For nearly 30 years, from the late 1890s to his death in the mid-1920s, A.C.Benson was one of England’s most prolific, popular, and respected essayists, although the respect came more from the myriad of general readers who conferred the popularity than from his intellectual and social peers at Eton and Cambridge. A man of letters in the fullest 19th-century sense of the term, he also wrote poetry, fiction, biographies, and personal memoirs, to a total of more than 70 books. His editorial work included a three-volume selection of the correspondence of Queen Victoria (1907). Despite this prodigious output, he is today a largely forgotten figure whose tenuous hold on posthumous reputation rests almost solely on his authorship of the words to “Land of Hope and Glory” (1902), written as an ode to welcome Edward VII to the throne and rapidly transformed, in conjunction with Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1,” into a surrogate national anthem.
Benson’s essays were essentially lay sermons, musings on spiritual, aesthetic, and existential matters directed always toward salutary, and often consolatory, ends. Even when the content is biographical—as in his first essay collection, entitled simply Essays (1896) and containing 13 biographical sketches, all but one of which had been previously published in periodicals—the eulogistic judgments on worthy lives are upliftingly homiletic. His concluding comment on Edmund Gosse’s poetry (“to have made some exquisite mood your own, and to have presented it with passionate accuracy, is no light achievement”) implicitly glosses the modal intensities of many of his own later essays.
Their recording of the fruits of moments of quasi-epiphanic insight generates moralistic conclusions that spoke comfortingly to the emotional needs, particularly in times of despair or bereavement, of his worldwide readership. Among those who found solace in Benson’s work was the poet Wilfred Owen, who recorded his admiration of Where No Fear Was: A Book About Fear (1914), read in 1917 during Owen’s treatment for shellshock at Craiglockhart War Hospital (Simon Wormleighton, 1990).
Benson’s distinctive tone owed much to his 18 years as a schoolmaster at Eton, the legacy of which informs one of his most influential books, The Schoolmaster: A Commentary upon the Aims and Methods of an Assistant-Master in a Public School (1902). Confident in their sense of the importance of the schoolmaster’s vocation, these 16 essays are forthright in their recognition of the frequency with which the ideal and the actual part company, particularly in relation to the two great shibboleths of Victorian educational theory and practice, compulsory team sports and classics. The emphasis on both helps account in Benson’s eyes for the unfortunate fact “that we send out from our public schools year after year many boys who hate knowledge and think books dreary, who are perfectly self-satisfied and entirely ignorant.” The stranglehold retained on school curricula by Greek and Latin was a surprising obsession for a man who had himself achieved distinction as a Cambridge classicist. Among the 18 essays included in At Large (1908), published five years after Benson’s departure from Eton for Cambridge, is “A Speech Day,” in which the former schoolmaster worries again at a familiar bete noire: “to persist in regarding the classics as the high-water mark of the human intellect seems to me to argue a melancholy want of faith in the progress of the race.”
When Benson addresses less pragmatic concerns, the tone becomes more precious, its tenor caught in some of the titles of his most spiritually emotive books: The Thread of Gold (1905), Along the Road (1913), and Joyous Gard (1913). The Thread of Gold, which divides into 42 sections of sentimental and vaguely theological rumination on human circumstance, has as its governing metaphor the observation “that there is a certain golden thread of hope and love interwoven with all our lives, running consistently through the coarsest and darkest fabric.” Similarly, all 62 essays in Along the Road, varied as their notional subjects are (“Old England,” “Mr. Gladstone,” “Compulsory Greek,” “Vulgarity,” “Gossip,” “On Being Interrupted”) rarely move far from the Christian apologetics that inform Benson’s advice to his readers: “…if the loneliest soul on earth, lying in darkness of spirit and pain of body, breathes one voiceless prayer upon the night, the world can never be the same as though that prayer had been unprayed” (“Brain Waves”). The paradoxically effete muscularity of Benson’s message is caught in his explanation of the title attached to the Joyous Gard collection: “I have called this book…Joyous Gard, because it speaks of a stronghold that we can win with our own hands, where we can abide in great content, so long as we are careful not to linger there in sloth and idleness, but are ready to ride abroad at the call for help.”
But this chivalric impulse assumed an intransigently sedentary and privileged form, evidenced nowhere more palpably than in Benson’s most famous and popular collection, From a College Window (1906), comprising 18 essays—12 of them formerly published in Cornhill Magazine—written after his election to a fellowship at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Its appeal, like that of most of his work, can in part be explained by the recurrent rhetorical strategy explained in its opening essay, “The Point of View”: “My desire is but to converse with my readers, to speak as in a comfortable tête-á-tête, of experience, and hope, and patience.” For all the conversational manner, with its blend of the avuncular and the priestly, Benson’s essays, even those charting his own recurrent dark nights of the soul, assume an oracular authority that owes more to class confidence than great intellectual insight. A period in which burgeoning literacy rates and the consequent demand for printed materials of a broadly “improving” kind were not yet matched by a correspondingly widespread enlargement of speculative sophistication may arguably have been the only context in which work like Benson’s could enjoy such an appreciative reception.
The vogue for both Benson and the ruminative essay was passing by the end of World War I, whose cataclysm helped create an audience less deferentially accepting of paternalistic bromides about “how to enjoy life or how to endure it” (“Literature and Life,” Escape, and Other Essays, 1915). Benson’s many books are now little more than period pieces, redolent of the sentimentalized world of male companionship that he fostered and was himself cocooned by at Eton and Magdalene.
Arthur Christopher Benson. Born 24 April 1862, at Wellington College, Crowthorne, Berkshire. Studied at Temple Grove School, Mortlake, south London, 1872–74; Eton College (King’s scholar), Windsor, Berkshire, 1874–81; King’s College, Cambridge, 1881–84, B.A. in classics, 1884. Taught at Eton College, 1885–1903; fellow, from 1904, president, 1912–15, and master, 1915–25, Magdalene College, Cambridge. Contributor to various journals, including Macmillan’s Magazine, National Review, Contemporary Review, and Cornhill Magazine. Suffered from depression and breakdowns, 1907–09 and 1917–22. Commander, Royal Victorian Order. Died (of heart failure) at Magdalene College, Cambridge, 17 June 1925.
Essays and Related Prose
The Schoolmaster: A Commentary upon the Aims and Methods of an Assistant-Master in a Public School, 1902
The Thread of Gold, 1905
From a College Window, 1906
At Large, 1908
The Leaves of the Tree: Studies in Biography, 1911
Along the Road, 1913
Joyous Gard, 1913
Escape, and Other Essays, 1915
Memories and Friends, 1924
Rambles and Reflections, edited by E.F.Benson, 1926
Other writings: poetry, short stories, two novels, a two-volume biography of his father (1899–1900), biographies of writers, works of autobiography and fictionalized meditation (including The Upton Letters, 1905), and a lengthy diary (selections edited by Percy Lubbock, 1926, and David Newsome, 1981). Also edited a selection of the correspondence of Queen Victoria (3 vols., 1907).
Benson, E.F., Our Family Affairs, 1867–1896, London: Cassell, 1920; New York: Doran, 1921
Benson, E.F., As We Were: A Victorian Peep-Show, London: Hogarth Press, 1985 (original edition, 1930)
Benson, E.F., Final Edition: Informal Autobiography, London: Longman, and New York: Appleton Century, 1940
Brake, Laurel, “Judas and the Widow: Thomas Wright and A.C. Benson as Biographers of Walter Pater: The Widow,” Prose Studies 4 (1981):39–54
Cunich, Peter, David Hoyle, Eamon Duffy, and Ronald Hyam, editors, A History of Magdalene College Cambridge, 1428–1988, Cambridge: Magdalene College, 1994
Howarth, T.E.B., Cambridge Between Two Wars, London: Collins, 1978
James, M.R., Eton and King’s: Recollections, Mostly Trivial, 1875–1925, London: Williams and Norgate, 1926
Lubbock, Percy, editor, The Diary of Arthur Christopher Benson, London: Hutchinson, and New York, Longman Green, 1926
Newsome, David, Godliness and Good Learning: Four Studies on a Victorian Ideal, London: Murray, 1961
Newsome, David, On the Edge of Paradise: A.C.Benson, the Diarist, London: Murray, and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980
Newsome, David, editor, Edwardian Excursions: From the Diaries of A.C.Benson 1898– 1904, London: Murray, 1981
Ryle, E.H., editor, Arthur Christopher Benson, as Seen by Some Friends, London: Bell, 1925; New York: Putnam, 1926
Warren, Austin, “The Happy, Vanished World of A.C.Benson,” Sewanee Review 75 (1967):268–81
Wilson, Keith, “A.C.Benson,” in Modern British Essayists, First Series, edited by Robert Beum, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 98, Detroit: Gale Research, 1990:21–33
Wormleighton, Simon, “Wilfred Owen and A.C.Benson,” Notes and Queries 37 (December 1990):435–37
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