The King of Crit

W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden; drawing by David Levine

“Many of the graces of poetry may, I grant, be talked of in very intelligible language, but intelligible only to those who have a natural taste for it, or are born with a talent for judging…. To go about to pedagogue a man into this sort of knowledge, who has not the seeds of it in himself, is the same thing as if one should endeavour to teach an art of seeing without eyes.”

So Leonard Welsted, a minor poet himself, in his Dissertation Concerning the Perfection of the English Language and the State of Poetry, published in 1724.

I imagine that John Bayley would approve the sentiment. He has taste and a talent for judging, and as a critic and man of letters he makes his gifts available to a public with an informed interest in what used to be called belles-lettres. Yet for half a century, more or less, he has been an academic teacher of literature, and in that capacity must sometimes have felt that he was having a hard time trying to “pedagogue” the less gifted students into his sort of knowledge. Meanwhile, younger colleagues were peddling impressive substitutes for literary taste, encouraging forms of study that solved Welsted’s problem by substituting for aesthetic appreciation more systematically learnable approaches to literature, borrowed from other intellectual disciplines, such as history, linguistics, and psychology.

To understand Bayley’s position one really needs to consider what it has meant for this essentially unacademic man of letters, acquainted with many literatures, to be based in an academy where “solid scholarship” counted for more than enjoyment of art. He is, of course, not alone in this predicament, but he ranks very high among those who share it.

Welsted’s words serve as the epigraph to J. Palmer’s interesting book The Rise of English Studies, published in 1965. Palmer’s subject is the reluctant acceptance by Oxford of the idea that vernacular literature could be a proper subject of study in a university. He describes the arguments and compromises that in the long run made it possible for an accomplished literary critic like Bayley to thrive as a teacher without ceasing to behave as, in the best sense, an amateur.

The Oxford English School began its uneasy existence in 1894, and Cambridge followed suit, in its own distinctive but equally uneasy way, some twenty-odd years later. In both universities there was strong academic resistance to these innovations. Why should intelligent students require instruction in the literature of their own language? Wouldn’t this novel approach attract the wrong kind of student, choosing “English” as “a soft option,” avoiding the more rigorous classical disciplines, and thus wasting everybody’s time? Dilettante gossip, chat about vernacular literature and its authors, would surely be taken as a way of escaping the arduous study of Greek and Latin grammar.

Against probability, for the enemy was well dug in, the…

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