2.1 Comparative Literature in the United Kingdom of Great Britain

D. A. Porter


In the histories of comparative literature there is a French School, a German school, and an American school. When studying comparative literature in Canada, I felt inklings of a Canadian school, due in part, no doubt, to the national literature of multilingual Canada readily lending itself to the comparative method: Canadian literature encompasses far more than the literature of its two official languages. For example, a Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) poet I much enjoy, Haim Vitali Sadacca, lives in Montreal; and the Haida poets, Skaay and Ghandl, certainly deserve a place in the ‘canon’ of Canadian literature, as Robert Bringhurst has recently shown. Judging from my own experience, comparative literature in Canada possesses other distinguishing features as well, such as the strong influence of East European scholars, especially those working in Slavic languages. But I will leave it to others to write about the Canadian side of the discipline.

On the other hand, as far as I can discern no distinguishing mark divides comparativists in the UK from those in other countries. There is, at least according to the official histories of the discipline, no ‘British school’ of comparative literature; although, the discipline is well represented in the UK. On the institutional level, one small difference in British degree programs in comparative literature is that they are often (though not always) less resolute upon forcing their students to learn a language other than English, whereas North American and European programs usually insist upon two or three languages – a fact Boldrini, in her recent assessment of the discipline in the UK, confines to an embarrassed footnote (14fn6). The majority of British comparativists are not, however, lacking in linguistic training – although, it would be interesting to see what percentage of British students in the field are monolingual in comparison with those in other counties. Aside from various departments and degree programs, an important body for the discipline is the British Comparative Literature Association which organizes events and runs the journal Comparative Critical Studies. In an interdisciplinary field in an era of globalization, the journal and conferences unsurprisingly abound with international contributors.

Several problems necessarily daunt attempts to construct a view of British comparative literature with any sense of completeness: the mobility of scholars, the international scope of English-language scholarship and the limitless scope of comparative literature, which in practice is confined neither to literature nor comparing, and which subsumes all literary and cultural studies as well as interdisciplinary research. This is, however, a problem for discussions about the discipline outside Britain as well. When reading an article on recent comparative literature in Spain, I was initially surprised that no mention was made of the influence of Claudio Guillén, a venerable master of the discipline (Zarranz & Zarranz). Although, in fairness, had his work been mentioned, another name would undoubtedly be cast aside.

For this reason, I prefer to relate my personal experience studying comparative literature in Britain, rather than attempt to speak for the discipline as a whole. My own research is in medieval and Renaissance literature, though not limited to works written in English and Latin. However, my current project is concerned mostly with Latin and focuses almost entirely on continental writers and contexts. Latin literature in particular almost always invites a comparative approach, due to the early and pervasive influence of ancient Greek literature. For later periods, it is also often written for an international (or at least pan-European audience), while at the same time often rooted in specific countries or contexts, and it is tied in a truly diverse number of ways to literature in the vernacular languages through influence, adaptation and translation. One could argue, and some do, that literary eras such as the baroque are better seen through a pan-European than a national scope (Souiller), often made more pronounced by early modern Latin.

Most of the scholarship I read is written and published outside of the UK and in languages other than English. I regularly make use of libraries from other countries, especially Germany and the United States. For practical purposes, the contemporary world of comparative literature is often without borders. That said, working in the UK and in particular at the University of Cambridge does influence my work. For research on European literature, being in Europe makes a decided difference. European libraries are easy to access without the Atlantic in the way, and the collegial life at Cambridge is well-ordered for interdisciplinary work. Through student clubs and college life, one interacts regularly with students and scholars outside one’s own discipline more regularly than is the case with many other schools. At my college, graduates dine together each Friday at formal hall. The dinner, and drinks after, helps with the circulation of ideas more so than I would have thought prior to studying here. The social space, outside of coursework and solitary research, is often a regretfully neglected part of academic life, both for students and scholars. Research profits when scholars explore outside their own interests, but an environment where one interacts with real people working in other fields can provide a useful starting point for developing ideas. Having recently read a book on English literature which ventured into Latin and French literature – without ever evidently consulting any scholars in those fields, let alone anyone with a basic competence in either language –  made me painfully aware of the easily avoided dangers of isolated ventures into new waters.

A student at Cambridge is also entitled to attend lectures in any faculty at the University, which enable one to pick up new skills, study a new subject, or even learn new languages; although, many students do not. But the ability to promiscuously attend lectures can be invigorating, as the smallest spark from a different discipline often sets off a series of unexpected implications for one’s own research. That at least has been my finding; others working in similar circumstances very likely will have different experiences to mine, which accounts naturally for only a limited view of comparative research. But comparative literature at least is one discipline that depends upon shared experience.


Works Cited


Boldrini, Lucia. “Comparative Literature in the Twenty-First Century: A View from Europe and the UK.” Comparative Critical Studies 3.1-2 (2006): 13-23. Print.

Bringhurst, Robert. A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and their World. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1999. Print.

Souiller, Didier. La littérature baroque en Europe. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1988. Print.

Zarranz, Elia G. & Libe García Zarranz. “Snapshots of Comparative Literature in Twenty-First-Century Spain.”  Inquire 1.2 (June 2011). Web. 11 Nov. 2011.




D. A. Porter is currently finishing his PhD dissertation on neo-Latin satirical verse at Clare College, University of Cambridge. Prior to this, he studied Comparative Literature and Medieval Studies in Canada. His academic interests focus on medieval and early modern poetry, the Nachleben of the classics and the comparative study of European poetic traditions.



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

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