The Development of “English Literature” as a Discipline

Introducing Literary Criticism A Graphic - Owen Holland 2015

The Development of “English Literature” as a Discipline

Arnold was writing at the time when English Literature began to be taken seriously as an academic discipline. At Oxford, the first Professorship of Poetry dated back to 1708, but it was a part-time position, requiring only three lectures per year. Arnold held the post from 1857—67.

The position of Regius Chair of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, the first of its kind, was established at the University of Edinburgh in 1762 and was first held by Reverend Hugh Blair (1718—1800).

The gradual metamorphosis of “Belles Lettres” into “English Literature” was a 19th-century phenomenon. When University College was founded in London in 1826, English Literature was offered as a subject from 1828 and the first Professor of English was appointed in 1829. Initially, however, literature simply provided examples for the study of linguistics, much as previous students of Rhetoric had studied the rules of composition.


When Queen Victoria founded a Regius Chair at the University of Glasgow in 1861 its title was “English Language and Literature”. John Nichol (1833—94) was the first to occupy the post.

The name of the Edinburgh Chair had been changed to “English Language and Literature” in 1858, at the request of William Edmondstoune Aytoun (1813—65), who held the post from 1845 to 1865.

Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Belles Lettres and Rhetoric (1783) focused heavily on rules of classical rhetoric — teaching students how to write well.

William Aytoun’s teaching, on the other hand, covered the chronological spread of the English literary tradition, alongside topics including Roman literature, popular ballads, language, style and versification.


In the middle of the 19th century a distinctive discipline of English Literature began to emerge.

F.D. Maurice (1805—72), the Christian socialist and Professor of English History and Literature at King’s College London, argued that English Literature had an important role to play in securing social harmony. Literature, he argued, would “emancipate us from the notions and habits which are peculiar to our own age”. In focusing on literary works as a repository of timeless truths and spiritual values, Maurice anticipated another of Arnold’s key concepts: the touchstone.


There can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent than to have always in one’s mind lines and expressions of the great masters.

Subsequent critics have tended to be more sceptical, regarding Arnold’s claims about trans-historical value as an ideological exercise in (secular) canon-building.