The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949
Authorship at Victoria College
Authorship at Victoria College
The study of literature in our College is an academic study. Academic study means something more than study within the walls of a university. It implies a certain method and a certain attitude of mind. I use the word academic advisedly, and I use it even with a touch of pride. And yet this word academic is often used as a term of abuse rather than one of commendation. When the man-in-the-street thinks a question isn't worth the time spent on discussion, he says "What of it? It's a purely academic question." And this is true whether the street he is in at the moment is Fifth Avenue or the Rue de Rivoli or Charing Cross Road or just Macquarie Street or Lambton Quay. Academic to the ordinary man anywhere implies dullness plus a touch of abscurity.
The abuse comes from another quarter too. The bright boys of the monthly and the quarterly reviews hailing the latest and greatest piece of writing of the month or the quarter are unanimous in condemning what they call the academic critic. To them the academic study of literature is the study of books and more books and the deliberate avoidance of real life. Academic to the bright boys means dullness plus a touch of futility.
Since the term academic is so frequently a bludgeon with which to knock a man down, you may well be wondering by now why I am so cheerfully admitting that at Victoria College the study of literature is academic. Surely I should he hiding my head in some cloistered corner, sale from the man-in-the-street and the quarterly reviewer? Why be proud of being academic?
The academic study of literature depends on two things, scholarship and a sense of history. Let us spend a few minutes on each.
What is scholarship? It is the scientific and accurate study of a body of knowledge. The scholarly study of literature starts with a first hand knowledge of what the author wrote. What were the actual words he put on paper or on sheepskin? The unscholarly reader doesn't need to trouble himself about this problem. There is the book. There are the words. Surely he can read them without further ado? But the scholar must go one step further and establish accurately what he calls the text of his author . . . what the author wrote and not what some copyist or some printer or some later editor insisted he must have written. It is horrifying and it should be humbling to think that not all the lines we read in our school text of Shakespeare were written by Shakespeare. Some were written by eighteenth century editors who couldn't understand his Elizabethan English and insisted on touching it up here and there. The early prints of Shakespeare's plays have some queer misprints and errors, and it is one of the jobs of the scholar to get behind them and establish what Shakespeare really wrote.
Next there is the accurate study of literary biography. The amount of fantasy and fable that clings to the names of great writers has occupied a generation of scholarly study. Do you believe that Shakespeare got into trouble for stealing deer? Do you believe that Shakespeare got his first theatrical job holding the horses of the wealthier page 31 patrons? Do you believe that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare but Bacon? Do you believe that Robert Burns was an illiterate ploughman? Do you believe that Alexander Pope wrote only in heroic couplets? Do you believe that Keats died of a broken heart after his poetry had been badly reviewed in The Quarterly? Do you believe that poets are rather effeminate people who have no head for business? Scholarship has dispelled all these fancies.
The scholarly study of literature includes the study of the writer's language, his education, his reading, the economic and social history of the times in which he wrote. Without these things we can make hideous mistakes. When Shakespeare makes Romeo say as he contemplates the body of Juliet,
O here will I set up my everlasting rest, most readers or listeners think that Romeo is announcing that he is going to his everlasting rest. After all, these are the words he uses. But rest in Elizabethan idiom meant a bet, and what Romeo is saying (to translate it into more modern terms) is that he is going to take his last plunge. Again, in an eighteenth century novel, the modern reader may be surprised when the heroine comes downstairs to an evening party in her nightgown. As he reads further he notes that none of the other characters in the scene is perturbed. Why should they be? The scholar can reassure the modern reader: night-gown is eighteenth century idiom for evening-dress, and the heroine was quite properly clad. Without accurate and informed study of the language and the life of earlier periods we run the risk of completely misunderstanding what on the face of it seems to be written in plain and understandable English.
This brings me to my second point. The academic study of literature depends on a sense of history. In this more than anything it differs from the non-academic approach. The scholar studies the development of literature from its origins. Our own literature has a certain organic growth and an overwhelming continuity. If you don't feel that continuity, you are liable to be taken in very badly. You hail as the last word something that has been said five times a century for a thousand years. Or worse still you miss the originality of something that is being really said for the first time.
The sense of history that pervades our study is one of our reasons for our dwelling so long on the earlier periods of literature. I am all for the study of contemporary literature and believe it has a proper place in university studies, but it should not bulk too largely. Merely to read our contemporaries is to miss the sense of history. We miss something else too. We miss one of the most valuable ways of checking whether our contemporaries are writing anything worth while. The historical study of literature throws light too on even the most recent writings in the language. I suppose the most outstanding two poets of this generation and the last are W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot. Eliot is as typical of the young men of the twenties as Auden is of the men of the thirties. You might say no two men were in their time so up-to-date. But if you read their poetry and know nothing of Anglo-Saxon, much of what Eliot and Auden have to say will remain unheard.
Scholarship is a tall order. During recent years we have had some five hundred students studying English at some stage. Do they all have to undergo the fairly lengthy and rigorous discipline of scholarly study? The answer is yes and no. At Victoria we make a clear distinction between the Stage I student who is going no further than one year's study and the student who advances his study of literature for two, three or four years to the final B.A. or M.A. level. The first year programme is self-contained, and contains three elements: a historical survey of English literature studied from actual texts and not from text-books; a training in criticism, with the emphasis on "What do I think of it?" rather than on "What should I think of it?"; and (within the limits imposed by time and staffing) a practical training in effective writing. Our ideal, and certainly our hope, is that a student who has been through the first year course, even though that is the finish of his academic study of literature, will have some sense of historical development, some sense of criticism, and will be able to express himself with grace and effect. Of course we don't always attain our ideal.
Beyond that point the discipline is more rigorous. Many things just darkly hinted at in the first year are seriously tackled by those students who advance in literature, the detailed history of special periods of literature, the historical study of language, textual criticism, the methods and technique of scholarship ... we are out on the open sea.
You will observe there is one gap in all this, one thing we do not do. We study literature, but we don't write it, at least not officially. Universities are sometimes criticised because they do not appear to encourage the actual writing of literature in their literature classes. In some American universities, there are classes in Creative Writing. I have still to be convinced that anyone can teach anyone else to be a poet or a novelist. The way to write a poem is to write a poem and not to take a class on The Writing of Poetry. I think we can honestly claim at Victoria that we haven't taught anyone to be a poet, but we have quietly encouraged and produced quite a few and I don't think we have ruined any potential good ones. One thing we can claim. Over the years, we have trained hundreds of men and women who can read with enjoyment and critical judgment. Unless there is a high standard of criticism in the community the poet and the novelist are voices crying in the wilderness.page 32
I've talked of the things we do and can do, and of the things we don't do and don't think we can do. Even though this is Jubilee year, I'd rather close on a questioning note. What of the things we don't do but should be doing? The first of these is drama. I'd like to see a lot more plays produced at Victoria. Nothing brings literature so alive as producing it on the stage. I am frankly envious here of what the Canterbury players have done. They have outstripped all the other colleges. Perhaps we might persuade Ngaio Marsh to come to Victoria for a season. And what of publishing? Victoria has still to produce a literary magazine of solid merit. What about it, boys (and girls) from up the hill?
I. A. Gordon