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ViewScan_0001Just found a little notice in a week-old paper when lining my peels bucket. Funny how you work at a place six days a week and you have to learn these things from the paper lining your bin. I’m so very happy that bright young ladies can now compete (and win!) serious academic prizes with their no doubt brilliant essays. But the only reason this little snippet caught my eye is that I know of this chap George Cowling. He’s very young, maybe twenty or so, but very ambitious. This essay of his (the one that’s just earned him the Ripon English Literature Prize) must have been an off-shoot of his dissertation that he’s working on so ferociously. He’s one of those erudite fellows who are not only interested in a great many things, but also know a good deal about those great many things too. I have the feeling that if the university would allow submitting three dissertations on three completely different subjects, he would do just that. You can find him at music recitals just as frequently as at literary lectures, but his biggest passion is collecting speech specimens from old Yorkshiremen. Hah! If I didn’t know of his scholastic devotion to linguistics and the history of the English language, I’d say that’s a fine pretext for going to village pubs where no one knows your name.

The other day he delivered a rather impromptu lecture on the corridor leading to the Library about the Northern consonants in the phrase ‘mack heast an’
gang’. How can one talk about four incorrectly uttered words for thirty minutes, I cannot fathom. It was interesting and quite entertaining nevertheless. I predict a bright academic future for young George – whether it be in music, linguistics or theatre, he may not know yet himself.

G. H. Cowling’s name may ring familiar to fans and students of Tolkien. According to the Tolkien Gateway: In 1920 Cowling was lecturing at the University of Leeds, as Assistant Lecturer in English Language under Tolkien and E.V. Gordon. In 1925, when Tolkien moved to the University of Oxford, Cowling was appointed Reader. He subsequently moved to Australia to take up the Chair of English at the University of Melbourne in 1928.

G.H. Cowling (1881–1946) had broad literary interests. His Music on the Shakespearean Stage (1913) was the first treatment of the subject. In this, he shows what kinds of music were used on the Elizabethan stage, and explains where in the theatre, at which point during the plays and with which instruments and personnel the music was performed. He also assesses what both songs and incidental music contributed to the meaning and the performance of Shakespeare, going back to examine the roots of dramatic music in the use of religious music in the medieval Mystery plays. You can read it online here.

While at Melbourne he published essays on the English Romantic poets, as well as a general anthology, The Outline of English Verse (1935). He even has a certain notoriety within the field of Australian literature, for a public declaration of his doubt in the very possibility of such a thing. Writing in the The Age newspaper, Cowling made a series of disparaging comments about the legitimacy of Australian literature: “The rewards of literature in Australia are not good enough to attract the best minds … Good Australian novels which are entirely Australian are bound to be few… [and] Australian life is too lacking in tradition, and too confused, to make many first class novels.” However, he also shared with Tolkien a particular and early interest in the origins and structure of the English language: his postgraduate study was of the dialect of Hackness, north-east Yorkshire. Besides his A Yorkshire tyke : rustic tunes mainly in the Doric mode in 1914 and The dialect of Hackness (North-East Yorkshire) : with original specimens, and a word-list in 1915, he contributed several poems to F. W. Moorman’s Yorkshire Dialect Poems, which you can have a gander at here. He also edited and wrote commentaries on Chaucer in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Tolkien and Cowling families remained friends; in 1938 they stayed with J.R.R. and Edith at Oxford when on sabbatical leave. His wife Muriel (Mollie) maintained contact with the Tolkien family after G. H. Cowling’s death, and visited the Tolkiens in England on several occasions. During such a visit in 1955, Muriel was given signed copies of three volumes of The Lord of the Rings (in which Tolkien included a Tengwar inscription including the lines ‘I wish that you need not go back / “Across so wide a sea”).

G.H. Cowling

Professor George Herbert Cowling (1881-1946), University of Melbourne, circa 1928-1940.’ University of Melbourne Photograph collection, University of Melbourne Archives UMA/I/1658.

Sources: The Tolkien Gateway and Dr David Hanson’s piece on a first edition Lord of the Rings.