Humanities for Humanity's Sake 2: 
the Other Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure: Creativity, Innovation and Critique in the Arts

D.M.R. Bentley

All things counter, original, spare, strange....

Gerard Manley Hopkins (31)


One of the box-office hits of 1989 that has remained relatively popular among video renters is Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, an American buddy saga that may be at least as good an indicator of the state of Western culture in the nineties as Easy Rider (1971) was in the seventies. Set in the town of San Dimas, California, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure concerns two callow young menTed Theodore Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esquirewho must pass a history assignment in order to remain in high school, avoid enrolment in a military academy, and continue playing in their garage band, which is wishfully named “Wild Stallion.” Since, in their own words, the sum total of their knowledge of history is that “the world has great history...the world is full of history,” their rescue is no mean feat and, indeed, accomplished only through the intervention of a deus ex machina named Rufus who arrives in the nick of time in a telephone booth from a future society that has improbably developed around Bill and Ted’s execrable music and the foundational propositions encapsulated in their two oft-repeated mottoes: “Be excellent to each other” and “Party on, dudes!” With the help of Rufus and his time machine, Bill and Ted visit several historical eras, bringing back with them an array of “important figures” such as Socrates, Napoleon, Freud, Billy the Kid, and Abraham Lincoln to enliven their oral report, which, of course, is a spectacular success. En route to the report, all the historical figures show themselves to be utterly enthralled by the malls, water slides, aerobics classes, consumer goods, and young people that they encounter in San Dimas, and at the movie’s climax Lincoln not only thanks Bill and Ted for bringing him on such an “excellent adventure,” but also endorses the tenets of their caring yet hedonistic philosophy. The movie ends with Rufus explaining that a future society will be founded on the music of “Wild Stallion” because it will bring the “universe into harmony” and is “excellent for dancing.”

I will tell you…what has been the practical error of the last twenty years….It has been the error of distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is, but enlargement, which it is not….Learning [now] is to be without exertion, without attention; without toil; without grounding; without advance, without finishing.  (Newman, The Idea of a University, 127)

Now there are many things to admire in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, not least its youthful iconoclasm and its insistence on mutual kindliness, but there is also much that is dismaying and even disturbing, most especially its use of both the past and the future to validate the near-mindlessness of a consumer and entertainment culture whose defining architectural structures are the shopping mall, the amusement park, and the gymnasium. Far from giving the audience of their report in the gym and the movie theatre, a fresh, let alone a critical, perspective on the present, Bill and Ted’s “1988 World Tour of Some of the Greatest People that Ever Lived” merely reinforces the obsessions and values of the present and, indeed, sanctions the view expressed by another presenter (a football player, as it happens) that in history “everything is different, yet the same.” In the “all-inclusive nowness1 of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the past is not a foreign country that careful, sensitive, and dedicated students and scholars painstakingly attempt to understand both for its own sake and for the sake of the light that it may shed on the present and future, but a benighted realm whose inhabitants were never able to ogle, guzzle, and, of course, purchase the products of American consumer culture. In the year of the dismantlement of the Berlin Wall, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure proclaimed in its own amusing way both the end of history and the death of the humanities as traditionally understood and practiced: the decade in which “excellent” became a cliché had arrived,2 and was no sooner underway than the word “excellence” and its cognates were appropriated and invested with alchemical properties by university administrators keen to give their frequently leaden and lacklustre institutions and programmes at least the appearance of being golden.  

[H]istory is ‘for’ self-knowledge…. Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. (R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, 10)

Almost needless to say, the vision of the past as a primitive anticipation of the enlightened present and glorious future that undergirds Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is neither new nor entirely despicable, but a version of the Whig view of history whose fundamental belief in social progress and human perfectibility can be comforting and encouraging, though surely not, after a century of politically driven mass murder on an unprecedented and almost unimaginable scale, quite so convincing or compelling as it once may have been. But the excellent adventure and historical perspective of the Bill and Ted to whom I would now like to direct attention seem to me to embody a much broader, richer, and more appealing way of thinking about historical developments and the relation of humanistic studies to history than those assumed by the antics of Ted Theodore Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esquire. No reader of this journal (the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies)or, indeed, anybody who has thought at any length and in some detail about the sources of current representations of the pre-Modern era in everything from feminist history and the heritage industry to Past Times catalogues and the New Age movement will be surprised to learn that the Bill and Ted to whom I refer are William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, the leaders of the second group of Pre-Raphaelites who gathered in and around Oxford University in the mid-to-late eighteen fifties and whose work, far from being a celebration of contemporaneous culture, served as an agent of its transformation. As this essay will try to show, several aspects of the activities and achievements of Morris, Burne-Jones, and other members of their “Set” signalize the Oxford group of Pre-Raphaelites as a figurative “studium3a richly instructive site (study) in the edifice of the humanities to which an interest in the Arts provides access and to which humanists (and others) may repair in order to remember or discover the many benefits and values of humanistic studies.      

It is absolutely essential that the learned community at the university also contain a faculty that is independent of the government’s command with regard to its teachings; one that, having no commands to give, is free to evaluate everything, and concerns itself with the interests of the sciences, that is, with truth: one in which reason is authorized to speak out publicly. For without a faculty of this kind, the truth would not come to light (and this would be to the government’s own detriment); but reason is by its very nature free and admits of no command to hold something as true (no imperative “Believe!” but only a free “I believe”).(Immanuel Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, 27, 29)

Before venturing into the Pre-Raphaelite studium, two general points about our other Bill and Ted need to be made. The first is that Morris, Burne-Jones, and their friends were both like and unlike a great many undergraduates in Canadian universities todaylike in there appetite for fun, for members of the opposite sex, for travel to exotic places (in the summer of 1855 three of them travelled through northern France) and unlike in their appetite for reading, discussing, and inwardly digesting works of history and literature as formidable as Henry Hart Milman’s History of Latin Christianity (1854-55), Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley novels (1814-31), and Robert Browning’s Men and Women (1855) (which Morris reviewed during his final term at university). The second point is that to a great extent Oxford failed them, for like Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, and Robert Southey in earlier4 generations and like countless generations of students since, they found university life “languid and indifferent,” the public lectures devoted to the imparting of “knowledge” rather than the cultivation of “wisdom,” and the system as a whole narrowly “instrument[al]” and directed towards the production of “professional m[e]n” (Burne-Jones 1: 71-84). The preliminary lessons that the attitude and experience of Morris and Burne-Jones have to offer for today’s humanities students and faculty are surely too obvious to require more than minimal comment: enthusiastic students and inspiring faculty are crucial to the energetic and energizing survival of the humanities at colleges and universities in the twenty-first century. 

Perhaps the greatest advantage that Morris and Burne-Jones secured for themselves during their years at Oxford was an inspirational teacher in the form of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the most charismatic member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and an heir to the creative iconoclasm of Blake as well as to the spiritual realism of Dante, both of which had of course fed into the P.R.B.’s rebellious flight from Victorian artistic conventions towards what they saw as the greater authenticity of pre-Renaissance art. Rossetti’s capacity to motivate receptive people wrung from Burne-Jones one of the most moving descriptions ever written of an inspired and inspiring teacher:   

What can we want more, you will say, for the intellectual education of the whole man, and for every man, than so exuberant and diversified and persistent a promulgation of knowledge [as is now available in the media]? Why, you will ask, need we go up to knowledge, when knowledge comes down to us?…Nevertheless, after all, even in this age, whenever men are rally serious about getting… “a good article,” when they aim at something precise, something refined, something really luminous, something really large, something choice, they…avail themselves, in some shape or other, of the rival method, the ancient method of oral instruction, of present communication between man and man, of teachers…. (Newman, Rise and Progress of Universities, 3:7-8)

Towards other men’s ideas he was decidedly the most generous man I ever knew.  No one so threw himself into what other men didit was part of his enormous imagination....He taught me to have no fear or shame of my own ideas, to design perpetually, to seek no popularity, to be altogether myselfand this not in any words I can remember, but in the tenor of his conversation always and in the spirit of everything he said....So what I chiefly gained from him was not to be afraid of myself, but to do the thing I liked most....He never harangued or persuaded, but had a gift of saying things authoritatively and not as the Scribes. (1: 137, 149) 

In addition to the self-confidence to which this passage so eloquently attests, Rossetti gave Morris and Burne-Jones four great gifts that are arguably as important to the prosperity of the humanities today as they were to the activities and achievements of the second group of Pre-Raphaelites nearly a century and a half ago.   

If… a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society….It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgements, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. (Newman, The Idea of a University, 154-55)

The first of these was a passionate belief that in any artistic or critical work of enduring value all the human facultiessenses and emotions as well as thoughts and skillsmust be brought into play by both the creator and the audience. Looking around him at Victorian culture in the years surrounding the Great Exhibition of 1851, Rossetti rejected the notion that progress can be measured merely in terms of material abundance and technical skill, and, as a corrective, confronted his society with the intense spirituality, religious feeling, and creative integritythe fullness of human experiencethat he found in Dante, Giotto, Cavalcanti, Cimabue, and other poets and painters who worked in the period before art became a “soulless self-reflection of...skill” (Works 99). To him, engagement with a work of painting or poetry was a kind of reverie or waking dream in which we are at once our rational, emotional, and spiritual selves and active participants in another’s (or an other’s) similarly complex experiences. Such reveries, he thought and felt, can connect individuals one to another, and produce in each of us a set of experiences that are at once different and commona series of personal yet collective ways of thinking about the past, the present, and the future. This is one of the foundational messages of “Hand and Soul,” the artistic-manifesto-cum-prose-poem that Rossetti published in the first number of The Germ (January 1850), the little magazine whose innumerable successors include all the graduate and undergraduate “zines” in which the creative and critical talents of Arts students and faculty still find expression. “Be not nice to seek out division, but possess thy love in sufficiency...for the heart must believe first,” Rossetti’s fictional hero is told by his soul, for when you do what you find in your “heart to shall be well done” (30-31). Such advice should be on the wall of every guidance counsellor in every school, college, and university in the Western world.

One most valuable result of the study of literature is that the student is made to realize that there are more things in heaven and earth—experiences religious, aesthetic, emotional and even physical, on the surface and in the depths—than can be analysed, controlled or predicted. They come and go at the most unexpected times. (G.B. Harrison, The Profession of English, 173)

The second of Rossetti’s great gifts to Morris and Burne-Jones was a democratic conception of creative talent and ability whereby the capacity to acquire artistic skills and make new things is not limited to an élite but present in everyone. It was this conception that motivated Rossetti (and with him John Ruskin) to teach Art at the London Working Men’s College, where Burne-Jones, who had made up his mind to become a painter while on vacation with Morris in northern France in the summer of 1855 (see Burne-Jones 1:115), travelled from Oxford to meet him in January of the following year. It was this conception that by then had enabled Rossetti’s fiancée Elizabeth Siddal to discover and exercise her gifts as a poet and painter and that in the ensuing decade would encourage Morris and Burne-Jones to unleash an astonishing variety of talents and skills, from poetry (Morris) and painting (Burne-Jones) to furniture, wallpaper, tapestry, stained glass, and, of course, typeface and book design. It was this conception and its results that led eventually to the foundation in April 1861 of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, the partnership of “artsies” and “techies” (Marshall was a surveyor, Faulkner a mathematician) whose methods and products would give rise to the Arts and Crafts Movement that changed the appearance and practices of two continents in the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. What had begun as a rejection of post-Renaissance individualism and technicism became a working exemplar of medieval integration and interdependence that was “innovative...commercial” (Marsh 236), and an object lesson for politicians and entrepreneurs everywhere on the impossibility of predicting where, when, and how creativity and productivity will emerge, thrive, and spawn progeny. Who knows, but that the next revolution in some area of taste or design or production is not even now taking shape in the Arts faculty of some college or university in Canada or elsewhere.

By continual contact with clear expression, the student’s own thoughts and…power of expressing them increase. Herein lies the justification and the necessity of the disciplined study of the technique of writing in its narrower and wider aspects. That study has also the effect that the more exactly and clearly we try to express our own feelings, ideas and experiences, the more acute and sensitive we become, not only in ourselves but also about what is happening in another’s depths. (Harrison, The Profession of English, 174)

None of the achievements and results of Morris, Burne-Jones, and “the Firm” as it came to be called would have been possible without the third of Rossetti’s great gifts to them: the belief that to be worthwhile, effective, and enduring all creative work must rest firmly on a foundation of what he called “FUNDAMENTAL BRAINWORK” (qtd. in Caine 249)not the sort of bright ideas that are termed “brain waves” when they occur to an individual and the products of “brain storming” when they occur to a group, but basic, hard work of a sort that is familiar to all scholars and researchers in any discipline. It was on the basis of the sort of “fundamental brainwork” that students and scholars in the humanities undertake when they embark on a research paper that the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates built their understanding and depictions of the Middle Ages. Here is Ford Madox Brown in late November and early December 1847 after deciding to paint Wycliffe Reading his Translation of the Bible to John of Gaunt in the Presence of Chaucer and Gower (1848):   

Today, it is evident that the engine driving the economy is the human capacity for creative thought and action. What is new to many observers is that the arts present one of the best models of creative thought. As a result, the role of the arts and creative activity are finding a new respect and interest, with deliberate and growing efforts to find linkages for the common good.            

Much of this is driven by research throughout the nineties, which has demonstrated that widely different types of intellectual activity draw on different areas of intelligence simultaneously….Creative insights often occur when new connections are made between ideas and experience[s] that were not previously related.

None of this has escaped [Canada’s] more progressive corporate leaders….In the past,…says [Jim Prieur, the CEO of Sun Life Financial], “business sought narrowly defined skills.” Today, “we require people who understand change, and understand it in its historic context, and…can adapt. The ability to think creatively and respond is critical.” …Opening people’s eyes to culture and the arts, …believes [Ian Gillespie, CEO of the Export Development Corporation (EDC)], is essential to moving “from a parochial environment to a world of international trading…. [In a multi-cultural country, the arts] aren’t simply an elitist interest…but have much broader benefit in that they allow people to engage in social interaction in a manner which few other activities permit.” Business, he adds, must take a leadership role in promoting [the arts, arts activity, and arts education].

Indeed, business interests will be in the fore of grappling with th[e] issue…[of] tapping into the creativity that resides in all young [people]. Our educational system, cultural organizations and business must work towards this. All our futures depend on it. (“The Arts and Our Future”) [British] Museum [Reading Room] for consulting authorities...saw [John Lewis’s An Account of Dr. Wiclif (1728)], [and] [Robert] Southey’s Book of the Church (1824).... the Museum, read [William] Godwin’s [Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, Including Memories of John Gaunt (1803)]  

2nd Made a drawing of an gothic alphabet[,] read [J. Saunders’ Cabinet Pictures of English Life: Chaucer (1845)  

3rd...went to the Museum. Finish[ed] the alphabet [and] consulted [A.W.N.] Pugin on furniture [Gothic Furniture in the Style of the 15th Century (1835)]. (Brown 17-18)

The distinctive quality of the research- intensive… university is that it is the only place where professional school education, graduate arts and sciences education, undergraduate education, research, and teaching are all joined together in one place as an integrated model….

Not only are…research universities the only institutions in society charged with doing all those tasks, but they are also the only institutions charged with trying to keep, as fully and accurately as possible, what we might call “the human record,” the record of civilization. Whether is embodied in our libraries, or in the minds and capacities of our faculty, or in what the faculty publishes and teaches, one of the chief purposes of the university is to keep that “record” as straight, honest, accurate, and comprehensive as possible. And that includes constantly interpreting the record as we know it. Universities regard knowledge as something that must be constantly probed, questioned, and explained, so we can understand our past, as well as our present.

This active custodial role of interpretation, explanation, and clarification is something very special—no other institution has this task as one of its primary purposes. That’s one reason we teach…languages—and something about their cultures and civilizations…because if universities fail to do that, and we begin to forget the variety and richness of what human beings have created, we will simply lose a vast proportion of what we need to know in order to understand what humankind really is. (Neil L. Rudenstine in Ethan Bronner et al, The Future of the Research Universi.y,” 47-48

In the ensuing years, the search for new literary subjects and a fresh poetic vocabulary (what he called “stunning words for poetry” [Letters 1:55]) took Rossetti repeatedly to the British Museum Reading Room andto cite just one instance of his research methodologyto the comparative study of at least two versions of the Gesta Romanorum that yielded “The Staff and Scrip,” the chivalric romance that he first published in the 1856 number of Morris’s Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.5 A similar reliance on “fundamental brainwork” characterizes the work of the second group of Pre-Raphaelites: for example, several of Burne-Jones’s drawings and designs for paintings, murals, and stained glass of the fifties, sixties, and seventies are based on Camille Bonnard’s Costumes des XIII, XIV et XV siècles, extraits des monuments les plus authentiques de pienture et de sculpture avec un texte historique et descriptif (1829-30) (see Yamaguchi 24-25) and the poems and tales on medieval subjects that Morris published in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858), and elsewhere continue to astonish for the scholarly precision upon which their imaginative historicism is firmly based. When Matthew Barrett, the sometime President of the Bank of Montreal, told the Canadian Club in Toronto in November 1996 that a student of the Canterbury Tales is more employable in the financial world than the product of accountancy training he was thinking primarily of the transferability of analytical skills (see Galt), but the example of the Pre-Raphaelites surely indicates that such skills belong to a larger set that includes research, scholarship, creativity, and innovation.

[I]t is important that beauty and the imagination not be discredited within literary study, for they are one important source of… empowerment against injustice in the external world….It is not by coincidence—but instead by the deep intimacy of aesthetic fairness and ethical fairness—that beauty presses us to act on its behalf in a way that anticipates the two Rawlsian duty-to-justice rules: (1) to protect and act as stewards of beauty where it already exists and (2) to try to bring it into being where it does not yet exist.

[T]he humanities need to return not only to celebrating beauty and the imagination but also to teaching scholarly research within the classroom….I mean by scholarly research the use of footnotes to make both transparent and available the paths of evidence that lead to the argument, an argument in which something actual is at stake. With such notes, the argument can also be placed in the context of alternate explanations and counterarguments, so that its accuracy can continue to be queried and tested. (Elaine Scarry, “Beauty and the Scholar’s Duty to Justice,” 25, 30)

The fourth and last of Rossetti’s great gifts to Morris and Burne-Jones was his strengthening and sharpening of the critical attitude to Victorian culture that had led them before meeting him to found a semi-monastic community that would undertake a “crusade and Holy Warfare against the age” (Burne-Jones 1:84). Such a critical attitude and its underlying assumption that society’s values should be interrogated and, if found wanting, changed for the better is conspicuously absent from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, but it is almost everywhere evident in the work of Rossetti, Morris, and Burne-Jones, and, very clearly, provided the motive force behind the imaginative historicism that took them to the Middle Agesto Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and Froissart’s Chroniclesin search of the sources and a cure for the malaise that they, Carlyle, Ruskin, and others saw around them in Victorian England. It was on the basis of a critical attitude that issued in imaginative historicism that Morris and Burne-Jones were able to achieve what Rossetti called “‘an inner standing-point,’” a “medieval and unmodern” perspective (W.M. Rossetti 661), that enabled them to stand at least partially and temporarily outside their own time and placeto make cultural differentiations, to articulate social critiques, and to envision things as other and otherwise than they are. For them, as for Rossetti, the “all-inclusive nowness” that found expression in the Crystal Palace was a goad to the creation of a capaciously diachronic now in which the present could be re-valued, re-formed, and re-directed rather than merely validated by the past. Today such immeasurably important and (even economically) valuable capabilities and possibilities are increasingly under threat as humanists are being more and more encouraged by governments and granting agencies to forsake the cultural and social travel to which their disciplines conduce in favour of activities whose fine-sounding terminology of “interdisciplinarity,” “technoculture,” “media studies,” and “the knowledge economy” should not be allowed to conceal the dangers of allowing the sort of curiosity-driven scholarship that can lead to transformative critique to be sacrificed on the altar of bureaucratic logic and government policy. Nor do the dangers inherent in these developments lie merely (or even) in the disappearance of the humanities as traditionally understood. Much more important is the threatened disappearance in the universities especially but also in society at large of humanistic outsiders, people with “inner standing-point[s]” who are capable of interrogating, provoking, and enriching society from any perspective that can be envisaged, or should be, in a free society. On this issue of a desirable diversity of perspectives as a necessary counterbalance to every society’s tendency to encourage conformity to a single set of norms, the Pre-Raphaelites are again instructive, for the critical attitudes of Morris, Burne-Jones and Rossetti himself took them each in very different directions in the mid-to-late Victorian period: Morris to the utopian socialism of A Dream of John Ball (1888), News from Nowhere (1891), and other works; Burne-Jones to the reclusive medievalism that prompted him to name his studio “Avalon,” and Rossetti to the “fleshly” and esoteric literary and artistic compositions that so troubled the likes of James Buchanan, and which have come to be recognized as precursors and exemplars of the aesthetic and symboliste manners in which lie the roots (not to say “the germ”) of Modernism.6

What becomes clear is that both ideas of the university [i.e., as useful or useless to the state], which seem to be set directly against each other as radical or conservative, are equally necessary to the state, as is the conflict between them.  To enter into that conflict by resisting one with the other is to remain blind to the extent to which they are interimplicated and therefore not in any sense alternatives. Such a strategy can only ensure that you lose any point of leverage whatsoever. A more successful point of leverage might begin with the recognition that [neoconservatism or neoliberalism] d[oes] indeed operate not just by the ethos of [Adam Smith’s] The Wealth of Nations in general, but according to its own precise contradictory logic, whereby the creation and maintenance of a ‘free’ market for the economy can only be sustained by an ever-increasing authoritarian and centralized control by the state apparatus of everything ‘outside’ that market that services its needs—such as education. The question today’s philosophers [in the Kantian sense of the word] need to ask is this: In what ways and with what effects can the university, both inside and outside the market economy, useful and useless, function as a surplus that the economy cannot comprehend? (Robert Young, “The Idea of a Chrestomathic University,” 121-22)

In the context of these radically differing versions of social critique, the case of the enfant terrible of the second group of Pre-RaphaelitesSwinburnewarrants special attention.  A classical scholar who made major and influential contributions to criticism on a variety of authors from Chapman, Marlowe, and other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists to Blake, Baudelaire, and the Bröntes, Swinburne began his career with two relatively tame and unthreatening works in the imaginative-historical vein (The Queen Mother, Rosamund [1860], and Atalanta in Calydon [1865]), but thereafter embarked on a decade of confronting Victorian readers with the moral, religious, and sexual problems that he saw as a product of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In its seeming blasphemy and its vigorous treatment of such themes as lesbianism and masochism, his Poems and Ballads (1866) prompted one Grundean critic, John Morley, to suggest that he was “so firmly and avowedly fixed in an attitude of revolt against the current notions of decency and dignity and social duty” that to ask him to change would be pointless, and to speculate that he was “either the vindictive and scornful apostle of a crushing iron-shod despair, or else...the libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs” (22, 29). In his response to Morley’s attack on “Anactoria,” a monologue spoken by the Greek poet Sappho, Swinburne defended himself in terms that testify to the validity of attempting, as all humanists must, to render responsibly the ideas and attitudes of people of different races, genders, classes, and times. “I have striven to cast my spirit into the mould of [Sappho’s], to express and represent not the poem but the poet,” he wrote, 

Here and there [in the poem]...I have rendered into English the very words of Sappho. I have tried also to work into words of my own some expression of their effect: to bear witness how, more than any other’s, her verses strike and sting the memory in lonely places, or at sea, among all loftier sights and soundshow they seem akin to fire and air, being themselves ‘all air and fire’... (Prose Works 6: 359)   

[I]f the analysts end up for example working on the structures…of literary fiction, on a poetic rather than an informative value of language, on the effects of undecidability, and so on, by that very token they are interested in possibilities that arise at the outer limits of the authority and power of the principle of reason. On that basis, they may attempt to define new responsibilities in the face of the university’s total subjection to the technologies of informatization. Not so as to refuse them; not so as to counter with some obscurantist irrationalism….To raise…new questions may sometimes protect an aspect of philosophy and the humanities that has always resisted the influx of knowledge; it may also preserve the memory of what is much more deeply buried and ancient than the principle of reason….But…these new modes of questioning…are also a new relation to language and tradition, a new affirmation, and new ways of taking responsibility

These new responsibilities cannot be purely academic. If they remain difficult to assume, extremely precarious and threatened, it is because they must at once keep alive the memory of a tradition and make an opening beyond any program, that is, toward what is called the future. (Jacques Derrida, “The Principle of Reason: the University in the Eyes of Its Pupils,” 14-15)

Swinburne mandates consideration here not only because he exemplifies the vital and sometimes discomforting role that humanists can play in questioning orthodoxies, championing exceptions, and affirming deviations from norms and rules, but also because of his eloquent insistence against an accusation that today might be couched in times of appropriation of voice that empathy, translation, adaptation, imagination, and “bear[ing] witness” are the bridges that make connections between people and across ages possible and powerful. No member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle put this last issue more succinctly than a poet whose attitude to Christianity was almost diametrically opposed to Swinburne’s. Particularly when “unpleasent-sided subject[s]” such as prostitution are concerned, Christina Rossetti told Dante Gabriel in a letter of March 13, 1865, a female poet especially has the right and responsibility to write about experiences that she has not had herself:  “(thank God) my experiences excludes me from hers,” she wrote of the “female figure whose internal portrait” is painted in “The Iniquity of the Fathers Upon the Children” (1866), “yet [I] don’t see why ‘the Poet mind’ should be less able to construct her from its own inner consciousness than a hundred other unknown quantities” (1:234). No less than Swinburne and Christina Rossetti, humanists today must insist on their freedom to imagine and inquire outside the range of topics to which politicians, granting councils, and even some of their peers give rhetorical, economic, and unimaginative preference, for such freedom is both a measure and a portion of the freedom of society as a whole. (As the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky has put it, “[t]he surest defence against evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even, if you will, eccentricity....Evil is a sucker for solidarity. It always goes for big numbers, for confident granite, for ideological purity, for drilled armies and balanced sheets” [qtd. in Kesterton].)

In drawing this essay to a close, I would like to look briefly at two of the many things for which William Morris is remembered today. The first is “The Defence of Guenevere” itself, a poem that is so much more than one legendary woman’s defence of her own integrity that it can almost be construed as a defense of humanity in all its intellectual, physical, and spiritual richness and uncertainty. Quintessentially human in her desire to “experience the full play of all things” that D.H. Lawrence saw as the source of “the wholeness of a man, the wholeness of a woman, man live, and live woman” (198), Morris’s Guenevere is a creation of imaginative empathy who holds her accusers at bay by regaling them with stories, confronting them with aesthetic conundrums, calling into question the validity of their moral assumptions, and, most famously, impressing upon them the difficulties attendant upon every act of interpretation and choice. “Listen,” she says, “suppose your time were come to die, /And you were quite alone and very weak...Suppose a hush should come, then some one speak”:   

“One of these cloths is heaven, and one is hell,

Now choose one cloth for ever; which they be,

I will not tell you, you must somehow tell

“Of your own strength and mightiness; here, see!

Yea, yea...and you ope your eyes,

At foot of your familiar bed to see

A great God's angel standing, with such dyes,

Not known on earth, on his great wings, and hands

Held out two ways, light from the inner skies

Showing him well, and making his commands

Seem to be God's commands; moreover, too,

Holding within his hands the cloths on wands;

And one of these strange choosing cloths was blue,

Wavy and long, and one cut short and red;

No man could tell the better of the two.

After a shivering half-hour you said:

“God help! heaven’s colour, the blue;” and he said: “hell.”

Perhaps you then would roll upon your bed,

And cry to all good men that you loved well,

“Ah Christ! if only I had known, known, known.”

(Collected Works 1: 2-3)

The university is for both scholarship and service; and herein lies that ethical quality which makes the university a real person, bound by its very nature to the service of others. To fulfil its high calling the university must give and give freely to its students, to the world of learning and of scholarship, to the development of trade, commerce, and industry, to the community in which it has its home, and to the state and nation whose foster-child it is. 

The time-old troubles of town and gown are relics of an academic aloofness which was never desirable and which is no longer possible. (Nicholas Murray Butler, Scholarship and Service: the Policies and Ideals of a National University in a Modern Democracy, 11, 12)

If this sounds like an excerpt from a humanities lecture, the reasons are not far to seek: in addition to focusing on a moment of interpretation and choice, it involves cultural conventions, epistemological assumptions, rhetorical structures, speech acts, and eschatological verities, all within a public performance that is itself not unlike a lecture. It has a visual equivalent in Sir Launcelot’s Vision of the Sanc Graal (1857),7 Rossetti’s contribution to the ill-fated frescoes that he inspired “the Set” to propose to the Oxford Union Debating Society, where it is Guenevere herself who embodies the interpretative problem. What is to be made of the fact that she stands between Launcelot and his vision holding out the apple of temptation but in the posture of Christ on the Cross? Is she a temptress or a redemptress? Is Launcelot destined for heaven or hell? It would appear that England’s future politicians, professionals, and entrepreneurs were expected to leave the hall of the Oxford Union Debating Society inspired by high ideals, warned of pitfalls, puzzled, thoughtfulno mean goals for a kind of visual lecture on medieval legend and moral philosophy. Very likely, “The Defence of Guenevere” was intended to have similar effects, for as Morris had written in his review of Browning’s Men and Women in the March 1856 number of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, “it does not often help poems much to solve them”: no more can their “turns of thought...[be] done in prose...[than] colour in a great rendered by a coloured woodcut” (Collected Works 1: 340-41).   

[H]igher education consists…of professionalism and research….But if we scrutinize… programmes of [university] instruction more closely, we discover that the student is nearly always required, apart from his professional apprenticeship and his research, to take some courses of a general character—philosophy, history.

It takes no great acumen to recognize in this requirement the last, miserable residue of something more imposing and more meaningful…not an ornament for the mind and a training of the character…[but a] system of ideas, concerning the world and humanity….The ensemble, or system, of these ideas is culture in the true sense of the term; it is precisely the opposite of external ornament. Culture is what saves human life from being a mere disaster; it is what enables man to live a life which is something above meaningless tragedy or inward disgrace. (Jose Ortega Y Gasset, Mission of the University, 42-44)

The second of Morris’s accomplishments that I would like to mention by way of conclusion is The Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings (1877) and, more specifically, his definition of what makes a “building...worth protecting,” for this seems to me not only to apply to several aspects of the complex edifice of the humanities, but also to indicate why and by whom that edifice should be preserved. “[A] building...worth protecting,” wrote Morris, is “anything which can be looked on as artistic, picturesque, historical, antique, or substantial: any work, in short, over which educated, artistic people would think it worthwhile to argue...” (“The Society’s Manifesto” 7). “[E]ducated, artistic people” arguing about “worthwhile” things that are in need of “protection”: it is by no means a full account of the activities and aims of the humanities, but it is a good place to end, and begin.  


A very slightly different version of this paper was delivered on February 8, 2001 as the Special Public Lecture on the inaugural Humanities Day sponsored by the Humanities Research Group at  the University of Windsor, Windsor, Canada. My thanks to Jacqueline Murray and Kathleen McCrone for inviting me to give the Lecture and to the staff and students at the University of Windsor, particularly Rosemary Halford, who made the experience so pleasurable and rewarding. This article was originally published in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 10 (Spring 2001): 43-57.




This is the “myopi[c]” condition that Marshall McLuhan diagnoses in “young lives” that have been heavily exposed to “TV’s mosaic image” (355). See also Harold A. Innis’s observation in Changing Concepts of Time that “[t]he overwhelming pressure of mechanization evident in the newspaper and the magazine has led to the creation of vast monopolies of communication” whose “entrenched positions involve a continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity. The emphasis on change is the only permanent characteristic” (15).  [back]




See Bill Readings on the discourse of excellence in The University in Ruins 12-14, 21-43, and elsewhere. Readings observes that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is “an interesting attempt to understand the impossibility of historical thought once knowledge has...become commodified as information” (53).  [back]




This term is used with an awareness of John Henry Newman’s (Mediaeval Latin) definition of the university as a “Studium Generale, or ‘School of Universal Learning’” (Rise and Progress of Universities 6) and with a sense of its (Classical Latin) constellations of meanings (“assiduity,” “eagerness,” “fondness,” “zeal”; “attachment,” “devotion”).  [back]




See Smith 2: 284, Gibbon, 29-31, and Southey 3: 85.  [back]




See Bentley, “‘The Staff and Scrip’” for a further discussion of the syncretic aspects and conceptual underpinnings of the poem. See also Burne-Jones 1:110, 130 for intimations that The Germ was one of the ancestors of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.  [back]




See Bentley “From Allegory to Indeterminacy,” and McGann, passim. [back] 




In his review of Men and Women, Morris draws attention to emphasis on “love for love’s sake,” commenting that “if that is not obtained, disappointment comes, falling-off, misery” and adding “[p]ray Christ some of us attain to it before we die” (Collected Works  1: 340-41).  [back]

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