count the pale work of Boethius—real philosophy had so nearly perished that men possessed no more of Aristotle than a fragment of his Logic, and ‘the Philosopher’ had to creep back into Western Europe through translations from the Arabic! But this is the point I wish to make clear.—Philosophy came back in the great intellectual revival of the twelfth century; Literature did not. Literature’s hour had not come. Men had to catch up on a dreadful leeway of ignorance. The form did not matter as yet: they wanted science—to know. I should say, rather, that as yet form seemed not to matter: for in fact form always matters: the personal always matters: and you cannot explain the vast crowds Abelard drew to Paris save by the fascination in the man, the fire communicated by the living voice. Moreover (as in a previous lecture I tried to prove) you cannot divorce accurate thought from accurate speech; but for accuracy, even for hair-splitting accuracy, of speech the Universities had the definitions of the Schoolmen. In literature they had yet to discover a concern. Literature was a thing of the past, inanimate. Nowhere in Europe could it be felt even to breathe. To borrow a beautiful phrase of Wordsworth’s, men numbered it among ‘things silently gone out of mind or things violently destroyed.’  18
  Nobody quite knows how these Universities began. Least of all can anybody tell how Oxford and Cambridge began. In Bede, for instance—that is, in England as the eighth century opens—we see scholarship already moving towards the thing, treading with sure instinct towards the light. Though a hundred historians have quoted it, I doubt if a feeling man who loves scholarship can read the famous letter of Cuthbert describing Bede’s end and not come nigh to tears.  19
  And Bede’s story contains no less wonder than beauty, when you consider how the fame of this holy and humble man of heart, who never left his cloisters at Jarrow, spread over Europe, so that, though it sound incredible, our Northumbria narrowly missed in its day to become the pole-star of Western culture. But he was a disinterested genius, and his pupil, Alcuin, a pushing dull man and a born reactionary; so that, while Alcuin scored the personal success and went off to teach in the court of Charlemagne, the great chance was lost.  20
  No one knows when the great Universities were founded, or precisely out of what schools they grew; and you may derive amusement from the historians when they start to explain how Oxford and Cambridge in particular came to be chosen for sites. My own conjecture, that they were chosen for the extraordinary salubrity of their climates, has met (I regret to say) with derision, and may be set down to the caprice of one who ever inclines to think the weather good where he is happy. Our own learned historian, indeed—Mr. J. Bass Mullinger—devotes some closely reasoned pages to proving that Cambridge was chosen as the unlikeliest spot in the world, and is driven to quote the learned Poggio’s opinion that the unhealthiness of a locality recommended it as a place of education for youth; as Plato, knowing naught of Christianity, but gifted with a soul naturally Christian, ‘had selected a noisome spot for his Academe, in order that the mind might be strengthened by the weakness of the body.’ So difficult still it is for the modern mind to interpret the mediaeval!  21
  Most likely these Universities grew as a tree grows from a seed blown by chance of the wind. It seems easy enough to understand why Paris, that great city, should have possessed a great University; yet I surmise the processes at Oxford and Cambridge to have been only a little less fortuitous. The schools of Remigius and of William of Champeaux (we will say) have given Paris a certain prestige, when Abelard, a pupil of William’s, springs into fame and draws a horde of students from all over Europe to sit at his feet. These ‘nations’ of young men have to be organised, brought under some sort of discipline, if only to make the citizens’ lives endurable: and lo! the thing is done. In like manner Irnerius at Bologna, Vacarius at Oxford, and at Cambridge some innominate teacher, ‘of importance,’ as Browning would put it, ‘in his day,’ possibly set the ball rolling; or again it is suggested that a body of scholars dissatisfied with Oxford (such dissatisfaction has been known even in historical times) migrated hither—a laborious journey, even nowadays—and that so
        A brighter Hellas rears its mountains
  From waves serener far!
These young or nascent bodies had a trick of breaking away after this fashion. For reasons no longer obvious they hankered specially towards Stamford or Northampton. Until quite recently, within living memory, all candidates for a Mastership of Arts at Oxford had to promise never to lecture at Stamford. A flood here in 1520, which swept away Garret Hostel Bridge, put Cambridge in like mind and started a prophecy (to which you may find allusion in the fourth book of The Faerie Queene) that both Universities would meet in the end, and kiss, at Stamford. Each in turn broke away for Northampton, and the worthy Fuller (a Northamptonshire man) has recorded his wonder that so eligible a spot was not finally chosen.
  22
  I have mentioned a flood: but the immediate causes of the migrations or attempted migrations were not usually respectable enough to rank with any such act of God. They started as a rule with some Town and Gown row, or some bloody affray between scholars of the North and of the South. Without diminishing your sense of the real fervour for learning which drew young men from the remotest parts of Europe to these centres, but having for my immediate object to make clear to you that, whatever these young men sought, it was not literature, I wish you first to have in your minds a vivid picture of what a University town was like, and what its students were like during the greater part of the 12th and 13th centuries; that is to say, after the first enthusiasm had died down, when Oxford or Cambridge had organised itself into a Studium Generale, or Universitas (which, of course, has nothing to do with Universality, whether of teaching or of frequenting, but simply means a Society. Universitas = all of us).  23
  To begin with, the town was of wood, often on fire in places; with the alleviation of frequent winter floods, which in return, in the words of a modern poet, would ‘leave a lot of little things behind them.’ It requires but a small effort of the imagination in Cambridge to picture the streets as narrow, dark, almost meeting overhead in gables out of which the house slops would be discharged after casual warning down into a central gutter. That these narrow streets were populous with students remains certain, however much discount we allow on contemporary bills of reckoning. And the crowd was noisy. Men have always been ingenious in their ways of celebrating academical success. Pythagoras, for example, sacrificed an ox on solving the theorem numbered 47 in the first book of Euclid; and even to-day a Professor in his solitary lodge may be encouraged to believe now and then, from certain evidences in the sky, that the spirit of Pythagoras is not dead but translated.  24
  But of the mediaeval University the lawlessness, though well attested, can scarcely be conceived. When in the streets ‘nation’ drew the knife upon ‘nation,’ ‘town’ upon ‘gown’; when the city bell started to answer the clang of St. Mary’s; horrible deeds were done. I pass over massacres, tumults such as the famous one of St Scholastica’s Day at Oxford, and choose one at a decent distance (yet entirely typical) exhumed from the annals of the University of Toulouse, in the year 1332. In that year
          Five brothers of the noble family de la Penne lived together in a Hospicium at Toulouse as students of the Civil and Canon Law. One of them was Provost of a Monastery, another Archdeacon of Albi, another an Archpriest, another Canon of Toledo. A bastard son of their father, named Peter, lived with them as squire to the Canon. On Easter Day, Peter, with another squire of the household named Aimery Béranger and other students, having dined at a tavern, were dancing with women, singing, shouting, and beating ‘metallic vessels and iron culinary instruments’ in the street before their masters’ house. The Provost and the Archpriest were sympathetically watching the jovial scene from a window, until it was disturbed by the appearance of a Capitoul and his officers, who summoned some of the party to surrender the prohibited arms which they were wearing. ‘Ben Senhor, non fassat’ was the impudent reply. The Capitoul attempted to arrest one of the offenders; whereupon the ecclesiastical party made a combined attack upon the official. Aimery Béranger struck him in the face with a poignard, cutting off his nose and part of his chin and lips, and knocking out or breaking no less than eleven teeth. The surgeons deposed that if he recovered (he eventually did recover) he would never be able to speak intelligibly. One of the watch was killed outright by Peter de la Penne. That night the murderer slept, just as if nothing had happened, in the house of his ecclesiastical masters. The whole household, masters and servants alike, were, however, surprised by the other Capitouls and a crowd of 200 citizens, and led off to prison, and the house is alleged to have been pillaged. The Archbishop’s Official demanded their surrender. In the case of the superior ecclesiastics this, after a short delay, was granted. But Aimery, who dressed like a layman in ‘divided and striped clothes’ and wore a long beard, they refused to treat as a clerk, though it was afterwards alleged that the tonsure was plainly discernible upon his head until it was shaved by order of the Capitouls. Aimery was put to the torture, admitted his crime, and was sentenced to death. The sentence was carried out by hanging, after he had had his hand cut off on the scene of the crime, and been dragged by horses to the place of execution. The Capitouls were then excommunicated by the Official, and the ecclesiastical side of the quarrel was eventually transferred to the Roman Court. Before the Parlement of Paris the University complained of the violation of the Royal privilege exempting scholars’ servants from the ordinary tribunals. The Capitouls were imprisoned, and after long litigation sentenced to pay enormous damages to the ruffian’s family and erect a chapel for the good of his soul. The city was condemned for a time to the forfeiture of all its privileges. The body was cut down from the gibbet on which it had been hanging for three years, and accorded a solemn funeral. Four Capitouls bore the pall, and all fathers of families were required to walk in the procession. When they came to the Schools, the citizens solemnly begged pardon of the University, and the cortège was joined by 3000 scholars. Finally, it cost the city 15,000 livres tournois or more to regain their civic privileges. 3
  25
  The late Mr Cecil Rhodes once summarized all Fellows of Colleges as children in matters of finance. Be that as it may, you will find nothing more constant in history than the talent of the Universities for extracting money or money’s worth out of a riot. Time (I speak as a parent) has scarcely blunted that faculty; and still—since where young men congregate, noise there must be—our Universities like Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior
        turn their necessity to glorious gain.
  26
  These were the excesses of young ‘bloods,’ and their servants: but with them mingled scholars not less ferocious in their habits because almost desperately poor. You all know, I dare say, that very poor scholars would be granted licences to beg by the Chancellor. The sleeve of this gown in which I address you represents the purse or pocket of a Master of Arts, and may hint to you by its amplitude how many crusts he was prepared to receive from the charitable.  27
  Now, choosing to ignore (because it has been challenged as overpainted) a picture of penury endured by the scholars of St John’s College in this University, let me tell you two stories, one well attested, the other fiction if you will, but both agreeable as testifying to the spirit of youth which, ever blowing upon their sacred embers, has kept Oxford and Cambridge perennially alive.  28
  My first is of three scholars so poor that they possessed but one ‘cappa’ and gown between them. They took it in turns therefore, and when one went to lecture the other two kept to their lodgings. I invite you even to reflect on the joy of the lucky one, in a winter lecture room, dark, with unglazed windows, as he listened and shuffled his feet for warmth in the straw of the floor. [No one, by the way, can understand the incessant harping of our early poets upon May-time and the return of summer until he has pictured to himself the dark and cold discomfort of a Middle-English winter.] These three poor scholars fed habitually on bread, with soup and a little wine, tasting meat only on Sundays and feasts of the Church. Yet one of them, Richard of Chichester, who lived to become a saint, saepe retulit quod nunquam in vita sua tam jucundam, tam delectabilem duxerat vitam—that never had he lived so jollily, so delectably.  29
  That is youth, youth blessed by friendship. Now for my second story, which is also of youth and friendship.—  30
  Two poor scholars, who had with pains become Masters of Arts and saved their pence to purchase the coveted garb, on the afternoon of their admission took a country walk in it, together flaunting their new finery. But, the day being gusty, on their return across the bridge, a puff of wind caught the biretta of one and blew it into the river. The loss was irrecoverable, since neither could swim. The poor fellow looked at his friend. His friend looked at him. ‘Between us two,’ he said, ‘it is all or naught,’ and cast his own cap to float and sink with the other down stream.  31
  You will never begin to understand literature until you understand something of life. These young men, your forerunners, understood something of life while as yet completely careless of literature. After the impulse of Abelard and others had died down, the mass of students betook themselves to the Universities, no doubt, for quite ordinary, mercenary reasons. The University led to the Church, and the Church, in England at any rate, was the door to professional life.  32
  Nearly all the civil servants of the Crown—I am here quoting freely—the diplomatists, the secretaries or advisers of great nobles, the physicians, the architects, at one time the secular law-givers, all through the Middle Ages the then large tribe of ecclesiastical lawyers, were ecclesiastics.… Clerkship did not necessarily involve even minor orders. But as it was cheaper to a King or a Bishop or a temporal magnate to reward his physician, his legal adviser, his secretary, or his agent by a Canonry or a Rectory than by large salaries, the average student of Paris or Oxford or Cambridge looked toward the Church as the ‘main chance’ as we say, and small blame to him! He never at any rate looked towards Literature: nor did the Universities, wise in their generation, encourage him to do anything of the sort.  33
  You may realise, Gentlemen, how tardily, even in later and more enlightened times, the study of Literature has crept its way into official Cambridge, if you will take down your University Calendar and study the list of Professorships there set forth in order of foundation. It begins in 1502 with the Lady Margaret’s Chair of Divinity, founded by the mother of Henry VII. Five Regius Professorships follow: of Divinity, Civil Law, Physic, Hebrew, Greek, all of 1540. So Greek comes in upon the flush of the Renaissance; and the Calendar bravely, yet not committing itself to a date, heads with Erasmus the noble roll which concludes (as may it long conclude) with Henry Jackson. But Greek comes in last of the five. Close on a hundred years elapse before the foundation of the next chair—it is of Arabic; and more than a hundred before we arrive at Mathematics. So Sir William Hamilton was not without historical excuse when he declared the study of Mathematics to be no part of the business of this University! Then follow Moral Philosophy (1683), Music (1684), Chemistry (1702), Astronomy (1704), Anatomy (1707), Modern History and more Arabic, with Botany (1724), Geology (1727), closely followed by Mr Hulse’s Christian Advocate, more Astronomy (1749), more Divinity (1777), Experimental Philosophy (1783): then in the nineteenth century more Law, more Medicine, Mineralogy, Archaeology, Political Economy, Pure Mathematics, Comparative Anatomy, Sanskrit and yet again more Law, before we arrive in 1869 at a Chair of Latin. Faint yet pursuing, we have yet to pass chairs of Fine Art (belated), Experimental Physics, Applied Mechanics, Anglo-Saxon, Animal Morphology, Surgery, Physiology, Pathology, Ecclesiastical History, Chinese, more Divinity, Mental Philosophy, Ancient History, Agriculture, Biology, Agricultural Botany, more Biology, Astrophysics, and German, before arriving in 1910 at a Chair of English Literature which by this time I have not breath to defend.  34
  The enumeration has, I hope, been instructive. If it has also plunged you in gloom, to that atmosphere (as the clock warns me) for a fortnight I must leave you: with a promise, however, in another lecture to cheer you, if it may be, with some broken gleams of hope.  35


Note 1.  What English Poetry may still learn from Greek: a paper read before the English Association on Nov. 17, 1911. [back]
Note 2.  See Mr E. K. Chambers’ Mediaeval Stage, Dr Courthope’s History of English Poetry, and Professor W. P. Ker’s The Dark Ages. [back]
Note 3.  Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, vol. ii, p. 684, from documents printed in Fournier’s collection. [back]

CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUS NEXT  
 
Loading
Click here to shop the Bartleby Bookstore.

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2014 Bartleby.com · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors