Confusing the Issue? A.C. Bradley's Theory of Poetry and Its Contexts

By Kearney, Anthony | Victorian Poetry, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Confusing the Issue? A.C. Bradley's Theory of Poetry and Its Contexts


Kearney, Anthony, Victorian Poetry


THE IMPORTANCE OF A. C. BRADLEY IN THE EARLY DEVELOPMENT OF ENGLISH studies has often been noted. As Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 1901 to 1906, his support for the literary teachers in the English School, at a time when linguistic interests were predominant, was later acclaimed by Ernest de Selincourt, himself one of those teachers:

Professor Bradley came to our aid; with the special object of helping the English School he voluntarily extended the scope of his office, and by delivering those lectures upon Shakespeare and Wordsworth, the like of which had not been heard since the days of Coleridge, he convinced a somewhat incredulous University that English poetry was worthy of a place among academic studies, and thus prepared the ground for a work so happily consolidated under the guidance of Sir Walter Raleigh, the President of Magdalen, and Professor Nichol Smith. (1)

Bradley's main impact on English studies came, of course, from his lectures on Shakespeare, published as Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), which went on to have a formative influence on the way several generations of students read the tragedies. (2) But his other lectures too had some importance for English studies, and recently his inaugural lecture "Poetry for Poetry's Sake" has been described as a key statement of the case for a literary, as opposed to a philological or historical, discipline for English studies. (3) It is this lecture that I would like to look at in the present article to test the claims that have been made for it and to reassess its significance for English studies. In doing so, I will also provide a fuller context for the lecture than has been forthcoming so far, and will begin with a word on the Oxford Poetry Chair itself.

The Oxford Chair of Poetry was set up in 1708 with few rules for guidance. The Professors (all Oxford men) were elected for ten-year stints (reduced to five years in 1900) and left free to decide their own topics. The only stipulation was that the lectures had to be in Latin. Though Saintsbury felt it worthwhile to include a section on the Chair in his History of English Criticism (1904), only a handful of its occupants--Robert Lowth, Thomas Warton, John Keble, and Matthew Arnold--gave the post any distinction. In most cases the professorial interests were in classical rather than modem poetry and their discourses in Latin, if dignified and elevated, had little relevance to modem literature and life. Matthew Arnold (1857-67) gave the Chair more purpose and relation to modem interests (he was also the first Professor to lecture in English), but this was only a temporary respite since the next two Professors, Sir Francis Doyle (1867-77) and John Campbell Shairp (1877-85), conformed to the worthy but unremarkabl e stereotype. Doyle, a minor versifier and author of the well-known imperialist poem "The Private of the Buffs," had interests in Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Scott, but his DNB biographer reports that his lectures were mostly "commonplace and pedestrian." Shairp was a fervent moralist who wrote scathing reviews of the aesthetes, urging them "to cultivate manlier thought and nobler sentiment," but the "apices" of criticism, according to Saintsbury, were beyond his reach. (4) Shairp in fact had been preferred to the unsound Pater in 1877 (5)--something which in itself says much about the kind of Professor (and lectures) wanted by the university.

By the mid-1880s, however, the tranquil life of the Poetry Professor began to take on more urgency. Discussions were then in full swing about the introduction of English studies into the Oxford curriculum, (6) and while the Poetry Professors had no formal role in these, they inevitably got caught up in the on-going debates and arguments. In the lectures of Shairp's three successors--F T. Palgrave (1885-95), W. J. Courthope (1895-1900), and A. C. Bradley (1901-06)--the study of poetry is increasingly related to questions about the implementation of English studies at Oxford.

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