Our proposals are before the University. Should they be passed, still everything will depend on the loyalty of its teachers to the idea; and on that enthusiasm which I suppose to be the nurse of all studies and know to be the authentic cherishing nurse of ours. We may even have conceded too much to the letter, but we have built and built our trust on the spirit ’which maketh alive.’
[Footnote 1: Why had he to swear this under pain of excommunication, when the lecturer could so easily keep a roll-call? But the amount of oathtaking in a medieval University was prodigious. Even College servants were put on oath for their duties: Gyps invited their own damnation, bed-makers kissed the book. Abroad, where examinations were held, the Examiner swore not to take a bribe, the Candidate neither to give one, nor, if unsuccessful, to take his vengeance on the Examiner with a knife or other sharp instrument. At New College, Oxford, the matriculating undergraduate was required to swear in particular not to dance in the College Chapel.]
ON A SCHOOL OF ENGLISH
It is now, Gentlemen, five years less a term since, feeling (as they say of other offenders) my position acutely, I had the honour of reading an Inaugural before this University and the impudence to loose, in the course of it, a light shaft against a phrase in the very Ordinance defining the duties of this Chair.
‘It shall be the duty of the Professor,’ says the Ordinance, ’to deliver courses of lectures on English Literature from the age of Chaucer onwards, and otherwise to promote, so far as may be in his power, the study in the University of the subject of English Literature.’
That was the phrase at which I glanced—’the subject of English Literature’; and I propose that we start to-day, for reasons that will appear, by subjecting this subject to some examination.
‘The Subject of English Literature.’ Surely—for a start—there is no such thing; or rather, may we not say that everything is, has been or can be, a subject of English Literature? Man’s loss of Paradise has been a subject of English Literature, and so has been a Copper Coinage in Ireland, and so has been Roast Sucking-pig, and so has been Holy Dying, and so has been Mr Pepys’s somewhat unholy living, and so have been Ecclesiastical Polity, The Grail, Angling for Chub, The Wealth of Nations, The Sublime and the Beautiful, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Prize-Fights, Grecian Urns, Modern Painters, Intimations of Immortality in early Childhood, Travels with a Donkey, Rural Rides and Rejected Addresses—all these have been subjects of English Literature: as have been human complots and intrigues as wide asunder as “Othello” and “The School for Scandal”; persons as different as Prometheus and Dr Johnson, Imogen and Moll Flanders, Piers the Plowman and Mr Pickwick; places as different as Utopia and Cranford, Laputa and Reading Gaol. “Epipsychidion” is literature: but so is “A Tale of a Tub.”