Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 43. Francis James Child

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXV. Scholars

§ 43. Francis James Child

Francis James Child (1825–96), who graduated at Harvard in 1846, spent the remainder of his life in the service of the University. In 1851, when he returned from two years’ study of Germanic philology at Göttingen and Berlin, he succeeded E. T. Channing as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, and in 1876 became professor of English. His critical annotated edition of Four Old Plays (1848) was the first of the kind to be produced in America. From 1853 onward, as general editor of a series of the British poets, he studied especially Spenser, Chaucer, and the English and Scottish ballads, himself editing Spenser (1855) and the Ballads (1857–58). His Spenser, according to Professor Kittredge, “remained after forty years the best edition of Spenser in existence.” Child was to have edited Chaucer, too, but he felt that the state of the text and of Chaucerian scholarship generally was not such as to make possible a satisfactory edition. Instead, he proceeded to help make a critical edition possible. His Observations on the Language of Chaucer (1863) put definitely out of date the random and arbitrary opinions—favourable or unfavourable, untrue or accidentally true—which critics had ever since the Renaissance been pronouncing upon Chaucer’s versification, and placed the matter henceforth upon a basis of exact knowledge. Child’s work has not had to be done over again; it has been the point of departure for later research, and remains the classic memoir in this field.

The Ballads of 1857, though it easily superseded all other collections, was for Child only a coup d’essai, its material mostly from printed sources. The great English and Scottish Popular Ballads of 1882–98 is based as much as possible upon manuscript sources, especially the Percy Folio manuscript and Sir Walter Scott’s collections at Abbotsford. Child had decided “not to print a line … till he had exhausted every effort to get hold of whatever manuscript material might be in existence.” With this material Child did not attempt to constitute for each ballad a single critical text, but, recognizing implicit differences between “popular” and “artistic” production, admitted the right of every traditional version to a place in his canon, and, by printing all obtainable versions, offered the broadest possible basis for comparison. His own Introductions and Notes enrich this material still further by bringing in all the obtainable foreign versions of each ballad theme. His collection is thus both a definitive corpus of English ballad material and a notable exemplar of the comparative study of literature.

In both his fields of scholarship—Chaucer and the ballad—Child left numerous disciples; and besides the legacy of a fixed body of material ready to be taken as a point of departure, he left the materials for a very lively and still very active controversy upon ballad origins, into which, however, it is impossible to go here. Child himself died before completing the last volume of his Ballads, which was to have contained a general preface or introduction that would in all probability have given his view upon the mooted topics. The animation and playfulness of Child’s learning must not go unmentioned. His humour everywhere leavens and feeds the very substance of his work—a humour which, playing with the solid materials of his scholarship, would have made him the ideal editor of those sane, humane, and playful persons, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Among the unwritten works, valde desiderata, of American scholaship, books like Norton’s On the European Power of Italy, and Gildersleeve’s History of Literary Satire, there must surely be counted the Shakespearian and Chaucerian texts and studies which Child did not produce.