Thursday, July 07, 2011

Joseph Wright, Grammar of the Gothic Language

"I had returned Oxford, and now disliked undergraduates and all their ways, and had begun really to know dons. Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joseph Wright, 'What do you take Oxford for, lad?' 'A university, a place of learning.' 'Nay, lad, it's a factory! And what's it making? I'll tell you. It's making fees. Get that in your head, and you'll begin to understand what goes on.'" 
J.R.R. Tolkien, letter to Michael Tolkien, 1st November 1963, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by  H. Carpenter with C. Tolkien (Boston, 1981), no. 250, pp. 336-341, at 336. 
Joseph Wright knew more than a little about factories. Born in 1855 in Idle (near Bradford) he was the son of a cloth weaver and sometime quarryman. He began work at six, in charge of a donkey cart at the Woodend quarry. By seven he was a bobbin doffer in Titus Salt's mill in the Aire valley, leaving the spinning sheds to attend Salt's school, part-time. He taught himself to read at fifteen, and would go on to study French, German and Latin at a local night school and maths at Bradford's mechanics' institute. He would, eventually, earn a PhD at Heidelberg (1882) and arrive in Oxford in 1888 as a lecturer for the Association for the Higher Education of Women. He became Professor of Comparative Philology in 1901, succeeding Max Müller. Wright was a product of the heroic age of working class (self) education, mechanics' institutes, the Northern Star and 'knowledge Chartism', brilliantly explored in the early chapters of Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (Yale, 2001). Tolkien credited Wright's earlier Primer of the Gothic Language with awakening his interest in germanic philology even before he went up to Oxford in 1911 (Letters, no. 272, pp. 356-8, at 357.) There, wrote Tolkien, he 'sat at the feet of old Joe in person. He proved a good friend and adviser' (Letters no. 307, pp. 396-7, at 397). A passion for philology underpinned and informed Tolkien's reactions to industrial England. The same passion fuelled his mentor's escape from it.  
On Joseph Wright: DNB entry (upon which I draw here); E.M. Wright, The Life of Joseph Wright (1932), 2 volumes; C.H. Firth, 'Joseph Wright, 1855-1930', Proceedings of the British Academy 18 (1932). On Tolkien and Wright: H. Carpenter, Tolkien. A Biography (London, 1977), pp. 63-4. 

J. Wright, Grammar of the Gothic Language (Oxford, 1910). 

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