Donald Davie

  • In Defence of the Imagination by Helen Gardner
    Oxford, 197 pp, £12.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 19 812639 5

The imagination is always worth defending, and is usually in need of defence. But it is not always clear what or whom it needs to be defended against. Some might think, for instance, that the imagination is always under threat from the people who, twenty years ago, ‘extrapolating from trends’, judged that ‘the steady increase since the war in the numbers in sixth forms, and in those getting good results in their A-level examinations, would continue.’ But for Helen Gardner, who served at that time on the Robbins Committee on Higher Education, those confident extrapolators of trends figure cosily enough as ‘our statisticians’; and she is not assailed by any suspicion that she, as representing the literary imagination on that committee, might have been expected to distrust these predictions, on the grounds that desire for higher education, and the capacity to profit by it, might imaginably depend on factors less quantifiable than a post-war baby-bulge. The imagination that Dame Helen would defend is indeed a brisk and businesslike person, public-spirited, good on committees; it could hardly be mistaken for a creature of the same name defended long ago by William Blake.

Dame Helen herself seems often to speak on behalf of some public body. And sure enough she speaks up for Lord Robbins and her other colleagues, for the most part robustly impenitent though prepared to concede ‘a disturbing development, which we did not anticipate when we reported in 1963’ – that is to say, ‘a marked swing against science in the schools and a consequent difficulty in filling the science places provided’. And yet C. P. Snow’s not specially prescient imagination had already anticipated this, blaming the malign image of science and technology purveyed by that modern literature on which Dame Helen speaks as an expert. In fact, however, even when she speaks out of this special expertise she still appears to have the backing of some powerful though shadowy committee, as when in the first of these Charles Eliot Norton lectures she declares, with no shadow of demonstration or argument, that Thomas Hardy the poet ‘cannot by any standard of evaluation be called great’. Though an Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Oxford obviously speaks on such matters with authority, for Dame Helen to deliver herself of this ex cathedra judgment solely on her own authority would surely seem very patronising to her Harvard audience, as if Cambridge Massachusetts were waiting to get the word from the banks of Isis. So we must suppose that the Emeritus Professor is speaking for a consensus. Where that consensus is, or how it is constituted, is not made clear: but it makes a similar pronouncement in the second lecture, quieting anxious flutters in many a Harvard breast by the definitive ruling that W. B. Yeats is ‘the greatest poet in the English tongue of this century’. Perhaps Yeats is that, and perhaps it doesn’t much matter whether he is or not: but one is naturally curious to know how and where the decision was arrived at.

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