The 18th-Century Hymn in England 
by Donald Davie.
Cambridge, 167 pp., £27.95, October 1993, 0 521 38168 1
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Donald Davie is already known for – among many other things – his striking comments on the hymns of Watts and Wesley in A Gathered Church: The Literature of the English Dissenting Interest 1700-1930 (1978). Now he has devoted an entire book to the hymn in 18th-century England – or rather, as the title indicates, he is trying to define a specific genre or set of modes and tones that constitute ‘the 18th-century hymn’. The Christian hymn is a difficult subject, for it always belongs to a particular church party or group, is associated with congregations and public occasions, and the success of an individual hymn is partly measured by the success of its tune. Although Davie professes to approve the congregational nature of hymns, and the living transmission of them (‘They are like the Border Ballads’), he refuses to deal with music or singers, and his book shows a preference for the poetic abstracted from vulgar congregational performance – he likes John Byrom and Christopher Smart, whose greatest successes, as Davie sees it, were not pointed towards the actual singing of current congregations. Some poems which have been highly successful as sung works in congregations – of the past and sometimes of the present – seem to him scandalous or uncomfortable.

It is not always clear whether Davie is entitled to dislike as much hymn-writing as he does, since he himself warns us (rightly) that ‘there is no scale for judging works of literature that is not undergirded (or else undermined) by valuations from outside literature altogether.’ He dislikes the ‘blood-boltered imagery’ of the Olney Hymns – ‘There is a fountain filled with blood/Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins’ – and thinks that we must ultimately ‘deplore’ Cowper’s lines while approving Watts’s ‘His dying crimson, like a robe’. He cites Vincent Newey’s argument that Cowper’s lines have a liturgical force in strict Dissenting chapels, where their theological meaning is understood, but then, without really saying why, rejects this argument. Yet on the principles he has stated, no one can be entitled to easy condemnation of theologically explicit verse.

Isaac Watts is evidently Davie’s beau idéal of the hymn-writer, and it is Watts (at least, the Watts he cites, the Watts of the best quotations) who meets Davie’s interest in exhibiting a true ‘Augustan’ strain in English hymnody. Presumably because A Gathered Church led readers to assume that Davie is himself one of the Dissenters whom he approves, he takes the trouble to slide in a reference to his religious identity, in a phrasing Jamesian in structural subtlety: ‘What are the grounds for defining or in any way qualifying my, as it happens, Anglican conscience as nonconformist?’ If his as it happens conscience is Anglican, Davie’s preferences in hymnology are still by and large in favour of the moderate and intellectual Dissenters. He dislikes certain strains in Anglicanism. He states baldly that Thomas Ken’s ‘Evening Hymn’ is ‘very indifferent writing’, and he presumes that quoting the poem in its entirety will prove his point. It does not. Davie is disingenuous when he argues that because Ken’s ‘Evening Hymn’ is sung in abbreviated form (not all the verses of the original poem are performed by congregations or reproduced in hymnbooks) therefore the poem is demonstrably inferior: ‘A good poem is an organism too delicate to be subjected to ... such drastic amputation.’ But this is no argument at all. Hymns through the centuries have been abbreviations of longer works; hymns by Watts have been truncated and changed in exactly the same manner. Davie has no other reason to offer as to why he finds Bishop Ken’s hymn inferior, save that it appeals to sentimental associations (described in a Kipling story) which Davie dismisses as ‘mawkish’. One is left on one’s own to decide why Davie really dislikes Ken’s hymn. Perhaps it is because of a certain Anglican optimism in Ken that is sure of ‘all the blessings of the light’. Perhaps it is because of an unstrenuous, insufficiently ‘manly’ approach to death: ‘Teach me to live, that I may dread/The grave as little as my bed.’ Perhaps there is a suspect eroticism about Ken’s poem: ‘may my soul on Thee repose, /And may sweet sleep my eyelids close.’ It is not ‘strong’. That is in Davie’s eyes a major defect in a hymn. Philip Doddridge is too thin and tender: ‘Only in the last two lines of “O god of Bethel” does Doddridge achieve Watts’s strength, in the sense that the 17th and 18th centuries gave to that term, meaning resonant conciseness.’ But is ‘resonant conciseness’ exactly the same as strength? One could be resonant and concise about tender feelings, but this would be suspect in the Davie system.

Donald Davie begins his discourse with the assault on Ken – it is disconcerting to find the first hymn quoted is to be trashed. The experience of the first few pages may give one an unfavourable impression of Davie’s book, which is unfair, for there are many good things in it, and some splendid observations. Davie is at home with much of the poetry he describes, and where he likes a work he is almost always good in discussing it. The analysis of Watts’s ‘A Sight of heaven in sickness’ finely traces its relation to Edmund Waller’s farewell poem of 1687 (‘The soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decayed, /Lets in new light through chinks that time has made’). The description of Watts’s manner here is pithily given: ‘a disconcerting Wordsworthian plainness that rides recklessly over and into the pot-holes of bathos’. And Davie adds, interestingly: ‘Before it was Wordsworthian, this diction was evangelical.’

Where Davie tends to be good on Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley makes him nervous, for Wesley ‘is a poet of vehement feeling’. Too much feeling in hymn-poetry Davie is certainly not prepared to countenance. Poetry that expresses giving way to feeling seems to Davie un-British and unmanly. It is in some sense feminine. ‘Elizabeth Rowe ... was a byword in her time for emotionalism that Watts indeed apologised for.’ ‘Indeed’? This is a startling statement. One expects the misogyny, but not the twisting of the evidence. Many of Rowe’s poems are very serene; some describe mystic experience or something close to it. Isaac Watts after her death was anxious to repudiate the idea that Rowe was a mystic – which would evidently seem a suspect Continental and Roman Catholic sort of thing to be. Watts doesn’t care much if Rowe is emotional or not: he’s concerned about the nature of the experiences she describes, and wants to bring them back into the field of rational dissent and out of the orbit of the mystics.

Nowhere in his book does Donald Davie raise the question of mysticism, and he fights shy of the experiential and visionary religion known to both the 17th and 18th centuries in his determined hunt for the manly, the unmawkish. When he finds a poem whose tone he likes, he enjoys analysing its prosody, and to some purpose, as in his accounts of Wesley’s use of anapaests and Smart’s employment of trimeter. Certain kinds of poetic intricacy appeal to him, but he is not much concerned with tracing the tradition back to, say, George Herbert, who is a well-known technical virtuoso but whose description of experience does not entirely accord with the public clarity, the absence of ‘mawkishness’ and ‘emotionalism’ that Davie is anxious to pursue.

Davie will not refer to Herbert even when such a reference might seem inevitable, as when he discusses a stanza by Wesley:

Entering on Life’s Meridian Stage
  I see the Shades appear,
And feel Anticipated Age,
  Death’s welcome Harbinger.

Davie is glad to praise such a stanza:

There will be those who find this quatrain stilted and frosty. But surely on the contrary it is marmoreal: as a mordantly succinct observation on middle age, it might be carved in marble ... It ... seems to be memorably imperturbable, in the manner of an unbelieving stoic. And just here we come upon the strangeness: that the author of these seemingly imperturbable verses was very perturbed indeed – by nightmare visions reaching back through the Middle Ages to apocalyptic parts of Scripture.

Here is a good example of both the strength and weakness of Davie’s book. He picks up a stanza and highlights it, making us know something we had not known before. But the commentary becomes a trifle perverse. In this instance, Davie overdoes the marble-like elements in the quatrain, and overlooks the reference to (or borrowing from) Herbert’s ‘The Harbingers’. The experiencing of age seems more mobile than stony. Even the stoicism (which is present) is experiential. The stanza is not unbelieving (joy at death being a Christian response) even if no explicit Christian dogma is here brought in. And how are we to differentiate between the ‘nightmare visions’ – that Davie does not approve – and the ‘normal’ Christian dogmas? Davie earnestly argues against our closing our minds to the experience of 18th-century people, but he enacts such mind-closings himself. Little doors slam. He dislikes, for instance, Wesley’s apocalyptic hymns in Hymns for the Year 1756: ‘We have not just poetic vulgarity, but incoherence; religiose cant does not merely tarnish these texts, considered as poems, it destroys them.’ On what grounds are we to differentiate between respectable doctrine – Davie heaps scorn on ‘modern’ readers who don’t understand doctrine – and statement which is beyond the pale, mere ‘vulgarity’, ‘religiose cant’?

In his defence of the kind of manly Augustinian doctrine he finds characteristic of 18th-century hymn-writing at its best, Davie makes many generalisations about what ‘we’ like and do not like. The reader may disconnect from this ‘we’. Davie conducts a war against ‘modern readers’ and theorists without quite knowing his opponents. He concedes that ‘modern critics’ are right in having recognised that no work in the canon of literature arrives abstractly without being embedded in particular historical circumstances, but he also assumes, quite incorrectly, that such ‘modern critics’ imagine that they can arrive at a ‘value-free’ judgment. Nobody now dealing in sophisticated literary theory imagines that judgments are value-free: what the good ‘modern’ critic does is to declare his or her own biases, and make the bases of argument and judgment as clear as possible. Davie seems to be at war with ‘moderns’ of the Sixties. He appears unaware that the word ‘modern’ is not self-applied in these Post-Modern times. ‘Modern’ sounds old-fashioned, a reference to literature written through the period from the 1890s to World War Two. Davie’s targets have been moving around when he wasn’t looking.

There are some puzzling weaknesses in Davie’s discussion of the 18th-century poems’ significance in their contemporary world, and these weaknesses appear when he is particularly anxious to defend himself against his imaginary moderns. He worries about the hymn-writers’ presentation of Christ’s crucifixion as an ‘atrocity’ they may take too calmly, but he claims for the Watts of ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ that ‘he raises the monstrosity to the level of idea’. That, however, is what Christians have always been up to – the execution of Christ is already at ‘the level of idea’ in the New Testament. Davie makes too large a claim for Watts’s own detachment and abstraction, as in the stanza beginning ‘His dying crimson, like a robe,/ Spreads o’er his body on the tree.’ Davie takes the second line as the application of a trope, an antique, generalising trope: ‘After all it is only “in the abstract” that the Cross (any cross) can be conceived of as a “tree”.’ This is to ignore the vernacular use of ‘tree’ for ‘gallows tree’ and its application to Tyburn’s familiar gallows tree – ‘At the tree I shall suffer with pleasure,’ sings Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera. There may be a delicate hidden touch of blasphemy in Macheath’s words, but the ‘fatal tree’ is a much more horrifying, deathly, nasty and immediate image of execution in the 18th century than we can readily imagine. Watts’s poem loses no immediacy at all for its contemporaries, and is far less ‘abstract’ than anything we could readily achieve in a country without public execution.

Davie has a way of making heavy weather of matters that don’t bring clouds to others’ skies. No, one is not surprised to know that the 18th-century Christians used phrases like ‘the Throne of Grace’ or ‘the Mercy-Seat’ – it would be more surprising if they did not; ‘Mercy-Seat’ comes from Hebrews 9.5, and ‘Throne of Grace’ from Hebrews 4.16; the divine throne is of course also found in Revelation. The use of the word ‘saints’ is not the puzzle that Davie thinks, in Christian theology generally nor in the period. Davie alludes to ‘our doubts about whether such human creatures ever existed or can exist’. This is a singular doubt for a professing Christian; Davie’s anxiety seems partly to stem from a notion of saints as persons declared such by the Roman Catholic Church. But Rome claims only to identify some – God alone knows all. And that all Christians are called upon to be saints is not a concept new to churches either Catholic or Protestant in the 18th century. Does Davie think that ‘saint’ means a perfectly sinless person? This is heretical. To say that ‘it is only figuratively, or by analogy, that Protestants can speak of saints’ forgets the whole Civil War history, and the Protestant hope for ‘the Rule of the Saints’. It is one of the odder statements in a book that has its share of crankiness.

There is one decided error that needs correction. Donald Davie refers twice to an author of a book called Order from Confusion Sprung, and this author he names as ‘Claude Rogers’. Now, the real author’s name is Claude Rawson, and Professor Rawson is a very well-known critic of 18th-century literature. Is this a piece of satire or sly invective on Davie’s part – conflating Rawson’s name with that of another well-known scholar of 18th-century life and literature, Pat Rogers? I feel inclined to give Professor Rawson back his own book, and to point out that Donald Davie is not entitled to fault ‘moderns’ for sloppiness if he is going to commit such errors himself. The editors at Cambridge will be sorry they let this get by, but it is the sort of authorial error it is very difficult to catch. The editors should note, however, that they do their author a disservice by creating a blurb which begins ‘Donald Davie is the foremost literary critic of his generation.’ At the least, this absolute phrase should be tempered to read ‘critic of English literature’ (which diminishes the field considerably), and it would be preferable merely to remark ‘Donald Davie is one of the leading critics of English literature.’ To panegyric and hyperbole in blurbs we are attuned – large promise is the soul of a book jacket – but gross hyperbole becomes a satire on the author, or at least leads to disappointment in a useful, and even entertaining, book that cannot meet vast claims.

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Vol. 16 No. 12 · 23 June 1994

Margaret Anne Doody (LRB, 9 June) jeers that much water has flowed under the bridges of lit crit since I last took a look at it. But she herself is still upstream of a bridge I built in 1952, when I answered the question she poses: Is ‘resonant conciseness’ (in poetry) exactly the same as ‘strength’? I will repeat the answer that I gave then, documenting it then as I can’t, and shouldn’t need to, now: ‘strength’ in relation to poetry means more exactly ‘resonant conciseness’ than it means anything else. In other words, the semi-technical sense that the 17th and 18th centuries gave to ‘strength’ is the only one that we can self-respectingly call on, if as critics we’re still to use the term at all. Doody, on the other hand, equates ‘strong’ with ‘manly’, and takes ‘manly’ to exclude ‘tender’, thus coming up with the would-be conclusive put-down: ‘One could be resonant and concise about tender feelings, but this would be suspect in the Davie system.’ I have no system; and if I had I wouldn’t be so daft as to rule out tenderness from the poetry that I admire and have tried to emulate. Doody takes a semi-technical term, and makes it wholly untechnical. She does the same elsewhere with ‘cant’, which she takes as having to do with doctrine whereas this too is a semi-technical term: ‘language whose meaning has evaporated from continued repetition’ (Chambers). In both cases, as throughout her piece, she refuses to recognise poetry for what it is – a construct in language.

Who has ever denied that Cowper’s Olney hymns are poignantly tender? Answer: those who hear them as mawkish. In my account of Cowper, though no one would guess it from Doody’s review, I was largely concerned to argue that tender is what these poems are, and mawkish they are not. They are also (as I think I show) strong, resonantly concise – the one feature, far from excluding the other, reinforces it. It is only in Doody’s system – not in her experience, which she nowhere appeals to – that the two are incompatible.

Donald Davie
Silverton, Devon

Vol. 16 No. 14 · 21 July 1994

Edward Wilson (Letters, 7 July) describes as ‘mistaken’ my view that Isaac Watts’s speaking of Christ’s blood as a crimson robe derives from ‘the idealising and yet sensuously saturated art of the Counter-Reformation’. On the contrary, he says, ‘the image is actually from Isaiah 63.1-3’ in the Authorised Version. But ‘derived from’ is not the same as ‘originates with’. And in any case the person in Isaiah whom Wilson calls ‘Christ’, asked why his garments are red, replies that he will wrathfully tread his people ‘and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.’ Watts, who certainly knew the Scriptures as well as Wilson does, explicitly excludes this far from Christlike blood-bespattered figure when he writes ‘His dying crimson, like a robe’. For him in his poem the blood is that of the crucified victim, not of any victims that he may be thought to have slaughtered. What Wilson calls ‘the image’ in fact (‘actually’) comprises two images, mutually incompatible. Similarly, though less flagrantly, the lines quoted by Wilson from George Herbert’s ‘The Sacrifice’ refer to the robe (Matthew colours it scarlet, in Mark it is purple) which the mocking soldiers put upon Christ, only to strip it from him before he went to crucifixion (whereas in Watts the real or figurative robe is worn on the Cross). Again, ‘the image’ turns out to be two distinct images, though Herbert to be sure tries to conflate them. Red, scarlet, crimson, purple – the words may be interchangeable in some contexts, but not in poetry. Purple, the imperial colour as in ‘Vexilla Regis’, points to an aspect of Christ that Watts will make much of elsewhere, which here by using ‘crimson’ he excludes. Wilson, accusing me and Margaret Doody of looking no further back than to the 18th century, is right insofar as we have learned to be warier than he is of using words like ‘actually’.

Donald Davie
Silverton, Devon

Vol. 16 No. 16 · 18 August 1994

Edward Wilson (Letters, 4 August) thinks it ‘bizarre’ that I should ‘derive … Isaac Watts’s crimson robe from a Polish Jesuit’. Let it pass that I didn’t quite do that. The point is that my invocation of Matthias Casimire Sarbiewski (1596-1640) isn’t a quirky bright idea of my own. Sarbiewski’s neo-Latin Horatian poems, published in 1625 and 1628, were Englished by G. Hils in 1646, and in that form have been edited by Maren-Sofie Rostvig and reprinted in Los Angeles in 1953. Apart from Watts there are English versions of Casimire by Cowley, by Henry Vaughan in 1651, by John Hughes in 1720 and by the Baptist hymn-writer Anne Steele (1717-78). Another translator of Casimire was the one poet whom Edward Wilson quotes against me, John Norris of Bemerton (1657-1711). Does this induce Wilson to think my ascription to Casimire of a decisive influence on Watts seem less ‘bizarre’? I fear not, even though in his Reliquiae Juveniles (1734) Watts begins his ‘To Dorio. The first Lyrick Hour’ by saying: ‘There’s a Line or two that seem to carry in them I know not what Softness and Beauty in the beginning of the Ode of Casimire, where he describes his first Attempts on the Harp, and his commencing a Lyrick Poet.’ All this documentation, and more, I had to my hand when I wrote The 18th-Century Hymn in England, where I intimated as much, hoping thereby to avoid any parade of pedantry. But I was wrong: the review by Margaret Doody, and subsequently the letters from Wilson, show that literary scholarship is now so competitive and industrialised that if you don’t put your professional credentials on the table, it will be supposed you don’t have them. If Wilson wants to check on me (which I doubt), I direct him to John Hoyles’s shamefully neglected book of 1971, The Waning of the Renaissance 1640-1740. (The date just squeaks in under the wire strung to preserve the common conviction that the intellectual world began again in or about 1968.)

LRB readers have had to put up with the citation of Wilson’s authorities against mine, prompting the suspicion that we’re arguing not with but past each other – which is true. I am concerned with English poetry, and with Watts as a poet; Wilson and Doody are concerned with things they think more important, to which Watts and his poems are at best mere illustrations, more commonly just debating-points.

Wilson now says that I am ignorant of ‘Christian hermeneutic tradition’. So I am; though I know that there is such a tradition. So far as I have looked into it, it is sterile, it has nothing to say to me as a suffering person at the end of the 20th century. The verses which Wilson persists in pressing upon me from Isaiah 63, provoked from Lancelot Andrewes in 1623 (Wilson obligingly quotes it) a gloss or explication for which the kindest word is ‘quaint’. Watts, on the other hand, in a poem (not the famous hymn) which explicitly glosses the same verses while shearing away their barbaric, ancient Israelite connotations, presents me with a figure whose blood I can (figuratively, to be sure) drink when I am at the communion-rail, as I could not, however figuratively, drink the blood of ‘the man from Edom with red garments from Bozrah’. When Watts claimed to ‘christianise’ the Scriptures, he meant what he said: his was a modernising so radical that it left the Christian hermeneutical tradition in tatters that only antiquarians like Edward Wilson try to piece together. Whose blood does Wilson drink when he comes to the communion-rail (if he does)? It is an impertinent question, but inescapable. T.S. Eliot in 1926, applauding Lancelot Andrewes, declared Donne inferior to him in that ‘Donne has, on the one hand, much more in common with the Jesuits, and, on the other hand, much more in common with the Calvinists, than has Andrewes.’ Just so; two generations after Andrewes, Isaac Watts became just what Eliot in dismay foresaw: a person who, like Donne, sympathised with Jesuit and Calvinist alike, as mainstream Anglicans could not. We have only to look at our hymn-books to see that Watts’s modernisation carried the day. It is our good fortune, and yet no accident either, that Watts was also an elegant and scrupulous poet.

Donald Davie
Silverton, Devon

Vol. 16 No. 13 · 7 July 1994

In her review of Donald Davie’s The 18th-Century Hymn in England (LRB, 9 June) Margaret Doody notes ‘some puzzling weaknesses’ in Davie’s discussion of the hymn-writers’ presentation of the Crucifixion, and in particular of Isaac Watts’s lines: ‘His dying crimson, like a robe, / Spreads o’er his body on the tree’ (from ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’). However, neither Davie nor Doody appears to realise that Biblical references lie behind the lines. Doody objects to Davie’s calling the image of the Cross as a tree an antique, conceptualising trope, and would see rather a contemporary allusion to Tyburn tree or gallows: so some in the 18th century might have done, but they would more certainly have had a familiarity with Scriptural descriptions of the Cross as a tree: ‘Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree’ (Acts 5.30; cf. Acts 10.39, 13.29; Galatians 3.13; I Peter 2.24).

More significantly, Doody does not challenge Davie’s mistaken view that speaking of Christ’s blood as a crimson robe derives from ‘the idealising and yet sensuously saturated art of the Counter-Reformation’. The image is actually from Isaiah 63.1-3 in which, as the Authorised Version’s headnote says, ‘Christ sheweth who he is’, and Verse Two in particular: ‘Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?’ Christ replies that he will tread the people in his anger ‘and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.’ The notion is frequent in Christian verse – Fortunatus’ ‘Vexilla Regis’ speaks of a tree adorned with regal purple (‘Arbor … Ornata regis purpura’), and in English poetry it is found before Watts from the waedum (‘garments’) of blood and gold in the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood to George Herbert’s ‘The Sacrifice’ (‘Then with a scarlet robe they me aray;/Which shews my bloud to be the onely way’).

The failure by both Davie and Doody to grasp the significance of an image found in English poetry from Anglo-Saxon times to the 18th century suggests that, culturally, the distance between those two periods is as nothing compared to that between the 18th century and the present.

Edward Wilson
Worcester College, Oxford

Vol. 16 No. 15 · 4 August 1994

Donald Davie’s reply (Letters, 23 June) to my observations on his unawareness of Biblical allusion betrays an ignorance of Christian hermeneutic tradition. The typological identification of the man from Edom with red garments from Bozrah (Isaiah 63) as Christ is not mine, as Davie asserts (‘whom Wilson calls “Christ" ’), but goes back to the Church Fathers, and persisted not only through the Middle Ages but into Reformation tradition as well – my letter noted it in the Authorised Version’s headnote (‘Christ showeth who he is’). Though Davie personally might find this figure ‘far form Christ-like’ he might fruitfully ponder its occurrence in Lancelot Andrewes’s Easterday sermon on this very text in 1623: ‘it can be none but Christ,’ says Andrewes, who gives the blood a double reference: ‘His owne, His enemie’s blood: One sanguis agni, the blood of the lambe slaine: the other sanguis Draconis, the blood of the dragon, the red-dragon trode upon. One of His Passion, three dayes since: the other of his victorie, as to day.’ As for the scarlet and purple robes of Matthew and Mark, they are the figural fulfilment of both Isaiah 63 and Canticles 5.10. Red, comments Andrewes, ‘was His colour at His Passion. They put Him in purple: then it was His weed in derision’; quoting Isaiah 1.18 (on our sins as scarlet) Andrewes says that ‘crimsin, of as deep die as any purple’ is ‘the true tincture of our sinnes … for, Edom is redd … So was it meet for crimsin sinners to have a crimsin Saviour.’

All this was once a commonly understood inheritance. John Norris’s ‘Pindarique Ode’ on Isaiah 63 (A Collection of Miscellanies, 1687; nine editions by 1740) has Christ say: ‘The blood gush’d out in streams, and checquer’d o’re / My garments with its deepest gore.’ Indeed, not all in the 20th century are uninformed in these allusions: David Jones’s Passiontide fragment. The Fatigue (1965), has the lines: ‘and look: the red-dyed skydrape /from over Bosra way’.

To ‘derive’, as Davie does, Isaac Watts’s crimson robe from a Polish Jesuit is bizarre in the light of such an ancient and common tradition, both Catholic and Protestant. Davie’s stance puts me in mind of a scene from Sheridan’s The Critic, III.1, in which, within a play, a Beefeater utters the line ‘“Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee" ’; those watching comment as follows:

SNEER: Haven’t I heard that line before?

PUFF: No, I fancy not – Where pray?

DANGLE: Yes, I think there is something like it in Othello.

PUFF: Gad! now you put me in mind on’t, I believe there is – but that’s of no consequence – all that can be said is, that two people happened to hit on the same thought – and Shakespeare made use of it first, that’s all.

Davie would say the line derived from the Beefeater; I would say it actually comes from Shakespeare.

Edward Wilson
Worcester College, Oxford

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