Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 44. Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury

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

XXV. Scholars

§ 44. Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury

It was the fortune of Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury (1838–1915) to produce studies of both Chaucer and of Shakespeare. In 1870 he was appointed instructor in English in the newly established Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, and in 1871 became professor in charge of the English department. The first fruit of his work in Chaucer was an edition of the Parlement of Foules in 1877. His History of the English Language (1879) has gone through many editions and still holds its place as a standard textbook. It was in 1892 that he published the ripe results of his labors upon Chaucer. The Studies in Chaucer comprise eight monographs. The first two present Chaucer’s biography—one the biography as far as it is established by evidence and duly guarded inference from the documents, the other the mythical biography or “Chaucer Legend.” This simple and profitable distinction Lounsbury seems to have been the first to make, and the effect is comparable to that of Observations on the Language of Chaucer. Slight errors in detail did not prevent this account of Chaucer’s life from being the most accurate which had yet been written. The third monograph, that on Chaucer’s text, is an admirable popular account of the method of textual criticism. The fourth presents Lounsbury’s canon of Chaucer’s work. The fifth, that on Chaucer’s learning, is admirable again in its comprehensive view of Chaucer’s sources and of the use he made of them. The sixth consists of two sections, one on Chaucer’s language, and the other on his religion. The seventh and the eighth, perhaps the most valuable of all, treat respectively Chaucer’s “fortunes”—Chaucer in Literary History—and his craftsmanship—Chaucer as a Literary Artist. The Studies are exceedingly diffuse. They suffer from occasional paradox. Their arguments (Chapter VII) that Chaucer’s spelling and pronunciation should be modernized, can surely not be allowed. Yet, volume for volume, it would not be easy to find anywhere a set of more solidly valuable literary studies. They have served to give body and weight to many a student’s vague conceptions of Chaucer, and, as their style is popular, they must also have carried their substantial materials to many “general” readers.

The three volumes of Shakespearean Wars (1901–06) began as a study of Shakespeare’s text. Soon it appeared that the treatment accorded the text by editors and critics depended in great measure upon their conception of Shakespeare’s art; hence Lounsbury, in much the same way in which he had studied the “fortunes” of Chaucer, was led to study the “fortunes” of Shakespeare. These, as might have been expected, proved to be deeply involved in the general opposition of romanticists to classicists; and of the latter Voltaire emerged as the international champion. Thus finally Lounsbury’s studies took shape in a volume on Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist, a volume on Shakespeare and Voltaire, and a volume on The Text of Shakespeare. The first traces to the end of the eighteenth century the course of English opinion about dramatic matters. It shows, what had perhaps been only suspected or inferred, that Shakespeare was, throughout, an encouragement to the more “romantic” party in the controversies; contrary to an opinion rather generally credited, it shows, too, that Shakespeare was esteemed at all times, and esteemed highly even by “classical” opponents of his practice, who, while they lamented his want of art, admitted that they were pleased by his wildness and nature. With the volume on Voltaire the field of controversy becomes international: Voltaire’s exile and return; his initial appreciation of Shakespeare and later recoil from its revolutionary consequences; his belief in the dangers of a barbaric romanticism; his wrath at Letourneur; his controversial relations with Kames, Walpole, Johnson, and Garrick, and the retroactive effect upon his own reputation in England; finally the persistence of his authority as literary arbiter upon the Continent even to the day of Goetz von Berlichingen, when the Mede was at the gate and the handwriting clear upon the wall. The third volume centres upon Pope’s and Theobald’s editions of Shakespeare; the meannesses of Pope and the significance of the first version of the Dunciad as a piece of Shakespearean controversy; Bentley’s emendations of Paradise Lost and the discredit they brought upon all verbal criticism, including the prospective criticism of Theobald—the history, in a word, of the means by which one of the ablest of all the editors of Shakespeare has been pilloried for posterity as “piddling Tibbald.”

It will be seen that compared with the Studies in Chaucer the Shakespearean Wars occupied a much smaller portion of a much larger field; that even this portion had been cultivated before, though never so intensively; that, of course, it was needless to do for Shakespeare what the earlier studies had done for Chaucer; and that for all these reasons the later studies are distinctly less important than the earlier. The same remark applies to Lounsbury’s still later works on usage—in diction, in spelling, and in pronunciation, where his diffuseness has come dangerously near prolixity; and to his studies of Tennyson and of Browning, interesting and appreciative though these are. Lounsbury will, it is safe to say, be remembered partly as a scholar who elucidated the attitude of the eighteenth century toward Shakespeare, but chiefly as the scholar whose book made Chaucer a reality beyond the circle of specialists.