Friday 29 November 2019

Q: 'Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and some others'

'I must here ... avow my belief that before starting to lay down principles of literature or aesthetic a man should offer some evidence of his capacity to enjoy the better and eschew the worse. The claim, for the moment fashionable, that a general philosophy of aesthetic can be constructed by a thinker who, in practice, cannot distinguish Virgil from Bavius, or Rodin from William Dent Pitman, seems to me to presume a credulity beyond the dreams of illicit therapeutics. By "poetry", in these pages, I mean what has been written by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and some others.'
  So ends the short Preface to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's Studies in Literature (published in 1918, in a handsome edition, by the Cambridge University Press – my latest charity shop find). 'Q', as he was generally known, had been appointed King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge in 1912. It was an appointment that raised eyebrows, as Q had until then been known chiefly as a journalist and popular novelist (and hard-working political activist in the Liberal cause – which probably helped to secure the position). This was a time when English Literature was the new kid on the academic block, and there was still some doubt about what exactly it was and how it should be studied. Sir Arthur, unlikely and unacademic figure as he was, had a lasting impact on Cambridge's 'English tripos', for one thing ensuring that it remained mercifully light on philology and Anglo-Saxon (Q, a Cornishman, regarded himself as a Celt), and for another insisting on the inclusion of a curious field of study called 'the English Moralists'. When asked who these English Moralists were, Sir Arthur would respond with 'a lyrical outburst' culminating in 'a roll-call of the great names – "Hooker – Hobbes – Locke – Berkeley – Hume "; and ending with an exhausted "my God", as emotion got the better of him' (these are E.M.W. Tillyard's recollections, quoted by John Gross in that wonderful book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters). When, more than half a century later, I took the English Moralists option, the definition was indeed broad: I remember that it then took in St Augustine at one end and Freud at the other, with more English figures like Mill and Ruskin – and indeed Hobbes – also in the mix. I rather enjoyed the course, especially as my tutor often gave me a glass of whisky to dull the pain of intellection.
  In Q's time, Eng Lit was far from the dry, analytical academic subject it was to become. Sir Arthur himself, in his lectures and 'studies', 'seldom did much more than ramble cheerfully round the subject, shedding a vague glow of enthusiasm' (as Gross puts it). I don't recall anyone shedding the faintest glow of enthusiasm in my Cambridge days, apart from the outsider figure of  George Steiner, who managed to enthuse me mightily about Beckett, Nabokov and Borges in one extraordinary lecture (or maybe it was a talk to the English Society).
  One of the questions about Eng Lit that had to be decided in Sir Arthur's time was how close to the present the study of the subject should come. In one of the Studies, ostensibly on the poetry of George Meredith, Q declares that 'I think it is time to hint at least that the Modern and Medieval Languages Board intend to justify by practice what they meant when, in framing the separate English Tripos, they so far ignored academic tradition and dared the rage of schoolmasters – which, like that of sheep, is terrible – as to open the study of English down to our own times, declining to allow that any past date could be settled, even by university statute, as the one upon which English literature took to its bed, and expired, and was beatified.'
  Sir Arthur goes on to state his conviction 'that upon a school of English there rests an obligation to teach the writing of good English as well as the reading of it: to teach the writing of it through the reading. I want the average educated Englishman to write English as deftly, as scrupulously, as the average educated Frenchman writes French; to have, as at present he has not, at least an equal respect for his language.' Ah, if only that had come to pass...


  1. I enjoyed your refreshing posting even as bemoan the present state of literature studies in American university; New Criticism and art for art’s sake has been pushed aside by political activists who hate all DWM authors. Hmmm. I must now look for a copy of Q’s book.

  2. I know, the more I read of the state of our universities – over here as well as over there – the more dismal the outlook seems. I cannot see why anyone would want to 'read' Eng Lit at university now. The rot was even beginning in my own day, 50 years ago, and it's only got worse, at an accelerating pace. Let's hope we're at the far swing of the pendulum and things will right themselves at some point...