Scots wha hae gone to England

Donald Davie

  • 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 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.