Cambridge English and Beyond

Raymond Williams

Was there ever, in fact, a ‘Cambridge English’? Not as in ‘Oxford English’, which refers in its most general use to a manner of speaking: but in the sense of a distinctive and coherent course and method of study. There has been an English Tripos in Cambridge since 1917, and an independent Tripos and Faculty since 1926. I realised recently that I had been in contact with English at Cambridge for two-thirds of this history, since I came as an undergraduate in 1939. Moreover, for the last twenty years or so I have, in some problematic ways, been near the centre of its affairs. It is then at first sight curious that I still look at what is called ‘Cambridge English’ as a historical phenomenon: as something happening, throughout, at a certain distance.

One reason is easy to find. Through some accident of time or temperament I always arrive rather late for Golden Ages. One of the first things I was told in Cambridge, having grown up in what seemed to me a significant rural culture, was that significant rural culture had disappeared a few years before I was born. Again the heroic or infamous period of Cambridge Communism, in the 1930s, was, when I arrived, just disappearing into the altered circumstances of the war. Similarly with Cambridge English. What Basil Willey, supported by Muriel Bradbrook and others, has called its Heroic or Golden Age ran from 1928 to somewhere in the 1930s. Tillyard saw loss or decline from about 1930. F.R. Leavis, in 1943, offered a sketch for an English School, to realise the essential values of the Cambridge English initiative, by way of explicit contrast with most of what was actually happening. From these authorities, who knew in direct ways the first third of the history, it is easy to get a sense that Cambridge English is a matter either of the past or of the future: in any case not something you can walk round a windy corner and actually find.

At the beginning, this did not worry me. Indeed, I was largely unaware, between 1939 and 1941 when I left for the Army, that I was following, or might rather earlier have been following, or with some necessary redirection might still follow, a distinctive and innovating course. Part One of the Tripos was a broadly unsurprising extension and consolidation of the work already done in a small rural Welsh grammar school. It was only when I came back, in 1945, not only to read Part Two but also to hear all around me the controversies about Leavis, and the conflicting accounts of that tangled earlier history, that I became conscious of the disputed idea of ‘Cambridge English’ and at the same time aware of new kinds of work and challenge in what had seemed, at a respectful distance, a relatively straightforward academic course, which occupied only a limited part of one’s life and interests. When I returned in 1961, as a lecturer, the general situation was remarkably similar: as disputed, as tangled and as unresolved.

In fact, since 1946, at a good distance from Cambridge, I had been trying to find my own way through the questions defined by that post-war experience. The specific outcome was Culture and Society, which was also, I suppose, the occasion for my return. I want to look again at the general idea of ‘Cambridge English’: at what it was and was not, at what forces shaped and moved through it, at what happened in different phases and is still happening. It is then a sign of a certain dislocation – a differently experienced dislocation – that I begin with the unfamiliar question: was there ever, in fact, a Cambridge English?

One of the few certainties is that it was late. Cambridge was one of the last British universities to make any proper provision for English studies. That should not surprise us. Like Oxford but in this even more rigidly, it had steadily resisted the introduction of virtually everything beyond the received Classics and Mathematics. In the late 19th century, among the eventual newer Triposes, Natural Science and History were among the least esteemed. A conventional majority could usually be mobilised for the status quo, by one after another established and prejudiced authority. The first limited introduction of English was, ironically, by way of Old English, and later of philology. Yet ‘out of business’, so to say, and then as a part of the new Modern and Medieval Languages Tripos, actual work began to build up. In this relatively unprovided period there was the Cambridge History of English Literature and there were college lectures on writers by a range of men with other formal commitments. The small course, however, tied the study of some English literature to a main body of work in language and philology.

The principal innovation of the phase from 1917 can then be as well stated negatively as positively. Through a series of changes it became the first course to allow a practical separation between literary and linguistic studies. This has been described so often as a liberation, an emancipation, an unchaining, that it will seem lacking in piety to pause and inspect it. Certainly the available accounts of the linguistic work being done, in comparative philology and morphology, indicate good reasons for impatience. Yet when we look back from the present situation, in which the distance of literary from linguistic studies is a central problem – and in which, incidentally, modern linguistics has been given only a marginal position in Cambridge – there are serious questions to ask.

Of course it was absurd that there should be no organised study of English writing in its most general respects. The drive towards English studies, though always flanked by philology and by some 19th-century Anglo-Saxonism of a nationalist kind, had been in general broad and humane. The interests that came to be defined as aesthetic and cultural, or earlier as spiritual and historical, turned readily to so much available and valuable work. It was indeed these interests which produced the new 19th-century sense of Literature, as a body of imaginative writing which represented these human qualities. Behind that again was the late 18th-century sense of English Literature, a national literature, as distinct from the earlier Classical and European emphases. English studies in the schools, in the 19th century, included the history and the geography as well as the literature and the language of this self-conscious and consciously taught nation.

In the universities, the major humane interests were still to be satisfied in Classics, which had also its own strict linguistic disciplines running through from the private schools. English, in that university context, could at first be most easily acknowledged by a linguistic discipline of the same kind, in Old English and its relations. But the emphasis on Literature, and the demand for it, were building up in other parts of the society. Newer universities were tentatively admitting it, but there were also two now often disregarded social forces: in the new adult education movement, and among women. English Literature was asked for everywhere in the new university extension classes, and people with a different kind of education – as Churton Collins argued at Oxford, Collins whose Study of English Literature was described by Tillyard as a text for the principles on which the Cambridge English Tripos was founded in 1917 – were needed to teach them. There was also a major interest in this kind of literary study by women: a direct interest; a special interest, among teachers of English studies in the schools; but also an interest defined from the excluded position of women in that phase of the culture, an exclusion most frequently overcome precisely in the making and reading of literature. Thus when we read of the insufficient ‘rigour’ of English studies – as one among many masculinist terms – or of English as ‘the women’s subject’, we should at last call this bluff. It was in areas of active and frustrated intelligence, outside the narrow class-based and sex-discriminatory culture of the 19th-century university, that these new forms of learning were first sought and found. It may be significant that it was only after the war that young men, back from the trenches, could fight an enclosed pedantry with a full heart and vigour. They could even, like Tillyard, in the significant and contradictory language of the exclusion, talk of ‘the right to sport in every glade and green pasture’.

It was in this spirit that what has been called ‘Cambridge English’ arrived, bearing, almost inevitably, the marks of the experience of exclusion. It was in effect accidental that it was so quickly separated from language studies. The Professor of Anglo-Saxon, who had begun as a Classic, thought modern English would and even should become the new centre of humane education, and so did not oppose the ending of compulsory Old English. The six philologists, meanwhile, included two Germans and three women: an improbable phalanx, at that date, against the new campaign. Indeed the prejudice with which Tillyard writes of the Germans and the women is even now astonishing. But what was coming in carried its own cultural freight, in the difficult concepts of Literature and of Englishness. There had been an Anglo-Saxonist nationalism, and one man had significantly described it as ‘reversing the Renaissance’. What now happened, in very complex ways, was a redefinition of ‘true English’, partly behind the cover of the separation from philology. The English ruling class had long traced its real ancestry to the Classical world and especially to Rome, as distinct from its actual physical ancestors. Culturally – and with many evident reasons – a comparable real ancestry was now define. It was made easier by the fact that between 1917 and 1926 English was mainly intended as a Part Two, usually after a Classics Part One. But there were secular as well as conjunctural reasons. Tragedy – which, incidentally, had been taught, from Aeschylus to Ibsen, as a university course in Leeds in 1907 – made sense as a subject in Cambridge because it could move from Greek and Roman drama to Shakespeare. The English Moralists were to be headed by Plato, Aristotle, Paul and Augustine.

What was being traced was a genuine ancestry of thought and form, with the linguistic connections assumed from the habits of the private schools. It is not so much this cultural connection that counts: it is the long gap, in the culture, history and languages of these islands, across which this persuasive formulation simply jumped. ‘We should know the poets of our own land,’ but then not Taliesin or Dafydd ap Gwilym. ‘Of our own people’, but then not the author of Beowulf. It is a complex matter just because, in restoring Classical and European emphases, as in its vigorous inclusion of comparative literature and especially French and Italian, the Cambridge course was indeed avoiding what by this time was being called a ‘provincial’ limitation. Yet its own province, rich as it was in resources, was defined in ways that were bound to prejudice the culture and history of its own land and peoples. The carriers of a literate tradition, now fully acknowledged as autonomous in modern English, were in this very function at a deliberate distance from their whole actual and differentially literate culture. If all that was being excluded was a narrow morphology, the case would be different, but in the eventual definition of Cambridge English as the carrier of a consciously minority culture there is something much more important than Beowulf’s revenge: there is the seed, within the liberation, of most of the subsequent and now notorious conflicts.

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