On Modern Literature: Lectures and Addresses

On Modern Literature: Lectures and Addresses

On Modern Literature: Lectures and Addresses

On Modern Literature: Lectures and Addresses

Excerpt

In the early years of this century W. P. Ker had become a formidable figure in English studies. It was a period when the Chairs of English Literature in England and Scotland were filled by such learned and lively men as Saintsbury at Edinburgh, A. C. Bradley at Glasgow, Grierson at Aberdeen, Oliver Elton at Liverpool, and Raleigh at Oxford, men who, in their different ways, were winning respect for this comparatively new discipline. In this scholarly company Ker occupied his own special place. Even among men of learning he was distinguished by the unusual range of his reading; and however much he read, he brought to it always 'a spirit and judgement equal or superior'. There were few great works in European literature, from Homer to his own time, that he had not read, and read in the language in which they were written. A man who can settle down comfortably to enjoy the Iliad and the Aeneid, Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas and the Chanson de Roland, Dante and Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare, Molière and Goethe, and who can read those writers with no more difficulty than he reads Milton or Swift or Wordsworth, is not commonly to be found today. Most professors of English are, in his own happy phrase, less 'imprudently learned'. Ker began as a classical scholar, and for some years he taught in the Humanity department in the University of Edinburgh. The great classical authors were always at call when he turned to the literature of Modern Europe; for what was as remarkable as the extent of his learning was its availability. At what stage he became interested in the literature of the Dark Ages and of the medieval period it is impossible to tell; he belonged to an age when it had not yet become customary to contribute papers to learned journals (which, indeed, hardly existed), and he was forty-two when his first book, Epic and Romance, appeared in 1897. Before that, although he had been a professor at the University College of South Wales, and later at University College, London, for fourteen years . . .

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