Dr Blair, the Leavis of the North

Terence Hawkes

  • The Scottish Invention of English Literature edited by Robert Crawford
    Cambridge, 271 pp, £35.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 521 59038 8

Until recently, the notion that the academic subject called ‘English’ had any sort of history would have seemed rather odd. Hadn’t it always just, well, existed? Surely, at his Stratford grammar school, the lad Shakespeare mugged up his Chaucer, if not the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and Pride and Prejudice like the rest of us? How otherwise could he have written plays full of ‘characters’ who, as all O and A-level candidates know, endlessly, remorselessly, ‘develop’? Admittedly, Stephen Potter’s The Muse in Chains had offered to blow the gaff in 1937. But pell-mell postwar expansion, to say nothing of Potter’s decline into a chronicler of comfy national foibles, soon settled its hash. ‘English’ seemed to be just there: as natural as Syrup of Figs or Marmite, and as volcanically cleansing or as briskly bracing as either to the costive national soul. Gloomy siftings of the details of the subject’s invention could be dismissed as further evidence of a crisis whose other barely distinguishable symptoms were marijuana, acne and the vapourisings of feckless French fumisterie.

Talk of a ‘crisis’ in English studies usually misses the point. It’s more appropriate to see the English studies itself as the response to a crisis. Politics were always involved, and the pressures of industrial competition and international market forces made their presence felt from the start. In a standard English version, matters came to a head in the spring of 1917. First the United States vaulted onto the world stage by declaring war on Germany. Then, in the autumn, the successful Bolshevik coup inaugurated a challenger regime that would remain in contention for more than seventy years. With America’s entry into the war effectively guaranteeing the dominance of English as a world language over its chief competitor, German, the spotlight fell on education. Had not Lloyd George declared in 1918 that ‘the most formidable institution we had to fight in Germany was not the arsenals of Krupps or the yards in which they turned out submarines, but the schools of Germany. They were our most formidable competitors in business and our most terrible opponents in war’? The implication was clear. With one battle won, the study of literature written in the world’s most powerful tongue could now usefully serve to promote a sense of cultural coherence as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Thus it was, F.L. Lucas laconically reports, that in March 1917, ‘while Russia was tottering into revolution and America preparing for war ... at Cambridge members of the Senate met to debate the formation of an English Tripos.’

Just as world politics colour this highly selective account of the subject’s birth, party politics played a substantial role in the appointment of the King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge, who from this point presided over its growth and development. The Liberal Prime Minister Asquith had originally intended to offer the job to Sir Herbert Grierson, recent editor of the poems of John Donne. However, he allowed Lloyd George to persuade him that a post of such eminence ought rather to be a party appointment. Without doubt, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) fitted that bill. He had worked long and hard for the Liberals in his native Cornwall, holding most of the major public offices: county councillor, alderman, Justice of the Peace and ultimately Mayor of Fowey. His knighthood had been awarded primarily for political activity. On his return to Fowey from the investiture, the town brass band immediately registered a sense of professorial potential by playing ‘He’s A Fine Old English Gentleman.’

‘Q’ as he styled himself, turned out to be not only one of the founding fathers of a hugely expanding field of study, but also instrumental in imposing on it a form and purpose which most of its native-language students can still – however dimly – recognise. Indeed, a case could be made that, faced with the death of Liberalism, Q assisted at the birth of a subject which, certainly in its early Cambridge manifestation, and despite the counter-claims of some of the younger firebrands involved, embodied many of Liberalism’s defining principles. Backing disdainfully into the future, snivelling high-mindedly over the much-told atrocities of a predacious Industrial Revolution, hugging for comfort Jane Austen’s moth-eaten mantra about Birmingham, that nothing much could be expected from that quarter, ‘English’ at Cambridge was to be the prosecution of Liberalism by other means. At least this made a change from the agendas of scholars whose politics were less readily discernible, such as W.W. Greg, founder of the Malone Society, editor of Henslowe, author of The Editorial Problem in Shakespeare, and left it until later in life to boast that he had driven a car for Scotland Yard during the General Strike. By 1919, a departmental committee chaired by Sir Henry ‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’ Newbolt had been appointed by the Board of Education to report on ‘The Teaching of English in England’. The name of its game was later pithily reinforced by one of its members, George Sampson: ‘Deny to working-class children any common share in the immaterial and presently they will grow into the men who demand with menaces a communism of the material’. No doubt P.C. Greg, Blues and Two’s at the ready, would have concurred.

Sampson’s book was called English for the English. However, Robert Crawford’s new collection of essays makes it emphatically clear that our present political context calls for quite a different perspective: one, as his earlier Devolving English Literature implies, more firmly focused on a latter-day drama in which the last act of the dismantling of Empire is played out in terms of the breakup of the United Kingdom. Appropriately, the main proposition, reiterated through a number of carefully linked, not to say insistent and repetitive essays, is starkly revisionist: ‘English literature as a university subject is a Scottish invention.’

At first sight, it’s a persuasive and well-documented case. The first University Chair of Eloquence in the English-speaking world was proposed at St Andrews in 1720, its odd title hinting at French roots, and the career of Charles Rollin, Professeur d’Eloquence au Collège Roial et associé à L’Académie Roiale des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, encouraging Crawford to conclude that, together with the phrase ‘Belles Lettres’, ‘Eloquence’ begins effectively to map out the conceptual space for ‘the subject that will become English Literature’. The fact that the title ‘Professor of the Belles Lettres’ was not unfamiliar in Scotland, where it rather loosely embraced schoolteachers, advocates and a range of literary layabouts, helps an argument that Neil Rhodes’s penetrative essay, assigning a crucial role to Scotland’s French connection, finally nails down. Although, in the event, ‘Eloquence’ was rejected by impercipient academics, who preferred a Chair of Medicine, the impact in Scotland of Peter Ramus’s Paris-based assault on Rhetoric helped prise open a chink through which literary criticism could eventually squeeze. Bernard Lamy’s L’Art de parler(1675, translated 1676) signals an important transitional stage in the process, for by the time of its fifth edition the author had expanded his conception of rhetoric with the claim that ‘To know Belles Lettres is to know how to speak, to write, or to judge those who write.’ If this doesn’t exacdy mark, as Rhodes suggests, ‘the moment at which Rhetoric becomes Criticism’, it certainly fuels the suspicion that, far from being corrupted by new ideas ferried over from Paris in the 20th century, ‘English’ was partly created by them in the 18th.

Rollin’s lectures offered guidance to French students whose careers would depend on their skills in persuasive writing and public speaking. As Crawford points out, the pursuit of expertise in similar fields north of the border was not unconnected with Scottish ambitions, after the Act of Union in 1707, to engage with metropolitan England on its own cultural ground. As a result, the study of the arts of speaking and writing in English acted less as an oppressive or limiting experience for Scots, than as a potentially enabling development, supplying the site and occasion for a necessary negotiation about Britishness. Success in the larger world depended to a considerable extent on its outcome, for Scotland’s future evidently lay with a Britain and an Empire whose ‘civic discourse’ would be conducted in a suitably metropolitan tongue. In a world in which ‘scotticisms’ condemned their users to the fringes of power and influence, ‘English’ could claim to be nothing less than one of those high roads leading south that, in Johnson’s assertion, were the ‘noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees’.

As a result, Scottish universities soon found themselves juggling with the variety of roles that colonised cultures tend to toss in the direction of native institutions. Peripheral (in respect of England), but also central (in respect of Scotland), theirs was a complex marginality: one that turned out to be paradoxically ‘empowering’. Happily, in a number of the essays, this fortunate misfortune permits a nimble dialectic neatly to dispose of the gibes usually to hand for dealing with invasions of the centre by the fringe. Thus, when Joan H. Pittock points out that from the mid-18th to the early 20th century, each Aberdeen professor of the subject eventually called English had ‘remarkably and illuminatingly’ been taught by his predecessor, her words deftly push aside the charge of ‘provincialism’ in an audacious leap to higher ground. Why not? When this sort of thing happens at Oxford and Cambridge, there’s much dusting off of terms like ‘tradition’.

A more radically reforming zeal spurs Ian Duncan to claim Adam Smith’s lectures on rhetoric and belles lettres, delivered at Edinburgh in 1748-51, as a genuinely foundational moment; ‘the first significant university programme devoted to the analysis of English literary discourse’. But hang on. The idea of ‘rhetoric’ and ‘belles lettres’ as precursors or components of a fledgling ‘English’ must inevitably strike supporters of the Cambridge-based history of the subject as a bit dodgy. To the godly, these terms have long been weapons in a dirty war, to be sown, like anti-personnel devices, in the path of the oncoming unclean. It’s worrying to see them picked up and rattled. By the 18th century, the post-Ramist pedagogical juggernaut had succeeded in equating ‘rhetoric’ with the sort of ornate linguistic appliqué work that was merely cosmetic: the sugar on the pill of logic, the icing on the verbal cake. Meanwhile, in the big world, the term ‘belles lettres’ had come to imply a sort of champagne levity, several can-can kicks away from the gritty moral earnestness for which the Arnold-Eliot-Leavis critical junta was avid. To base a revised version of the history of English on such liabilities, voices from beyond the Cam might snarl, is more than mistaken. It hints at perfidy of industrial strength.

Much depends, of course, on what you mean by ‘English’. Adam Smith’s lectures, it’s claimed, not only confirmed the ascendancy of a ‘new rhetoric’ in Scotland, whose emphasis was on style, sensibility and so-called ‘literary’ values; it also promoted construction of the sort of modern metropolitan identity that would help students identify themselves as members of a British as opposed to a Scottish nation. If nothing else, the integration of rhetoric with belles lettres encouraged a shift of interest from the outward public forms of oratory and eloquence to the more inward experiences whose complexities supply the stuff of the novel. That form’s capacity as a vehicle for vicarious encounters with the modes of metropolitan Englishness naturally made it an agent of considerable ideological potency for Scots.

The competing histories draw some what closer when we come to the figure of Hugh Blair (1718-1800). Blair began regular lectures on literature at Edinburgh in the 1760s, finally being appointed in 1762 to what was initially styled a Chair of Rhetoric. His own suggestion that ‘to give it a more modern air, the title of Belles Lettres might be added’ may support Robert Burns’s acidulous verdict that ‘Dr Blair is merely an astonishing proof of what industry and application can do,’ and ill-tempered shades more recently departed would surely agree. But others in this volume and elsewhere are at pains to argue that there’s more to Blair than that. He had, after all, attended Smith’s lectures and seen them in manuscript while he was preparing his own powerful Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783). In any case industry and application are rare enough qualities in the education business.

Blair’s influence was vast, his charisma compelling. As a minister of the Church of Scotland, he grew into one of those spell-binding combinations of teacher and preacher whose skills by in eye-contact and mellifluousness as much as in research and scholarship. The same commitment to oral delivery, to the notion of language in action, is presumably what drew him to Macpherson’s Ossian, emblem of the ‘bardic’ destiny awaiting the man of letters in a literate society. Undoubtedly, he fulfilled that role. In the 19th century, Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres went through 26 complete and 52 abridged editions. Success of that kind may seem to give substance to charges nominating him as the spearhead of a crude Scottish ‘cultural imperialism’. But the claim made here by Fiona Stafford that Blair addresses the central questions later put by I.A. Richards in Principles of Literary Criticism with the ‘zealous optimism of a pioneer’ is certainly plausible, and his sense of criticism as an active dialogic process in which the ability to persuade and converse was of the greatest importance, goes some way to justify the recently bestowed and, in the circumstances, slightly mischievous sobriquet ‘Leavis of the North’.

Such acts are always hard to follow and Blair’s successor, William Greenfield, could claim to be the subject’s first martyr. Widely admired, indeed preferred by Burns to Blair, his interests in sexuality and gender roles caused him to push his courses in what we might now call radical directions. However, God is not mocked and a subsequent conviction for ‘a Sin particularly heinous and offensive in its nature’ finally brought the condign horrors of obloquy, excommunication and exile in England under the assumed name of Rutherford. Others turned out to be more suitably equipped to deal with what by then had become an expanding market. For instance, the use of vernacular literature as a tool for teaching oratory and disputation in North American colleges, plus the fact that the language of disputation was English, rather than Latin or Greek, increasingly ensured a welcome for itinerant Scots there. By the 1820s, the University of Pennsylvania had established a Scottish-influenced plan for the development of English language study that would be copied by other universities in the North-East, notably Columbia. Scottish influences were also at work in places such as Princeton, where the Reverend John Witherspoon proved influential from 1768. Since Scottish Whig political reformers looked in any case to the United States as an example of the sort of political development they admired, it’s not surprising to find that the original cultivators of the field that was to become American studies should also turn out to be Scots.

There was no escape: Australia and New Zealand were not spared. And when, ultimately, the Scots teemed South of the border bearing the notion that the native language and literature were certainly not less, and might even be slightly more academically worthy and morally improving than the classics, it merely brought to a climax a history of massive exportation at whose proportions Stephen Potter and the Newbolt Committee had only guessed. True, Oxford and Cambridge remained, for a time, aloof. But if the story of English’s arrival at University College and King’s College London turns out to be less an odyssey of a subject’s coming ‘home’ than an epic of how the iron of the North ultimately pierced and redeemed the flabby soul of the South, it also speaks, as epics do, of a number of other no less seismic intellectual shifts. Pursued by Blairs – the Scots philologist Alexander Blair used Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres as a class text – Latin and Greek began their reproachful, elegiac exit from the curriculum. And perhaps something else departed, too, its tremulous shade barely discernible behind the bars of the sort of examination question concocted by another Scot, David Masson: ‘Turn into prose the following passage from Hamlet, arranging the words so as to make the syntax and meaning more obvious.’

Spiritual uplift or spineless dumbing down? Under the Scottish heel, is the play crassly pulverised here, whilst a distinctive, delicate Englishness reels, not inappropriately, away? That would confirm a sense of broader cultural retreat still disconcertingly in evidence. Circumspice. English pubs are turning into Irish ones. English footie is becoming Italian. There isn’t even an English Parliament. Yet have the English noticed? Probably not. The truth is that the English language, English literature, Englishness itself, have never been perceived by the natives as distinctive, something they might possess concretely enough to justify a sense of loss. In an Anglocentric, self-contained Britain, that massive project begun over four hundred years ago, to be English, and to speak English, was always meant to be unremarkable and quotidian, part of a commitment to sameness, not difference. In such a context, the central unspoken English belief, as the Brummie Shakespeare knew, was that a palpable, homespun, ‘English’ truth lay beneath everything. The fish, as Marshall McLuhan liked to say, knows nothing of water. Other people have identifiable cultures, distinctive languages, specific cuisines, ‘national’ dress. The English simply speak, simply eat, simply write, simply live. This unthinking construction of a world finally grounded in Englishness effectively naturalises its own particular patterns of conventions, characterisations and modes in literature, making them invisible, effortless, and apparently fully deserving of collusive applause as faithful reflections of a universal ‘human nature’. If the English tell it like it is, what does the cheeky notion that ‘English literature’ was invented by the Scots finally prove? Perhaps it merely confirms how English they really are. Made in Birmingham, like everyone.

Meanwhile, one of the ironies of history is that the contradictions implicit in Scotland’s dual status, colonised within Britain and yet also a colonising force on behalf of the British Empire, inevitably draw attention to English’s role as a major ideological and thus political marketplace in which cultural meanings are always up for grabs. To use Crawford’s perceptive words, for the Scots ‘English’ ultimately became an important ‘site of negotiation between English and native, non-English voices’. As the number of those ‘native, non-English voices’ continues to increase, teachers of the subject currently at work throughout the British Isles will immediately recognise that site of negotiation as the multi-cultural terrain whose contours they daily traverse. ‘Arranging the words so as to make the syntax and meaning more obvious’ is the diurnal task of ideological incorporation in which they, on our behalf, engage. They might even reflect that, to this extent, decolonisation threatens to make Scots of us all.