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LIFE AND ART IN ENGLISH
I CANNOT begin what I have to say to-day without allowing myself a few rather personal words. I hope it is not necessary. to tell you how sensible I am of the high honour which the college has done me in appointing me to hold this office, and how conscious, almost painfully conscious, I am of my unfitness to stand in a place which has been occupied by such men as Sir Walter Raleigh, Professor W. P. Ker, and the brilliant classical and English scholar who was the first holder of the King Edward VII Chair of English Literature. There is never any use in spending time over one's unfitness for any kind of work : the only thing to do is to make oneself as fit as one can and think no more about it. But there is something else. It is not merely a matter of unfitness. It is a matter of strangeness. Part of the pride, and part also of the alarm, which I felt when I received the Master's letter offering me this lectureship came from surprise and pleasure in the thought that one so entirely a creature of Oxford as I am should be asked to lecture at Cambridge. But after to-day I shall presume to consider myself not so entirely of Oxford as before, but now a little, at any rate, of Cambridge too. I shall not in future allow myself to be so humbled by that array of Cambridge poets with which the Cambridge man is wont to crush any tendency to complacence on the part of Oxonians of literary tastes. Having now at least a temporary foothold in Cambridge, I shall lay claim to my proper fraction of the reflected glory of Milton and Wordsworth and the rest : and even when my brief connexion with
1 The opening Lecture delivered on the 10th November 1921 by the Clark Lecturer in English Literature at Trinity College, Cambridge.
this place is over I shall, I hope, have memories and gratitudes which will almost make me shrink from so much as remembering a reply which, when still in the position of a mere undiluted Oxonian, I once devised to silence that Cambridge taunt of which I spoke. It cannot be denied, no doubt, that Gray said ugly things about Cambridge, or evendare I mention so profane a fact in this place ?—that Dryden, Wordsworth, and Byron went so far in moments of eccentricity or anti-mathematical exaltation as to utter the ugly wish that they had been at Oxford ; and the fact is, perhaps, a justifiable Oxford parry to that difficult Cambridge thrust. But I shall now be more inclined to remember that it by no means represents the last word to be said about the true feelings of those poets. Dryden's, for instance, was notoriously rather a venal Muse, and it is not to be forgotten that his painful contrast between Thebes and Athens occurs in verses addressed to the University of Oxford, and is naturally tinctured by that gratitude which, we know, has its own lively expectations, and naturally does what it can to put them in the way of fulfilment. Moreover, in estimating the value of his
Oxford to him a dearer name shall be
He chooses Athens in his riper agewe cannot forget what he says of another prologue and epilogue addressed to Oxford :
'I hear they have succeeded, and by the event your lordship will judge how easy it is to pass anything upon an university, and how gross flattery the learned will endure.' And as to Gray, his life is the best answer to his words. It is no use describing Cambridge as 'a silly, dirty place ' if, without any call of duty or business, you show your love for it by choosing to spend the best part of your life there. Of Byron I say nothing, except that, so far as I remember, Cambridge fares no worse at the hands of his universal helter-skelter mockery than every place he ever lived in, with the possible exceptions of Newstead and Harrow. And as to Wordsworth, was it not at Cambridge that he got drunk, and did he ever pay the same honour to any other place ?
No one, then, who comes to speak of English literature, and particularly of English poetry, in this place can forget that Cambridge can claim to number among her sons the greatest English poet who was ever at a university at all; and the poet most loved of poets, loved of Milton, loved of Pope, loved of Wordsworth, loved of Keats; and the poet of the best-known poem in our language ; and the poet who, far more than any other English poet, has changed the lives and characters of his readers so that he has become a kind of religion (we do not speak of Miltonians or Keatsians, but we do speak of Wordsworthians, almost as we speak of Wesleyans or Franciscans); and the poet who has as easily surpassed all our poets in the splendour of his contemporary and still surviving European fame as in the heroic beauty of his death. And these are only five in a long and glorious line. The function of the Clark Lecturer is to lecture on English literature. He is in a very free position, as I understand, his duties having, wisely as it seems to me, been left very vague and undefined. He is the swallow of a single summer ; and no one has cared to try to control the casual flights of so brief a visitor. But I suppose that part, and a principal part, of the idea of the lectureship was, and is, that its passing holders should give their hearers, not so much their learning, if they have it, as their experiences in literature what was Jules Lemaître's phrase ?-their adventures in that perpetual voyage of discovery across the ocean of literature which is the life of a lover of letters : to tell their tale and recount their memories of the storms and calms they have encountered; the barren islands and the fruitful; the friendly people and the savages--perhaps we