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Courthope, William John [pseud. Novus Homo]locked

  • A. O. Prickard
  • , revised by Katherine Mullin

Courthope, William John [pseud. Novus Homo] (1842–1917), poet and literary scholar, the elder son of William Courthope, was born on 17 July 1842 at South Malling, near Lewes, Sussex, where his father was rector. His mother, Caroline Elizabeth Ryle, was the daughter of John Ryle, banker and MP for Macclesfield, and a sister of John Charles Ryle, first bishop of Liverpool. Courthope's father died in 1849 and the three children were brought up by their uncle, the head of this ancient Sussex family, at Whiligh, near Wadhurst.

Courthope was sent to Blackheath and then taught at Harrow School by C. J. Vaughan and (from 1859) H. Montagu Butler. In 1861 he matriculated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and in 1862 became an exhibitioner of New College where he was a pupil of Edward Charles Wickham and formed a close friendship with John Conington, then Corpus professor of Latin, which continued until Conington's death in 1869. In 1865 Courthope published his first volume of poetry, Poems by Novus Homo, and was awarded the Newdigate prize. He graduated BA with a double first in classics in 1866. In 1868 he won the chancellor's prize with an essay entitled The Genius of Spenser, which was subsequently published in two editions that year.

As Courthope had a legacy which made him ineligible for a fellowship, he was called to the bar, and in 1869 he entered the education office as an examiner. Later that year he co-founded the National Review, of which he was joint editor until 1887, and published Ludibria lunae, a satire on the ‘woman question’. In 1870 he published a second collection of poems, The Paradise of Birds, and married Mary Scott, eldest daughter of John Scott, her majesty's inspector of hospitals at Bombay. The couple settled at Wadhurst, Sussex, and raised a family of four sons and two daughters.

While working at the education office, Courthope began to collaborate with Whitwell Elwin on the standard edition of Alexander Pope's works in ten volumes (1871–89). Five volumes, edited by Elwin, had appeared by 1872. In 1881 a sixth followed, bearing Courthope's name as joint editor, and indicating that he would be solely responsible for the remainder. He took much care over the text, which had previously followed that of Bishop Warburton (1751) without examination of his sources. Courthope closed the series in 1889 with an acclaimed biography of Pope. The Saturday Review remarked that he 'has endeavoured to imitate the excellent example of Johnson, and make the study of the writer's work his main business, in preference to moralising upon his defects as a man'.

While working on Pope, Courthope contributed a volume on Joseph Addison in 1884 to the English Men of Letters series, produced The Liberal Movement in English Literature in 1885, and was appointed civil service commissioner in 1887. Five years later he was promoted to first civil commissioner. In his History of English Poetry (1895–1910) he undertook a work which had been projected by Pope and passed on to Thomas Gray and Thomas Warton, but never carried out. The History traced through successive poets the continuity of English poetry, locating each poet within a historical context. It ended at the Romantic period and was completed in six volumes. In 1895 Courthope was elected unanimously to the chair of poetry at Oxford, and made a CB, and in the following year he was made an honorary fellow of New College. In 1901 he published the lectures given in his five years as professor under the title Life in Poetry, Law in Taste.

Courthope was elected fellow of the British Academy in 1907, to which he contributed many papers. His last published work was a translation (1914) of a selection from the Epigrams of the Roman poet Martial. He died at his home, The Lodge, Wadhurst, Sussex, on 10 April 1917. A volume of selected poetry, The Country Town and other Poems, was published posthumously in 1920.


  • A. T. C. Pratt, ed., People of the period: being a collection of the biographies of upwards of six thousand living celebrities, 2 vols. (1897)
  • Men and women of the time (1899)
  • H. Cox, Who's who in Kent, Surrey, Sussex (1911)
  • J. W. Mackail, ‘W. J. Courthope’, PBA, [8] (1917–18), 581–90
  • A. O. Prickard, ‘Memoir’, in ‘The country town’, and other poems by the late William John Courthope (1920)


  • NRA, corresp.
  • Trinity Cam.
  • BL, letters to Lord Carnarvon, Add. MS 60775
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Alfred Austin
  • LUL, letters to Austin Dobson
  • U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Edmund Gosse
  • U. Reading, letters to Macmillans

Wealth at Death

£22,097 12s. 11d.: probate, 2 July 1917, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

S. A. Allibone, , 3 vols. (1859–71); suppl. by J. F. Kirk, 2 vols. (1891)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Proceedings of the British Academy