The Amateur as English Man of Letters: the salutary case of Edmund Gosse


Edmund Gosse by John Singer Sargent

There must be very few examples of literary men who have managed to penetrate the hallowed halls as a professor in one of the greatest universities of the world—the University of Cambridge, no less—without a degree. The brilliant orientalist, Samuel Lee, a former carpenter of humble background who taught himself Hebrew, Arabic and a dozen other languages in his spare time while working as a lowly-paid schoolteacher, was one. Lee was appointed Professor of Arabic at Cambridge in the early nineteenth century, having already distinguished himself as an independent scholar, and had to be granted a special MA through an act of parliament before he could take up his post. The literary odds and ends man Edmund Gosse, whose famous father, the naturalist Philip Gosse  had seen to it that the Holy Bible had been his principle reading matter as a child,  was another. These are two rarities. It’s hard to recall any other contenders in the modern era.


Back in those mid Victorian days, when early advancement in the arena of learning sometimes began with a junior post in some national cultural institution, such as a national library or a museum, Edmund Gosse was given the post of library cataloguer at the British Museum on the strength of a certain verbal facility and ‘a working knowledge of Italian, French and German’. Today, as well as a good degree from a good university, candidates for an equivalent post in the British Library would probably need a diploma in librarianship or in archive administration plus a few years of practical experience. He or she might even need to have passed the dreaded Civil Service Examination.


No such problem for the young Edmund Gosse. In 1866 he breezed at the tender age of seventeen into his cushy ‘opening’ worth £90 a year thanks to the ‘influence ‘of the novelist and cleric Charles Kingsley, a friend of his father. His literary colleagues at the Museum included Richard Garnett, who became a fixture in the Library, the poet Arthur O’ Shaughnessy and the exotic Theo Marzials, later to become a favourite poet of John Betjeman. To his credit, Gosse did not rest on his laurels. Perhaps recognising that he had had a fortunate start to a literary life for someone with no formal qualifications, he worked hard on the two languages—Danish and Swedish– that he guessed might help him progress.


And progress he did. Within a year he had been promoted to Assistant Librarian, a post he held until 1875, when his skills in Danish and Swedish got him appointed ‘Translator’ to the Board of Trade. Throughout this period and beyond Gosse issued a number of privately printed small editions of essays, lectures and poems on various themes, none of which gained him much attention, as well as the odd book ( a study of ‘ northern literature’ , a biography of Gray and a study of seventeenth century poetry ). At one point it looked as if he was quickly becoming an authority on Scandinavian literature, which would have been a good thing to have become, but Gosse was seemingly determined to succeed in a literary field for which he was academically unqualified. Probably on the strength of his 1883 study of seventeenth century poetry, Gosse was appointed in 1884, at the age of thirty-five, Clark Lecturer in English Literature at Trinity College Cambridge, or as he called the post ‘ Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University’.


In his letters to friends Gosse expressed no real surprise at this quite extraordinary appointment. He travelled to Cambridge to meet the dons at his new college and lorded it around the great quadrangle of Trinity. As was customary, he would have been granted an M.A. which permitted him to teach. He delivered his first Clark lecture in 1884. Others followed and no student seems to have complained about the contents of these lectures. Then, at some point, someone felt it would be a good idea to immortalise Gosses’s musings between hard covers. Doubtless everyone at the University was very polite when  From Shakespeare to Popeappeared , but we must remember that at this time English Literature had yet to become a serious academic subject at Cambridge or at any University in the UK with perhaps the exception of London.


But Professor Charles Churton Collins ( 1848 – 1908) , a prolific literary critic and Extension Lecturer with a special interest in Tennyson’s poetry, though ostensibly a friend of Gosse’s,  was not one to let someone he saw as an amateur get away with flagrant errors of fact. His attack on From Shakespeare to Pope in the Quarterly Reviewof October 1886 has come to be regarded as arguably the most uncompromising hatchet job in the history of literary criticism. Here is a summary of it taken from Charteris’ life of Gosse (1931). After labelling the book  ‘ worthless ‘ and suggesting that its author was one of the ‘ many men of letters (who) will stoop for the sake of exalting themselves into a factitious reputation ‘, Collins laid various charges against Gosse.


‘… Gosse did not know apparently whether the Arcadia of Sidney and the Oceana of Harrington were in prose or verse; that he had confounded James Harrington the prose writer born in 1611 with Sir John Harrington the poet born in 1561; that he had described Henry More’s philosophical allegory, the Psychozoia, as an epic poem; had said that Hobbes’ translation of Homer into the heroic quatrain was followed a dozen years later by Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis, whereas Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis was published in 1667, seven years before the first instalment of Hobbes’ Homer; had mistaken the Shaftesbury of the Cabal for the Shaftesbury of the Characteristics; had claimed that Waller made the first experiment in distich in 1621, a quarter of a century before anyone else in England, forgetting that the heroic couplet had been used by Nicholas Grimoald in 1557, Robert Greene in 1593, and Joseph Hall in 1597; and had confused George Savile, Lord Halifax, with Henry Savile, a son of Sir William Savile, and so on.’


Gosse, not surprisingly, was devastated, especially as he considered Collins a friend. He replied to his accuser, but the damage was done. He turned to his friends for comfort, but only Alfred Tennyson could offer some recompense. He told Gosse that he considered Collins “a Louse on the Locks of Literature. “ Collins prospered as an academic. In 1904 he was appointed  Professor of English Literature at Birmingham University and died in 1908, possibly in a freak drowning accident. Gosse also was successful. Amazingly, he retained his Clark lectureship until 1890 and was even granted an Hon Litt D from Cambridge in 1920. Most of his other academic honours came from Scandinavia, which says a lot about where his real specialist fields lay. [R.M.Healey]





4 thoughts on “The Amateur as English Man of Letters: the salutary case of Edmund Gosse

  1. Roger

    The most famous example of someone who “managed to penetrate the hallowed halls… [of] the University of Cambridge… without a degree” was surely A.E. Housman, who failed his degree at Oxford when an academic career was lined up for him after he’d got his certain First… and had to work his way through the Patent Office and the University of London to get there.

    1. R.M.Healey

      The difference between Gosse and Housman was that although the latter failed to get a degree at Oxford, he at least took his finals and indeed impressed his examiners with his astonishing prowess as a Classical philologist. Unfortunately, back then, brilliance in a specialist field was not properly recognised at exam level. It was expected that the candidate pass the other papers. This attitude changed, if what happened to the young Ted Hughes is to be believed. The story is that in one paper he was so flummoxed that instead of answering the questions he wrote a poem and was rewarded with a ‘first ‘. Is this apocryphal or a fact?

  2. Christopher Martin

    JOT should acknowledge the featured portrait of Gosse is by John Singer Sargent.
    Among Gosse’s services to Scandinavian literature were his translation of three plays by Ibsen, including ‘Hedda Gabler’ and ‘The Master Builder’.


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