Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Courthope, William John

4173653Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement — Courthope, William John1927Arthur Octavius Prickard

COURTHOPE, WILLIAM JOHN (1842-1917), civil servant, poet, and literary critic, the elder son of William Courthope, was born 17 July 1842 at South Malling, near Lewes, of which parish his father was rector. His mother was a sister of John Charles Ryle, first bishop of Liverpool [q.v.]. Courthope’s father died in 1849 and the three children were brought up by their uncle, the head of this ancient Sussex family, at Whiligh, near Wadhurst. William John was sent to Blackheath and then placed at Harrow, under C. J. Vaughan and (from 1859) H. Montagu Butler. In 1861 he matriculated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and in 1862 became an exhibitioner of New College, then a small and close society, where he was a pupil of Edward Charles Wickham, afterwards dean of Lincoln. On the introduction of John Addington Symonds the younger who had preceded him from Harrow, he formed a close friendship with John Conington, then Corpus professor of Latin, which lasted with increasing intimacy till Conington’s death in1869. He gained first classes in moderations and literae humaniores, and the Newdigate prize (1864). In 1868 he won the Chancellor’s prize with an English essay on The Genius of Spenser, a composition of more than academic interest, since the author more than once returned to its principles of criticism, and even made use of some of its pages.

A modest patrimony making him in- eligible for a fellowship, he was called to the bar, and in 1869 entered the Education Office as an examiner. In 1887 he became a civil service commissioner, and as senior commissioner, a post which he held from 1892 until his retirement in 1907, he did much to humanize the examinations for the higher appointments. In 1895 he was elected for five years to the professorship of poetry at Oxford and made a C.B., and in the following year he was made an honorary fellow of New College. The closing years of his life were spent in Sussex, near Whiligh. They were full of literary activities and domestic interest, until a gradual failure of strength ended in his death on 10 April 1917.

The two periods of Courthope’s official life correspond nearly with his two chief literary undertakings. Of the present standard edition of Pope’s works in ten volumes (1871-1889), five volumes, edited by Whitwell Elwin [q.v.], had appeared by 1872. In 1881 a sixth followed, bearing Courthope’s name as joint editor, with an intimation that he would be solely responsible for the remainder. On the text, which had previously followed that of Bishop Warburton (1751) without examination of his sources, much labour was bestowed. The Life, which closed the series in 1889, involved questions of much delicacy, owing to Pope’s strange methods in correspondence. In spite of difficulties added by the results of research then recent, the biographer dealt with his material in the generous spirit of Johnson, seeking not to condemn wholly, nor to condone, but to understand. A volume on Addison, contributed in 1884 to the series of English Men of Letters, had brought him into the congenial atmosphere of the eighteenth century.

In his History of English Poetry (1895-1910) Courthope undertook a work which had been projected by Pope, and passed on to Gray and to Thomas Warton, but never carried out. After laying sure foundations in philology, the author set himself to trace through successive poets the continuity of English poetry, and its correspondence with the great movements of English history, the great poets being those who felt the impact of conflicting forces and were able to reconcile them; a standard which Spenser had failed to attain. The History was carried down to the romantic reaction of the later eighteenth century, and was completed in six volumes. In 1901 Courthope published the lectures given in his five years as professor under the title Life in Poetry, Law in Taste, in which he contended that poetry is a social art, and the history of English poetry a continuous one,

Of Courthope’s other writings Ludibria Lunae (1869), an allegorical burlesque on an Italian model, is more successful, perhaps, in its passages of beauty and deep feeling than as a political satire on the ‘women’s rights’ question of the day. It was followed in 1870 by the Paradise of Birds, which echoes the mingled gaiety and pathos of Aristophanes, with something added, and has delighted successive generations of young readers. Later on he sang the praises of his native Sussex in The Country Town (Lewes), contributed to the National Review in 1886, and The Hop Garden (Blackwood’s Magazine, 1905), in which, with sure Virgilian touch and perfect accuracy of detail, he set out the charms of a waning industry. Both poems were brightened by passages of glowing hopefulness for the future of the race. His remains, The Country Town and other poems (1920), include many smaller pieces of great charm, as The Chancellor’s Garden (1888) and some lines suggested by war-time (1900 and 1914). He wrote frequently in the National Review, and contributed valuable papers to the newly founded British Academy. His last published work was a selection of translations and imitations in English verse of Martial’s Epigrams (1914).

In 1870 Courthope had married Mary, daughter of John Scott, H.M. inspector of hospitals at Bombay, who, with four sons and two daughters, survived him.

[J. W. Mackail, W. J. Courthope, in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. ix, 1917-1918; The Country Town and other poems by the late William John Courthope, C.B. (1920) with a Memoir by A. O. Prickard; personal knowledge.]

A. O. P.