Devolving English Literature 
by Robert Crawford.
Oxford, 320 pp., £35, June 1992, 9780198112983
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The Faber Book of 20th-Century Scottish Poetry 
edited by Douglas Dunn.
Faber, 424 pp., £17.50, July 1992, 9780571154319
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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 nature of that surrender, and the consequences of it, are what we might reasonably ponder. Such a pondering – ill-tempered as it happens, and brilliantly unfair – was A Sinking Island (1987) by another chip-shouldering excolonial, the Canadian Hugh Kenner. Crawford doesn’t like Kenner’s book: naturally not, since Kenner, convicting the whole insula of insularity, conspicuously doesn’t exonerate any Scots from the indictment (though – unkindest cut – he does exonerate one Welshman, David Jones). Worse still for Crawford, Kenner announces, ‘There’s no longer an English literature’: by which he means that, whereas ‘talent has not been lacking’ – on the contrary, ‘good poets are dispersed round the land’ and each has a personal following – yet ‘no talk, however extensive, about any of them need cause you to mention another.’ Talk of ‘devolving English literature’! Can devolution go further than it has gone already inside England, where no talk of any one poet need cause you to mention another? But Robert Crawford can’t have this, for he needs English literature to exist, so that Scottish literature can be defined against it. So, when he looks at English poets, he stays with those he can persuade himself are mavericks, like Tony Harrison and (very implausibly) the Larkin who befriended Douglas Dunn, once his Scottish neighbour in Hull. He ignores the pair (both provincials, of course) whom Kenner singled out as the most honourable exceptions: Charles Tomlinson, who applauded William Soutar, and Basil Bunting, who befriended MacDiarmid. Yet Tomlinson and Bunting are the true mavericks, as Kenner recognised. They are mavericks because, while acknowledging class-based and region-based resentment, in themselves as in others, they refused to be hypnotised by those concerns so as to neglect poetry’s more important duties. I’m not sure that Crawford, down his nationalist perspective, recognises any duty more important than resentment.

This makes him unfair not just to English poets, but to Scottish ones too. Nowhere does he mention (nor did Kenner) W.S. (Sydney) Graham, who took, perhaps at greater cost, the same decision that Tomlinson and Bunting made. Douglas Dunn, whose anthology is blessedly free of the prejudices that constrict Crawford, allows Graham 20 pages (as against 35 for MacDiarmid, 22 for Robert Garioch, 21 for Iain Crichton Smith), and in his fair-minded Introduction Dunn painfully acknowledges why Graham is little honoured in Scotland: ‘he lived furth of Scotland for most of his adult life, and loved Cornwall. His relative neglect is due to more than the quirk of having been not-quite-obviously-Scottish-enough; he had the cheek to live somewhere else. Andrew Young, Edwin Muir, and several others, have been treated to petty discriminations of a similar kind.’ I suspect that Dunn himself is among those ‘several others’.

Graham, it seems, was a drunk; and not a convivial drunk, but sour and contumacious. And he was a sponger and skiver. Not an attractive character. But from the time of The Nightfishing (1955), with ever more authority through Malcolm Mooney’s Land (1970) and Implements in their Places (1977), this Clydeside proletarian reflected on language, on how one may utter words not to encompass known experience but to summon up experience not yet known and perhaps in the end unknowable. When in Malcolm Mooney’s Land he draws on Fridtjof Nansen’s diaries, he is building on Mallarmé, who was before him in seeing the white and virgin unwritten page as a snowfield. But he goes beyond the Frenchman, for in Graham’s snowfield there are crevasses.

A writer’s language has its way with him. A lot turns on how he reacts to this condition, once it is brought home to him. Graham’s attitude is light years away from those who, having discovered duplicities in language, are determined to root them out; or those others who, having discovered the duplicitousness, delightedly aggravate it. The better alternative, Graham profoundly says, is to reconstruct those silences, those realms of the heretofore unsayable, which a poetic kind of saying necessarily encroaches on. And his tone is surprising often it makes for rueful comedy, as in titles like ‘What is the language using us for?’ or (delightfully) ‘Language ah now you have me’. Dunn’s selection from Graham is full and various, but he perhaps prudently spares the common reader the undoubtedly rarefied air that the mature Graham’s astonishlingly plain yet singing diction makes us breathe. He has touching poems that move at less exacting altitudes, concerned with human relations. Yet it’s the poems about language that put him on a peak by himself. No poet Scottish or English, not even Bunting, recognised so clearly how language commands those who most seek and seem to command it. The one and only book on Graham (by Tony Lopez, 1989) is thoroughly workmanlike and useful.

What commands the writer, according to Graham, is not this language or that, but language as such. So he soars far above disputes about Lallans or Gaelic or standard English being the right vehicle for Scottish experience. Each language is a system which ultimately subjugates to itself every user of that language. Lallans or synthetic Scots, apparently created ad hoc and opportunistically by the young MacDiarmid, seems to be an exception, but is not – except conceivably for MacDiarmid himself, in the first flush of his audacity. The utopian notion that there is an unobstructed avenue from experience to utterance is blocked by this language as much as by any other. MacDiarmid’s mid-career switch to standard English may be thought to acknowledge this. Certainly it was recognised by later Lallans writers like Robert Garioch, for whom Dunn makes large claims that should be taken seriously. Of course Lallans was never designed to be, nor was it ever, a transcript of Scottish demotic speech. Dunn is clear about this; I’m not sure it is so clear to all the young turks who are given an airing in the last pages of his anthology.

Dunn’s Introduction – in fact, a brave and searching essay called ‘Language and Liberty’ – is not just fair-minded. It is learned, surprising and informative. And its playing fair with us is very far from the easy even-handedness of the ‘Nor should we forget’ variety, that we are used to from anthologists introducing their anthologies. Douglas Dunn has thought seriously about what and where Scottish poetry has got to – as witness particularly a quotation of several hundred words from Edwin Muir’s Scott and Scotland (1936), a text that many nationalists have thought the definitive sellout to the occupying power. (I think Muir’s text is more dated than he allows for, but it was brave of him to reprint it.) As for Dunn’s even-handedness, consider his verdict on a disagreement between two Gaelic poets of our time, Sorley MacLean and Iain Crichton Smith, about a Gaelic poet of long ago, Rob Dunn (d. 1778). Judging from the poems in the anthology translated by themselves, I will trust MacLean’s opinion over Smith’s. But that isn’t the point. For the two of them to disagree publicly about the merits of one of their own poetic forebears is in itself proof of one of Dunn’s most surprising contentions: that Scots Gaelic poetry, despite its small constituency, has experienced a revival. For quarrels about the canon, rather than grateful obeisance before it, are undoubtedly a sign of life. And then look at Dunn’s comment on this divergence of opinion; ‘That it should exist ... suggests that Gaelic poetry’s struggle with modernity is one in which traditional expectations could be resistant to ideas of “good poetry” when these have been taken in some measure from languages other than Gaelic itself.’ What could be more poised, more carefully nuanced, and yet more deflating? Dunn’s essay will annoy Gaelic-speaking Scots as well as other sorts; and his braving them is what assures his credibility with us outlanders.

I was sorry that he didn’t give us Sorley MacLean’s poem about the vanished woods of Raasay. But I quite take the point that to a demotic Glaswegian like Tom Leonard (b. 1944), that scene is as foreign as to any of us English suburbanites. In which case the question re-arises: what identity does Scottish poetry have, except as that which is not-English? Douglas Dunn tries to address this question, but his answer to it is vacuous. Given the capitulation of the English half of this equation, Scots have to ask themselves whether the distinction between the two ancient kingdoms doesn’t resolve itself into the fact, interesting to psephologists but to no one else, that Scotland mostly votes Labour whereas most of England doesn’t.

It would be intolerably complacent, however, to assert that a Scot loses nothing when he opts to speak and write metropolitan English. There are impressive instances which seem to affirm this – notably in the 18th-century James Thomson, author of The Seasons, whom Robert Crawford treats with proper and welcome respect. Does any one seriously maintain that Thomson, a great poet, would have been greater if he had written in ‘the Doric’? In the present century, however, I number among my friends several Anglicised Scots who, I judge, were disabled by the stress of that divided inheritance. Their emblematic and exemplary representative is surely John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, biographer of Montrose, who contributed to MacDiarmid’s Scottish Chapbook, compiled in 1924, an anthology of Scots vernacular writing, and wrote a flattering preface to MacDiarmid’s Sangschaw. In this anthology their very muted spokesman seems to be Norman Cameron:

I bought (I was too wealthy for my age)
A passage to the dead ones’ habitat,
And learnt, under their tutelage,
To twitter like a bat

In imitation of their dialect.
Crudely I aped their subtle practices;
By instinct knew how to respect
Their strict observances.

The regions of the dead are small and pent,
Their movements faint, sparing of energy ...

Cameron was dead at 48, and who knows what he might have gone on to do, had he lived longer? So he isn’t a clinching witness. But the combination in his poems generally of extreme and witty delicacy in expression with paucity of energy, and indeed of subject-matter, does seem symptomatic. His poem is called ‘A Visit to the Dead’; and it doesn’t seem excessive to suppose that the English enunciation he learned at Fettes was indeed, for him, a voice of the dead. The case of Buchan shows that the Anglicised Scot certainly isn’t disabled from succeeding in public life: but it may be that he’s somehow maimed in his imagination.

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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.

Robert Crawford
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?

Diana Hendry

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.

David Wright
Algarve, Portugal

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.

Christopher Reid
Faber, London WC1

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