Have you ever wondered how the study of literature began?
In one form or another, literary criticism is probably as old as literature itself. Judges at Athenian drama festivals, in the 5th century BC, no doubt engaged in lively literary discussion - not least, perhaps, in deciding to award Sophocles second prize for Oedipus Rex around 430 BC.
Another answer, though, is that literary criticism - in the form we know it today - emerged around the middle of the 18th century, in the Athens of the North: in Edinburgh. John Stevenson, Professor of Logic and Rhetoric, delivered lectures on literary style around this time, often based on Greek texts. By the late 1740s, Adam Smith was lecturing on ‘Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres’, though mostly to an early form of extra-mural class.
The decisive move came in 1762, when Hugh Blair was appointed by the king as the first Regius Professor of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres. Sixteen Regius Professors have followed down to the present day. Professor Greg Walker currently occupies a Chair nowadays named as Regius Professorship of ‘Rhetoric and English Literature’. He leads a department still at the forefront of understanding literature and what makes ‘lettres’ ‘belles’ - one generally recognised as among the best in the United Kingdom.
As the brief history above explains, the department is one of the oldest in the United Kingdom, and in the world. Few other universities fully formalised the study of literature until at least a century later. As you’ll have noticed from that 1762 starting date, in 2012 literature in Edinburgh will celebrate no less than a quarter millennium of achievement.
We’re hoping to mark this unique 250th birthday in a number of ways - plans currently in development include:
All the above events will be open to the public. If you would like to be kept informed of dates, timings and details of invitations as these are finalised, please leave your address and email with the Head of the English Literature department.
If you have any ideas for further celebrations, within or beyond Edinburgh, likewise do let us know.
This article was published on Oct 18, 2011