Questions on Criticism: Arthur Balfour’s Romanes Lecture on literary criticism and beauty (1909)

Among the material recently acquired by the College is a collection of documents relating to Trinity alumnus and former Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour (Add.MS.a.616).

Following his entry into Parliament in 1874, much of Balfour’s early career was focused on Ireland, where he remained staunchly against Irish home rule and oversaw the redistribution of land among Irish tenant farmers. Balfour succeeded his uncle, Lord Salisbury, as Prime Minister in 1902, where one of his principal achievements in office was to oversee the passage of the 1902 Education Act, which helped modernise the education system by passing power from school boards to local councils. He stepped down as Conservative party leader before he could be ousted in a landslide election defeat in 1906. He later became Foreign Secretary in Asquith’s coalition government, where he lent his name to the 1916 Balfour Declaration, which advocated for a Jewish homeland to be established in Palestine.

Black and white photograph of A J Balfour
A J Balfour

Balfour first came up to Trinity in 1866, graduating with a 2nd class degree in Moral Sciences in 1869. His tutor (and later brother-in-law) was classicist-turned-philosopher Henry Sidgwick. Familiar to us now for lending his name to the site on Sidgwick Avenue that houses most of the humanities faculty buildings in Cambridge, Sidgwick was also instrumental in the foundation of Newnham as the second women’s college in Cambridge, and is best known in philosophy for his utilitarian treatise, The Methods of Ethics.

Walter Durnford, one of Balfour’s friends at Cambridge, later recalled that:

‘We used to meet in Balfour’s rooms (at the corner of the New Court adjoining the Library) almost every Sunday evening and discuss in moderation his excellent claret, with much talk of men and books.’[1]

These interests in philosophy, literature, and metaphysics remained throughout his life, and it with these philosophical exploits that the library’s new acquisitions are concerned. In 1909, Balfour was invited to give the annual Romanes Lecture in Oxford. This was the university’s annual public lecture in which a notable figure from the world of literature, science, or the arts would speak at the special invitation of the Vice-Chancellor. The first lecture had been given in 1892 by former Prime Minister and personal (if not political) friend of Balfour’s, William Gladstone. The lecture took place at the Sheldonian Theatre, where Balfour chose to speak on the impossibility of establishing criteria for beauty, especially in the field of literary criticism.

Cutting from The Daily Telegraph

Among the documents acquired by the Library is a cutting from the following day’s Daily Telegraph, which set the scene in the lecture theatre. ‘The magnificent hall was filled to overflowing,’ the journalist wrote. ‘Many clung to pillars and window-frames, determined not only to hear the lecture, but to give greeting to the distinguished visitor.’

Part of what made Balfour so distinguished was his oratory skill that had been on display since his days on the parliamentary backbenches. He had a knack for giving speeches with very few notes to hand. ‘It is quite true that preparation is useful for public speaking,’ wrote Balfour to his sister-in-law in 1893. ‘It is also quite true that I do not prepare enough.’[2]

This turned out to be the case for his academic lectures as well as his political speeches. The Telegraph’s reporter marvelled that Balfour was able to give a lecture lasting well over an hour ‘with the help of nothing more than a few notes jotted down on a single slip of paper.’

Rather than a slip of paper, these notes were in fact made on the back of an envelope, which is now in the Library collection.

Notes on the back of an envelope

Balfour planned out his lecture point by point, underlining key words and phrases that suggest these notes were used to help place emphasis on key phrases as well as remind him of salient arguments.  One of his main theories – that music and art criticism is less prescriptive than literary criticism because critics cannot use classical examples as a model of objective quality – is summarised in his notes as ‘Music + Painting better. No Aristotle. No Classics. Rules are gone’.

Detail of notes

He later makes a subpoint about music in ancient Greece. All we know about ancient Greek music points to it being, in technical terms, rather unsophisticated and bland to the modern ear. However, literary references to the ancient Greeks’ emotional responses to their own music suggest they did not view it this way. Thus, it is impossible to see ancient Greek music, and by extension any kind of music, as objectively beautiful. While this argument takes up several pages in the verbatim report of the lecture, it was improvised around the brief prompt: ‘Music most striking case. Greeks.’

Questionings on Criticism and Beauty, front cover

Soon after Balfour gave his lecture, a verbatim copy of it was published by the Clarendon Press. A pencil note on the inside front cover indicates that this was the Chancellor’s copy. This refers not to Balfour himself, who eventually became Chancellor of the University of Cambridge in 1919, but to fellow Conservative politician George Curzon, then Chancellor of the University of Oxford. The two men knew each other well; before they sat together in Parliament, they were both part of the social circle known as the Souls – a loose group of a few aristocratic families and some of their society connections who met regularly to play golf and discuss literature, and whose relationships were often strengthened through intermarriage and political ties.

Criticism and Beauty, preface

The Daily Telegraph’s report of the event noted that Balfour’s lecture was well-received, but it seems that Balfour was less satisfied with his own work. As the note on the front cover tells us, this publication was subsequently withdrawn and replaced with a reworked edition of Balfour’s lecture the following year. The decision to withdraw and republish the lecture appears to have been Balfour’s own. In the preface to the rewritten version, he explains that:

‘My theme was little adapted to my capacity for extempore statement, and it was very unfamiliar to the reporters. The consequences were such as might perhaps have been foreseen. The lecture, as reported, gave most imperfect expression to my views; – was, indeed, sometimes barely intelligible. […] Fortune, which gave me no leisure for writing before the lecture was delivered, has given me a few weeks since. I have employed them in putting what I desired to say in a form in which I hope it will at least be possible to understand it.’

Criticism and Beauty, front cover

Renamed Criticism and Beauty, a copy of this updated version was also owned by Lord Curzon, and a note inside the book offering the author’s compliments implies that this was a gift from Balfour. Both of Curzon’s copies, along with the rest of this material relating to Balfour’s lecture, were later acquired by John Sparrow, Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, and a well-known book collector.

Oil painting of A J Balfour
Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), Chancellor of the University of Cambridge by de László

[1] Blanche E.C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour: first Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., F.R.S., etc., vol.1. (London: Hutchinson, 1936), p.26.

[2] Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, p.219.