Q gave his inaugural lecture as Professor of English Literature at Cambridge on 29 January 1913 in the Arts School's newly constructed lecture theatre. The professorship was scarcely two years old but had been in abeyance for a number of months. His predecessor Arthur W. Verrall, a classical scholar, whose own inaugural lecture had taken place on 10 May 1911, died on 18 June 1912, with almost everything to do with setting up the department still to be achieved.
Asquith's delay in appointing a successor provoked agitation at Cambridge, which spilled onto the pages of the Cambridge Review, 17 October 1911:
We know that there are other matters to occupy Mr Asquith's attention (but) a Professor is sorely needed. Rumour says that a Cabinet Minister may be appointed to the post and leaves us wondering which of the two it will be (Brittain, p.59).
The two referred to were Augustine Birrell, who in 1905 had been appointed President of the Board of Education, and Lord John Morley, who was President of Council until 1914. But the politics of the post were still being debated. Among those who supported the academic study of English Literature was A.C. Benson, Master of Magdalene, who said:
. . . it is really a great opportunity. There are many men here interested in literature, but there is no centralisation. What we want is a man who will really found and organise a School. Everything is ready for this, and what is needed is a strong personality, to do for us what Raleigh has done for Oxford. It is not only stimulating teaching that is wanted, it is a social centre for individual energies (Rowse, p.112).
Sir Walter Raleigh himself, who was Chair of English Literature at Oxford wrote:
I am glad that Cambridge played up. If it is as decent to you as Oxford was to me, you won't lack. I hope you'll get a handful of people who want to write, not to teach. I spend most of my time trying to avert the schoolmasterisation of English Literature in this University. But the love of mankind for system and rules will defeat me. I suppose orthodoxy and creeds and tests were invented to prevent men of no intelligence seeming to be the asses that they are (Rowse, p.115).
On the other hand, there were members of the University Senate who were vehemently opposed in principle to the post of Professor of English Literature at Cambridge. The influential philosopher Dr J.M.E. McTaggart regarded 'a professorship of such a subject, and to be filled up in such a manner, would not only be useless but positively harmful to the University' (Brittain, p.57).
Another opponent from the University Senate was Dr J. Mayo. His objections are summarized in the Cambridge University Reporter:
What he was afraid of was that this Professorship . . . would be simply a Professorship of English Literature dating from the beginning of the latter half of the nineteenth century, and the effect of that would be that it would be that it would be a Professorship of English fiction, and that of a light and comic character. For that reason, he thought that the Professorship was a Professorship unworthy of the University (Brittain, p.57).
So it was that on 31 October 1912, the Vice-Chancellor, to the surprise of most and presumably the horror of some, announced the name of the new Professor of English Literature. He was not a cabinet minister nor an established university academic, but former Oxford student now popular novelist and short-story writer, Arthur Quiller-Couch. A C Benson privately reflected that he 'was not quite a gentleman' while his friend Newbolt told Benson about Q's 'strange background – a mixture of fisherman and country doctor, with a wife of a lower class who is tiresome' (Rowse, p.112). Benson was also later to say that he considered Q 'at all events a figure: he is an amateur of course' (Rowse, p.113).
When, looking striking in Victorian morning dress, Q walked up to the lectern of the Arts School on 29 January 1913, it was not the first time he had faced a potentially hostile audience. A dozen years before he had occupied an anti-Boer War platform in Liskeard with David Lloyd George in the face of an outraged pro-Imperialist audience, one member of which was reputedly carrying a revolver!
At Cambridge, opposition went far beyond questions relating to a professorship in English Literature. Q's fundamental intellectual stance as a Liberal radical was anathema to the Conservatives who deplored the Parliament Act and Irish Home Rule, and to intellectuals like McTaggart who understood human existence in terms of theoretical constructs such as Hegelianism, Marxism and Social Darwinism.
Brittain is strictly correct when he claims that when Q stood at the lectern in January 1913 he had not 'lectured for a quarter of a century – and then only to a small college audience' (Brittain, p. 60). Yet from the time of his residence at Fowey in 1892 he had been a popular, and occasionally unpopular, speaker in his native land of Cornwall. Accounts of his speeches and addresses – along with some very pointed letters – litter the local newspapers of the time. Q not only inherited a gift of public speaking from his forebears, he also inherited a tradition of thought and reflection. Arraigned behind him as he nervously commenced his inaugural address were two generations of Couches stretching back for over a 100 years.
Q's grandfather, Dr Jonathan Couch F.L.S. of Polperro (1789-1870), and his uncle, Dr Richard Q. Couch of Penzance (1816-1863), were both noted public speakers on scientific and medical subjects.
Richard spoke with the clarity and precision of an empiricist, building from the first principles on the basis of observed facts. His style was marked by the way he never talked down to his listeners, nor did he try to impress by sounding obscure; to elucidate and elevate was his purpose. Arguments relating to conflicting scientific theories he left to the philosophers, while he himself was hesitant to draw conclusions, regarding scepticism rather than dogmatism as the true basis of scientific progress.
What Jonathan and Richard did in relation to science, Q did in relation to literature. He also built from first principles, as can be seen in The Art of Reading and Some Seventeenth Century Poets. We have no evidence of anything written by him on literary theory, except to explode such theories, as in the lecture Classical and Romantic, preferring rather to stimulate independent thought and creative response.
The influential Anglican priest Canon Roger Lloyd commented: 'It was magical to hear his lectures delivered' (Brittain, p. 65). As a result, Q was said to attract 'much larger audiences than any other lecturer in Cambridge' (Brittain, p.64), which is remarkable given the academic context of Cambridge at the time. His popularity extended to male and female students, although there were some who remained unresponsive, and he was even satirized in The Cambridge Review. Q's power base at the university was the student body and he drew in students from a range of disciplines. No doubt it helped that he was not an 'ivory tower' academic but one with his feet rooted in the real world of activities outside of the university. His good friend Housman and his 'select audience of half-a-dozen would make way for the horde of Q's pouring in' (Rowse, p.121).
It is unknown if Brittain knew how practised a public speaker Q was before he arrived in Cambridge, or about the connection between him and his forebears in the minds of the Cornish people. What follows is an illustration of his awareness of Cornwall's non-Conformist tradition and acknowledgement of the county's independent spirit:
. . . the Rev. W.J. Wilkinson (superintendent minister) introduced Mr. Quiller Couch, and requested him to open the bazaar. – Mr. Couch said he had not the honour to be a member of their Church, but a Cornishman must be either a dull student of his country's history or a person of very blunt feelings who could not take pride in what had been done for Cornwall by Wesley and his followers. In other parts of England, the Established Church had one powerful advantage over all forms of dissent, he meant the appeal of history and associations – embodied in her cathedral buildings and parish churches. It must have been hard – hard, in spite of all convictions – for men to turn aside from the Church in whose shadow their parents lay buried. The more honour to them that for conscience sake they did so. But in Cornwall it was the Wesleyans who had the history, the associations. From the day when Edward VI gave the Cornishmen an English Prayer Book of which they did not understand a word to the day when Wesley crossed the Tamar – roughly speaking for 200 years – this land of theirs was a land of comparative heathendom. It was Wesley who made Cornwall religious and their Church stood in the very front of its religious history. But, besides the history – these associations – they had that treasure of independence which was the just pride of nonconformity. Of their own efforts, without State encouragement or rich man's bounty, they had raised their new church in North Street. And it was part of their character that they had worked and were working that day to clear it of debt and to stand beholden to no man for the temple in which they worshipped. That was what extorted his admiration; that was why he was glad to be there and thank them for inviting him. As he looked round on the stalls, he might congratulate them beforehand on the result. He had the pleasure to declare the bazaar open, wishing it every success (applause)' (Royal Cornwall Gazette for 19/03/1896: 'Wesleyan Church Bazaar at Fowey. Speech by Mr. Quiller Couch').
Behind this address lies a wealth of family history, as a few of the listeners would have known. It was, indeed, the Couches who had welcomed Wesley to Polperro. In 1810, Jonathan Couch led the Wesleyans out of Talland Church and in 1832 he supported the Great Reform Bill in the face of local Tory families. Q acknowledged this radical tradition even if he himself belonged to the Anglican communion.
A second address relates to the induction of Q's cousin Richard P. Couch as mayor of Penzance. Present at the occasion was John Quiller Couch, the last extant son of Jonathan Couch of Polperro. Q humorously plays upon Richard's bachelorhood (he was later to marry), and on the rivalry between Penzance and St Ives. The introduction was given by local author J.B. Cornish:
Mr. J.B. Cornish proposed 'The Visitors', coupled with the names of Mr. Quiller Couch and Mr. R.S. Read, Mayor of St. Ives. He remarked that Penzance at one time supplied four members to the county, and at the present moment St. Ives found the man best qualified to be Mayor was a native of Penzance. (Applause). They would agree with him that Mr. Quiller Couch was a man of whom Cornwall might well be proud. (Applause). He had been known for many years as a distinguished literary man, and recently his name had become more of a household word as that of the editor of the Cornish Magazine. It was, he thought, a matter of which, as Cornishmen, they might well be proud that a small county like Cornwall, with a scattered, poverty stricken population, was able to produce such a magazine, and still more to their credit that they could find a Cornishman so well qualified to fill the position of editor. (Applause).
Mr. Quiller Couch said that the brevity adopted by the Mayor of St Ives had taken him all in a heap, because he felt he has considerable disadvantages compared with Mr. Read. Though a visitor he was not a foreigner, but he felt that no sophistries he could raise could get around the fact that St. Ives was considerably nearer Penzance than the town in which he lived. He was reading in a western paper recently that a speaker at the St. Ives mayoral banquet congratulated himself on living at Penzance and said that the best thing about living at Penzance was the facility it gave for running over to St. Ives. (Laughter). Penzance people, he presumed, would say that the best thing about living at St. Ives was the facilities it gave for running over to Penzance. (Laughter). If they happened to be editors of the Cornish Magazine, which Mr. Cornish had referred to in terms which he (Mr. Couch) was sure were modest because Mr. Cornish was conscious that he had contributed one of the best articles to it – they would know that it was not at all a distinction to be a writer. Though the population of the county was decreasing the fictional population was increasing at such a rate that they were really within measurable distance of a time when every man in the room would be either the author of a novel or a character in somebody else's novel. (Laughter). Considering that he was not a Mayor like Mr. Read, but only a fellow Cornishman and a fellow writer he took his stand on another and a very different privilege. Not many of them had the honour of being kinsman of the Mayor of Penzance. There at least he could congratulate himself. The Mayor's father and his father were brothers, also very dear friends. Sad to say all this was very long ago; he merely mentioned it to show what a peculiar pleasure it was to him to stand there that night and shine if he might say so, in the reflected light of his cousin's glory. (Laughter and applause). But of course that privilege brought with it a very obvious duty. What was a relative good for if not to offer judicious advice? He assured them that when he took his seat he was heavily oppressed by the consciousness of his duty. He remembered the story of the precise old gentleman who when he left a friend's house after supper one evening was advised by the family parrot to wrap up warm and keep himself out of the cold. He replied that he should doubtless value the advice a good deal more if he were conscious that it was based on an accurate knowledge of the facts. (Laughter). He believed that his advice, if tendered to the Mayor of Penzance, would be more valuable if based on a knowledge of all the facts. He had vainly hoped, as he looked over the toast list, that by the time he came to his own place in it he should be in a position to give advice on the facts. Indeed, he believed that if he had come at the end of the list he might fairly have aspired to the mayoralty himself; he should have been so wise of Penzance affairs. They seem to be all united in giving one piece of advice, and he could not do other than to echo it. The Mayor was the last representative of a family which had filled the mayoral chain with a dignity for many generations. But if he was the latest, why should he be the last? (Loud applause and laughter). He felt certain that if he could only persuade him, if they could only convince him what lustre his dignity would take were it shared by a gifted and amiable partner, his term of office, which they all hoped would be a happy and successful one, would be remembered as such, and he would admit that his happiness had at least been redoubled. (Laughter).' Cornish Telegraph, 17th November 1898.
Q had the privilege of having heard some very fine, and presumably some very poor, speakers. In 'A Lecture on Lectures' he quotes from a piece by Professor Henry Sidgwick regarding a lecture by a distinguished German philosopher:
The eminent man came in, according to custom, punctually at the quarter; he carried in his hand a manuscript yellow with age; he did not seem to look at his audience, but fixing his eyes on the manuscript he began to read it aloud with slow monotonous utterance. I glanced around the room: every pupil that I could see was bending over his notebook, writing as hard as he could' ('A Lecture on Lectures', 1927).
Q used the quotation from Sidgwick to expose the professor's arid performance and to counter the idea of education as the passive absorption of information delivered by an 'authority'. He contrasts the performance of the German professor against his own experience of listening to John Ruskin, presumably when Q was a student at Oxford:
I can stilll recall the thrill, for instance, of listening to Ruskin – cadaverous, his voice attenuated as a ghost's, his reason trembling at the last. But there was the man, and he speaking; and behind the mask and beneath the neat buttoned frock-coat one divined the noble brain and heart defeated, worshipped the noble wounds.
In some respects the description of Ruskin could well have applied to Q in the last two decades of his life and the effect upon the listener not totally dissimilar.
Q was 49 years old when, dressed as a Victorian gentleman, he commenced his inaugural lecture. Many in the audience were under half his age, and so had grown up as Edwardians and not Victorians. The Vice-Chancellor and assorted dons, graduates of the university, female students from Girton and Newnham (in defiance of the University authorities) and curious visitors crowded onto seats, benches, window ledges and even the floor. The atmosphere must have come close to what Q experienced with Ruskin:
Further, this excitement is naturally high when the lecturer standing at the desk is a man his audience knows to be a man who has fought his fight in life and to be honoured even for the scars.
In 1937, the literary critic Dr Rene Wellek criticised the recently published Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry by F.R. Leavis. Wellek commented 'I could wish that you had made your assumptions more explicitly and defended them more systematically... elaborating a specific defence or a theory in their defence', (Scrutiny). To this Leavis replied that he was 'not a philosopher' while 'Literary criticism and philosophy seem to me to be quite distinct and different kinds of discipline'. This is not a defence to which Q would have been sympathetic but the debate is directly relevant to the text of his inaugural lecture.
Rather, Q came from a tradition of defending an anti-authoritarian position – his grandfather Dr Jonathan Couch had little time for accepted narratives and received opinions, whether political, religious or scientific. For him, knowledge was the result of personal conviction tested in the fire of direct experience. The passive absorption of theory and perspective from a supposedly authoritative source was inimical to him. This stance aligns with Q's admiration of the Cornish non-conformist tradition demonstrated by other Cornish thinkers. For example, Dr John Davy's Life of his brother, Sir Humphry Davy, shows the chemist taking a similar line. The same was true of the inventor Richard Trevithick, who had received little formal schooling, with his teacher dismissing him as 'slow', 'frequently absent', and very inattentive'. Yet Trevithick provided local mining engineers with solutions to problems they themselves were unable to discover (Davy, Life, pp. 52-3). This independence of mind Q possessed. Therefore he was able to pass on to his listeners a critical and cultured sensibility, enabling them to think for themselves.
In his inaugural lecture Q argues his case from first principles and not to do so would risk being exposed as Wellek exposed Leavis. Q was fighting not only for his own standing, but for that of the department of English Literature of which he was now head.
He starts by going back to the root of English literature and all European literatures, in fact to virtually all learning at Cambridge, the writing of the classical Greeks, specifically that of Plato.
His opening sentence puts Plato, disciple of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, who founded the Academy in Athens, at the centre of his lecture. This poet and novelist was not only challenging the dons on their own territory of philosophy, but also introducing someone who had harboured the same doubts about the value of literature which they themselves entertained. Furthermore, Q centred his argument specifically on poetry, a form of literature which Plato in The Republic had wished to ban from any ideal state; just as some possibly in the audience wished to ban its study from Cambridge.
Battle-lines are drawn straight away:
In all the long quarrel between philosophy and poetry I know of nothing finer, as of nothing more pathetically hopeless, than Plato's return upon himself in his last dialogue "The Laws"...[dealing with] 'the scruples of an old man who, knowing that his time in this world is short, would not go out of it pretending to know more than he does, and even in matters concerning which he was once very sure has come to divine that, after all. . . “La verite consiste dans les nuances”'.
The three characters who participate in the dialogue are elderly men with long experience of life, who 'can afford to see Man for what he really is – at best a noble plaything for the gods'. They talk about what makes the perfect citizen and how to train one, and so 'as ever with Plato, we are back at length upon the old question which he could never get out of his way – What to do with the poets?'
Allowing that 'comedies may be performed, but only by slaves and hirelings; they move on to a consideration of 'serious poetry', the argument is that such work can only be allowed if it has passed the censorship of the magistrate.
Q is unimpressed- 'Lame conclusion!'. His argument rests on the influence of Cardinal Newman who, when trying to set up a university in Dublin, 'lamented that the English language had not... “some definite words to express, simply and generally, intellectual proficiency or perfection, such as 'health' as used with reference to the animal frame and 'virtue', with reference to our moral nature"'. Q expands on this to include the 'touch of literary grace' in making 'a scholar and a gentleman'. He argues that 'by consent of all, Literature is a nurse of noble natures and right reading makes a full man... completing the pattern for which Heaven designed him'.
This is Q throwing down the gauntlet: 'that Literature is a good thing if only we can bring it to operate on young minds'.
Q's Agenda as Chair
Having laid the groundwork on the importance of Literature as an academic subject in its own right, Q now moves on to give an account of 'his business here', stating that Dr Verrall had possessed little time before his death to establish the Chair and left no instructions. He acknowledges Verrall to have been 'one of the most beautiful minds of our generation', who would have built well, but that 'the gods saw otherwise; and for me, following him, I came to a trench and stretched my hands to a shade'. Q comes to the job with respect for his predecessor but with a blank sheet with regard to laying out his new department.
All he has to go one are the words of the 'Ordinance', as the 'sailing directions' for his 'uncharted' course:
It shall be the duty of the Professor to deliver courses of lectures on English literature from the age of Chaucer onwards, and otherwise promote, so far as may be in his power, the study in the University of the subject of English Literature. The Professor shall treat this subject on literary and critical rather than on philological and linguistic lines.
He dwells on the omission of the instruction 'to teach', and that 'some doubt does lurk in the public mind if, after all, English Literature can, in any ordinary sense, be taught....'. But he does accept the challenge as one of promoting and guiding the young so 'that their zeal may be encouraged, their taste directed, their vision cleared, quickened, enlarged'. Inherent in this is the rejection of a professor providing large quantities of information for the purpose of passing a written examination. It is also the rejection of a tendency, which in the lecture 'Classical and Romantic' is identified in the writings of Dr George Brandes, of seeing literature in terms of ' "schools", "influences", "revivals'", "revolts", "tendencies", "reactions"' (Studies in Literature, I).
Q rejects philosophising in literature as his grandfather had in science. When direct observation is made subservient to abstraction and theorizing, fantasy takes over from reality. In 'A Lecture On Lectures' he comes to the nub: 'Among other purposes, perhaps for the most vital of any, you are here to learn to think for yourselves'.
Never has this point needed greater stressing than today. In his review of The World Before Us by T. Higham, Fernández-Armesto writes:
His book, however, shows how hard it is even for able practitioners working on the most challenging specimens and with the most sophisticated technology to escape or re-examine conventional thinking. Most academics nowadays are politically radical, but our disciplines are conservative. Careers usually start with indispensable acts of deference to senior colleagues. Youngsters can't get jobs unless they endorse prevailing opinions, master current lingo and reproduce lectures in exams (Fernández-Armesto, 2021).
Q favoured a liberal education system where individuals are encouraged to think for themselves.
For the remainder of the address Q says that he will lay down some principles by which he will be guided in this endeavour.
I: How to Study English Literature
Q's primary principle is that in 'studying any work of genius we should begin by taking it absolutely' - i.e try and discover the author's intent to which we should be be completely open. This is the bedrock of his approach although he also makes it clear that he does not mean that students should disregard 'those learned scholars whose labours will help you'. But his point is very much that attention to these should follow first hand acquaintance with any work.
He expands on this to notice how great writers give us something 'distinct from knowledge' – they put us in touch with ourselves and, citing William Wordsworth, 'feel that we are greater than we know'. He argues for the emotional and intellectual impact of texts unfettered by critical interference and that we should lay ourselves open to the impact of great poetry. This will increase self-knowledge as well as that of the world so that, consequently, the student leaving university will be one whose 'trained judgment' can be trusted. Q denigrates the pedagogic mind, separating it from the scholarly as something derivative and which gives false perspectives of great masterpieces – 'his pedagogic urging, obtruding lesser things upon his vision until what is really important, the poem or the play itself, is seen in distorted glimpses, if not quite blocked from view'.
He is interested in the idea of realising the text in its original context – for example, a play by Fletcher must be acknowledged as just that, and not a text to be read in isolation and certainly not elevated to anything more than its original purpose. Q is unimpressed by the alternative: 'I see no reason why we should pay to any commentator a servility not demanded by his master'.
It may seem as though Q is arguing against academic study, but this would be a misunderstanding. Rather he sees critical analysis as something to turn to after one has had unadulterated contact with the original work. In other words, this is a core example of his back to first principles approach.
II: Art not Science
The second point relates to style, the subject of which, either in spoken or written mode, few at the university were his equal. Q argues that study of good style aims at the concrete, at what can be observed, 'eschewing . . . all general definitions and theories . . .'. The corollary of this is that the reader or listener can grasp the meaning directly from the words, rather than in having to infer or guess at what is intended. The onus lies with the writer or speaker, in partnership with the listener or reader: 'Literature is not an abstract science to which exact definitions can be applied. It as Art rather, the success of which depends on personal persuasiveness, on the author's skill to give as on ours to receive'.
The idea of equating obscurity with profundity is anathema. Q's position is more fully developed in the lecture 'Interlude: On Jargon' where he concludes: 'For the Style is the Man, and where a man’s treasure is there his heart, and his brain, and his writing, will be also'.
What he says is as true today as when he delivered it in the lecture theatre. Maybe it is more so as disciplines endlessly bifurcate, each developing its own methodology and language, with the result that dialogue, even within one area of study, is ever more challenging. The practitioner, in a democratic society, is therefore under obligation to make the work accessible to other practitioners, thus facilitating 'peer review', and to the general public.
III: Literature as Living Art Form
Thirdly, as English is a living language, the study of literature should inspire further and innovative efforts. It should not be seen as an edifice crushing the aspiring writer. Indeed, he warns against 'despising any form of art which is alive and pliant in the hands of men'. As such, he even reluctantly admits the novel as the prevalent art form.
Interestingly, Q includes history as an art, indeed as a form of literature: 'The historian superinduces upon events the charm of order'. The 'scientific historian' might well have baulked at this, as the gallery of students behind would have recognised. Nor would the scientist have appreciated the phrase 'a mere Science'. One by one, Q was picking off his targets.
IV: For Another Day
Having promised his listeners a fourth principle, in fact Q defers for another day and we never learn what it is, only that he is relieved not to address it here!
Instead he finishes by 'answering two suspicions': firstly, that there will be criticism that a Chair of English Literature, with its ambition of 'cultivating an increased sensitivity', will lead inevitably to an increase in 'quackery' and 'aesthetic chatter'. But he counters this with a preference for plain speech which, illustrating his argument with a quotation from Robert Bridges in his Essay on Keats:
I prefer, because by obliging the lecturer to say definitely what he means, it makes his mistakes easy to point out, and in this way the true business of criticism is advanced.
The strength of Q's position, as the inaugural lecture demonstrates, was in being able to practice what he preached. He could demand clarity because he clearly delivered. Secondly, and perhaps more humorously, he relies on the discreet 'whispering monitions' of those at Cambridge concerned to keep him from straying into 'loose talk'.
The second suspicion he has to answer is that 'we are embarking on a mighty difficult business', a view with which he does not disagree, but rather welcomes.
He cites the inaugural lecture of Sainte-Beuve at the École Normale in 1858. It challenges what Q would repeatedly challenge over the next thirty years, a possible growing tendency at Oxbridge to cynicism, amorality and reductionism:
As time goes on, you will make me believe that I can for my part be of some good to you: and with the generosity of your age you will repay me, in this feeling alone, far more than I shall be able to give you in intellectual direction, or in literary insight. If in one sense I bestow on you some of my experience, you will requite me, and in a more profitable manner, by the sight of your ardour for what is noble; you will accustom me to turn oftener and more willingly towards the future in your company. You will teach me again to hope.
During the lecture Q had landed some heavy but what he considered necessary blows. However, he did not wish to win the argument at the expense of alienating his audience, even the most antagonistic – as he had done to the followers of T.S. Eliot in the lecture 'Tradition and Orthodoxy', a reply to Eliot's After Strange Gods. The final quotation from Sainte-Beuve was an olive branch to reconcile those who would be reconciled.
Amongst the students, both male and female, who had crowded into the Arts Theatre, the lecture appears to have been a success, and not a passing one. They continued to come in large numbers, the female students in defiance of the conservative administrative staff. No doubt because Q came from beyond the inhibiting parameters of academe, refusing to deliver reams of authoritative information, he was seen as a fresh wind blowing. The wind was kept fresh through Q's continuing involvement with the Cornwall Education Committee and with diverse organizations in and around Fowey.
There were those who objected both the Chair in and the study of English Literature at Cambridge. In early 1917, when a Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos and an English Tripos were proposed, Dr Mayo and others returned to the attack. However, when the proposal was put to the vote of the Senate in May, it was accepted and an independent English Tripos was founded (Brittain, pp. 90-1).
Today, we must thank Q's critics for one thing: they ensured that we possess a defence for the place of study of English Literature in a university, one delivered by a poet and novelist thoroughly imbued with the tenets of science. What Q said is as true now as then.
The inaugural lecture reveals the nature and the importance of a liberal education system. In many of his writings he presents a universal liberal education system as the only sure foundation for a liberal democracy. Without it democracy fails to take root or withers.
Q argued that a liberal education system inculcates, and a liberal democracy depends upon, reasoned argument: the ability to think logically and critically, as well as to construct and deliver a case. Inevitably, this involves engaging with those of a contrary opinion. Q's symposiums at Cambridge were designed to facilitate this. Q was able to effectively establish the professorship and the English Tripos because of rational discussion in the Senate.
In his article 'Recognition and Protest' Hyams discusses the problems of authority, received opinion and dissent. He draws attention to the 'Mutual Recognition Theory' of Fichte and Hegel: 'The theory says that we can only truly become free ourselves if we recognise others as free, and have them so recognise us back' (Hyams, 2021).
It is the duty of a liberal education system to engender rationality, respect and freedom. Yet within our education system in general and within the examinations system in particular there is no right to rational dissent. Thus there is all too little rationality, respect and freedom. The consequence is evident. In our universities we hear of informed individuals being shouted down or prevented from speaking, while lecturers are forced to publish quality work under a pseudonym or not at all. Hence, according to Fichte and Hegel, no one is free. The foundation stones of liberal democracy crumble.
In his lecture 'Shelley (I)', delivered during the First World War, Q confronted the problem of constraints on free speech.
The Victorian age will come to be recognised in due time for a very great age, uttering thoughts with a freedom at the moment – it is the truth whether you like it or not! - at this moment forbidden to you by Government order. If, as young men, you will listen to me, I would exhort you to winning back the general right of free speech before chattering of "vers libres".
Q endeavoured to encourage free speech and rational discussion in the English faculty at Cambridge, as he later stated in 'A Lecture on Lectures':
Our English Tripos is designed, not to detect what you don't know – a feat perhaps as easy as it were certainly unprofitable – but to discover what you do. The examination paper gives you some twenty questions or more, of which you are almost forbidden to answer more than five.
It was designed to prevent candidates absorbing large amounts of material from lectures and books so as to regurgitate onto the answer paper. As he continues:
In the first place, then, the function of a University is by no means merely to impart knowledge to you. Among other purposes, perhaps the most vital of any, you are here to learn to 'think' for yourselves.
Today, in most subjects, candidates receive a set number of questions which can only be answered from information received, with the answers frequently narrowed down to enable a computer to mark them. There is no right to originality of thought or rational dissent.
In the lecture 'The Scholarly Don', which Brittain considered of sufficient importance to be included in his Q Anthology, Q throws out a direct challenge to those who today see education as a way to a good job, a big salary and an influential position, as we repeatedly hear from politicians and educationalists on the media. This, they tell us, can only be obtained through university education. Those who go to university earn more than those who do not. The fact that students with outstanding degrees in certain subjects are able subsequently to command princely salaries obscures a second fact that all too many students end up with poorly paid jobs or no jobs at all and have big debts hanging over their heads for the rest of their lives. However, there is a more serious question:
It assumes the value of learning to correspond with the immediate market price, whereas in the whole world there is no greater fallacy, or string of fallacies, than can be hung around the question 'Does it pay?' Even the blessed word efficiency' is a relative term, at once inviting the question 'Efficiency for what?' A generous mind (which, as I understand it, a university exists to cultivate) knows that a number of the very best things in the world do not pay – for the simple reason that they are priceless. Tempted to stray for a moment beyond my immediate subject, I might ask if it paid Columbus to insist that the earth is round, or Galileo that it rotated, or Harvey that the blood circulates.
Q's inaugural lecture cannot be dismissed as a period piece irrelevant to the modern world. It contains truths as relevant today as in 1913, and no more convenient to many in the twenty-first century than in the twentieth. It is interesting that the opponents of a liberal education always come up with the same materialistic arguments.
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