THE CRABTREE ORATIONS, 1954-1994
Edited by Bryan Bennett & Negley Harte
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Crabtree Orations, edited by Bryan Bennett and Negley Harte, are a series of lectures given before the Crabtree Foundation at the University College London between 1954 and 1994. This volume contains the complete texts of all orations with three exceptions where copies of the original papers could not be obtained. Joseph Crabtree was, of course, the great English poet who lived from 1754 to 1854 who had contact with such well-known men as William Wordsworth, Samuel Johnson, William Blake, and Alfred Lord Tennyson among others. Although popular prior to the twentieth century, his reputation was eclipsed until Sir James Sutherland brought him to the attention of University College London during the centenary of his death.
Actually, Crabtree is a fictitious figure, created by Sutherland for a mock session given at the college. Instituted in 1954, the Crabtree Orations have given scholars a chance to release and interject humor into their academic proceedings. This type of thing is quite common and I have given a similar type of paper at the International Medieval Congress on the "Spiritual Effects of the Bubonic Plaque and the Rise of the Cult of Dentistry". Unlike the majority of these sessions, the Crabtree Foundation has kept a record of all their sessions and have compiled them in this volume. Crabtree also entered into the public consciousness several years ago when members of the Crabtree Foundation began a discussion about the poet on the letters page of the Times Literary Supplement in 1973.
As may be expected in an academic hoax, the humor is wry and often requires a knowledge of English literature and poetry, although as the years passed, Crabtree became involved in several other disciplines, becoming a true Renaissance man. Each of the ovations is short, averaging less than ten pages, which make them perfect as something to dip into when the reader only has a little time. Most of them offer complexities beneath the surface topic. Furthermore, the Crabtree Foundation has insurred that the outline of Crabtree's life has been maintained and the works build on comments made in earlier addresses. A chronology of Crabtree's life appears at the end of the collection.
The Crabtree Orations also allow the academicians to satire the practices of their own profession. In the Second Crabtree Oration, by Arthur Brown, while discussing an anagram, Brown notes that "the omission of two unimportant vowels and the easy substitution of p for b are. . . perfectly legitimate and common devices of scholarship." (p.13) Similarly, the fellows of the Crabtree Foundation use these orations to provde clues to areas of Crabtreeana which is missing but may, at some point, be addressed.
Crabtree's poetry only exists in the fragments that have found their way into the Orations. Few poems are cited in their entirety, although it is possible that at some date in the future the Crabtree Foundation will see fit to issue a collection of the complete known works of Joseph Crabtree, or a pamphlet of his selected verse.
As previously mentioned, Crabtree was something of a Renaissance man. His contributions to science were first noted by R.V. Jones, who pointed out that the majority of Crabtree's work in the scientific field was oral, rather than literary, in nature and therefore only survives in the manner in which he influenced other scientists.
The Crabtree Orations shed light, not only on the legendary figure of Joseph Crabtree, but also on the scholarly techniques used in British, and other, academic circles. For the most part, the orations are written in a light, style, only rarely descending into obfuscatory language. Naturally, depending on the author, some of the pieces are written with the humor closer to the surface than other pieces, but humor appears in each of the orations. Now that Joseph Crabtree has been rediscovered, we can only hope that the Crabtree Foundation can continue to accord him his rightful place in English literary and scientific history.