English is central to any curriculum, both in introducing the young to the best literature of the past and present, and in providing space for the exploration of their world and experience through language. The ability to read with understanding and pleasure, as well as to deploy concise, accurate and appropriate English, are essential skills for life, but more importantly an essential part of every student’s moral and spiritual development. To these ends, the Department shapes challenging courses for the Year 9 sets and tailors the public examination syllabuses, resisting all “dumbing down”, to ensure that our students have real opportunities to engage, in informed and personal encounter, with the great writing of our culture.
As well as teaching, with passionate and specialist interests extending from the literature of the early medieval period, through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the Victorian novel, to contemporary poetry, members of the Department act, direct in the Theatre, play various instruments, sing and write. All this, we believe, has a significant impact on the range of teaching and approach to the subject at every level. Extra-mural initiatives over the past few years have included a schools' Poetry Festival, BBC Radio 4’s programme about the Ampleforth Poetry Society, the magazine “Published”, which prints original writing by students and staff, and the whole school Reading Days, “Honour the 600” and a sponsored reading of local author, Lawrence Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy', both of which involved nearly half the school and raised over £10000 for charity.
The Polidori Lecture
John Polidori, the son of an Italian political émigré, was one of the first students at Ampleforth. He began his schooling in 1804 shortly after the monks, in exile from France, settled in the lodge of Anne Fairfax's chaplain in the Ampleforth Valley. He went on from Ampleforth in 1810 to Edinburgh University, where he qualified as a doctor, and in 1816 entered Lord Byron's service as his personal physician.
It was in this capacity that he was staying on the shores of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1817; Byron's next door neighbours were the poet Shelley and his nineteen-year old wife Mary. It was a wet summer and to while away the time, Byron proposed that the party write ghost stories: the result was Frankenstein. Some of the medical and scientific ideas for Mary's novel were undoubtedly discussed with Polidori, though in her 1831 Introduction, she plays down the role of "poor Polidori". Polidori had however produced his own story, The Vampire which was to play an influential part in the development of the vampire legend, culminating in Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Cruelly dismissed by Byron, Polidori returned to England, and in 1820 wrote to the Prior at Ampleforth; his letter is lost, but Prior Burgess' reply makes it clear that he consider Polidori, with his scandalous literary acquaintances, an unsuitable case for monastic profession. After writing an ambitious sacred poem, The Fall of the Angels, in 1821, Polidori, suffering from depression, died in mysterious circumstances, probably by self-administered poison, though the coroner's verdict was that he had perished "by the visitation of God".
He was a talented but troubled young man with serious ambitions to be a writer, though his fate has been to be remembered only as a footnote in Romantic history. He might be better known had his sister not destroyed the journals he had been keeping during his travels with Byron. As well as being mid-wife to Frankenstein's monster, he was uncle to Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti. Here at Ampleforth we are proud of the literary associations he brought us and remember him in The Polidori Lecture, given each year on some aspects of the Romantic Movement.