Literature used to be the new religion, now …
To quote (again) Terry Eagleton quoting George Gordon, early Professor of English Literature at Oxford (in Chap. 2, “The Rise of English,” Literary Theory: An Introduction): “England is sick, and … English literature must save it. The Churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the State” (22).
What better remedial tool to “cultivate the philistine middle class, who have proved unable to underpin their political and economic power with a suitably rich and subtle ideology” (24).
Like religion, literature is “an extremely effective form of ideological control … [i]t is affective and experiential, entwining itself with the deepest unconscious roots of the human subject … capable of operating at every social level … [providing] an excellent social ‘cement’ … [with the] capacity to ‘materialize’ beliefs as practices … [and has] a pacifying influence, fostering meekness, self-sacrifice and the contemplative inner life” (23).
Eagleton points to Matthew Arnold as the key figure in this project. Arnold believed that “the traditional style of the aristocracy … have something of the ideological wherewithal to lend a hand to their middle class masters. State-established schools, by linking the middle class to ‘the best culture of their nation,’ will confer on them ‘a greatness and a noble spirit, which the tone of these classes is not of itself at present adequate to impart'” (24).
So English as a subject “was first institutionalized not in the Universities, but in the Mechanics’ Institutes, working men’s colleges and extension lecturing circuits. English was literally the poor man’s Classics — a way of providing a cheapish ‘liberal’ education for those beyond the charmed circles of public schools and Oxbridge” (27).