Balliol and English Literature
A Brief History
Occupying its present site since 1263, Balliol has a good claim to be considered the oldest of Oxford's colleges, so English, like most other subjects, is a comparatively recent addition to its academic life. But the College's contribution to English Literature long pre-dates the establishment of English as an undergraduate degree. John Wyclif, left, (c.1329-84), student and subsequently (around 1360) Master of Balliol translated the Bible into English, defying the Church in doing so. The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) was a student in the late 1630s, during which time he overlapped with one Nathanael Konopios, supposedly the person to introduce coffee-drinking to Britain (and, if so, a man to whom undergraduates across the land owe a debt). Later, during the protracted Mastership of Theophilus Leigh (Master, 1726-85), a man wholly unremarkable except for the contingency of his being Jane Austen's great uncle, the college had as a student Adam Smith (1723-90; Snell Exhibitioner 1740), right, aesthetician and man of letters, as well as a moral philosopher and economist.
Robert Southey (1774-1843; Poet Laureate 1811-43), left, expelled from Westminster for his outlandish opposition to corporal punishment, attended Balliol, an especially undistinguished undergraduate, in the mid-1790s. His tutor, Thomas How, reportedly told him: 'Mr Southey, you won't learn anything from my lectures, sir; so if you have any studies of your own, you had better pursue them'. (This is no longer customary practice among tutors.) It was in Southey's rooms, now demolished but somewhere near the site of the present Junior Common Room, that he first met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a brilliant young man from Cambridge; and it was here that they made plans for a utopian settlement on the banks of the Susquehannah river in Pennsylvania - Coleridge christened the scheme 'Pantisocracy'. The scheme came to nothing pretty quickly, but in one way or another the rest of Southey's life was to be entwined with Coleridge's, and, in due course, with Wordsworth's too. (Southey and Coleridge later settled, Southey permanently, in the Lake District, and literary journalists of the time clumped the three poets together as 'the Lake School'.) Southey is probably best known now for being one of the first to tell the story of the three bears -- though his version lacked Goldilocks.
Benjamin Jowett (1817-93; Master 1870-1893), right, theologian and translator of Plato, Tutor from 1840 and Master from 1870, presided over an extraordinary renaissance in the College's life, including its literary life. Many of the greatest Victorian poets have a Balliol connection. Among them are Matthew Arnold (1822-88; Balliol 1841-4; Professor of Poetry 1857-67), poet, educationalist, and cultural commentator as well as the most important literary critic of the Victorian period; his friend Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861; Balliol 1837-41), the great poet of nineteenth century scepticism, author of Amours de Voyage and The Bothie, but perhaps best known now for 'Say not the struggle nought availeth'; Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909; Balliol 1856-60), left, brilliant and brilliantly scandalous author of Atalanta in Calydon and Poems and Ballads; and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889; Balliol 1862-6), whose posthumous influence on modern poetry has been immense. Robert Browning (1812-1889) was one of the college's first Honorary Fellows; Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) was an intimate of Jowett. He addressed a warm poem 'To The Master of Balliol', despite the Master's readiness to give him advice. 'I think I wouldn't publish that, if I were you, Tennyson', he is once meant to have told the poet, upon hearing a new work declaimed. 'If it comes to that, Master', Tennyson replied, 'the sherry you gave us at luncheon was beastly'. Tennyson's friend F.T. Palgrave, whose deeply Tennyson-influenced anthology The Golden Treasury shaped the taste of the age, was also a Balliol man (1843-6); as were the great H.D. Rawnsley (1850-1920; Balliol 1870-75), a poet and prolific author as well as an eminent Wordsworthian and creator of the National Trust; the famous philologist H.W. Fowler (1858-1933, matriculated 1877; MA, 1886), author of The King's English; and Ernest Hartley Coleridge (1846-1920, Balliol 1866-1870), the distinguished editor of Byron and of S.T. Coleridge (his grandfather). Poet, novelist, essayist, and Catholic controversialist Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953, Balliol 1892-5), took a first in History in 1895. (This is a selective list.)
The College produced two poets of the Great War, Julian Grenfell (1888-1915, killed at Ypres, Balliol 1906-10), best known now for his 'Into Battle', and P.H. Shaw-Stewart(1888-1917, Balliol 1907-1910), author of the lines that begin 'I saw a man this morning | Who did not wish to die'. Later in the century, that prominent man of letters Cyril Connolly (1903-74, Balliol 1922-5), author of Enemies of Promise, began promisingly as a Scholar here; writer and glass engraver Laurence Whistler (1912-2000, Balliol 1930-4) studied here too. For most of the twentieth century, however, the College seems to have specialised in novelists: Aldous Huxley (1894-1963, Balliol 1913-15), one of the first Balliol students to study in the new Honours School; Olaf Stapleton (1886-1950, Balliol), author of Star Maker (1937), one of the classics of science fiction; Nevil Shute (1899-1960, Balliol 1919-22); L.P. Hartley (1895-1972, matriculated at Balliol, 1915); Graham Greene (1904-91, Balliol 1922-25); Anthony Powell (1905-2000, Balliol 1923-6); and Robertson Davies (1913-95, Balliol 1935-8) were all students. More recently, the film director Michael Winterbottom and playwright Charlotte Jones are old members, as are the theatre critics Paul Taylor and Charles Spencer, and the poet (and Professor of Scottish Literature at St Andrews University) Robert Crawford.
The University's Chair in Poetry, to which incumbents are appointed for a five-year stint, has been established since the early eighteenth century, and several Balliol holders of the post addressed themselves to poetry in English, most influentially Matthew Arnold, twice elected to the post, which he held from 1857 to 1867; and A.C. Bradley (1851-1935; a Fellow from 1874; Professor of Poetry 1901-6), author of the famous Shakespearean Tragedy (1905, and still in print) as well as of Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909) and many other works. Palgrave was also Professor of Poetry (1885-95). The current incumbent of the Chair is Christopher Ricks, a student and subsequently Junior Research Fellow of the college, and now an Honorary Fellow. He is the author of many books, including Milton's Grand Style, T.S. Eliot and Prejudice, The Force of Poetry, and Dylan's Visions of Sin, as well as editions of Housman, Milton, and Eliot, and The Oxford Book of English Verse.
The College has enjoyed close links with the University of Glasgow since the late seventeenth century thanks to the Snell Exhibition (i.e. senior scholarship), the most distinguished literary recipients of which, besides Adam Smith, are probably John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854; Exhibition 1809), the biographer of Scott; J.C. Shairp (1819-1885; Exhibition 1840), subsequently Principal of St. Andrews and Oxford's Professor of Poetry 1877-85; John Nichol (1833-94; Exhibition 1856), the inaugural Regius Professor of English at Glasgow (1862-1889) and author of the first history of American Literature; Andrew Lang (1844-1912; Exhibition 1864), literary historian and folklorist; the medievalist W.P. Ker (1855-1923; Exhibition 1874), Oxford's Professor of Poetry 1920-3 -- to come no closer to the present day.
English was finally established as an Honours School at Oxford in the early twentieth century, and Balliol was one of the first colleges to teach it as an undergraduate subject. The first Fellow in English was M.R. Ridley (appointed in 1920), a prolific scholar, editor of Shakespeare (Othello and Antony and Cleopatra, among other plays) as well as a Keatsian and a medievalist and several other things; he is also reputed to be the model for Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey. Other Fellows in English have included John Bryson; J.C. Maxwell, editor and bibliographer; Roger Lonsdale, editor of The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century English Verse (1987), as well as editions of Gray, Collins, and Goldsmith (1969); and, more recently, Sandie Byrne, now Professor of English at the University of Lincoln. The Eastman Visiting Professorship at the College has been filled over the years by many distinguished literary scholars, including John Livingston Lowes (1930), author of The Road to Xanadu, 1927), David Daiches (1934), Lionel Trilling (1964), Harry Levin (1982), A. Walton Litz (1989), and Peter Brooks (2001). The College also has a Junior Research Fellowship in English, previous holders of which include Christopher Ricks, John Carey, and Stanley Wells, editor of the Oxford Shakespeare.
This account draws greatly, and gratefully, upon John Jones, Balliol College: A History (2nd edn.; Oxford, 1997), and the successive volumes of the Balliol College Register. For more on the history of the college, see the college webpages. The Tennyson story is repeated in Robert Bernard Martin, Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart (London and Oxford, 1980), 433. All images on this page are copyright (c) Balliol College.