Letter: Reason to compare schools of thought

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Sir: Professor John McCormick may be right to suggest in his letter (17 October) that comparative literature is a good idea. He should not suppose it a new one, at Oxford or elsewhere. The notion that anyone ever failed a doctorate for writing a thesis on a comparative topic is absurd, since topics have to be approved before a thesis is even written.

It is the study of single vernacular literatures that is (comparatively speaking) new. To generations brought up on the classics, comparatism was natural and inevitable. Dryden's most famous essay compared French drama with English, and in the 1690s he wrote comparative histories of satire and the epic. Since then British universities have pioneered, in a radical way, the study of single literatures. The world's oldest chair of English is at Edinburgh, barely two centuries old, and the chair of German at University College London, was earlier than any in Central Europe.

Such single-minded studies were radical in perceiving a profound connection between a literature and its language and in encouraging, as inter-disciplinary studies notably fail to do, a readiness among students to disagree with those who teach them. That is because one can be a master of one literature but not of several. There is a case for comparative literature, and an ancient one. But none for schools of English pretending to be what they are not.

Yours faithfully, GEORGE WATSON Fellow in English St John's College Cambridge