Classics, Class and Literary Studies

I remember learning about the Ancient Greeks at primary school. I made a poster that described the Persian-Greek war as though it was a football match. At secondary school I studied Latin and went on trips to Lunt Fort near Coventry and Fishbourne Roman Palace in Sussex. I continued my education in classics at university by improving my ability to read Latin and Greek, so that I could read important texts in the original language. The skill continues to be helpful when studying sixteenth- and seventeenth-century (i.e. Renaissance) literature. My education in classics seems very natural to me, and the same could be said for my study of, say, Shakespeare: I probably came across Romeo and Juliet or similar when I was eight or nine, started reading the original when I was thirteen, studied King Lear when I was seventeen, and started using more advanced interpretative strategies when I was twenty.

When I recently mentioned to someone that I’d learnt Latin and Greek, I could see the person readjusting her impression of me: in that particular situation it seemed a bit lah-di-dah, and saying that my day-job involves studying English literature from Shakespeare’s time probably wouldn’t have helped. But the little accounts of my studies above show that there’s nothing inherently posh about learning these subjects. Those school trips or film adaptations I watched at primary school still relate to the same subject, which doesn’t suddenly become socially-aspirational once I start studying it to a certain level. In Britain, the institutional context for these subjects does become posher the higher up you get: a hefty chunk of GCSE and A-Level candidates in Latin are from independent schools, and ‘traditional’ subjects are studied most intensively at ‘traditional’ universities (where the subject’s been studied for longest, and has had chance to develop the best resources and reputations). In my case, I began studying classics at a state primary school, and continued at a fee-paying secondary school, then at Cambridge and Oxford. But, again, the subject didn’t suddenly become posher when I studied it at a higher level.

All the same, I wouldn’t argue that children are necessarily ‘better’ students, citizens or cultural observers for preferring these subjects to studying films, taking vocational courses or playing football. I wouldn’t want Eastenders to be axed and replaced by performances of Shakespeare plays. I don’t think studying literature should be about upholding certain cultural standards and passing them onto the next generation. It does, however, require learning about our cultural heritage, where it comes from and how it influences what comes after it. True, it’s usually an elite who has greatest sway on what is regarded as worthy of study (just as history is written by the winners), but teachers, as I see it, aren’t part of this elite grouping: it’s their job to make students aware of these historical processes. In doing so, the student learns to challenge the class associations of Classics and English literature, and realize that there’s nothing essentially ‘pretentious’ or ‘posh’ about studying them (though you could profitably isolate how imperial, patriarchal or other dominant social forces have shaped culture). Studying literature involves understanding and contesting the assumptions that grow up around human culture, rather than passively accepting someone else’s pre-conceptions. The standards that are upheld are about clear-sighted, independent judgement. I don’t find that defining or refining taste comes into it.

Learning about the Multiverse

Another week, another lecture. I heard Brian Greene speak on Monday about recent developments in theoretical physics. He talked about multiverses—the possibility that because it’s probably possible to go on travelling forever (as opposed to hitting a wall or returning to the start) then all this space may be filled with infinitely many parallel universes, each of could differ from our universe, on everything from physical laws to what colour my eyes are. It’s an attractive idea for some mathematicians, apparently, because it would explain some of the strange numbers you get when making calculations about the universe’s growth.

I came away from the lecture recalling that I’d mulled over some of the same possibilities when I was younger. Since my maths hasn’t got much better since then, these thoughts aren’t much more advanced now. This recollection made me particularly interested to listen to Brian Greene speaking that same day on the Radio 4 programme Start the Week, where he appeared with his British counterpart, Brian Cox, and the science journalist/author Angela Saini. The conversation turned to science education, and the two Brians agreed that it’s important to enthuse children with big ideas about the universe (or multiverse) so that they want to acquire the knowledge and mental discipline to understand these problems more clearly. Without disparaging other subjects, all three agreed that science should be accepted as a part of British cultural identity, and that understanding how the scientific process works would help citizens to make better judgements about matters like climate change. Saini helpfully broadened the discussion by contrasting Britain with the widespread enthusiasm for science and technology among Indian students.

There are many similarities between the claims being made for science and humanities education as drivers for democratic responsibility here, but I was left thinking about an important difference. Talk of the multiverse and wonders of the solar system is intended to be (to quote the blurb about Brian Cox’s current TV series) ‘spellbinding’ and ‘breathtaking’. It’s intended to nurture the type of thinking that I recalled having when I was younger, which anyone who has looked up at the night sky and tried to make sense of it all has had. This fascination gives a taste of why learning times tables, equations and the scientific method is worthwhile. This training helps us to make sense of the world.

The humanities don’t work like this. My equivalent fascination for books impelled me to delve deeper, but there’s not the same barrier between wondering and understanding. I could become engrossed by Jane Austen’s Emma or James Joyce’s Ulysses, but it wouldn’t make sense to say that I’d have to go away and study for several years until I could ‘properly’ understand them. This is because I’m studying human culture, which was written to be read and, at some level, understood. At the point that I’m not reading but studying literature, I’m developing new skills and knowledge (as with the science lesson) that challenge what I already know. It helps me to read between the lines, open my mind to new possibilities, and work out how to talk about given aspects of culture more incisively (just as it’s possible to talk about the universe’s creation in more detail if you know the maths).

The difference here, as I see it, is that because the scientist is working with the natural world, you have to develop your own skills to the point that you can start matching nature’s complexity, and the sophistication with which we find out about the world. But culture only exists because we already know something about it, and so the project of studying literature is immediately to examine pre-existing ideas and refine our judgment, with the object of coming to terms with reality through the lens of human experience. So wonder can be a motivation for students of arts as well as science. For science, this means asking those big, unanswerable questions and then groping towards an answer. For the humanities, you take what you know and start asking more and more difficult questions about it.

Geoffrey Hill, Professor of Poetry Lecture (8th March)

The second Professor of Poetry lecture was given in the Oxford Exam Schools on Tuesday by Geoffrey Hill. Hill is a formidable poet and critic, known for pushing hard against the limits of the English language. He has a prophetic air—helped along by his white waterfall of a beard—in his public utterances. His inaugural lecture, for example, drew a connection between skimming and scamming: giving a cursory glance to the world or to a poem leaves you susceptible to political fast-talking and deception.

In Lecture Two Hill said that he wishes to focus on poetry from the period 1520 to 1720 in his lectures (all fourteen remaining ones, was my impression). As a student of exactly this period, this was all very gratifying, as were admiring references to Thomas Wyatt, John Donne and especially William Shakespeare’s sonnets (a guide to the ‘intelligence of the age’). Hill spent around twenty minutes talking through a lyric poem by the lesser-known Cavalier poet, John Suckling. The perceptiveness of his reading aside, Hill’s analysis was intended to show how poetry from this period is invariably well-crafted, even when written by John Suckling. The attention to conceits, paradoxes, shifts of meaning, ambiguities, versification, rhyming, syntax and so forth is all there. This sensitivity makes the poetry more difficult to read, but this is entirely positive. It’s like preferring chewy wholemeal bread to unfilling white.

He ended by referring to a recent trip to HMV in which he bought the new PJ Harvey album, which apparently wasn’t all that displeasing (he was less impressed with The Streets’ ability to rhyme—’knitten’ and ‘thicken’ didn’t impress). The appeal is less surprising given that her record’s called ‘Let England Shake’. His lecture enforced the value of canonical English poetry to create tough, alert readers who are responsive to today’s political and cultural situation. He also suggested that young poets should look to the masters, or even imitators of the masters, and try to recover their technical innovations. You may not agree that England is a stagnating morass, and you may not think that Renaissance lyric poetry is where all the literary wholemeal bread is. But there’s a valuable reminder about the importance of literary study here, and Hill hopes that his lectures convey a ‘blank intransigence’ (Hill quoting from A.D. Nuttall‘s Overheard by God) about what he believes in.

An example. Hill pretended to throttle himself to convey the strength he felt in the language in line 8 of this Thomas Wyatt lyric. It’s about the perils of court-life and fame:

1   Stond who so list vpon the Slipper toppe
2   Of courtes estates, and lett me heare reioyce;
3   And vse me quyet without lett or stoppe,
4   Vnknowen in courte, that hath suche brackish ioyes.
5   In hidden place, so lett my dayes forthe passe,
6   That when my yeares be done, withouten noyse,
7   I may dye aged after the common trace.
8   For hym death greep’the right hard by the croppe
9   That is moche knowen of other, and of him self alas,
10   Doth dye vnknowen, dazed with dreadfull face.

(Thomas Wyatt, Poem CCXL [Stond who so list vpon the Slipper toppe], text from Literature Online)