T.E. Brown (1830-1897), Letters
, ed. Sidney T. Irwin (Westminster: Archibald Constable and Co., Ltd., 1900), Vol. II, pp. 237-239 (undated letter to Irwin "On the proposal to have an English Literature School at Oxford"):
You ask me what I think of the new School. I don't care for it. If we are to set up a 'School' for every subject, which it is desirable to encourage and foster among young Englishmen, where are we to stop? Cookery? Independently of its classical associations, is not this an important subject? Though, whether it be advisable to encourage it beyond the limits which nature has established, and which seem sufficiently wide, I know not. Anything that takes off good men from the Classics is to be deprecated. And the twaddle of these English scholars is endless. Even the best of them—Skeat, for instance—can we trust them not to encroach?
And what is the end of this English? English language, English literature: 'On! on!' German, High German, Low German, Icelandic, Sanscrit, when will you stop?
Not a word about Language then, that is too large an order. Let us limit ourselves to the Literature. Yes, but when will you pull up the desire to approfondir?
It is a tremendous field. Divide it, take the poetry alone, probably the most likely to be chosen. I know the man, so do you, who will insist, almost as a preliminary, upon a complete course of the laws which govern English metre. Yes, and to the De re metrica Anglica will want to add a conspectus of English Phonetics (!!). Once let them in, and won't they go it?
And then the rise of a whole school of Hermeneutics, with its infernal appendage of coaches, handbooks, cramming-books.
Can you face this monster of the deep? Textual criticism would come last—felicitous conjectures! Bibliography, and all the paths, pleasant, no doubt, and profitable as hobbies for a man above thirty. But educational? Your book-hunter would cry from the distance; and the Quais of Paris would find their way into the illimitable cycle of what every man ought to know.
Meantime, as the Gods will, we go each his own way to cultivate what pleases us. Could anything be better? I mean after taking one's degree.
Does F. think he would have profited by any such compulsory, or quasi-compulsory, or seductively permitted course of study? Why does he not take it up now? There is nothing to prevent him. I know full well that such a man never applies the cloture to his education. And one may exaggerate the advantages of an early familiarity with a branch of learning, especially when it lies in the direction of that noxious humbug, Universality. As the years roll on, I doubt not many a hammer will ring at the fastness of the classics. Possibly an entire disruption may take place. But if ever there was a case of my favourite Virgilian—Antiquam exquirite—it will be that of England when it awakes from this dream which is only not lewd because it is fatuous. The awakening is sure to come. The study of Greek may for a while be confined to the epigraphists of our School at Athens; but it will revive with tremendous force. And a new generation will demand of us what we have done with so precious an inheritance. But I wax rhetorical and ridiculous.
Some books on the controversy (a note to myself):
- John Churton Collins, The Study of English Literature: A Plea for its Recognition and Organization at the Universities (London: Macmillan and Co., 1891)
- C.H. Firth, The School of English Language and Literature: A Contribution to the History of Oxford Studies (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1909)
- D.J. Palmer, The Rise of English Studies: An Account of the Study of English Language and Literature from its Origins to the Making of the Oxford English School (London: Oxford University Press, 1965)
- Jo McMurty, English Language, English Literature: The Creation of an Academic Discipline (London: Mansell, 1985)