Scots wha hae gone to England
- Devolving English Literature by Robert Crawford
Oxford, 320 pp, £35.00, June 1992, ISBN 0 19 811298 X
- The Faber Book of 20th-Century Scottish Poetry edited by Douglas Dunn
Faber, 424 pp, £17.50, July 1992, ISBN 0 571 15431 X
In books that go on about how the English have imposed their language and their manners on other English-speaking nations (Australian, Canadian, Scottish and Welsh and Irish, others), what is striking is how that Anglocentrism, allegedly located in London and Oxbridge mostly, is supposed to be deeply satisfying to the English themselves. Robert Crawford, who pursues the argument on behalf of the Scots, avoids this mistake, detecting in a provincial Englishman like Tony Harrison a fury and resentment not surpassed by any Scot. But this is hardly a novel perception, for Harrison has achieved fame on the strength of it. In fact, it’s hard to find any English writer who isn’t provincial in origin; I’m as much a West Riding product as Tony Harrison, though I haven’t traded on it much. The outcome is obvious and ridiculous: if I have as much right to wear a chip on my shoulder as any Australian or Aberdonian, then who is left to man the supposedly overbearing metropolis, unless it is Kingsley Amis and John Betjeman? The ramparts so frailly manned should have given way long ago to the armies massed against them. What Crawford doesn’t realise is that this indeed has happened; he is sounding the bugle for an assault on a fortress that surrendered years ago.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 14 No. 15 · 6 August 1992
Please allow me to emit a barbaric yawp. Some of Donald Davie’s review of my Devolving English Literature (LRB, 9 July) is devoted to poets whom I do not discuss in the book, including Charles Tomlinson, Basil Bunting and Donald Davie. Since, sometimes, exclusions can be significant, I would like to yawp at Davie’s ignoring of the entire historical argument of Devolving English Literature, 90 per cent of which deals with Scottish, American, Irish and other writing of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The argument which Davie ignores starts with a consideration of the 18th-century Scottish origins of what became the university subject of ‘English Literature’, a subject whose Scottish professors, including Adam Smith and Hugh Blair, were preoccupied with purity of diction and correctness of language. Considering the impact which such emphases had in Scotland, in America, and in the wider English-speaking world, Devolving English Literature attends to how the richly impure, eclectic, heteroglot work of Burns, Scott, Carlyle, Whitman and other writers helped fuel the impure linguistic riches of such Modernist works as Ulysses, the Cantos, The Waste Land and the poetry of MacDiarmid. The book concludes by arguing that such writings by essentially ‘provincial’ writers of the last three centuries have left a legacy useful to contemporary sophisticated ‘barbarian’ poets, including Dunn, Heaney, Leonard, Murray, Paulin, Walcott. A thumbnail sketch like this is insufficient, but I wish Davie had been fair enough to attempt one. The above outline may hint at why my book might not delight the reviewer who is still remembered as the author of Purity of Diction in English Verse.
For if some of Davie’s writings have helped open up the English literary mind, offering it American and Slavic excursions, other aspects of his work have been caught in just the sort of Anglocentric and narrow attitudes which Devolving English Literature seeks to question. Though written years before I was born, Purity of Diction was a book that made a lasting impact. Notably cool towards ‘impurities of diction’, it ‘was, as it still is, a manifesto’, wrote Davie in 1966. His whole influential emphasis on ‘diction’ rather than language was itself a purifying gesture, oppressively akin to the emphases of Adam Smith, Hugh Blair and other 18th-century Scots. Davie’s 1966 postscript made another purifying gesture when it made clear that he wished to conduct his argument ‘leaving aside the troublesome actualities or probabilities of Anglo-Welsh, Anglo-Scottish, New Zealand literature, Trinidadian and so on’. Such an exclusive, purifying brush-off may stand for the Anglocentric attitudes which my book contests, and which Davie in his review denies exist. Those ‘troublesome actualities’ which Davie excludes are potently present in much writing from Smollett to Whitman, and from Burns to Tony Harrison.
I hope that Devolving English Literature may serve also as a manifesto, one which champions impurity and pluralism, concentrating on certain heteroglot and multicultural writings of Scotland and America as emblematic of these qualities, though having no monopoly on them. Davie wishes to smear me as a ‘nationalist’ who knows only ‘resentment’. I hope that other readers may be more generous, and may consider how smoothly the wish to articulate cultural difference may be dismissed by the powerful as ‘having a chip on the shoulder’. I hope also that the book may find readers in England who recognise that I have as little time for Anglophobia as I have for Anglocentric prejudice.
University of St Andrews
It was very pleasing to see the work of the poet W.S. Graham praised by Donald Davie in his review (LRB, 9 July) of the Faber Book of 20th-century Scottish Poetry, edited by Douglas Dunn. While Dunn and Davie speak up for Graham’s poetry, please may I speak up for Graham’s character? Davie describes him as ‘a drunk; and not a convivial drunk, but sour and contumacious … not an attractive character’. I met Graham briefly at an Arvon Foundation course in 1979. Yes, I know he was on show, and yes, I suppose he was drunk, but he was friendly, approachable, kindly and charming. His most contumacious statement was: ‘Nobody’s going to push me off to bed early tonight!’ He emanated a quality to be found in poems like ‘Dear Bryan Wynter’, ‘To My Wife at Midnight’, and ‘Lines on Roger Hilton’s Watch’ – tenderness. I wrote to him afterwards and he replied with a letter-poem in which he describes the reading he gave as ‘Putting out the best of my poems/Not for them but to help/Myself speaking’. And perhaps the following lines answer the quoted comment about Graham’s ‘quirk of having been not-quite-obviously-Scottish-enough’:
A scarlet stream
A thread of blood is showing
From the Scotch corner
Of my fierce mouth.
Not an attractive character? I thought he was charismatic! May I also take this opportunity to ask why Faber have never published his Complete Poems, and have left it to two very small presses, Ecco and Greville, to publish poems written after 1977?
Vol. 14 No. 16 · 20 August 1992
In his cogent review (LRB, 9 July) of Douglas Dunn’s excellent anthology of modern Scottish verse, where (for once) adequate space is accorded to the badly neglected W.S. Graham, Donald Davie underlines and accentuates that poet’s achievement and importance. But as an old and close friend of Sydney’s I’m bound to contradict his description of Graham as ‘not a convivial drunk; but sour and contumacious. And he was a sponger and a skiver.’ My experience of Sydney in the pubs of Soho and Cornwall, not to mention Left Bank cafés, was totally different. Any old friend of his will confirm that if ever there was a convivialist it was Sydney. He got on with people of all kinds and classes, bar the self-important. As for sponging and skiving! Like Dylan Thomas, whose memory suffers from the same canard, he was generous and careless with money when he had it, and in the Soho tradition expected others to be the same. Be it remembered that Sydney, sans private income, remained totally committed to his vocation at a time when there were few hand-outs for poets, or chairs of creative writing. For the record, unasked but knowing he was pretty strapped I once gave, not lent, him £10. (In the Forties, this was money.) A year or two later Sydney won an Atlantic Award. Almost the first thing he did was to pay me back that £10, unasked and unexpected; to my shame, I cashed his cheque.
It was cheering to read Diana Hendry’s character reference for W.S. Graham (Letters, 6 August), and to learn that she admires the poems too. She should be pleased that Faber and Faber will be publishing a new Graham title next January, Aimed at Nobody, a collection of previously unpublished poems assembled by Margaret Blackwood and Robin Skelton. There are no plans yet For a Complete Poems, but the Collected Poems, which have been in print since 1979, are still available.
Faber, London WC1