Thursday 16 July 2020

Signatures from the Past

On 28 September 1877 Thomas Hardy jotted down the following note: ‘An object or mark raised or made by man on a scene is worth ten times any such formed by unconscious Nature.  Hence clouds, mists, and mountains are unimportant beside the wear on a threshold, or the print of a hand’.  The same principle surely applies mutatis mutandis to old books, or at least it does for me to the old Morris volumes I’ve collected from secondhand booksellers across the decades.

I’m fond of my one-volume Earthly Paradise from 1890, with its robust dark-green binding and gilt vegetative decorations.  That was a bargain at £7-50 from the Carnforth Bookshop just a few miles up the road from Lancaster, where I’ve found so many good things over the years.  Although I must admit that my middle-aged eyes struggle to cope with the tiny print required to pack Morris’s  twenty-four poetic tales into a single tome.

But it is my copy of Prose and Poetry by William Morris from Oxford University Press in 1913 that is the more haunting volume.  It too is handsomely bound, with a small gilt design on its front cover, and offers a generous spread of Morris’s literary work in its 650 pages.  But it is the Hardyesque human touch which gives this volume its resonance down the century or so that it has survived.  For a couple of pages in is written: ‘fondest regards to you all, Russell, Oxford 1914’. 

No way now of knowing who this 'Russell' was or how the great cataclysm of the 1914-18 war would affect either him in Oxford or the ‘all’ to whom the book is gifted.  But as European calamity broke or was just about to break all around him, Morris’s work seemed, for whatever reason, worth offering as a small but telling gesture to those whom he loved.

Thursday 9 July 2020

Teaching English Literature

Because Morris wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette in November 1886 about the teaching of English literature at Oxford, he often features in a minor way in recent books about the origins of university English studies.  And because he took such a negative view of the subject – ‘philology can be taught, but “English literature” cannot’ – he usually receives severe criticism in such volumes.  Thus Alexandra Lawrie, in The Beginnings of University English (2014), suggests that when Morris criticises the notion of teaching English literature he is ‘disregarding the fact that it was already being taught elsewhere, and had been for some time’.  His ‘claims are rendered invalid’, in her view, by the detailed and scholarly course plans that contemporaries like John Churton Collins were already putting into effect.

We might note in Morris’s defence, however, that there has been a sceptical counter-discourse on university English across the twentieth century.  Here, for instance, is Alan Coren, who got a First in English at Oxford in 1960 and went on to become deputy editor of Punch in later years: ‘Fortunately for me, I was reading English, a discipline hardly worthy the title, involving as it did nothing more arduous than sitting under a tree and reading books that one would otherwise have read for pleasure, and, at the end of three years, showing off about them to grown-ups’.

Or, for a more authoritative voice on this topic, we might turn to a former Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford.  John Bayley mulled over a lifetime in the subject in his anthology Good Companions (2001): ‘I have come to feel that “English” should not have become an academic subject in the first place.  It is one that is better as an enriching amusement … for the middle-aged and the elderly.  The young who really want education (and not many of them do) should face more intellectual and more demanding pursuits’.  So the Morris position versus academic English studies is not quite dead yet!