But every convention has a fallacy somewhere at the root; whether it be useful and operative, as many a legal fiction is operative, for good; or senile, past service yet tyrannous by custom, and so pernicious; or merely foolish, as certain artistic conventions are traceable, when a Ruskin comes to judgment, back to nothing better than folly: and it becomes men of honest mind, in dealing with anything recognisable as a convention, to examine its accepted fallacy, whether it be well understood or ill understood; beneficent or pernicious or merely foolish or both foolish and pernicious: and this is often most handily done by tracing its history.
Now I shall assume that the framers of the Ordinance regulating the duties of this Chair knew well enough, of their own reading, that English Literature deals with a vast variety of subjects: and that, if any piece of writing miss to deal with its particular subject, so closely that theme and treatment can scarcely be separated, by so much will it be faulty as literature. Milton is fairly possessed with the story of Man’s fall, Boswell possessed with Johnson, Shelley with hatred of tyranny in all its manifestations, Mill again with the idea of Liberty: and it is only because we had knowledge presented to us at an age when we thought more attentively of apples, that we still fail to recognise in Euclid and Dr Todhunter two writers who are excellent because possessed with a passion for Geometry.
I infer, then, that the framers of the Ordinance, when they employed this phrase ’the study of the subject of English Literature,’ knew well enough that no such thing existed in nature, but adopted the convention that English Literature could be separated somehow from its content and treated as a subject all by itself, for teaching purposes: and, for purposes of examination, could be yoked up with another subject called English Language, as other Universities had yoked it.
I believe the following to be a fair account of how these examinations in English Language and Literature came to pass, and how a certain kind of student came to pass these Examinations. At any rate since the small revolution has happened in my life-time and most of it since I was able to observe, the account here is drawn from my own observation and may be checked and corrected by yours.
Thirty-five or forty years ago—say in the late seventies or early eighties—some preparatory schools, and others that taught older boys but ranked below the great Public Schools in repute, taught so much of English Literature as might be comprised, at a rough calculation, in two or three plays of Shakespeare, edited by Clark and Aldis Wright; a few of Bacon’s Essays, Milton’s early poems, Stopford Brooke’s little primer, a book of extracts for committal to memory, with perhaps Chaucer’s “Prologue” and a Speech of Burke. In the great Public Schools no English Literature was studied, save in those which had invented ’Modern Sides,’ to prepare boys specially for Woolwich or Sandhurst or the Indian Civil Service; for entrance to which examinations were held on certain prescribed English Classics, and marks mainly given for acquaintance with the editors’ notes.