Thursday 12 April 2018

Suggestion for the Morris Societies

William Morris repeatedly acknowledges his debt to Geoffrey Chaucer in The Life and Death of Jason, produced the great Kelmscott Chaucer with Edward Burne-Jones in 1896, and had his narrator William Guest declare in News from Nowhere that he ‘fairly felt as if [he] were living in the fourteenth century’.  He might, therefore, have been very interested in a curious academic-administrative practice adopted at Oxford University in the 1920s.

When Professor George Gordon returned to Oxford from Leeds University to take over as Merton Professor of English Literature in 1922, he set up a postgraduate seminar which was attended by such students as C.S. Lewis and Nevill Coghill, who would become Oxford luminaries themselves in due course.  A decision was taken – whether by Gordon himself or by the postgraduates, I’m not sure – to keep the minutes of each meeting in Chaucerian verse, and some of these minutes survive, including some fine lines by Coghill describing Lewis’s paper on Edmund Spenser on 9 February 1923: ‘Then to Sir Lewis turned the Professour/(That was our tales juge and governour)’, and so on.

Minutes in Chaucerian verse – what an admirable and learned idea!  And how apt, one would think, given Morris’s own Chaucerian passion, to the various international Morris Societies today.  So I commend this old Oxford practice to the Morris Society committees, although they might in turn object that, in certain moods, Morris would accuse Chaucer of betraying English by his excessive openness to French and Italian literary traditions.   In which case they would then be obliged to take one further philological step backwards and have their minute-makers write up their notes in Gawain-style alliterative verse or Anglo-Saxon or even in Old Icelandic itself.