Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch > On the Art of Writing > XI. English Literature in Our Universities (II)
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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944).  On the Art of Writing.  1916.

XI.  English Literature in Our Universities (II)

Wednesday, December 3


WE broke off, Gentlemen, upon the somewhat painful conclusion that our Universities were not founded for the study of literature, and tardily admitted it. The dates of our three literary chairs in Cambridge—I speak of our Western literature only, and omit Arabic, Sanskrit, and Chinese—clenched that conclusion for us. Greek in 1540, Latin not until 1869, English but three years ago—from the lesson of these intervals there is no getting away.   1
  Now I do not propose to dwell on the Renaissance and how Greek came in: for a number of writers in our time have been busy with the Renaissance, and have—I was going to say ‘over-written the subject,’ but no—it is better to say that they have focussed the period so as to distort the general perspective at the cost of other periods which have earned less attention; the twelfth century, for example. At any rate their efforts, with the amount they claim of your reading, absolve me from doing more than remind you that the Renaissance brought in the study of Greek, and Greek necessarily brought in the study of literature: since no man can read what the Greeks wrote and not have his eyes unsealed to what I have called a norm of human expression; a guide to conduct, a standard to correct our efforts, whether in poetry, or in philosophy, or in art. For the rest, I need only quote to you Gibbon’s magnificent saying, that the Greek language gave a soul to the objects of sense and a body to the abstractions of metaphysics. [May I add, in parenthesis, that, while no believer in compulsory Greek, holding, indeed, that you can hardly reconcile learning with compulsion, and still more hardly force them to be compatibles, I subscribe with all my heart to Bagehot’s shrewd saying, ‘while a knowledge of Greek and Latin is not necessary to a writer of English, he should at least have a firm conviction that those two languages existed.’]   2
  But, assuming you to know something of the Renaissance, and how it brought Greek into Oxford and Cambridge, I find that in the course of the argument two things fall to be said, and both to be said with some emphasis.   3
  In the first place, without officially acknowledging their native tongue or its literature, our two Universities had no sooner acquired Greek than their members became immensely interested in English. Take, for one witness out of many, Gabriel Harvey, Fellow of Pembroke Hall. His letters to Edmund Spenser have been preserved, as you know. Now Gabriel Harvey was a man whom few will praise, and very few could have loved. Few will quarrel with Dr Courthope’s description of him as ‘a person of considerable intellectual force, but intolerably arrogant and conceited, and with a taste vitiated by all the affectations of Italian humanism,’ or deny that ‘his tone in his published correspondence with Spenser is that of an intellectual bully.’ 1  None will refuse him the title of fool for attempting to mislead Spenser into writing hexameters. But all you can urge against Gabriel Harvey, on this count or that or the other, but accumulates proof that this donnish man was all the while giving thought—giving even ferocious thought—to the business of making an English Literature.   4
  Let me adduce more pleasing evidence. At or about Christmas, in the year 1597, there was enacted here in Cambridge, in the hall of St John’s College, a play called The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, a skittish work, having for subject the ‘discontent of scholars’; the misery attending those who, unsupported by a private purse, would follow after Apollo and the Nine. No one knows the author’s name: but he had a wit which has kept something of its salt to this day, and in Christmas, 1597, it took Cambridge by storm. The public demanded a sequel, and The Return from Parnassus made its appearance on the following Christmas (again in St John’s College hall); to be followed by a Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, the author’s overflow of wit, three years later. Of the popularity of the first and second plays—The Pilgrimage and The Return, Part I—we have good evidence in the prologue to The Return, Part II, where the author makes Momus say, before an audience which knew the truth:
          The Pilgrimage to Parnassus and The Returne from Parnassus have stood the honest Stagekeepers in many a crowne’s expense for linckes and vizards: purchased many a Sophister a knocke with a clubbe: hindred the butler’s box, and emptied the Colledge barrells; and now, unlesse you have heard the former, you may returne home as wise as you came: for this last is the last part of The Returne from Parnassus; that is, the last time that the Author’s wit will turne upon the toe in this vaine.
In other words, these plays had set everybody in Cambridge agog, had been acted by link-light, had led to brawls—either between literary factions or through offensive personal allusions to which we have lost all clue—had swept into the box-office much money usually spent on Christmas gambling, and had set up an inappeasable thirst for College ale. The point for us is that (in 1597–1601) they abound in topical allusions to the London theatres: that Shakespeare is obviously just as much a concern to these young men of Cambridge as Mr Shaw (say) is to our young men to-day, and an allusion to him is dropped in confidence that it will be aptly taken. For instance, one of the characters, Gullio, will have some love-verses recited to him ‘in two or three diverse veins, in Chaucer’s, Gower’s and Spenser’s and Mr Shakespeare’s.’ Having listened to Chaucer, he cries, ‘Tush! Chaucer is a foole’; but coming to some lines of Mr Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, he cries, ‘Ey, marry, Sir! these have some life in them! Let this duncified world esteeme of Spenser and Chaucer, I’le worship sweet Mr Shakespeare, and to honoure him I will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillowe.’ For another allusion—‘Few of the University pen plaies well,’ says the actor Kempe in Part II of the Returne; ‘they smell too much of that writer Ovid and that writer Metamorphosis, and talke too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all downe, ay and Ben Jonson, too.’ Here you have Cambridge assembling at Christmas-tide to laugh at well-understood hits upon the theatrical taste of London. Here you have, to make Cambridge laugh, three farcical quasi-Aristophanic plays all hinging on the tribulations of scholars who depart to pursue literature for a livelihood. For a piece of definite corroborative evidence you have a statute of Queens’ College (quoted by Mr Bass Mullinger) which directs that ‘any student refusing to take part in the acting of a comedy or tragedy in the College and absenting himself from the performance, contrary to the injunctions of the President, shall be expelled from the Society’—which seems drastic. And on top of all this, you have evidence enough and to spare of the part played in Elizabethan drama by the ‘University Wits.’ Why, Marlowe (of Corpus Christi) may be held to have invented its form—blank verse; Ben Jonson (of St John’s) to have carried it on past its meridian and through its decline, into the masque. Both Universities claim Lyly and Chapman. Marston, Peel, Massinger, hailed from Oxford. But Greene and Nashe were of Cambridge—of St John’s both, and Day of Caius. They sought to London, and there (for tragic truth underlay that Christmas comedy of The Pilgrimage of Parnassus) many of them came to bitter ends: but before reaching their sordid personal ruin—and let the deaths of Marlowe and Greene be remembered—they built the Elizabethan drama, as some of them lived to add its last ornaments. We know what, meanwhile, Spenser had done. I think it scarcely needs further proof that Cambridge, towards the end of the sixteenth century, was fermenting with a desire to read, criticise, yes and write, English literature, albeit officially the University recognised no such thing.
   5
  There remains a second question—How happened it that Cambridge, after admitting Greek, took more than three hundred years to establish a Chair of Latin, and that a Chair of English is, so to speak, a mushroom (call it not toadstool!) of yesterday? Why simply enough. Latin continued to be the working language of Science. In Latin Bacon naturally composed his Novum Organum and indeed almost all his scientific and philosophical work, although a central figure of his age among English prose-writers. In Latin, in the eighteenth century, Newton wrote his Principia: and I suppose that of no two books written by Englishmen before the close of that century, or indeed before Darwin’s Origin of Species, can it be less extravagantly said than of the Novum Organum and the Principia that they shook the world. Now, without forgetting our Classical Tripos (founded in 1822), as without forgetting the great names of Bentley and Porson, we may observe it as generally true, that whenever and wherever large numbers of scientific men use a particular language as their working instrument, they have a disposition to look askance on its refinements; to be jealous of its literary professors; to accuse these of treating as an end in itself what is properly a means. Like the Denver editor I quoted to you in a previous lecture, these scientific workers want to ‘get there’ in a hurry, forgetting that (to use another Americanism) the sharper the chisel the more ice it is likely to cut. You may observe this disposition—this suspicion of ‘literature,’ this thinly veiled contempt—in many a scientific man to-day; though because his language has changed from Latin to English, it is English he now chooses to cheapen. Well, we cannot help it, perhaps. Perhaps he cannot help it. It is human nature. We must go on persuading him, not losing our tempers.   6
  None the less we should not shut our eyes to the fact that while a language is the working instrument of scientific men there will always be a number of them to decry any study of it for its beauty, and even any study of it for the sake of accuracy—its beauty and its accuracy being indeed scarcely distinguishable.   7
  I fear, Gentlemen, you may go on from this to the dreadful conclusion that the date 1869, when Cambridge at length came to possess a Chair of Latin, marks definitely the hour at which Latin closed its eyes and became a dead language; that you may proceed to a yet more dreadful application of this to the Chair of English founded in 1910: and that henceforward (to misquote what Mr Max Beerbohm once wickedly said of Walter Pater) you will be apt to regard Professor Housman and me as two widowers engaged, while the undertaker waits, in composing the features of our belovèds.   8
  But (to speak seriously) that is what I stand here to controvert: and I derive no small encouragement when—as has more than once happened—A, a scientific man, comes to me and complains that he for his part cannot understand B, another scientific man, ‘because the fellow can’t express himself.’ And the need to study precision in writing has grown far more instant since men of science have abandoned the ‘universal language’ and taken to writing in their own tongues. Let us, while not on the whole regretting the change, at least recognise some dangers, some possible disadvantages. I will confine myself to English, considered as a substitute for Latin. In Latin you have a language which may be thin in its vocabulary and inelastic for modern use; but a language which at all events compels a man to clear his thought and communicate it to other men precisely.
        Thoughts hardly to be packed
    Into the narrow act
—may be all impossible of compression into the Latin speech. In English, on the other hand, you have a language which by its very copiousness and elasticity tempts you to believe that you can do without packing, without compression, arrangement, order; that, with the Denver editor, all you need is to ‘get there’—though it be with all your intellectual belongings in a jumble, overflowing the portmanteau. Rather I preach to you that having proudly inherited English with its copia fandi, you should keep your estate in order by constantly applying to it that jus et norma loquendi of which, if you seek to the great models, you will likewise find yourselves inheritors.
   9
  ‘But,’ it is sometimes urged, ‘why not leave this new study of English to the younger Universities now being set up all over the country?’ ‘Ours is an age of specialising. Let these newcomers have something—what better than English?—to specialise upon.’  10
  I might respond by asking if the fame of Cambridge would stand where it stands to-day had she followed a like counsel concerning other studies and, resting upon Mathematics, given over this or that branch of Natural Science to be grasped by new hands. What of Electricity, for example? Or what of Physiology? Yes, and among the unnatural sciences, what of Political Economy? But I will use a more philosophical argument.  11
  Some years ago I happened on a collection of Bulgarian proverbs of which my memory retains but two, yet each an abiding joy. In a lecture on English Literature in our Universities you will certainly not miss to apply the first, which runs, ‘Many an ass has entered Jerusalem.’  12
  The application of the second may elude you for a moment. It voices the impatience of an honest Bulgar who has been worried overmuch to subscribe to what, in this England of ours, we call Church Purposes; and it runs, ‘All these two-penny saints will be the ruin of the Church.’  13
  Now far be it from me to apply the term ‘two-penny saint’ to any existing University. To avoid the accusation I hereby solemnly declare my deep conviction that every single University at this moment in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland has reasons—strong in all, in some overwhelmingly strong—for its existence. That is plainly said, I hope? Yet I do maintain that if we go on multiplying Universities we shall not increase the joy; that the reign of two-penny saints lies not far off and will soon lie within measurable distance; and that it will be a pestilent reign. As we saw in out last lecture the word ‘University’—Universitas—had, in its origin, nothing to do with Universality: it meant no more than a Society, organised (as it happened) to promote learning. But words, like institutions, often rise above their beginnings, and in time acquire a proud secondary connotation. For an instance let me give you the beautiful Wykehamist motto Manners Makyeth Man, wherein ‘manners’ originally meant no more than ‘morals.’ So there has grown around our two great Universities of Oxford and Cambridge a connotation (secondary, if you will, but valuable above price) of universality; of standing like great beacons of light, to attract the young wings of all who would seek learning for their sustenance. Thousands have singed, thousands have burned themselves, no doubt: but what thousands of thousands have caught the sacred fire into their souls as they passed through and passed out, to carry it, to drop it, still as from wings, upon waste places of the world! Think of country vicarages, of Australian or Himalayan outposts, where men have nourished out lives of duty upon the fire of three transient, priceless years. Think of the generations of children to whom their fathers’ lives, prosaic enough, could always be re-illumined if someone let fall the word ‘Oxford’ or ‘Cambridge,’ so that they themselves came to surmise an aura about the name as of a land very far off; and then say if the ineffable spell of those two words do not lie somewhere in the conflux of generous youth with its rivalries and clash of minds, ere it disperses, generation after generation, to the duller business of life. Would you have your mother University, Gentlemen, undecorated by some true study of your mother-English?  14
  I think not, having been there, and known such thoughts as you will carry away, and having been against expectation called back to report them.
          And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seem’d not so far to seek,
  And all the world and I seem’d far less cold,
  And at the rainbow’s foot lay surely gold,
And hope was strong, and life itself not weak.
  15
  My purpose here (and I cannot too often recur to it) is to wean your minds from hankering after false Germanic standards and persuade you, or at least point out to you, in what direction that true study lies if you are men enough to take up your inheritance and believe in it as a glory to be improved.  16
  Neither Oxford nor Cambridge nor any University on earth can study English Literature truthfully or worthily, or even at all profitably, unless by studying it in the category for which Heaven, or Nature (call the ultimate cause what you will), intended it; or, to put the assertion more concretely, in any other category than that for which the particular author—be his name Chaucer or Chesterton, Shakespeare or Shaw—designed it; as neither can Oxford nor Cambridge nor any University study English Literature, to understand it, unless by bracing itself to consider a living art. Origins, roots, all the gropings towards light—let these be granted as accessories; let those who search in them be granted all honour, all respect. It is only when they preach or teach these preliminaries, these accessories, to be more important than Literature itself—it is only when they, owing all their excuse in life to the established daylight, din upon us that the precedent darkness claims precedence in honour, that one is driven to utter upon them this dialogue, in monosyllables:
        And God said, ‘Let there be light’: and there was light.
‘Oh, thank you, Sir,’ said the Bat and the Owl; ‘then we are off!’
  17
  I grant you, Gentlemen, that there must always inhere a difficulty in correlating for the purposes of a Tripos a study of Literature itself with a study of these accessories; the thing itself being naturally so much more difficult: being so difficult indeed that (to take literary criticism alone and leave for a moment the actual practice of writing out of the question) though some of the first intellects in the world—Aristotle, Longinus, Quintilian, Boileau, Dryden, Lessing, Goethe, Coleridge, Sainte-Beuve—have broken into parcels of that territory, the mass of it remains unexplored, and nobody as yet has found courage to reduce the reports of these great explorers to any system; so that a very eminent person undeed found it easy to write to me the other day, ‘The principles of Criticism? What are they? Who made them?’ To this I could only answer that I did not know Who made them; but that Aristotle, Dryden, Lessing, had, as it was credibly reported, discovered five or, it might be, six. And this difficulty of appraising literature absolutely inheres in your study of it from the beginning. No one can have set a General Paper on Literature and examined on it, setting it and marking the written answers, alongside of papers about language, inflexions and the rest, without having borne in upon him that here the student finds his difficulty. While in a paper set about inflexions, etc., a pupil with a moderately retentive memory will easily obtain sixty or seventy per cent. of the total marks, in a paper on the book or play considered critically an examiner, even after setting his paper with a view to some certain inferiority of average, has to be lenient before he can award fifty, forty, or even thirty per cent. of the total.  18
  You will find a somewhat illuminating passage—illuminating, that is, if you choose to interpret and apply it to our subject—in Lucian’s True History, where the veracious traveller, who tells the tale, affirms that he visited Hades among other places, and had some conversation with Homer, among its many inhabitants—
          Before many days had passed, I accosted the poet Homer, when we were both disengaged, and asked him, among other things, where he came from; it was still a burning question with us, I explained. He said he was aware that some derived him from Chios, others from Smyrna, and others again from Colophon; but in fact he was a Babylonian, generally known not as Homer but as Tigranes; but when later in life he was given as a homer or hostage to the Greeks, that name clung to him. Another of my questions was about the so-called spurious books; had he written them or not? He said that they were all genuine: so I now knew what to think of the critics Zenodotus and Aristarchus and all their lucubrations. Having got a categorical answer on that point, I tried him next on his reason for starting the Iliad with the wrath of Achilles. He said he had no exquisite reason; it just came into his head that way.
Even so diverse are the questions that may be asked concerning any great work of art. But to discover its full intent is always the most difficult task of all. That task, however, and nothing less difficult, will always be the one worthiest of a great University.
  19
  On that, and on that alone, Gentlemen, do I base all claims for our School of English Literature. And yet in conclusion I will ask you, reminding yourselves how fortunate is your lot in Cambridge, to think of fellow-Englishmen far less fortunate.  20
  Years ago I took some pains to examine the examination papers set by a renowned Examining Body and I found this—‘I humbly solicit’ (to use a phrase of Lucian’s) ‘my hearers’ incredulity’—that in a paper set upon three Acts of Hamlet—three Acts of Hamlet!—the first question started with ‘G.tt.p.cha’ ‘Al..g.tor’ and invited the candidate to fill in the missing letters correctly. Now I was morally certain that the words ‘guttapercha’ and ‘alligator’ did not occur in the first three Acts of Hamlet; but having carefully re-read them I invited this examining body to explain itself. The answer I got was that, to understand Shakespeare, a student must first understand the English Language! Some of you on leaving Cambridge will go out—a company of Christian folk dispersed throughout the world—to tell English children of English Literature. Such are the pedagogic fetters you will have to knock off their young minds before they can stand and walk.  21
  Gentlemen, on a day early in this term I sought the mound which is the old Castle of Cambridge. Access to it, as perhaps you know, lies through the precincts of the County Prison. An iron railing encloses the mound, having a small gate, for the key of which a notice-board advised me to ring the prison bell. I rang. A very courteous gaoler answered the bell and opened the gate, which stands just against his wicket. I thanked him, but could not forbear asking ‘Why do they keep this gate closed?’ ‘I don’t know, sir,’ he answered, ‘but I suppose if they didn’t the children might get in and play.’  22
  So with his answer I went up the hill and from the top saw Cambridge spread at my feet; Magdalene below me, and the bridge which—poor product as it is of the municipal taste—has given its name to so many bridges all over the world; the river on its long ambit to Chesterton; the tower of St John’s, and beyond it the unpretentious but more beautiful tower of Jesus College. To my right the magnificent chine of King’s College Chapel made its own horizon above the yellowing elms. I looked down on the streets—the narrow streets—the very streets which, a fortnight ago, I tried to people for you with that mediaeval throng which has passed as we shall pass. Still in my ear the gaoler’s answer repeated itself—‘I suppose, if they didn’t keep it locked, the children might get in and play’: and a broken echo seemed to take it up, in words that for a while had no more coherence than the scattered jangle of bells in the town below. But as I turned to leave, they chimed into an articulate sentence and the voice was the voice of Francis Bacon—Regnum Scientiae ut regnum Coeli non nisi sub persona infantis intratur.—Into the Kingdom of Knowledge, as into the Kingdom of Heaven, whoso would enter must become as a little child.  23


Note 1.  Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. iii, p. 213. [back]

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