The Beginning of English Literature

It is necessary for us to consider how English literature came to be taught as an academic subject in order to understand how Theory itself came about. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century, the focus of university education was entirely empirical; that is to say, quantifiable subjects such as mathematics, science, theology and philosophy were taught. Meanwhile, subjects such as English that are harder to view objectively were seen as mere leisure pursuits. Education in England remained dominated by the two great universities - Oxford and Cambridge - and by the Church hierarchy until well into the nineteenth century. Because of this, minorities (women, Jews and Catholics) were refused a university education. However, with the rise of the merchant classes during the Industrial Revolution* and the founding of the more liberal universities in London** and the Puritan Scottish universities at Glasgow and Edinburgh, higher education became more and more widespread. As such, there was a corresponding need for courses which appealed to all sections of the populous.

* [Sir Richard Steele said in 1799: "We merchants are a species of gentry that has come into the world this last century"]
** [By the Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham in 1826]

English was first taught in a form that we today would recognise at King's College London in 1831 (there had been linguistic courses earlier, but these were philological rather than critical). The great innovator in this progression was F.D. Maurice, who was English Professor at King's, and who set down the key reasons for studying English Literature in a lecture of 1840. He argued that studying the literature of our past would help us keep in contact with that which is "fixed and enduring", helping "to emancipate us... from the notions and habits which are peculiar to our own age". There is still no more compelling argument for the study of English. There is, however, a more sinister side to Maurice's argumentation. It must be remembered that England in the 1840s was not free from the spectre of revolution. The Anti- Corn Law League had recently seen the repeal of the hated Corn Laws and the Chartists were agitating for wide-scale political reform. Maurice saw the study of English Literature as a way of instilling national pride in the middle classes, whose reading of Shakespeare's Henry V, for instance, will persuade them of the necessity of maintaining the status quo and help them to feel like valued citizens of "this sceptred isle". Maurice was the un-Liberal Humanist, setting down the ways of studying literature which would endure until the great theoretical revolution of the twentieth century.

Matthew Arnold, partly because of F.R. Leavis' devotion to him, has remained one of the key figures in the history of English literary criticism. The essays which are most useful in tracing the development of Literary Theory are: The Function of Criticism at the Present Time and The Study of Poetry. He was the first critic to truly stress the necessity of remaining "disinterested" as a reader: thus removing the text from its context. Arnold furthermore developed the idea of the necessity of "tradition" as essential to an understanding of the literature of the present (an idea which was to be developed by T.S. Eliot in his famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"). Arnold came up with the notion of the "Touchstone" - the practice of holding up present literature against the literature of the past in order to judge its worth. Arnold's critical writing is dense, but rewards close reading.

T.S. Eliot developed several crucial critical approaches in his essays on literature. He continued in the footsteps of Sir Philip Sidney and Arnold as a poet who also wrote criticism. His key ideas are as follows:

1) Impersonality. In "Tradition and the Individual Talent" he comes up with the concept of "impersonality". This, simply put, states that the author, although seeming to write about issues gleaned from his own existence, is actually tapping into a kind of poetic spiritus mundi: drawing on what has gone before, providing a channel for poetic expression which comes, not out of the individual, but out of a well of poetic thought and feeling inherent in the world. Romantic poets from Shelley and Keats to Yeats all made claims of this sort, each as inherently unconvincing as Eliot's. It was clear that Eliot merely wanted to distract the public's attention from his own life, which was disturbingly lacking in emotion and identity, and was furthermore troubled by an mentally disturbed wife (who many see as the haunted female voice in The Waste Land.) Whilst it seems initially a humbling Theory - that the poet is not ultimately responsible for his work - Eliot's idea of "impersonality" perversely empowers the individual by asserting his position within the great tradition of English Literature.

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