Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Springs of Helicon

Thomas Gray (1716-1771) 

Among the riffs developed by Garrison Keillor for the formerly brilliant “Prairie Home Companion,” was one about a fictional association called P.O.E.M.—the Professional Organization of English Majors.  The name was a lighthearted contribution to a fairly copious genre of English Major Jokes, but one offered by a man whose powers of articulation and imaginative narration showed just how vital the fundamental skills of literacy remain for the life of the spirit.

Outside of the joke world, however, the English major would seem to be in marked decline.  This is a theme confirmed by my mailbox.  Since I spent my life as an English professor, it is not surprising that so many of my alumni friends are interested in the subject.  It is a rare week in which no old friend or acquaintance forwards to me some essay or op ed column discussing the decline of the humanities in general or the specific debilities of the current study of literature.  One of the oddities of American academic culture is that although our faculties are hotbeds of political radicalism, our alumni bodies tend to be champions of the unchanging eternal verity.  The Princeton light bulb joke is this.  Q: How many Princetonians does it take to change a light bulb?  A: Two.  One to change the bulb and the other to talk about how much better the old bulb was.

I noticed over my years of teaching that the selection of students’ majors, undoubtedly influenced to some extent by parental advice, varied sharply (and quickly) with national economic conditions.  You can see this in the dramatic rise in numbers in students choosing economics (or business in institutions that teach it) and computer science.  Even so, the long-term decline of literary study is dramatic.  Over the last ten-year period, while the total annual cohort of American bachelor’s degrees was increasing by 26%, the number of English majors was declining by about 20% in absolute terms—from roughly 3.7% of all graduates to 2.2%.  (In 1970 it was 7.6%).

I am less inclined to mourn the statistics than to ponder their causes.  Obviously undergraduates are voting with their feet, but I believe that their motivation is less economic or vocational than it is intellectual or spiritual.  College students tend on the whole to be comparatively smart; many I have known are brilliant.  I fear that very bright students who love literature are concluding that English departments are not particularly good places to study it.  Even though they never enjoyed the illumination of the old bulb, they can tell when the light is dim and indirect.  Race studies, gender studies, “cultural” studies—all these can be studied less obliquely in other programs and departments.  One can also avoid the middle-man altogether.  Programs in “creative writing” and the visual and performing arts are burgeoning.

It is true that literature is a word with different meanings.  It can and sometimes does mean simply anything written, as in “I have read most of the literature on gastric ulcers, and…” But when we speak of English or American literature, or of the literature of any nation or language, we are talking about a set of relationships and a tradition.  There would be no classical Latin literature without explicit Greek antecedents.  There could be no Dante without Virgil, and no Virgil without Homer.  Reading Joyce’s Ulysses will never be easy, but it will be impossible if you don’t know that.  This fact demands of the literary student not merely some erudition but an attitude of informed conservatism incompatible with many post-modernist trends, and certainly its more narcissistic, even solipsistic ones.

A genuine political radical, the Scottish socialist and classicist J. W. Mackail, succinctly expressed the fundamental principle of literary study in a brilliant little book published more than a century ago by.   Mackail was in his time a famous Virgilian.  He had pretty good cultural connections.  He was the friend and biographer of William Morris, the son-in-law of Edward Burne-Jones, and the father of Angela Thirkell.  His book, a revised version of lectures given at Oxford during his tenure as Professor of Poetry, is entitled The Springs of Helicon: A Study in the Progress of English Poetry from Chaucer to Milton.  The title itself is allusive, invoking lines from a once-famous Pindaric ode written by Thomas Gray in the 1750s, “The Progress of Poesy”.  Helicon was the mountain sacred to the Muses; the two springs on its slope were Hippocrene and Aganippe.  “From Helicon’s harmonious springs” wrote Gray, “A thousand rills their mazy progress take”.

Gray’s poem is brilliant, but it is not easy, as the fancy classicism of his image might suggest.  Let Mackail himself make the necessary points in the brief introductory remarks in which he defines his subject as the “...Progress of Poetry, or in other words, the consideration of poetry as a progressive function and continuous interpretation of life.  Poetry may be thus regarded, and it is thus that Gray regards it in his great Ode, whether in relation to the life of the individual from youth to age, to the life of a single nation or language, or to the larger movements and progress of the life of mankind as it successively embodies itself in different ages and countries, and is there re-embodied and re-interpreted by art.”

Except for such “cultural revolutionaries” of the last century as produced the hecatombs that stagger the human imagination, culture is ever a fruitful commerce of tradition and innovation.  “In our own literature Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton have been the subject of such long and minute study, that for criticism to return to them now might seem like laboring in a thrice-plowed field.  But in truth not only is that field inexhaustible, but each generation must work it anew to gain its own food….The most high poets, unwasting also and unweariable, not only repay, but require perpetual reinterpretation.  To each age, to each reader, they come in a new light and bear a fresh significance: the progress of critical appreciation follows the progress of poetry; and the whole interpretation of the past becomes, in its turn, a part of the thing to be interpreted.”