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Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863–1944). On the Art of Reading. 1920.

VI. On a School of English

Wednesday, October 17, 1917


IT is now, Gentlemen, five years less a term since, feeling (as they say of other offenders) my position acutely, I had the honour of reading an Inaugural before this University and the impudence to loose, in the course of it, a light shaft against a phrase in the very Ordinance defining the duties of this Chair.
  • ‘It shall be the duty of the Professor,’ says the Ordinance, ‘to deliver courses of lectures 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.’
  • That was the phrase at which I glanced—‘the subject of English Literature’; and I propose that we start to-day, for reasons that will appear, by subjecting this subject to some examination.


    ‘The Subject of English Literature.’ Surely—for a start—there is no such thing; or rather, may we not say that everything is, has been or can be, a subject of English Literature? Man’s loss of Paradise has been a subject of English Literature, and so has been a Copper Coinage in Ireland, and so has been Roast Sucking-pig, and so has been Holy Dying, and so has been Mr Pepys’s somewhat unholy living, and so have been Ecclesiastical Polity, The Grail, Angling for Chub, the Wealth of Nations, The Sublime and the Beautiful, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Prize-Fights, Grecian Urns, Modern Painters, Intimations of Immortality in early Childhood, Travels with a Donkey, Rural Rides and Rejected Addresses—all these have been subjects of English Literature: as have been human complots and intrigues as wide asunder as Othello and The School for Scandal; persons as different as Prometheus and Dr Johnson, Imogen and Moll Flanders, Piers the Plowman and Mr Pickwick; places as different as Utopia and Cranford, Laputa and Reading Gaol. Epipsychidion is literature: but so is A Tale of a Tub.

    Listen, for this is literature:

  • If some king of the earth have so large an extent of dominion, in north, and south, so that he hath winter and summer together in his dominions, so large an extent east and west as that he hath day and night together in his dominions much more hath God mercy and judgement together: He brought light out of darkness, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy summer out of winter, though thou have no spring; though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupefied till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
  • But listen again, for this also is literature:

  • A sweet disorder in the dress
  • Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
  • A lawn about the shoulders thrown
  • Into a fine distraction:
  • An erring lace, which here and there
  • Enthrals the crimson stomacher:
  • A cuff neglectful, and thereby
  • Ribbons to flow confusedly:
  • A winning wave, deserving note,
  • In the tempestuous petticoat:
  • A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
  • I see a wild civility!
  • Do more bewitch me than when art
  • Is too precise in every part.
  • Here again is literature:

  • When I was a child, at seven years old, my friends on a holiday filled my pockets with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered him all my money for one. I then came home and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle but disturbing all the family. My brothers and sisters and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth.… The reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.
  • Of a bridal, this is literature:

  • Open the temple gates unto my love,
  • Open them wide that she may enter in!
  • But so also is Suckling’s account of a wedding that begins

  • I tell thee, Dick, where I have been.
  • This is literature:

  • And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest;
  • As rivers of water in a dry place,
  • As the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.
  • But so is this literature:

  • One circle cannot touch another circle on the outside at more points than one.
  • For, if it be possible, let the circle ACK touch the circle ABC at the points AC. Join AC.
  • Then because the two points AC are in the circumference of the circle ACK the line which joins them falls within that circle.
  • But the circle ACK is without the circle ABC. Therefore the straight line AC is without the circle ABC.
  • But because the two points A, C are in the circumference of ABC therefore the straight line A, C falls within that circle. Which is absurd.
  • Therefore one circle cannot touch another on the outside at more points than one.
  • All thoughts, as well as all passions, all delights

  • votum, timor, ira, voluptas—
  • whatsoever, in short, engages man’s activity of soul or body, may be deemed the subject of literature and is transformed into literature by process of recording it in memorable speech. It is so, it has been so, and God forbid it should ever not be so!


    Now this, put so, is (you will say) so extremely obvious that it must needs hide a fallacy or at best a quibble on a word. I shall try to show that it does not: that it directly opposes plain truth to a convention accepted by the Ordinance, and that the fallacy lies in that convention.

    A convention may be defined as something which a number of men have agreed to accept in lieu of the truth and to pass off for the truth upon others: I was about to add, preferably when they can catch them young: but some recent travel in railway trains and listening to the kind of stuff men of mature years deliver straight out of newspapers for the products of their own digested thought have persuaded me that the ordinary man is as susceptible at fifty, sixty, or even seventy as at any earlier period of growth, and that the process of incubation is scarcely less rapid.

    I am not, to be sure, concerned to deny that there may be conventions useful enough to society, serving it to maintain government, order, public and private decency, or the commerce on which it must needs rest to be a civilised society at all—commerce of food, commerce of clothing, and so on, up to commerce in knowledge and ideas. Government itself—any form of it—is a convention; marriage is a convention; money of course is a convention, and the alphabet itself I suppose to contain as many conventions as all the old Courts of Love and Laws of Chivalry put together, and our English alphabet one tremendous fallacy, that twenty-six letters, separately or in combination are capable of symbolising all the sounds produced by an Englishman’s organs of speech, let alone the sounds he hears from foreigners, dogs, guns, steam-engines, motor-horns and other friends and enemies to whom we deny the franchise. Also of course it ignores the whole system of musical notes—another convention—which yet with many of the older bards could hardly be separated from the words they used, though now only the words survive and as literature.


    But every convention has a fallacy somewhere at the root; whether it be useful and operative, as many a legal fiction is operative, for good; or senile, past service yet tyrannous by custom, and so pernicious; or merely foolish, as certain artistic conventions are traceable, when a Ruskin comes to judgment, back to nothing better than folly: and it becomes men of honest mind, in dealing with anything recognisable as a convention, to examine its accepted fallacy, whether it be well understood or ill understood; beneficent or pernicious or merely foolish or both foolish and pernicious: and this is often most handily done by tracing its history.

    Now I shall assume that the framers of the Ordinance regulating the duties of this chair knew well enough, of their own reading, that English Literature deals with a vast variety of subjects: and that, if any piece of writing miss to deal with its particular subject, so closely that theme and treatment can scarcely be separated, by so much will it be faulty as literature. Milton is fairly possessed with the story of Man’s fall, Boswell possessed with Johnson, Shelley with hatred of tyranny in all its manifestations, Mill again with the idea of Liberty: and it is only because we had knowledge presented to us at an age when we thought more attentively of apples, that we still fail to recognise in Euclid and Dr Todhunter two writers who are excellent because possessed with a passion for Geometry.

    I infer, then, that the framers of the Ordinance, when they employed this phrase ‘the study of the subject of English Literature,’ knew well enough that no such thing existed in nature, but adopted the convention that English Literature could be separated somehow from its content and treated as a subject all by itself, for teaching purposes: and, for purposes of examination, could be yoked up with another subject called English Language, as other Universities had yoked it.


    I believe the following to be a fair account of how these examinations in English Language and Literature came to pass, and how a certain kind of student came to pass these Examinations. At any rate since the small revolution has happened in my life-time and most of it since I was able to observe, the account here is drawn from my own observation and may be checked and corrected by yours.

    Thirty-five or forty years ago—say in the late seventies or early eighties—some preparatory schools, and others that taught older boys but ranked below the great Public Schools in repute, taught so much of English Literature as might be comprised, at a rough calculation, in two or three plays of Shakespeare, edited by Clark and Aldis Wright; a few of Bacon’s Essays, Milton’s early poems, Stopford Brooke’s little primer, a book of extracts for committal to memory, with perhaps Chaucer’s Prologue and a Speech of Burke. In the great Public Schools no English Literature was studied, save in those which had invented ‘Modern Sides,’ to prepare boys specially for Woolwich or Sandhurst or the Indian Civil Service; for entrance to which examinations were held on certain prescribed English Classics, and marks mainly given for acquaintance with the editors’ notes.

    In the Universities, the study of English Classics was not officially recognised at all.

    Let us not hastily suppose that this neglect of English rested wholly on unreason, or had nothing to say for itself. Teachers and tutors of the old Classical Education (as it was called) could plead as follows:

  • ‘In the first place,’ they would say, ‘English Literature is too easy a study. Our youth, at School or University, starts on his native classics with a hability which in any foreign language he has painfully to acquire. The voices that murmured around his cradle, the voice of his nurse, of his governess, of the parson on Sundays; the voices of village boys, stablemen, gamekeepers and farmers—friendly or unfriendly—of callers, acquaintances, of the children he met at Children’s Parties; the voices that at the dinner-table poured politics or local gossip into the little pitcher with long ears—all these were English voices speaking in English: and all these were all the while insensibly leading him up the slope from the summit of which he can survey the promised land spread at his feet as a wide park; and he holds the key of the gates, to enter and take possession. Whereas,’ the old instructors would continue, ‘with the classics of any foreign language we take him at the foot of the steep ascent, spread a table before him (mensa, mensa, mensam…) and coax or drive him up with variations upon amo, “I love” or [Greek8], “I beat,” until he, too, reaches the summit and beholds the landscape:
  • But O, what labour!
  • O Prince, what pain!’
  • Now so much of truth, Gentlemen, as this plea contains was admitted last term by your Senate, in separating the English Tripos, in which a certain linguistic familiarity may be not rashly presumed of the student, from the Foreign Language Triposes, divided into two parts, of which the first will more suspiciously test his capacity to construe the books he professes to have studied. I may return to this and to the alleged easiness of studies in a School of English. Let us proceed just now with the reasoned plea for neglect.

    These admirable old schoolmasters and dons would have hesitated, maybe, to say flatly with Dogberry that ‘to write and read comes by nature … and for your writing and reading, let that appear when there is no need of such vanity.’ But in practice their system so worked, and in some of the Public Schools so works to this day. Let me tell you that just before the war an undergraduate came to me from the Sixth Form of one of the best reputed among these great schools. He wished to learn to write. He wished (poor fellow) to write me an essay, if I would set him a subject. He had never written an essay at school. ‘Indeed,’ said I, ‘and there is no reason why you should, if by “essay” you mean some little treatise about “Patriotism” or “A Day in the Country.” I will choose you no such subject nor any other upon any book which you have never read. Tell me, what is your Tripos?’ He said ‘the History Tripos.’ ‘Then,’ said I, ‘since History provides quite a large number of themes, choose one and I will try to correct your treatment of it, without offence to your opinions or prejudice to your facts.’ ‘But,’ he confessed, ‘at So-and-so’—naming the great Public School—‘we never wrote out an account of anything, or set down our opinions on anything, to be corrected. We just construed and did sums.’ And when he brought me his first attempt, behold, it was so. He could not construct a simple sentence, let alone putting two sentences together; while, as for a paragraph, it lay beyond his farthest horizon. In short, here was an instance ready to hand for any cheap writer engaged to decry the old Classical Education.

    What would the old schoolmasters plead in excuse? Why this, as I suggest—‘You cite an extreme instance. But, while granting English Literature to be great, we would point out that an overwhelming majority of our best writers have modelled their prose and verse upon the Greek and Roman classics, either directly or through tradition. Now we have our own language gratis, so to speak. Let us spend our pains, then, in acquiring Latin and Greek, and the tradition. So shall we most intimately enjoy our own authors; and so, if we wish to write, we shall have at hand the clues they followed, the models they used.’

    Now I have as you know, Gentlemen, a certain sympathy with this plea, or with a part of it: nor can so much of truth as its argument contains be silenced by a ‘What about Shakespeare?’ or a ‘What about Bunyan?’ or a ‘What about Burns?’ I believe our imaginary pleader for the Classics could put up a stout defence upon any of those names. To choose the forlornest hope of the three, I can hear him demonstrating, to his own satisfaction if not to yours, that Bunyan took his style straight out of the Authorised Version of our Bible; which is to say that he took it from the styles of forty-seven scholars, plus Tyndale’s, plus Coverdale’s, plus Cranmer’s—the scholarship of fifty scholars expressed and blended.

    But, as a theory, the strict classical argument gives itself away, as well by its intolerance as by its obvious distrust of the genius of our own wonderful language. I have in these five years, and from this place, Gentlemen, counselled you to seek back ever to those Mediterranean sources which are the well-heads of our civilisation: but always (I hope) on the understanding that you use them with a large liberty. They are effete for us unless we add and mingle freely the juice of our own natural genius.

    And in practice the strict classical theory, with its implied contempt of English, has been disastrous: disastrous not only with the ordinary man—as with my Sixth Form boy who could not put two sentences together, and had read no English authors; but disastrous even to highly eminent scholars. Listen, pray, to this passage from one of them, Frederick Paley, who condescended (Heaven knows why) to turn the majestic verse of Pindar into English Prose—

  • From the VIIIth Isthmian:
  • And now that we are returned from great sorrows, let us not fall into a dearth of victories, nor foster griefs; but as we have ceased from our tiresome troubles, we will publicly indulge in a sweet roundelay.
  • From the IVth Pythian:
  • It had been divinely predicted to Pelias, that he should die by the doughty sons of Aeolus … and an alarming oracle had come to his wary mind, delivered at the central point of tree-clad mother-earth, ‘that he must by all means hold in great caution the man with one shoe, when he shall have come from a homestead on the hills.’
  • And he accordingly came in due time, armed with two spears, a magnificent man. The dress he wore was of a double kind, the material costume of the Magnesians.… Nor as yet had the glossy clusters of his hair been clipped away, but dangled brightly adown his back.
  • Forward he went at once and took his stand among the people.… Him then they failed to recognise: but some of the reverent-minded went so far as to say, ‘Surely this cannot be Apollo!’
  • It needs no comment, I think. Surely this cannot be Apollo!

    Frederick Paley flourished—if the word be not exorbitant for so demure a writer—in the middle of the last century (he was born in the year of Waterloo and died in the year after Queen Victoria’s first Jubilee). Well, in that period there grew up a race of pioneers who saw that English Literature—that proud park and rolling estate—lay a tangled, neglected wilderness for its inheritors, and set themselves bravely to clear broad ways through it. Furnivall and Skeat, Aldis Wright, Clark, Grosart, Arber, Earle, Hales, Morris, Ellis and the rest—who can rehearse these names now but in deepest respect? Oh, believe me, Gentlemen! they were wonderful fighters in a cause that at first seemed hopeless. If I presume to speak of foibles to-day, you will understand that I do so because, lightly though I may talk to you at times, I have a real sense of the responsibilities of this Chair. I worship great learning, which they had: I loathe flippant detraction of what is great; I have usually a heart for men-against-odds and the unpopular cause. But these very valiant fighters had, one and all, some very obvious foibles: and because, in the hour of success, these foibles came to infect the whole teaching of English in this country, and to infect it fatally for many years, I shall dare to point them out.


    (a) To begin with, then, these valiant fighters, intent on pushing their cause to the front, kept no sense of proportion. All their geese were swans, and Beowulf a second Iliad. I think it scarcely too much to say that, of these men, all so staunch in fighting for the claims of English Literature, not one (with the exception of Dr Hales) appears to have had any critical judgment whatever, apart from the rhyme, verse and inflectional tests on which they bestowed their truly priceless industry. Criticism, as Sainte Beuve, Matthew Arnold or Pater understood and practised it, they merely misprized.

    (b) I think it was of true scholarly desire to vindicate English Literature from the charge of being ‘too easy,’ that—as their studies advanced—they laid more and more stress on Middle-English and Old English writings than on what our nations of England and Scotland have written since they learned to write. I dare to think also that we may attribute to this dread of ‘easiness’ their practice of cumbering simple texts with philological notes; on which, rather than on the text, we unhappy students were carefully examined. For an example supplied to Dr Corson—I take those three lines of Cowper’s Task (Bk I, 86–88):

  • Thus first necessity invented stools,
  • Convenience next suggested elbow-chairs,
  • And luxury th’ accomplish’d SOFA last.
  • Now in these three lines the word ‘accomplish’d’ is the only one that needs even the smallest explanation. ‘But,’ says Dr Corson, ‘in two different editions of The Task in my library, prepared for the use of the young, no explanation is given of it, but in both the Arabic origin of ‘sofa’ is given. In one the question is asked what other words in English have been derived from the Arabic.’ (‘Abracadabra’ would be my little contribution.)

    (c) These valiant fighters—having to extol what Europe had, wrongly enough, forgotten to count among valuable things—turned aggressively provincial, parted their beards in the Anglo-Saxon fashion; composed long sentences painfully innocent of any word not derivable from Anglo-Saxon, sentences in which the ‘impenetrability of matter’ became the ‘un-go-throughsomeness of stuff’ (but that may have happened in a parody), and in general comported themselves like the Anglo-Saxons they claimed for their forbears; rightly enough for anything anyone cared, but wrongly enough for the rest of us who had no yearning toward that kinship and went on spelling Alfred with an A.

    (d) They were—I suppose through opposition—extremely irascible men; like farmers. Urbanity was the last note in their gamut, the City—urbs quam dicunt Roman—the last of places in their ken. There was no engaging them in dialectic, an Athenian art which they frankly despised. If you happened to disagree with them, their answer was a sturdy Anglo-Saxon brick. If you politely asked your way to Puddlehampton, and to be directed to Puddlehampton’s main objects of interest, the answer you would get (see ‘Notes and Queries’ passim) would be, ‘Who is this that comes out of Nowhere, enquiring for Puddlehampton, unacquainted with Stubbs? Is it possible at this time of day that the world can contain anyone ignorant of the published Transactions of the Wiltshire Walking Club, Vol. III, p. 159—Puddlehampton, its Rise and Decline, with a note on Vespasian.’

    (e) These pioneers—pushing the importance of English, but occupied more and more with origins and with bad authors, simply could not see the vital truth; that English Literature is a continuing thing, ten times more alive to-day than it was in the times they studied and belauded. The last word upon them is that not a man of them could write prose in the language they thrust on our study. To them, far more than to the old classical scholars, English was a shut book: a large book, but closed and clasped, material to heighten a desk for schoolmasters and schoolmistresses.

    But schoolmasters and schoolmistresses, like chickens and curses, come home to roost. Once set up your plea for a Tripos of English Language and Literature on the lower plea that it will provide for what they call a ‘felt want,’ and sooner or later you give English Language and Literature into their hands, and then you get the fallacy full-flowered into a convention. English Literature henceforth is a ‘subject,’ divorced from life: and what they have made of it, let a thousand handbooks and so-called histories attest. But this world is not a wilderness of class-rooms. English Language? They cannot write it, at all events. They do not (so far as I can discover) try to write it. They talk and write about it; how the poor deceased thing outgrew infantile ailments, how it was operated on for umlaut, how it parted with its vermiform appendix and its inflexions one by one, and lost its vowel endings in muted e’s.

  • And they went and told the sexton,
  • And the sexton toll’d the bell.
  • But when it comes to writing; to keeping bright the noble weapon of English, testing its poise and edge, feeling the grip, handing it to their pupils with the word, ‘Here is the sword of your fathers, that has cloven dragons. So use it, that we who have kept it bright may be proud of you, and of our pains, and of its continuing valiance’:—why, as I say, they do not even try. Our unprofessional forefathers, when they put pen to paper, did attempt English prose, and not seldom achieved it. But take up any elaborate History of English Literature and read, and, as you read, ask yourselves, ‘How can one of the rarest delights of life be converted into this? What has happened to merry Chaucer, rare Ben Jonson, gay Steele and Prior, to Goldsmith, Jane Austen, Charles Lamb?’
  • All, all are gone, the old familiar faces!
  • gone into the professional stock-pot! And the next news is that these cooks, of whom Chaucer wrote prophetically
  • These cookès, how they stampe and streyne and grinde,
  • And turnen substaunce into accident,
  • have formed themselves into professional Associations to protect ‘the study of the subject of English Literature’ and bark off any intruder who would teach in another way than theirs.


    But I say to you that Literature is not, and should not be, the preserve of any priesthood. To write English, so as to make Literature, may be hard. But English Literature is not a mystery, not a Professors’ Kitchen.

    And the trouble lies, not in the harm professionising does to schoolmasters and schoolmistresses, but in the harm it does ‘in widest commonalty spread’ among men and women who, as Literature was written for them, addressed to them, ought to find in it, all their lives through, a retirement from mean occupations, a well of refreshment, sustainment in the daily drudgery of life, solace in calamity, an inmate by the hearth, ever sociable, never intrusive—to be sought and found, to be found and dropped at will:

  • Men, when their affairs require
  • Must themselves at whiles retire.
  • Sometimes hunt, and sometimes hawk
  • And not ever sit and talk—
  • to be dropped at will and left without any answering growl of moroseness; to be consulted again at will and found friendly.

    For this is the trouble of professionising Literature. We exile it from the business of life, in which it would ever be at our shoulder, to befriend us. Listen, for example, to an extract from a letter written, a couple of weeks ago, by somebody in the Charity Commission:

  • Sir,
  • With reference to previous correspondence in this matter, I am to say that in all the circumstances of this case the Commissioners are of the opinion that it would be desirable that a public enquiry in connection with the Charity should be held in the locality.
  • And the man—very likely an educated man—having written that, very likely went home and read Chaucer, Dante, or Shakespeare, or Burke for pleasure! That is what happens when you treat literature as a ‘subject,’ separable from life and daily practice.


    I declare to you that Literature was not written for schoolmasters or for schoolmistresses. I would not exchange it for a wilderness of schoolmasters. It should be delivered from them, who, with their silly ablauts and ‘tendencies,’ can themselves neither read nor write. For the proof? Having the world’s quintessential store of mirth and sharp sorrow, wit, humour, comfort, farce, comedy, tragedy, satire; the glories of our birth and state, piled all at their elbows, only one man of the crowd—and he M. Jusserand, a Frenchman—has contrived to draw out of the mass one interesting well-written history of the ‘subject.’


    Is there, then, no better way? Yes there is a better way: for the French have it, with their language and literature. In France, as Matthew Arnold noted, a generation ago, the ordinary journey-man work of literature is done far better and more conscientiously than with us. In France a man feels it almost a personal stain, an unpatriotic lâche to write even on a police-order anything so derogatory to the tradition of his language as our Cabinet Ministers read out as answers to our House of Commons. I am told that many a Maire in a small provincial town in N.E. France, even when overwhelmed—accablé—with the sufferings of his town-folk, has truly felt the iron enter into his soul on being forced to sign a document written out for him in the invaders’ French.

    Cannot we treat our noble inheritance of literature and language as scrupulously, and with as high a sense of their appertaining to our national honour, as a Frenchman cherishes his language, his literature? Cannot we study to leave our inheritance—as the old Athenian put it temperately, ‘not worse but a little better than we found it’?

    I think we can, and should. I shall close to-day, Gentlemen, with the most modest of perorations. In my first lecture before you, in January 1913, I quoted to you the artist in Don Quixote who, being asked what animal he was painting, answered diffidently ‘That is as it may turn out.’

    The teaching of our language and literature is, after all, a new thing and still experimental. The main tenets of those who, aware of this, have worked on the scheme for a School of English in Cambridge, the scheme recently passed by your Senate and henceforth to be in operation, are three:—

    The first. That literature cannot be divorced from life: that (for example) you cannot understand Chaucer aright, unless you have the background, unless you know the kind of men for whom Chaucer wrote and the kind of men whom he made speak; that is the national side with which all our literature is concerned.

    The second. Literature being so personal a thing, you cannot understand it until you have some personal understanding of the men who wrote it. Donne is Donne; Swift, Swift; Pope, Pope; Johnson, Johnson; Goldsmith, Goldsmith; Charles Lamb, Charles Lamb; Carlyle, Carlyle. Until you have grasped those men, as men, you cannot grasp their writings. That is the personal side of literary study, and as necessary as the other.

    The third. That the writing and speaking of English is a living art, to be practised and (if it may be) improved. That what these great men have done is to hand us a grand patrimony; that they lived to support us through the trial we are now enduring, and to carry us through to great days to come. So shall our sons, now fighting in France, have a language ready for the land they shall recreate and repeople.