"The College Course in English Literature, How it May Be Improved" from PMLA (1884-85)

This essay (excerpts from the whole) is mounted as part of the History of English Studies Page (Rita Raley). 

The possibility of bettering the present curriculum in English literature will depend in great measure upon the proportion of time allowed to it. So long as the classics and mathematics retain for themselves the lion's share of time interest, the hope s of our professors of literature will never become unduly exalted. If I may express myself with thorough frankness, the customary quota of English literature, say less than two hours per week for less than two years, is so insufficient that I cannot look upon it as capable of improvement. The study will remain perforce hurried and superficial. Now the course that I have in mind is one of two full hours (better three) throughout three entire years. It is the course which has been required since 1880 for the B. L. degree in the University of Cincinnati, vis., three years, three hours a week. The classical students are now (beginning with 1884) compelled to take two of the three years, and the Scientifics one year. Perhaps this last requirement will be here after raised to two years.

How is this amount of time to be best utilized? I confess that at more than one point I am in doubt; at least, my past experience is still to some extent only experimental.

1. What does not rightfully pertain to English Literature? Settling this preliminary question will help us greatly. The main question resolves itself into three: What are we to do with Logic, with Rhetoric, with English Philology (Anglo-Saxon and Early English)? Fortunately the Logic question is fast settling itself. The growth of this study has been so rapid of late, its drift towards mathematics and the experimental sciences so unmistakable, that no disciplined mind of the present day can look upon logic and literature as having anything in common. As to Rhetoric, the course is not so clear. There are still only too many persons of influence and culture who persist in looking upon the instructor of English literature as necessarily the instructor of rhetoric. I am unable to share this opinion. To me rhetoric is a purely formal drill, having no more connection with the literature of England than it has with the literature of Greece, Rome, France, Germany, or Arabia. The canons of the art were laid down two thousand years ago by Aristotle, and quite one thousand years before there was an English literature in any sense.

To my way of thinking, the study of English literature means the study of the great movement of English life and feeling, as it is reflected in the purest prose of representative men; those men who have led their people's sympathies. Rhetoric always savors to me of the school-bench. It is, if we look into it scrutinizingly, little more than verbal jugglery. And however clever we may be at it ourselves, however quick we may be at perceiving it in others, we shall be none the wiser in understanding an author, the influences that moulded him, his peculiar mission, his hold upon us. The proper object of literary study, in one word, is to train us to read, to grasp an author's personality in all its bearings. And the less rhetoric here, the better -- in my judgment. Rhetorical exercises are, of course, useful. So are the parallel bars and dumb-bells of a gymnasium. Need I push the comparison farther? *

In the next place, how is it with Anglo-Saxon and early English? I think that here most of us have confounded two radically distinct matters, vis., literature and language. Literature is thought. Were, now, the connection of thought between our King Alfred of pious memory and our Queen Victoria an unbroken continuity, I could spare my time. I should say at once, unhesitatingly, that it would be our duty to master Beowulf and Elene just as the Athenians and Alexandrians mastered the lliad and the Odyssey. But alas, the case is quite otherwise. However unpleasantly the confession may go against my own personal interest and sympathy, as a devoted specialist in Anglo-Saxon philology, l must confess that everything anterior to the Conquest is as foreign to our way of thinking as if it had been expressed in a foreign tongue. It is more foreign even than the thought of the Greeks and Romans. l do not see what literary culture our undergraduates can possibly derive from any English writings anterior to Chaucer's. And even Chaucer, whom I sincerely and heartily relish, is -- shall I say -- double-faced? He is a colossal sphinx. We look at him from one side, and his smile is sunny and inviting, and we hail him as one of ourselves, as indeed our literary father. But when, by dint of patient exploration, we have struggled around to the other side, we discover that our so-called father is the veriest enfant perdu of all the grossness, folly, superstition, and prattle that go by the name of the Mid dle Ages. By all means let us read our Chaucer. He is too poetical a poet to be ignored. But when we read, let us remember that he is not wholly one of us. There is a gulf between him and the meanest of the great Eljzabethans.

I have expressed doubt as to the utility of Anglo-Saxon in a course of English literature. But if Anglo-Saxon be taught, let me make one suggestion. Our present method is a wrong one. We put our students into the most difficult and archaic poetry, and ignore the easy prose vernacular. This is anything but wise. Granting that Beowulf is a spirited poem, the noblest relic of ancient Germanic spirit, is it not too obscure for the non-specialist? And if, by dint of commentaries, we help the student over t he hard places, have we given him the best insight into the language, which is -- after all -- the chief object of the study? . .

On one point, at least, I have no doubts, viz., that every teacher of our literature should have made careful study of Anglo-Saxon and Early English. There are in modern speech hundreds of linguistic survivals which the trained eye sees through at a glance, but which are a perpetuaI stumbling block to the empiric. . . .

2. Passing from this preliminary discussion of negatives to the more positive question. How is English literature, as Iiterature, to be taught, I wish to say a word or two upon the importance of teaching it by periods. `Whatever be the amount of time at our disposal, we shall not do our whole duty by our pupils, if we neglect to impress upon their minds the ohservance of the great lines of division. They are only two-the first ends with the death of Milton; the second, with the death of Samuel Johnson . Of course these lines are not the hard, fixed lines of the geometrician or the statistician. They are ideal lines, merely serving to keep us within proper bounds. What does it matter that Dryden's authorship overlaps Milton's? Such juxtaposition only he ightens the contrast. Matthew Arnold has called Milton "the last of the Immortals." In general l do not subscribe to Mr. Arnold's literary dicta. But this once certainly he hit the mark. Milton is the direct successor and last survivor of Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare. So far as he is of any age and not for all time, he is of the great Elizabethan age. . . . With regard to the first great period, although it begins with Spenser and ends with Milton, we are to rememher that its typical form is the drama, and our chief efforts shotild he directed towards the proper treatment of Shakespeare. For the study of Shakespeare himself there is no lack of appliances. Yet l do not believe that the great dramatist is rightly studied. He is isolated too much. `We put our students into reading him before they are prepared. Thanks to Mr. Ward's excellent history of the English drama (now supplemented hy Mr. Symonds on the Predecessors of Shakespear e), the teacher can give, by lecture, an adequate treatment of the origin of the English drama. But this is not enough. The student should catch the tone and temper of the pre-Shakespeareans by reading them. Just here, alas, we break down. Mr. Morley's English Plays is not only an unwieldy and expensive book, but it is wretchedly planned and swims with errors of every kind, yet it is the only hook that attempts to cover the ground. The selections made by Charles Lamb, fifty years ago, are palpably inadequate. What we need is two volumes of selections, of equal size, say corresponding to Lamh's sel ections, one giving the quintessence of the best pieces prior to Shakespeare (but excluding Marlowe), the other treating in like manner Ben jonson and the others down to the reign of Charles I. I exclude Marlowe for the reason that his two leading plays, Faustus and Edward II, are now procurable in very good shape.

I have often tried to imagine to myself what results a year of this work might produce. A year that should include the first hook of the FaeryQueen, and some of Sidney's Sonnets, selections from Gorboduc, from Lyly, Greene, Kyd, three entire plays hy Shakespeare, seIections from Ben ionson, Chapman, Wehster, Ford, down to Shirley, and Milton s Comus. Such a year, would make, I think, an indelible impression upon the class. The second section, beginning with Dryden and ending with Samuel Johnson, is less interesting, because less poetic, but is perhaps more directly useful. With the aid of Mr. Hales's book, Arnold's selections from Johnson's Lives, and Mr. Minto' s Manual of English Prose, the teacher can scarcely fail to make his pupils understand how the founders of our modern style thought and expressed themselves.

The third section, again, is difficult, but not for lack of books or good material. The difficulty consists in knowing precisely where and how to begin. I have been for years in the habit of training my pupils to look upon Wordsworth, and especially upon his Tinturn Abbey, as the starting- point of our nineteenth century poet. Even this meets with objection from some quarters, I have perceived. Yet I cannot give up the position until some one offers me a better . .

* I do not wish to be understood as arguing in general against the utility of training in Rhetoric and Composition. In fact, such training seems to me an indispensable part of the school-curriculum. The above strictures are aimed solely at Rhetoric and Compositon, as they are often taught in College. In my experience, college-students have a positive dislike of such drill, while they are almost invariably attracted to literature proper. It seems to me that Rhetoric, if taught at all in College, should be taught by the professor of Philosophy. It should come after the instruction in literature, s hould be treated in a very liberal spirit, in fact, as a national mode of envisager the subject, and especially should the instruction be of a kind to contrast ancient methods and tastes with modern, English with continental. It will be perceived that all this is very different from recitation upon tropes, Introduction, and Arguments and from the writing of Themes.... 

Return to the top of the page or to the History of English Studies Page.