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LITERARY ESSAYS 



LITERARY ESSAYS 



BY 

DAVID DAICHES 




PHILOSOPHICAL LIBRARY 
Publishers 

15 EAST 40TH STREET, NEW YORK l6, N.Y. 



PUBLISHED, 1957, BY PHILOSOPHICAL LIBRARY, INC., 
15 EAST 40TH STREET, NEW YORK 1 6, N.Y. 

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 

PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN FOR PHILOSOPHICAL LIBRARY BY 
ROBERT CUNNINGHAM AND SONS LTD., ALVA 



PREFACE 

THESE TWELVE essays were written for various periodi- 
cals and occasions, on both sides of the Atlantic, during 
the past six years. They reflect three of my principal 
interests English literature, Scottish literature and modern 
American literature and criticism. The essay on translating the 
Bible derives from a concern with this question which first led 
me to write my doctoral dissertation at Oxford on English Bible 
translation some twenty years ago. The one essay in this collec- 
tion which cannot properly come under the general tide of 
'Literary Essays' is the light-hearted Cambridge piece I wrote 
to provide an ironic note for the Cambridge number of the 
Twentieth Century. When it first appeared, everybody assumed 
that Mr Brightly spoke for myself, and I take this opportunity 
of pointing out that I was mocking all the speakers in the dia- 
logue equally and that none speaks for me though each does 
occasionally say something with which I agree. What my own 
views are on some of the questions discussed in the Cambridge 
dialogue may perhaps be gathered from the final essay. 

Acknowledgements are due to the periodicals and institutions 
which first published or commissioned these essays; their names 
appear in the text, though I should add here that the essay on 
Scott, while it first appeared in print in Nineteenth Century Fiction, 
was originally delivered as a lecture at the English Institute, 
New York. 

DAVID DAICHES 

St. John's College, 
Cambridge. 



CONTENTS 

Guilt and Justice in Shakespeare I 

Samuel Richardson 26 

The Poetry of Dylan Thomas 50 

Walt Whitman's Philosophy 62 

Scott's achievement as a Novelist 88 

Christopher North 122 

The writing of Scottish Literary History 132 

A Cambridge Dialogue 154 

The 'New Criticism*: Some Qualifications 167 
The Criticism of Fiction: Some Second Thoughts 180 

Translating the Hebrew Bible 191 

Religion, Poetry, and the 'Dilemma' of the 

Modern Writer 206 



vn 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 1 

IN PROPOSING TO DISCUSS guilt and justice in Shakespeare, I am 
aware that I am asking for trouble from two quarters. There 
are those who believe that the only way to understand fully 
the general ideas which underlie Shakespeare's plays is first to 
familiarize oneself with the Elizabethan view of the world and 
the moral order, and then to apply this view to an interpretation 
of the plays. There is, of course, much common sense in this 
position, and I for one am not disposed to deny that if we under- 
stand what Dr Tillyard has called 'the Elizabethan world picture* 
we shall see clearly certain patterns of meaning in Shakespeare 
that would otherwise remain obscure. But we must beware of 
laying the dead hand of historical uniformity on a great poetic 
dramatist. There is always some disparity between the view of 
the age and the individual poetic vision; Shakespeare's universe 
is not Kyd's or Marlowe's or Fletcher's, and his plays present a 
picture of the world that we will not find in the work of any 
other Elizabethan. We distort the meaning of Shakespeare's plays 
sadly if we lay them on the Procrustean bed of a synthetic 'Eliza- 
bethan point of view*. I should plead that we should listen to what 
the plays say, as carefully and sensitively as we can, and rely on 
what we learn that way for our primary understanding of Shakes- 
peare, using our knowledge of the period as a help and a corrective 
where helps and correctives are needed, but not imposing that 
knowledge in such a way as to blur Shakespeare's individual 
meaning. 

The second source of objection to my tide might well be that 
kind of modern critic who insists on the uniqueness of the 
individual play and who deprecates any generalizations about the 
author's attitude based on his work as a whole. Each play creates 

1 A talk delivered in the Conference Hall of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 
Stratford-upon-Avon, on 25th August 1954. 



2 LITERARY ESSAYS 

its own moral universe, such critics would maintain, not only by 
the pattern of action but by the pattern of imagery and symbol 
which runs through it, and evidence of meaning cannot be carried 
over from one play into another. Again, I concede the element 
of sense in this position; obviously plays are plays, individual 
works of dramatic art, not merely documents illustrating the 
history of a mind; but it is a curious kind of nominalism which 
denies that the total impression of a group of plays by a single 
great writer is of interest or value or asserts that one somehow 
does violence to the aesthetic uniqueness of the individual work 
by going on to discuss some of the dominant attitudes re- 
vealed by the author in several of them. I believe that we can 
work from the individual plays to a larger view of how Shakes- 
peare's mind and imagination were moving during certain periods 
of his career, and thence back to the individual plays with 
heightened interest and enlarged understanding. 

So much by way of preliminary defence of my approach. Let 
me now begin my inquiry by asking : What is guilt? If we assume 
that there are forces of good and of evil both at work in the world, 
then we might say that the guilty man is one who co-operates 
with the forces of evil to increase evil's effectiveness in human 
affairs. Innocence is on the side of the good, guilt on the side of 
evil. Or so it would be pleasant to believe. A closer look at life 
convinces us that innocence often achieves evil. If Brutus had 
been a less simply virtuous man, he would not have helped to 
kill one of his best friends and brought tyranny to Rome (the 
opposite of what he intended). If Othello had been less innocent, 
he would not have trusted lago and so he would not have been 
brought to murder his wife. If Hamlet had been less of a sensitive 
idealist, he would not have destroyed his own house as well as the 
house of Polonius. A more worldly Brutus, a less morally sensi- 
tive Hamlet, a tougher and more cunning Othello, would have 
done less harm in the world. The first tragic problem faced by 
Shakespeare in his maturity concerns the ambiguity of innocence. 

This problem goes far deeper than the relation between private 
and public virtue, which is in some degree the theme 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 3 

Caesar. It includes, among other problems, that of tiie relation 
between innocence and virtue, or at least between innocence of 
character and effectiveness of moral action. It is an old dilemma. 
Milton was to treat it, in his own way, in Paradise Lost, where 
'our credulous mother, Eve' allowed herself to be fooled by 
Satan into tasting of the forbidden tree. If Satan, in the form of 
the serpent, had been telling the truth, then Eve would have done 
right to believe him and to eat of the fatal fruit. Eve's real fault 
was lack of sophistication; she was unsuspicious of what the 
serpent told her; she was, to use the American slang term, a 
'sucker' and swallowed his story. But is it morally wrong to be 
a sucker as Eve was with respect to the serpent, as Othello was 
with respect to lago, as Brutus was with respect to such political 
sophisticates as Antony, as Hamlet was, we might almost say, 
with respect to life? 

Innocence pkys into the hands of evil; only the tarnished and 
sophisticated mind can achieve that approximate good which 
alone lies within human reach. Is this one of the themes of 
Shakespearean tragedy? Perhaps; but before we conclude that it 
is we must inquire a litde more closely. The case of Brutus is that 
of the liberal intellectual in a world of Realpoltiik a familiar 
enough case in the modern world. Cassius is the co-hero of the 
play, and, skilled politician though he is, with little scruple in 
playing on Brutus' finer feelings, he admires Brutus and cannot 
help allowing Brutus to achieve moral ascendancy over him, 
once the murder of Caesar is accomplished. The coarser nature 
is dominated by the finer, to the destruction of both of them and 
of the ideal to which they had sacrificed everything. In the 
quarrel scene it is Cassius who first gives way, and it is under the 
influence of this moral domination by Brutus that, against his 
better judgment, Cassius allows Brutus to have his way in the 
ill-advised plan of seeking immediate battle at Philippi. Nowhere 
is the Epicurean Cassius more like the Stoic Brutus than when he 
commits suicide because he is ashamed of having lived *so long, 
to see my best friend ta'en before my face'. And that suicide, 
ratter than military defeat, seals the doom of the republican cause. 



4 LITERARY ESSAYS 

But Cassius is not as unlike Brutus as he thinks he is. Though he 
is die shrewder and the more practical, he is basically an idealist 
too, an intellectual, whom Caesar had come to suspect because 
'he thinks too much'. If he appears as a cunning man of action 
beside Brutus, he is almost equally a babe in the wood when seen 
beside Antony, the man without innocence, the man who knows 
how to unite his personal affections with his political ambitions. 
(Though Shakespeare shows us in Antony and Cleopatra what 
happens when that unstable equilibrium collapses.) In Julius 
Caesar Antony's is the success story; he is the tarnished man who 
knows how to come to terms with life. He is not evil he is 
generous, noble and kind-hearted but he lacks innocence: he is 
postlapsarian man, who has adapted himself to life after the Fall. 

Whereinlies Antony's success? Is it not in his ability to manipu- 
late people, to act the puppeteer and utilize the worthy emotions 
of innocent people for his own purposes? Cassius does this in a very 
mild way with Brutus, but Antony is the great puppeteer of the 
play, and his famous oration is the work of a supreme puppet 
master. He manipulates other people's innocence. So does 
Richard III, and Edmund in King Lear, and lago. But we are 
not to conclude from this that Antony is intended to be a villain 
like these characters : that would be manifestly absurd. Richard III 
and Edmund and lago are evil; Antony is sophisticated and 
cunning, but far from evil. All four manipulate the innocence of 
others for their own ends. Antony stands midway between 
innocence and evil, the tarnished sensual man, the man whose 
way of life is to use a term the politicians are now so fond of 
above all viable. 'Human nature being what it is', Antony's way 
is not to be rejected out of hand. But I have a friend who says 
that whenever he has had a guest at dinner who has begun a 
political conversation with the remark, 'human nature being what 
it is*, he always counts the spoons. The argument is an excuse 
for being content with imperfection: one could not imagine 
Brutus or Hamlet using it. 

Antony manipulates his self-interest and his ideals into a com- 
promise that is above all practicable. He is too good to be a tragic 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 5 

villain, too bad to be a tragic hero. Are we to say, then, that he is 
Shakespeare's ideal practical man? Shakespeare answers that 
question for us in his Antony and Cleopatra, which shows us, as 
Granville-Barker has said, the nemesis of the sensual man. The 
unstable equilibrium cannot last; Antony in the end surrenders 
wholly to his passions and loses the political world to young 
Octavius Caesar, the man whose fortunes he had earlier saved. 
There, perhaps, is Shakespeare's ideal practical man, Octavius 
Caesar, shrewd, cool-headed, altogether a cold fish. Obviously 
it is not the ideal practical man who is the glory of the human 
species, and we do not need Octavius to tell us that practical 
success was not, for Shakespeare, the greatest thing in life. But 
to return to Antony. Antony and Cleopatra is among many other 
things the story of a tawdry sensual love raised to tragic heights 
by sheer poetry. Antony, who had formerly manipulated the 
passions of the Roman crowd with such success, now manipulates 
his own emotions, even though he is not really in control over 
them. And while most at their mercy, he seems to be exploiting 
them most. The poetry is no longer rhetoric, designed to influence 
other people, but that enlarging and exploratory poetry whose 
function is to raise human passion above its lonely and trivial 
reality. Here is love without innocence, in sharp contrast to the 
love of Romeo and Juliet. This affair between an ageing roue and 
a royal prostitute is, from one point of view, sordid and ludicrous. 
Cleopatra is shrewish, hysterical, sadistic, dishonest and cowardly, 
as well as beautiful, queenly and heroic. Antony is selfish and 
fatuous as well as generous and noble. Are they great lovers or 
merely great sensualists? They are both experienced in the ways 
of sexual pleasure and often talk as though that is all that love 
involves. Yet this is far from being a disillusioned or a cynical 
play. We are continually fascinated by the richness and variety 
of character and the way in which history is bound up with 
psychology. There is little pity or fear in tlie pky, but rather a 
lively humane curiosity throughout. And the poetry keeps en- 
larging the moment, showing experience as ever livelier and 
richer. We watch fascinated as Antony, most Roman when 



6 LITERARY ESSAYS 

most enslaved by Egypt, goes to his self-inflicted death, and then 
follow Cleopatra's twistings and turnings with ever-increasing 
interest and wonder. We make no new moral judgments on 
either, because that is decided at the beginning and is never in 
question: they are neither innocent nor admirable. But perhaps 
they are admirable in the literal Latin sense of the word, something 
to wonder at. For there is a wonder in it all, and Cleopatra in her 
death finds, as it were, the objective correlative of that wonder. 
The sensual life ends in a blaze of ritual pageantry: it has its own 
amoral nobility. 

So Antony in some sense controls his destiny after all, which is 
one thing the innocent man cannot do. Antony's kind of failure 
is at least redeemable; it ends with a bang, not a whimper, 
striking a blow for human glory. Can we say this of the ends of 
Shakespeare's innocents, of Brutus and Hamlet and Othello, who 
are destroyed by their own naive idealism? Let me pause for a 
moment at Hamlet, and say a word about the play from this point 
of view. The central problem of the play is that knowledge of 
guilt has destroyed the hero's innocent picture of the world, and 
it can never be restored. What can one do about evil? One can 
ignore it, or come to terms with it, or use it in the creation of a 
workable compromise world. One thing one cannot do is undo 
it. Evil, once performed, is irrevocable. And that is one thing that 
the wholly innocent man cannot accept. Of the many meanings 
that can be extracted from the action of Hamlet, perhaps the most 
tragic, and the one which fits in best with what appears to have 
been Shakespeare's view of the essential tragedy of human life at 
this time, is that here is a presentation of the paradox of guilt and 
justice. Justice demands appropriate action where a crime has 
been committed, but in fact no action is ever appropriate. The 
tragedy of Hamlet, as in some degree of Othello, is that moral 
outrage as seen by the innocent demands action, when no action 
can be of any use. In a sense, we can say that the Ghost was at 
fault in appearing to Hamlet in the first place, and setting him, 
for what might be called purely selfish reasons, a task which, even 
if accomplished, could do no possible good. When Hamlet's 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 7 

whole nature was outraged by his mother's behaviour and then 
by the news of his father's murder, he naturally felt that some- 
thing must be done. But what? What could be done that would 
make any difference any difference at all to the things that really 
mattered? Would a dagger through Claudius' ribs restore Ham- 
let's shattered universe? Would it restore the earlier idealized 
image of his mother or remove the 'blister' that had been set on 
innocent love? This is a tragedy of moral frustration. What are 
you going to do about past crimes which have shattered your 
preconceptions about the nature of life? There is nothing you 
can ever do about the past: 'forget it, brother', is the only possible 
advice. And yet of course Hamlet could not forget. Revenge is 
no real help: what sort of action, then, is of help? "None that is 
directed towards undoing the past: only purposive action directed 
towards the future can ever get anywhere. Antony would have 
seen that; so would Octavius Caesar. The real problem is not to 
restore your private image of the world, but to make an imperfect 
world a degree or two better than it is. But the moral innocent 
can never accept this view. And that is at least one explanation 
of Hamlet's long delay in carrying out the Ghost's command: he 
wanted action that would undo the past, and no action could do 
that, revenge least of all, for that would only re-enact the past. 

The punishment can never fit the crime, for it can never undo 
it. We may think we may be able to find appropriate action, as 
Lear thought: 

I will have such revenges on. you both 
That all the world shall I will do such things 
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be 
The terrors of the earth; 

but in fact we never do, and it is impossible that we ever should. 
Lear's frustration at feeling a deep moral indignation which can 
have no 'objective correlative' in action is, in part, the cause of 
his madness, as it is of Hamlet's moods and Othello's self torture 
(for in Othello there is no action that can take care of the supposed 
feet of Desdemona's infidelity). Only when he gives up the 
whole idea of action does Lear recover and achieve redemption. 



8 LITERARY ESSAYS 

The morally outraged man, the finer and more sensitive he is, 
will feel all the more need for action, the need to do something 
about his shocking revelation; and his frustration at finding no 
adequate action produces one kind of tragedy. As I have sug- 
gested, the Ghost is in a sense the real villain in Hamlet, for he 
destroys his son by setting him an impossible task. And the 
Ghost learns, perhaps sooner than Hamlet himself, the futility of 
trying to undo the past by physical action. He declines from the 
armed warrior whom we first see to become on his last appearance 
a pathetic domestic figure ('enter the ghost in his night gown'), 
only interested in trying to mate contact with his morally lost 
wife and in saving her from Hamlet's morbid rage, the rage of 
outraged innocence. True, he states that his object is to whet 
Hamlet's almost blunted purpose, but his manner and behaviour 
belie this : he is there to try and save his family. This remarkable 
scene the only one in which we see the Hamlet family together, 
father, mother and son has a strange kind of pathos, with the 
Queen unable because of her guilt to see her husband's spirit, so 
that the Ghost, after a vain effort to re-establish the family unit, 
as it were, departs in silence for ever. On the other side is the 
Polonius family, all destroyed too through involvement in this 
tragedy of outraged innocence, guiltless involvement on Ophelia's 
part, almost guiltless on Laertes', and only relatively guilty on the 
part of Polonius. We last see them together fairly early in the 
play, when Laertes is being seen off by his devoted father and 
sister also a touching domestic tableau, with its own meaning in 
the play. The tragedy of Hamlet concerns more than the wreck 
of a noble spirit, and the longer he dwells on the past and searches 
for a way of undoing it, the more do guiltless, as well as guilty, 
people become involved in it. 

In. Othello the hero's romantic innocence is clearer and more 
bound up with ignorance of the world than in any of the other 
tragedies. lago is Othello's anti-type, the 'realist', the man who 
thinks he knows how to get on in the world, who knows that 
innocence is folly. He is more than a mere device to set the plot 
in motion, as some modern critics have seen him, or than the 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE p 

embodiment of 'motiveless malignity' that Coleridge saw. he is 
both the disgruntled professional soldier and the hard-boiled 
cynic who feels personally outraged when a simple-minded hero 
like Othello gets ahead in the world and he, who knows the 
world so much better, fails to get on. By all the rules, which 
lago knows so well, innocence ought not to prosper, and lago 
cannot be happy until he manipulates Othello to his destruction. 
The dignity and self-confidence that Othello displays in the first 
act must be destroyed. And because Othello is a Moor, and 
noble, and so deeply in love with Desdemona that he can scarcely 
believe his good fortune, and inexperienced and therefore self- 
distrustful in domestic matters (especially where Venetians are 
concerned), lago succeeds in destroying him. That he destroys 
Desdemona too is incidental; he has no malice against her; he 
is out to destroy successful innocence, which to him ought to be 
a contradiction in terms, and he can only get at that through 
Desdemona. He wants nothing out of it all except the destruction 
of Othello : he makes this heroic figure dance to his piping, makes 
a puppet out of him and what is to happen after that, he scarcely 
thinks about. If he had thought, he would have known that 
sooner or later the truth would come to light, but he never looked 
beyond his immediate aim. 

What makes it all possible is Othello's incredulity in the iace 
of his own supreme happiness a kind of modesty, which makes 
him vulnerable to lago's suggestion that he does not in feet enjoy 
the happiness he has thought was his. 

If it were now to die 

'Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear, 
My soul hath her content so absolute 
That not another comfort like to this 
Succeeds in unknown fate. 

Desdemona does not share his sense of insecurity, and replies: 

The heavens forbid 

But that our loves and comforts should increase 
Even as our days do grow. 

She has defied her father and chosen Othello, and takes her 



10 LITERARY ESSAYS 

happiness as a right. She is no innocent idealist, but an enterprising 
and practical young woman who went after the man she wanted. 
When Othello, inflamed by lago's cunning and plausible lies, 
turns on her, she is hurt and bewildered, but her world does not 
come crashing about her ears. She goes to her death puzzled and 
horrified, but confident that Othello's behaviour is all due to 
some terrible mistake. She loses faith neither in life nor in him. 
Othello is not a study in jealousy. For that, as Coleridge pointed 
out, we must go to Leontes in The Winter's Tale. lago has to 
work desperately hard to catch Othello in his trap, and even then 
he is helped by coincidence before he can succeed. It is not 
jealousy, but anguish that this beautiful and virtuous-seeming 
creature, whom he loved, could be so horribly guilty, that so 
torments him. It is an offence against his picture of the universe. 
All reason and order and beauty are shattered : 'chaos is come again/ 
A soldier, a man who was used to meeting a situation with the 
appropriate action, he here confronts a situation so monstrous, so 
destructive of reason, chat nothing can be done about it. Some- 
thing had to be done, but nothing could be done. Othello was 
not a philosopher like Hamlet, who could at least mark time by 
introspection and speculation while pondering the problem of 
the irrevocability of performed evil. The man of action must do 
something but what? 'Othello's occupation's gone', his world 
is shattered, here was the outrage of irreversible evil. Something 
had to be done, and the only action that seemed at all relevant and 
proper in the circumstances was to kill Desdemona. He did not 
kill her in jealous rage. He made no move himself to kill his 
supposed rival Cassio. He killed Desdemona for the sake of his 
moral universe, as the only action somehow appropriate to the 
situation. 'It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.' And when the 
truth is finally known, though it cannot make life tolerable for 
Othello, it at least restores his moral universe and he can resume 
his former dignity of bearing before performing the now inevi- 
table act of sdf-slaughter. lago becomes for him simply the 
Devil, expelled from the world he had destroyed, so that that 
world can exist again. 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE II 

I asked a little while back: 'What can one do about evil?' and 
I replied that one can ignore it, or come to terms with it, or make 
use of it, but one can never undo it. I might have added that one 
can punish it. After all, does not justice reside in the punishment 
of the wicked? Punishment is, from one point of view, a form of 
revenge an impersonal form of revenge, shall we say and to 
the outraged innocent who demands the rehabilitation of his lost 
world it is as barren. Other Elizabethan dramatists than Shakes- 
peare had been concerned to show that revenge was stultifying. 
Shakespeare, in several of his plays, goes further and suggests that 
punishment might be stultifying too. If one of his tragic themes 
was outraged innocence becoming the tool of evil, another was 
the futility of the quest for punishment. If human, affairs can be 
successfully managed only by the tarnished man, the man who 
compromises in some degree with evil, who has the right to 
administer justice? 

Measure for Measure is, of course, the pky which handles this 
theme most directly. Its basic plot is an old one, which goes back 
into the mists of folklore: the story of the judge or ruler who 
offers to save a girl's lover or husband or brother if she will yield 
herself to him, and who, after the girl has yielded, deliberately 
breaks his promise. In pre-Shakespearean versions the girl does 
yield to the ruler, but Shakespeare, by means of a device he had 
already used in All's Well the secret substitution of one girl for 
another in the bed of the seducer keeps his heroine chaste 
throughout; further he follows George Whetstone rather than 
Geraldi Cinthio in saving the girl's brother and having the ruler 
only imagine that he has been put to death. 

Several themes are woven together in this apparently simple 
story. In the first place there is the ironical theme of the judge 
himself guilty of what he has others punished for. Quis custodiet 
ipsos custodes? Who shall guard the State's guardians, and what 
happens when the judge is more guilty than the man he con- 
demns? This is bound up with a theme not unrelated to the deep- 
seated Oedipus motif: the ruler, in an honest attempt to uncover 
guilt, reveals that he is himself the guilty one. This is the detective 



12 LITERARY ESSAYS 

story where the detective, conscientiously following the clues, 
proves himself to be the criminal. Such a notion has both its 
comic and its tragic side. The uncovering of the hypocritical 
judge as the true villain can easily be made the subject of pure 
comedy, as was done by Heinrich von Kleist in his comedy Der 
zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug), in which a judge is forced by 
circumstances to conduct a careful cross-examination which proves 
himself to have been the criminal in the case under investigation. 
Finally, there is the Christian element in the story, which 
Shakespeare emphasizes in the title. (Cf. Luke, Chapter 6: 'J u clge 
not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be 

condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven For with the 

same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you 
again.') In Measure for Measure everybody is in some degree 
guilty, and it is only after the much-injured heroine has pleaded 
for mercy for the man who has injured her that it is revealed that 
the injury was in intention only. All are guilty, and mercy rather 
than justice saves the day. 

Shakespeare further complicates the story by having a dis- 
guised duke, the real ruler, watch over the proceedings unknown 
to the actors. The Duke, before leaving the country on a tem- 
porary absence, gives over his rule to Angelo, hoping that Angelo, 
a sternly puritanical character, will have the firmness to revive 
laws which the Duke himself has been too kind-hearted to enforce, 
with a resulting increase in sexual immorality among all classes. 
Angelo begins by sentencing to death young Claudio for inter- 
course with his fiancee and refusing to listen to any pleas for 
mercy. Claudio's sister Isabella, passionately chaste and about to 
enter a nunnery, pleads with Angelo for her brother's life, and 
Angelo, suddenly smitten with lust for Isabella, agrees to save 
him if she yields herself to him for one night. She of course 
refuses, but the Duke, disguised as a friar, persuades her to agree 
to a plot whereby Mariana, formerly betrothed to Angelo but 
later deserted by him when her dowry was not forthcoming 
(Angelo's original sin), is substituted for Isabella without Angelo's 
being aware of the substitution. After spending some hours 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 13 

secretly at night with the supposed Isabella, Angelo goes hack on 
his word and orders Claudio to be immediately executed, but the 
disguised Duke arranges for the head of a man who has died in 
prison to be brought to Angelo as Claudio's, and Claudio is 
spared. Finally, in a carefully contrived denouement, Angelo is 
exposed, and, after a plea for forgiveness made by Isabella while 
she still thinks Claudio has been executed, forgiven. Behind this 
main action runs a stream of sordid low life, with bawds, brothels 
and much talk of venereal disease. 

The play has puzzled some, largely because of the different 
and sometimes apparently conflicting themes bound up in the 
story as Shakespeare develops it. The 'gulling' of the hypocrite 
(in the manner of Ben Jonson's comedies) is one way of treating 
Angelo, but he is at the same time presented as a genuinely 
puritanical character who suddenly discovers, to his dismay and 
even horror, that he is as much subject to sensual temptation as 
ordinary men. He might even be said to be a man who has 
sublimated his tendencies towards sadistic sensuality in the prac- 
tice of stern justice, but who, on being faced with a beautiful 
woman pleading for mercy for a brother condemned to death, 
regresses into the sensualist and sadist. Similarly, Isabella is both 
a stern, other-worldly character who fiercely abuses her brother 
for a momentary lapse in his desire to face death rather than have 
his sister lose her chastity and at the same time cheerfully plays the 
procuress with Mariana, and a symbol of radiant purity who, at 
the end of the play, embodies its Christian moral of mercy before 
strict justice. The gulling of the hypocrite, the testing of the 
puritan, the revelation of the judge as the criminal, the discovery 
that all are guilty and none has the right to judge, and that mercy 
rather than justice is the proper 'measure for measure' as between 
man and man- here is indeed an intermingling of comic and 
tragic themes. No wonder that Measure for Measure has elements 
of Jonsonian comedy, Sophoclean irony and Christian morality. 

But the pky is a unity nevertheless, and underlying the whole 
complex action is the question: How can we forgive each other? 
Only by realizing that we all in some degree partake of the nature 



14 LITERARY ESSAYS 

of die guilty. The theme is that of Dostoievsky's Brothers Kara- 
mazoff, the morality Sossima's. Yet not quite. There is no 
passion of saindiness in Shakespeare's play. The dark theme of 
sex misused the forces of life used to produce disease runs 
through it like a stain. And the mockery of human designs and 
pretensions by the event emphasizes the impossibility of judging 
the human heart. There is, I suppose, no point in complaining 
that no character in the play seems wholly sympathetic, that even 
virtue is made to appear uncongenial, if one realizes that a basic 
theme in it is precisely that none are guildess and diat in judging 
one anodier we have no right to condemn but only to forgive. 
This is in a sense a deeply pessimistic position, and it implies at 
one level the denial of die possibility of order and justice. 

We see the implications of this in King Lear, when Lear's moral 
insight is achieved at the expense of his pretensions to kingship. 
Lear is a complex and tremendous play, which I cannot attempt 
to deal with here. I want to draw attention only to the point that 
as Lear's madness grows he acquires a new moral vision which 
ends in the recognition that there is no division into the just and 
die unjust. 'None does offend, none.' This is the other side of the 
medal presented by Measure for Measure, the obverse of the view 
diat we all share in everybody else's guilt, we all offend. The 
artifice of rank can produce an apparent division into judge and 
criminal, but with the 'natural' vision of madness this is seen to 
be a false picture. This is more than the movement from ven- 
geance to compassion, which it is often taken to be; the statement 
that 'none does offend' follows a fierce picture of universal 
lechery and deceit which shows the same kind of bitter disgust 
with sex that some of Hamlet's speeches show. It is because all 
are equally guilty that none does offend. The road to true humi- 
lity runs through these bitter insights. 

But are such bitter insights any more helpful in living than the 
naive idealism of die innocent? If all are guilty and none does 
offend, if judge and criminal can change places at will, what 
becomes of human society? Lear's vision may be the way to his 
personal redemption, but it is not the road back to efficient 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 15 

kingship. Ignorant innocence and bitter knowledge are two ex- 
tremes, one deriving from too little experience and the other 
from too much, and neither is a viable human attitude. The old 
argument about whether Lear should have been restored to his 
throne could have been answered simply on these grounds : the 
restoration of a man who had reached his point of view about the 
nature of justice was morally impossible. Hamlet was no fit prince 
because his moral innocence made him believe that evil was 
always other people's evil, destroying his own moral world; he 
never saw himself in Claudius; but the view that other people's 
evil is always your own evil is equally untenable in a ruler. I am 
not suggesting that Shakespeare's pkys are concerned with the 
ideal ruler Shakespeare found great failures more interesting 
than prim success stories but an extension of the argument in 
this way does help, I think, to show some of the moral patterns in 
some of the plays. 

In his final plays, the so-called romances or tragi-comedies, 
Shakespeare tackled these problems from a quite different point 
of view. Is moral innocence always self-destructive? In Marina 
and Imogen and Perdita and Miranda Shakespeare said *no\ Is 
the administration of justice by humans to humans possible? In 
the character of Prospero he gave a rather dubious *y es> - Can 
past evil be undone? It can, symbolically, if we find the proper 
ritual. In Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winters Tale and The Tempest 
Shakespeare deals, in one way or another, with evil and innocence, 
guilt and atonement, uncorrupted youth undoing original sin and 
starting afresh. Mythology, folklore and magic find their way 
into these plays to a greater degree than in any other of Shakes- 
peare's mature work, so that it can hardly be claimed (as many 
have asserted) that they represent a new faith in the essential 
goodness of man: the remoteness of the setting and the intro- 
duction of the magical element indicate a different level of pro- 
bability from that found in Hamlet or Othello, a symbolic world 
where (unlike the real world) innocence can triumph and the gods 
enable the past to be undone. In Pericles, Marina and her mother, 
both assumed to be dead, are found in the end alive and innocent; 



16 LITERARY ESSAYS 

in Cywbeline Imogen similarly comes alive again; in The Winters 
Tale the statue of Hermione proves in the end to be the living 
Hermione, long thought dead; and in The Tempest Alonso and 
his company are miraculously redeemed from drowning to find 
repentance and new virtue. The dramaturgy in these plays is 
relaxed, almost casual, with masque elements and other spectacular 
devices introduced to emphasize the note of symbol and ritual. 
Shakespeare has done with probing directly the tragic paradoxes 
of human nature, and he now reaches out to a. larger poetic 
symbolism through which the moral patterns and possibilities of 
human life can be presented with the calm beauty of one who is 
no longer tortured by his own involvement. 

Pericles, with its corrupt text and composite authorship, is the 
least satisfactory of these plays, and the story, deriving ultimately 
from a widely dispersed tale of Greek origin, is too crowded with 
incident to be easily rendered dramatically. Since it is not a 
commonly read play, let me give a brief summary of its plot. 
Antiochus, king of Antioch, has incestuous relations with his own 
daughter; Pericles, prince of Tyre, discovers this, thereby arousing 
Antiochus' anger. To avoid the effects of Antiochus' wrath, 
Pericles flees from his own kingdom of Tyre and after succouring 
starving Tarsus sets sail again, is shipwrecked, lands at Pentapolis, 
where he marries the King's daughter, Thaisa, then sets off by sea 
again for Tyre. But he is again shipwrecked; during the storm 
Thaisa gives birth to a daughter, Marina, before apparently dying, 
and her body is committed to the sea in a chest. The chest is 
washed up at Ephesus, where Cerimon restores the apparently 
dead Thaisa to life and she becomes a priestess of Diana. Mean- 
while, Pericles and Marina arrive at Tarsus, where Pericles stays 
a year before returning to Tyre, leaving Marina in the care of 
Cleon, governor of Tarsus, and Cleon's wife Dionyza. But 
Dionyza grows jealous of Marina, who outshines her own 
daughter, and plans her murder. Before she can be murdered, 
however, she is carried off by pirates to Mytilene, where she is 
sold to a brothel, but her angelic innocence converts the customers 
to virtue and she retains her chastity. Pericles is told by Cleon 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 17 

and Dionyza that his daughter is dead, and he devotes himself to 
grief. But fate brings his ship to Mytilene, where he finds Marina 
in a moving scene of mutual discovery. Finally, under Diana's 
guidance, he proceeds to Ephesus, where he finds his wife, long 
supposed dead. 

To get the whole of this complicated story across requires the 
use of choruses and dumb-shows, employed clumsily enough. 
But the main theme centres on Marina, lost and found again, 
subjected to the corrupting influence of the brothel yet preserving 
always her shining innocence. And the sea, on which Marina was 
born and into which Thaisa disappears to be cast up later alive, 
dominates the play, a symbol of purification, of 'death by water' 
which precedes resurrection. T. S. Eliot's poem 'Marina' distills 
the essential meaning : 

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands 

What water lapping the bow 

And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog 

What images return 

O my daughter. 

Pericles is a symbolic play, a religious play, dealing with death and 
resurrection, with ritual purification and the redemptive power 
of innocence. Uneven and botched up in places as it is, it has its 
Shakespearean moments of grave beauty, and though by itself, 
so uncertain is the text and the authorship, it could tell us little 
about the direction in which the later Shakespeare's imagination 
was moving, with the following three plays it helps to build up a 
picture of a Shakespeare who has turned away from what (with 
all the necessary qualifications) might be called the psychological 
realism of the great tragedies to a new, more symbolic kind of 
play in which he could come to terms with the problem of evil 
in a different way. 

Cymbeline is another curiously complicated story, with ele- 
ments from Holinshed and from folklore. A strain of fairy tale 
runs right through the play. The princess who marries against 
her parents' wishes, the wicked stepmother, the potion which 
brings apparent death but which really only sends the drinker into 



l8 LITERARY ESSAYS 

a prolonged swoon, the 'Snow White' theme of the apparently 
dead girl being covered with flowers by her simple companions 
these are familiar enough elements in any folk literature. The 
evil Cloten, son of the wicked stepmother, is also a folk-character, 
though Shakespeare gives him a fully individualized personality. 
Imogen herself is pure Shakespeare, idealized yet real, one of those 
spirited heroines whom he created so happily in his 'middle 
comedies' and who here is subjected to much more grievous trials 
than anything which befell Rosalind or Viola. For the theme of 
this play, as of Pericles, is innocence triumphant, emerging vic- 
torious from the darkest possible circumstances. 

Evil mounts to an ugly climax before the counter-movement 
sets in, and Shakespeare leaves us in no doubt of its reality. lachimo, 
the subtle Italian, is as nasty a case of small-minded pride and 
perverted ingenuity as one can find in literature, and Cloten is a 
sadistic boor. Only the Queen, the wicked stepmother, with her 
stagey asides and her poison potions, remains a purely fairy tale 
character, and her final suicide is as unreal as the rest of her actions. 
This is tragi-comedy, where all the terror of tragedy is given full 
vent before the tide is allowed to turn. Those who maintain that 
Shakespeare now felt in a kindly mood towards life have surely 
paid too little attention to Cloten or to the tortured speech that 
Posthumus makes when he thinks his wife has betrayed him, a 
speech full of the sex nausea we find in Hamlet. 

Of course, tragi-comedy had become the fashion; the Black- 
friars audiences wanted all the thrills of tragedy with the happy 
ending of comedy, and they wanted, too, the masque-like devices, 
the music and pageantry, which Shakespeare, yielding to public 
taste, now freely gave them. It may be that this is the only 
explanation one needs for these final romances or tragi-comedies : 
Shakespeare the professional playwright was changing his style in 
response to public demand. Yet one cannot be satisfied with this 
explanation. The themes of these final plays are too similar, and 
the ritual of forgiveness runs too persistently through them all, 
for this not to be a reflection in some way of Shakespeare's mind 
at this time. The point is, however, that it was not an easy for- 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 19 

giveness resulting from a new optimistic belief that vice is always 
defeated by virtue. Evil in all its horror is confronted directly in 
these plays. Salvation comes by magic or coincidence, and the 
ritual of pardon is performed in the serenity of a brave new world 
in which we cannot literally believe. Even so, the grosser villains 
are exempt from pardon. In Pericles the incestuous Antiochus and 
his daughter are destroyed by a blast from heaven; Cloten in 
Cymbeline has his head cut off by Guilderius with gruesome 
cheerfulness, and the Queen conveniently ends her own life. 
Those who are pardoned are those whose acts, in spite of them- 
selves, turn out to have brought forth nothing but good. As in 
Measure for Measure, time has brought good results out of evil 
intentions, and no one standing on the stage in the remarkable 
last act of Cymbeline has managed to achieve any lasting evil. 
That is their good luck, or rather the playwright's magical mani- 
pulation of events. And so, as Cymbeline says, 'Pardon's the 
word to all'. 

This bringing of good out of evil is, of course, a theological 
theme, the theme of the fortunate fall. 'Ofelix culpa!' When, in 
Paradise Lost, Adam hears from Michael God's plan for the 
redemption of mankind, he replies: 

O goodness infinite, goodness immense ! 
That all this good of evil shall produce, 
And evil turn to good. 

In Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter s Tale it is the playwright 
who demonstrates this goodness, who brings good out of all this 
evil; in The Tempest, it is one of his characters, Prospero, who 
plays God within the play and arranges his own scheme of re- 
demption for the little society which comes under his control. 
This is the precise reverse of the tragic theme Shakespeare had 
handled so profoundly in earlier plays the theme of innocence 
unwittingly co-operating with evil, of moral idealism playing 
into the hands of the lagos of the world. With luck, with magic, 
with constant divine control, innocence is saved from betraying 
itself and others, and evil can be made to bring forth good. But 



20 LITERARY ESSAYS 

not in the real world, only in the wish-fulfilment world, the 
symbolic world where the sea gives back its dead and the mur- 
dered god comes to life again. Shakespeare in these plays has 
made contact with that archetypal myth with which man has 
always consoled himself for the harsh paradoxes of the human 
situation as we know it. 

The Winters Tale is the greatest of Shakespeare's tragi- 
comedies, and the play where the implications of his attitude at 
this time can be most clearly seen. The first three acts constitute 
a complete tragic play in themselves. Leontes, obsessed with his 
self-begotten notion that his wife has played him false with his 
friend Polixenes, brings her savagely to trial, thus causing the 
death of their young son Mamillius; orders the destruction of her 
new-born baby on the grounds that it must be Polixenes' bastard; 
and only realizes the monstrous fatuity of his obsession when he 
has been shocked out of it by the report of his wife's death. 
Shakespeare spares us nothing. The presentation of Leontes' 
sudden access of jealousy, and its wildfire growth, is brilliant and 
accurate; Mamillius, before he goes to his death, gives us the best 
and most attractive child scene in Shakespeare; Paulina, faithful 
and outspoken, the only one who says what we want to say 
throughout, meets nothing but rebuffs; and Hermione's splendid 
dignity does not save her. At the end, Mamillius dead, Hermione 
dead, and her infant daughter on the way to destruction, the 
consequences of Leontes' wicked jealousy appear to have worked 
themselves out. He knows better now, but it is too late to do 
anything about it. 

This is a tragedy, yet a simple tragedy, resulting from the 
destruction done by evil, Leontes' jealousy. Virtue does not 
destroy itself; Leontes' jealousy is not, like Othello's rage, de- 
pendent for its existence on his very virtue. It is a pity that the 
innocent are destroyed by the guilty, but it is less disturbing than 
that the innocent should produce evil by their very innocence. 
The first movement of The Winters Tale would, indeed, be like 
the first part of a melodrama with evil triumphant and the 
machinery of saving coincidence not yet set in motion were it 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 21 

not that it ends with evil subdued, only too late. Leontes is no 
longer the villain, but a sadder and a wiser man. 

Part of the essential tragedy of Hamlet and Othello, I have 
suggested, is that one cannot undo the past; evil once done is 
done, and there is no way of restoring the lost world of innocence. 
But in these last plays Shakespeare finds a way of at least partially 
undoing evil. It is done by trickery, one might say Hermione 
is not really dead, but hidden by Paulina; the infant daughter is 
saved and brought up as a shepherdess but it is a symbolic 
trickery, whose function is to suggest, once again, a. ritual of 
redemption. Act IV of The Winter's Tale takes us to Bohemia 
sixteen years later, and it is a new world, where even roguery is 
innocent. Thejbst princess is now Perdita, a shepherd's supposed 
daughter, and, true to the logic of fairy tale, she bears in her face 
and manners the hereditary stamp of her royal birth, so that she 
attracts Prince Florizel, Polixenes' son, and the two fall in love. 
Bohemia is fairyland, real enough in its pastoral atmosphere, its 
sheep-shearing feast and its flowering countryside, but fairyland 
none the less, where Time keeps Innocence until the opportunity 
has come for sending it back to do its redeeming work in the real 
world. When Polixenes breaks up the idyllic pastoral to discover 
FlorizeTs identity and abuses both Florizel and Perdita for daring 
to fall in love so out of their degree, his vile temper and cruel 
threats do not seriously disturb us: fairy tale fathers are always 
angry in such circumstances, and Polixenes' anger, though mean- 
spirited and selfish, has not the tragic overtones of Leontes' 
jealousy. 

In the end we come back to the real world. The young lovers 
flee to Sicily, pursued by Polixenes, and eventually the discovery 
of Perdita's identity makes all well. But this, significantly, is not 
the end of the play, and the climax of reconciliation between the 
young lovers and their parents is not presented on the stage, only 
related in conversation between other characters. The climax is^ 
reserved for the discovery by Leontes that Hermione is still alive./ 
Paulina introduces her as a newly-finished statue of the dead 
queen, but the statue turns out to be the living queen, kept in 



22 LITERARY ESSAYS 

seclusion all these sixteen years. But is the past really undone? 
Are we back before Leontes' fatal outburst of jealousy? For 
sixteen years Hermione has deliberately allowed her husband to 
think her dead, and she returns to life now to greet her long-lost 
daughter. The text gives her no greeting to her husband; her 
first words are to ask a-blessing on Perdita. And there is no return 
to life for Mamillius. The curse is not fully lifted from the older 
generation: what Leontes has done he has done, and it cannot 
after all be undone. The younger generation can do better; they 
bring new innocence and new hope, and Hermione returns from 
the grave to give her blessing to them. She says to Perdita: 

thou shalt hear that I, 
Knowing by Paulina that the oracle 
Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved 
Myself to see the issue. 

She says nothing about being happy to live with Leontes again, 
or of the waste of those sixteen years: all her thought is for her 
daughter. The play ends with Leontes trying in his pattering 
speech to act the part of the leader of this group who have eyes 
for one another rather than for him. Murdered innocence comes 
to life again, with promise of a happy future, but the murderer can 
never again be the man he was before the crime. 

So one cannot altogether undo the past, after all. Or perhaps, 
if we stay in Bohemia and instead of sending our innocents back 
to Sicily bring the guilty over to the Bohemian fairyland, the past 
can be undone for all. But at a cost. A solution that is valid for 
fairyland may not be valid for the real world. We cannot help 
wondering what is "going to happen to the characters in The 
Tempest when they return from the magic isle to Italy. 

In The Tempest Shakespeare pushes die theme of forgiveness 
farthest of all: there is no Antiochus, no Cloten, no dead Mamil- 
lius. Prosperous island is not subject to the normal laws of human 
destiny, for Prospero controls all with his magic and he can set 
the stage for the desired solution. In a sense the play is less 
Christian than any of Shakespeare's earlier treatments of guilt 
and justice. Measure for Measure leaves us with a sense of identity 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 23 

with the guilty, and we forgive each other for that reason. But 
Prospero has no real kinship with the other characters; he stands 
outside the action and stage-manages it, with Ariel's help. The 
ritual of forgiveness is conducted by a priest who is not himself 
in need of pardon. That is perhaps why many readers and spec- 
tators of The Tempest have found Prospero a pompous bore, with 
his prosy expositions of earlier events to both Miranda and Ariel 
and his easy loss of temper with inattention or weakness. Though 
he may not be, as was once widely thought, Shakespeare himself 
taking his farewell of the stage, he is certainly in a sense the creator 
of the other characters in the play, controlling them from above, 
a god-like figure who renounces his godhead only at the end of 
the play when, the action satisfactorily concluded, he breaks his 
magic staff to take his place among common humanity. He is in 
some respects like the Duke in Measure for Measure, for both 
manipulate the other characters in a god-like way (perfect con- 
trast to the malevolent puppeteering of lago), but the Duke is 
involved in his world more than Prospero is, and symbolizes that 
involvement by marrying Isabella in the end. 

Miranda is youth and innocence, and her union with Ferdinand 
has the same symbolic meaning as that of Florizel and Perdita. 
Trinculo and Stephano represent gross animality, mankind at its 
lowest, and the spirits that serve them are not like Ariel, but 
alcoholic spirits which destroy the judgment and it is the alcohol 
that attracts Caliban: , 

That's a brave god and bears celestial liquor. 
I will kneel to him. 

Ariel is the wise man's spirit, representing the scientist's control 
over nature, almost a Baconian symbol. The other characters 
represent different degrees of good and evil at the human level 
except for Caliban, who remains a somewhat puzzling character. 
He is the conquered savage who has rejected the education of his 
master and is punished by slavery for that rejection. Yet the island 
was his, 'by Sycorax my mother', and Prospero took it from him 
by force. Prospero, as the superior order of being, would have, 



24 LITERARY ESSAYS 

on the Elizabethan view, the right to dominate the inferior, so 
Shakespeare seems to be posing no ethical problem here. Caliban, 
savage son of a witch, the denier of civilization who refuses to fit 
into Prosperous scheme of things and is punished for his refusal, 
is in a strange way both evil and innocent. He is, in his own way, 
a child of nature; he loves music, he is credulous, and easily fooled 
by human art There is perhaps more to be said for him than for 
the human villains whose treachery to each other constitutes a 
deeper evil than Caliban's crude villainy: corruptio optimi pessima. 
The action takes place throughout on the island, washed by 
the purifying sea. It is shipwreck that saves Alonso and Antonio 
from their wickedness; as in Pericles, death by water proves to be 
redemption. It is shipwreck, too, that brings Ferdinand to 
Miranda, and having done that, brings to her gaze other repre- 
sentatives of the outside world, causing her to exclaim: 

O wonder! 

How many goodly creatures are there here ! 
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, 
That has such people in't! 

She is deceived : it is not a brave new world but a shabby old one. 
Her innocence is ignorance; she takes the motley assortment of 
schemers and traitors to be angels; and one is left wondering how 
she will cope with the realities of the everyday world when she 
has left the island for Italy. We remember that it was Othello's 
ignorance of the 'civilized' way of life that led him to trust lago. 
So in the end Shakespeare avoids tragedy by shifting his action 
to a magic island in which all can be controlled by a benevolent 
will : The Tempest is a magical play, full of grave beauty and rich 
poetry, a play out of this world, a wish-fulfilment play in which 
virtue has all the power and innocence meets its appropriate 
destiny. This is the Garden of Eden, with God, as Prospero, 
personally in charge to prevent Satan from prevailing; Miranda 
is a prelapsarian character who, as the play ends, is about to leave 
the shelter of Paradise to test her virtue in the wicked world. 
When Eve, 'our credulous mother', left Paradise she had already 
been tempted and had fallen, and she and Adam went out into 



GUILT AND JUSTICE IN SHAKESPEARE 25 

the world disillusioned and knowledgeable. But credulous Mir- 
anda goes out unfallen into die world, whither Shakespeare refuses 
to follow her. His last gesture is to avert his eyes from the 
workaday world at the same time as he sends his characters back 
into it. There they may become figures in other plays, tragedies 
no less than comedies, since they will now be unprotected by 
Prosperous magic. 

Shakespeare's last word can hardly be Prospero's : 

We are such stuff 

As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep, 

for if that is all that life is, it is an odd thing to spend one's career 
interpreting it dramatically. No; life is worth something after 
all. The characters in The Tempest leave the magical island of 
redemption to go back into civilization with all its imperfections 
and temptations, and this is a good thing, for man belongs with 
his kind, and there is a glory even in the tragic paradoxes of the 
human situation. In the Epilogue Prospero asks to be released, 
by the applause of the audience, from 'this bare island', and the 
adjective is significant. 'Let me not', he says, 

Let me not, 

Since I have my dukedom got 
And pardon* d the deceiver, dwell 
In this bare island by your spell; . . . 

The magic world is but a 'bare island' after all, compared with the 
ordinary world of men. Just as, in Paradise Lost, 'all th' Eastern 
side of Paradise, so late their happy seat', appeared to Adam and 
Eve as flaming and terrible when they looked back for a moment 
before going down into the world that was all before them, so 
Prospero's Eden becomes uninhabitable in the end. Perhaps 
Shakespeare's last word, like Milton's, was that man cannot live 
in Paradise. 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 1 

1~- ^EW WRITERS have suffered as much as Richardson for their 

r historical importance. He is, we all know, 'the father of the 
English novel'. Generations of students have noted the fact 
at university lectures. Pamela, they will confide in examinations, 
is the first true English novel; it is written in epistolary form and 
tells the story of a virtuous maid who resisted her wealthy master's 
advances to the point where she won his hand in marriage. 
Clarissa is longer, and tells the story of an equally virtuous lady 
who was dishonoured by a rake while under the influence of 
drugs and who consequently died, life after dishonour being 
impossible. Sir Charles Grandison, also long, gives the picture of 
an ideal gentleman and his ultimate happy marriage with one of 
the many females who adore him. So much is common know- 
ledge. Most of the students will go on to add that Richardson's 
morality is bourgeois in the extreme; that Pamela, whose whole 
endeavour is to sell her chastity in the dearest market, is more of 
a designing minx than a paragon of virtue, and that Ckrissa's 
languishing into her grave after a purely technical loss of chastity 
is a typical example of the unacceptable Puritan attitude to sex. 
Nevertheless, the report will conclude, the fact that all three 
novels are told in the form of letters passing between the characters 
enables Richardson to give a fine psychological immediacy to the 
action; he did understand the female heart, if not the male, and 
records with commendable subtlety its fluctuations and vagaries; 
and after all he is the father of the English novel. A few more 
enterprising students might perhaps go on to vindicate Richard- 
son's progenitive claims against those of Defoe or to contrast 
Richardson's hot-house atmosphere with the fresh air of Fielding. 
None of them will have read Richardson. 

1 An address given to the National Book League, London, on 23 rd September 
1954- 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 2J 

This has been the authorized version of Richardson for some 
time now, and of course there is some truth in it. Richardson is 
historically important, his morality is typical of the middle class 
of his day, his understanding of the female heart is impressive. 
But the true nature and value of his achievement can be obscured 
by these parrotted generalizations: it is time we removed the 
literary historian's ticket from the novels and read them with 
attention. And it would be as well if in reading them we forgot 
about 'the novel', about the subsequent history of the literary 
form which Richardson pioneered in England, and concentrated 
on what was before us. If we did that, we should find, I think, 
many unexpected patterns of meaning, particularly in Pamela and 
Clarissa. We should find that these works were in some ways 
more closely related to mediaeval saints' lives than to the novel 
as we now know it, or that they are a kind of Paradise Lest and 
Paradise Regained, set not in Eden or the wilderness but in the 
mundane world of social convention and obligation. Milton and 
Bunyan were concerned, in their different ways, with the exercise 
of free-will in resisting temptation and thus achieving salvation, 
Richardson is concerned with the exercise of prudence in order 
to achieve success through virtue and thus attain salvation in both 
worlds. Where the wiles of the devil make this double achieve- 
ment impossible, as in Clarissa, prudence yields to saindiness and 
the next world provides the only refuge. 

The ideas that Richardson employs and manipulates in his 
novels are : prudence and virtue, gentility and morality, reputation 
and character. The relation between them is often complex. 
Gentility is sometimes opposed to morality, sometimes a sign of 
morality. Reputation is generally the reward of good character 
but not always a guarantee of it. Prudence and virtue often go 
together, but sometimes (as in the latter part of Clarissa) lead in 
opposite directions. Richardson is very much aware of tie social 
context; he is, one might say, obsessed with it. Rank mattered 
to him; the difference between classes was something he could 
never forget, and his moral patterns are built up against a back- 
ground of social relationships which, provide the most real and 



28 LITERARY ESSAYS 

ineluctable facts about human life. For Richardson, all the tests 
of life are public, carried out in full view of society and condi- 
tioned by the structure of society. Eden for him is no garden but 
an estate, and Adam is a landlord with tenants, Eve a lady with 
social duties and dangers, and the serpent a neighbouring squire 
who violates the rules of the game by combining the genuine 
attractiveness of rank with an immoral character. There is no 
private wrestling with one's soul or with the devil here; Richard- 
son's moral dramas are acted out on a public stage, and any 
moments of private anguish are promptly communicated by the 
sufferer to a friend in a letter. The epistolary technique is no 
incidental device: it is bound up with the social context of 
Richardson's moral patterns. And if there is no purely private 
anguish, there is similarly no purely private victory. Virtue must 
be recognized to be real, and Clarissa's death is made into a moral 
victory and indeed a beatification in virtue of the universal re- 
cognition of her saintliness which it produces. Richardson was 
the first important English writer to deal with basic moral prob- 
lems imaginatively in a detailed social context. 

This, then, is what is meant by the claim that Richardson's 
novels enshrine an eighteenth-century bourgeois morality. Virtue 
is consistently related to prudence on the one hand and to reputa- 
tion on the other, and the arena of moral struggle is the stratified 
society of contemporary England. Further, in the eyes of Rich- 
ardson and his fellows the aristocracy is still a class to be envied 
and aspired to. Pamela, the serving maid, has her virtue rewarded 
by marrying into the squirearchy; Clarissa's upper middle class 
family want to consolidate their position as property owners and 
achieve a tide, and Clarissa's pursuer, the aristocratic Lovelace, 
has never any doubt that marriage to him is a desirable thing for 
her. Prosperous tradesmen and master craftsmen may have be- 
lieved that their class was the sole repository of true virtue and 
respectability in the nation, but the aristocracy was still admired 
and looked up to as the class which the successful bourgeois hoped 
ultimately to enter. The implications of this double view of the 
aristocracy as representing both rakishness and the heights of 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 29 

that worldly felicity which was the proper reward of a life of 
combined prudence and virtue can be seen again and again in 
the working out of Richardson's plots. 

Richardson more than once stated that his primary aim in 
writing these novels was moral instruction rather than mere 
entertainment. It is perhaps worth quoting his own summary of 
his intentions, which he gives us retrospectively in the preface to 
Sir Charles Grandison. Pamela, he tells us, 'exhibited the beauty 
and superiority of virtue in an innocent and unpolished mind, 
with the reward which often, even in this life, a protecting Provi- 
dence bestows on goodness. A young woman of low degree, 
relating to her honest parents the severe trials she met with from 
a master who ought to have been the protector, not the assailer 
of her honour, shows the character of a libertine in its truly con- 
temptible light. This libertine, however, from the foundation of 
good principles laid in his early years by an excellent mother ; by 
his passion for a virtuous young woman; and by her amiable 
example and unwearied patience, when she became his wife, is, 
after a length of time, perfectly reclaimed/ Clarissa, he goes on, 
'displayed a more melancholy scene. A young lady of higher 
fortune, and born to happier hopes, is seen involved in such 
variety of distresses as lead her to an untimely death; affording a 
warning to parents against forcing the inclinations of their chil- 
dren in the most important article of their lives, and to children 
against hoping too far from the fairest assurances of a man void 
of principle. The heroine, however, as a truly Christian heroine, 
proves superior to her trials; and her heart, always excellent, 
refined and exalted by every one of them, rejoices in the approach 
of a happy eternity. Her cruel destroyer appears wretched and 
disappointed, even by the boasted success of his vile machinations : 
but still (buoyed up with self-conceit and vain presumption) he 
goes on, after every short fit of imperfect, yet terrifying convic- 
tion, hardening himself more and more; till, unreclaimed by the 
most affecting warnings and repeated admonitions, he perishes 
miserably in die bloom of life, and sinks into the grave oppressed 
with guilt, remorse and horror. His letters, it is hoped, afford 



30 LITERARY ESSAYS 

many useful lessons to the gay part of mankind against that misuse 
of wit and youth, of rant and fortune, and of every outward 
accomplishment, which turns them into a curse to the miserable 
possessor, as well as to all around him.' And now, he tells us, he 
presents in Sir Charles Grandison 'the example of a man acting 
uniformly well through a variety of trying scenes, because all his 
actions are regulated by one steady principle; a man of religion 
and virtue; of liveliness and spirit; accomplished and agreeable; 
happy in himself, and a blessing to others.' 

Thus there can be no doubt that Richardson saw his novels as 
essentially moral works, comparable, as I have suggested, to 
mediaeval saints' lives. But of course a writer's statement of his 
intentions never tells us all the important things about a work, 
particularly when it is made, as here, after the books have been 
completed. There was, no doubt, a certain amount of complacent 
rationalization about Richardson's descriptions of the nature and 
purpose of his novels. The novels themselves are more complex 
than he ever seems to have realized, works of art by accident, one 
might almost say, like Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. The subtle 
moral and emotional pattern in Clarissa, which the modern 
reader finds so brilliant, derives from areas of Richardson's mind 
of which he cannot have been fully conscious. I shall return to 
this point when I come to discuss in more detail the individual 
novels. 

Richardson was a printer by trade, and a good and prosperous 
one. He was born in 1689, and produced Pamela, his first novel, 
in 1740, when he was fifty-one years old. His belated discovery 
of his talent as a novelist emerged when he was in the process of 
compiling a volume of letters designed to serve as models for 
humble people not sufficiently educated to be able to write easily 
and confidently on those occasions when letters might be called 
for. He was working on this collectionin 1739 probably writing 
letter no. 138, entitled *A Father to a Daughter in Service, on 
hearing of her Master's attempting her Virtue' when it occurred 
to him that he might work up a complete novel out of a series of 
letters written by a virtuous servant girl to her parents in. the 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 31 

intervals of dodging her master's attempts at rape. He remem- 
bered a true story of a virtuous servant girl who eventually 
married her master after successfully repulsing his more irregular 
approaches, and this exemplary combination of prudence and 
virtue appealed to him. He dropped his collection of letters, and 
embarked at white heat on Pamela, Part I of which he finished in 
a couple of months. 

The original volume of letters was then completed, and pub- 
lished in 1741, entitled Letters Written to and for particular friends, 
Directing the Requisite Style and Forms To be Observed in writing 
'Familiar Letters. It is more than a collection of model letters. 
Some of his friends, Richardson tells us in his preface, 'are of 
opinion, that they will answer several good ends, as they may 
not only direct the forms requisite to be observed on the most 
important occasions; but, what is more to the purpose, by the 
rules and instructions contained in them, contribute to mend the 
heart, and improve the understanding. . . . The writer . . . has en- 
deavoured ... to inculcate the principles of virtue and bene- 
volence; to describe properly, and recommend strongly, the 
social and relative duties; and to place them in such practical 
lights, that the letters may serve for rules to think and act by, as 
well as forms to write after/ The tides of the letters indicate the 
sort of thing. 'To a Father, against putting a Youth of but 
moderate Parts to a Profession that requires more extensive 
Abilities.' 'From an Uncle to a Nephew, on his keeping bad 
Company, bad Hours, etc., in his Apprenticeship.' 'General 
Rules for agreeable Conversation in a young Man. From a 
Father to a Son/ 'A young Man in Business, to a Father, desiring 
Leave to address his Daughter/ 'From a young Lady to her 
Father, acquainting him with a Proposal of Marriage made to her/ 
c The Father's Answer, on a Supposition, that he approves not of 
the young Man's Addresses/ *A Father to a Son, to dissuade him 
from the Vice of drinking to Excess/ 'A young Woman in Town 
to her Sister in the Country, recounting her narrow Escape from 
a Snare laid for her, on her first arrival, by a wicked Procuress/ 
'To rebuke an irregular Address, when it is not thought proper 



32 LITERARY ESSAYS 

wholly to discourage it.' 'An Excuse to a Person who wants to 
borrow Money/ *A Lady to her Friend, a young Widow Lady, 
who, having buried a polite and excellent Husband, inclines to 
marry a less deserving Gentleman, and of unequal Fortune.* 
There is only one letter that has no moral relevance at all; that is 
'A humorous Epistle of neighbourly Occurrences and News, to 
a Bottle-Companion abroad', and here we see Richardson trying 
his hand at something rather in the Lovelace manner. Some of 
the letters almost sketch out an incipient plot, but the plan of the 
book does not allow Richardson to pause long enough over any 
situation to develop it into a story. But clearly he was itching to 
do so. 

Perhaps it is relevant to add that Richardson had always been 
an assiduous letter-writer, and not only on his own behalf. For, 
according to his own account, when still *a bashful and not 
forward boy' of not more than thirteen, three young women 
entrusted him with their love secrets in order to have him write 
answers to their lovers' letters. *I have been directed to chide and 
even repulse when an offence was either taken or given, at the 
very time that the heart of the chider or repulser was open before 
me, overflowing with esteem and affection; and the fair repulser, 
dreading to be taken at her word, directing this word or that 
expression to be softened or changed.' This was good training 
for the future novelist of the female heart, and helps to explain 
why Richardson understood women at any rate, certain kinds 
of women so much better than he understood men. Men for 
Richardson the novelist were interesting only in so far as they 
aroused emotion in women; like Harriet Byron in Sir Charles 
Grandison, he first reacted to a new male character by imagining 
him in the role of a lover or a husband and estimated his character 
in the light of his probable behaviour in that role. That, inci- 
dentally, is the trouble with Sir Charles Grandison: in a novel 
whose object is to depict the ideal gentleman, Richardson could 
only achieve his purpose by introducing a sufficient number of 
female characters whose unanimity in worshipping the hero 
would sufficiently testify to his qualities. But a handsome, 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 33 

virtuous and wealthy baronet who is surrounded by females who 
are all in love with him and eventually coolly chooses as his bride 
the one who wins on points, as it were, is neither a very interesting 
nor a very edifying spectacle. 

Richardson's volume of model letters reveals, or at least 
suggests, the moral world in which his novels take place. It is a 
world in which relationships are of the first importance : the relation 
between master and servant, between parents and children, be- 
tween debtor and creditor, between suitor and sought these and 
other relationships condition what is proper in human behaviour, 
and they are all, in some sense, symbolic of the relationship 
between man and God. They reveal a nexus oErights and duties, 
the rights being parental and proprietary, the duties being filial 
and, in a sense, feudal. Interspersed with the letters revealing, and 
indeed commanding, these rights and duties, are calls to repen- 
tance and amendment addressed to those who have gone astray. 
We thus have both the Law and the Prophets. The rewards for 
duty well done are clearly defined; they are both earthly and 
heavenly. Family and social relationships in this world being a 
microcosm of the larger relationship between man and God, 
there is an obvious analogy between prosperity in this world (the 
result of the proper management of human relationships) and 
eternal felicity in the next. The analogy between the two worlds 
is, throughout Richardson's work, complex but consistent. One 
moves into the next world only if the present world fails one. 
Pamela was able to combine prudence with virtue and, literally, 
make the best of both worlds. The title of the novel is Pamela: or, 
Virtue Rewarded. Clarissa, cheated out of prudence, fails to secure 
earthly prosperity but is instead rewarded in Heaven. I have 
already suggested that Richardson manipulated such ideas as 
prudence and virtue, gentility and morality, with considerable 
subtlety. Prudence guarantees earthly happiness, while virtue 
guarantees heavenly happiness, and the truly fortunate are those 
to whom circumstances allow both. Respectability is the outward 
and visible sign of prudence, and often, but not always, of true 
virtue. (Clarissa loses her external respectability while fully pre- 



34 LITERARY ESSAYS 

serving her true virtue.) Similarly, gentility is the social behaviour 
and the conventions within which virtue is likely to flourish but 
does not necessarily flourish. Clarissa shows that otherworldliness 
is not a virtue until this world has failed one. Good management, 
economy, methodical disposition of one's time, prudence and 
efEciency in managing property and business are important quali- 
ties in all Richardson's heroes and heroines; Clarissa has them all 
at first, and, though Lovelace cheats her into the imprudent act of 
going off with him, she retains them to the end, changing only 
the objects to which she applies them: she gets ready for death 
with exemplary efficiency, even ordering and paying for her 
coffin in advance. It might well be asked whether Richardson is 
playing fair in endowing his heroines also with inimitable beauty. 
What has beauty to do with moral patterns he is tracing? The 
answer, I think, is simply that beauty is dangerous; it is more 
difficult to be virtuous with beauty than without it, because beauty 
attracts impure desire and provokes outrage. If, therefore, like 
Pamela, one can combine prudence, virtue and beauty, one is 
truly secure in both worlds. If, like Clarissa, one has virtue and 
beauty but is cheated by the devil out of the exercise of prudence 
on one critical occasion, one can compensate by raising virtue to 
the level of saindiness and, confident of the next world, cheerfully 
repudiate this one. Pamela is held up for our imitation (though 
Richardson makes it very clear that only a most exceptionally 
gifted servant can hope to marry her master), Clarissa for our 
adoration. The latter's is the true saint's life. 

Richardson's epistolary method was not only a natural one for 
him, and an inevitable one in view of the road by which he 
approached the novel; it was also the appropriate one for a 
novelist concerned with the moment-to-moment recording of 
the fluctuations of emotion in the midst of moral struggle. It 
serves a similar purpose to that of the soliloquy in drama and the 
so-called stream of consciousness technique in modern fiction. 
We are brought immediately and directly into the consciousness 
of the character. It is, of course, a convention, in itself no better 
and no worse than other conventions in fiction. There is no 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 35 

point in speculating on how the characters could possibly have 
found time to write their hundreds of thousands of words, or 
how they could have had the presence of mind, in the midst of 
so much anguish, to sit down to write out everything, recalling 
every word spoken by themselves and by those with whom they 
have conversed; nor should we be distressed to find that they 
managed even to make copies of their letters and send them to 
other correspondents, and to transcribe other people's letters to 
them, and send them around. That Lovelace, rake and daredevil 
and man of action, impatient of delay and control, should in his 
turn find both the time and the inclination to write to his friend 
in the most intimate detail all his nefarious designs against Clarissa, 
and give a play-by-play account of everything he and she do and 
say, is of course improbable, but this kind of improbability does 
not touch the level of probability on which the novel moves. 
Quite apart from the fact that in the eighteenth century people 
wrote letters oftener and in more detail than could be imagined 
in our own age, there is the basic fact that all art requires conven- 
tions, and the criterion to be applied is the degree to which the 
author's use of the convention enables him to build up the proper 
life in the work. The letters do indeed take the reader into the 
heart of the developing situation and enable him to follow with 
extraordinary immediacy the psychological implications of the 
working out of the moral pattern. 

One great difference there is between the epistolary technique 
and the stream of consciousness method: the latter emphasizes the 
privateness, the uniqueness, of individual experience, and is there- 
fore appropriate for novels in which the essential loneliness of the 
individual is stressed and the possibility of adequate communica- 
tion between individuals is a major problem (as it is, for example, 
in the novels of Virginia Woolf). The great theme of the eigh- 
teenth and often of the nineteenth century novelist is the relation 
between gentility and virtue; that of the modern novelist is the 
relationship between loneliness and love. The former theme re- 
quires a more public kind of elaboration than is appropriate for 
die latter, and letters are a most effective way of publicizing pri- 



36 LITERARY ESSAYS 

vate experience. Publicity is important for Richardson. For him, 
virtue is not a matter between oneself and God ; it must be publicly 
known and admired. Clarissa's death scene, for example, is most 
carefully staged; it is a device for demonstrating saindiness in 
action. For the saint to arrange such a demonstration implies a 
certain degree of self-approval, but that was no problem for 
Richardson, for whom self-approval must always co-exist with 
virtue, even with modesty. Clarissa is humble, yet she is full of 
conscious superiority, which she expresses quite unaffectedly, and 
the same can be said of Sir Charles Grandison. The moral life is a 
public life; it is an exemplum, something to be seen, approved and 
imitated or at least admired. Martyrdom would be useless if no 
one knew of it, and the exemplary life could not be exemplary if 
no one observed it. Clarissa represents the former, Pamela the 
latter. 

Pamela, which came out in 1740 (though dated 1741), is an 
altogether simpler novel than Clarissa. Its theme is a folk theme, 
but the treatment is very different from anything one will find in 
folk literature. The class background is far from being the simple 
one of low-born maiden and high-born lord. Richardson's class 
was committed to the view that worth depended on individual 
effort rather than on status, yet they were fascinated by status and 
could not help admiring and envying it. This gives an ironic 
ambivalence to the whole moral pattern of the novel. Squire B. 
is bent first on seduction and then on rape; he is dishonest, male- 
volent, cruel and persecuting. He does everything he can to get 
Pamela into his physical power, and at one stage is on the point of 
committing rape when Pamela providentially falls into fits and 
scares him off. (All the while the horrible Mrs Jewkes, the house- 
keeper to whom Mr B. had entrusted Pamela in the hope of 
softening her up for seduction, looks on with glee and exhorts 
her master not to 'stand dilly dallying' but to get the act of 
violation over with at once. Likewise, in Clarissa, the rape of the 
heroine is watched and encouraged by Mrs Sinclair and her band 
of trollops. Even rape must be public in Richardson.) Yet, after 
Mr B. has relented and sent Pamela home, she returns voluntarily 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 37 

when he sends for her, loving and admiring him all the time, 
though disapproving of his attempts to dishonour her. Whenever 
he relaxes his attempts for a moment, she is all respect and admira- 
tion for him; and when he finally convinces her that her continued 
successful resistance has led him to offer marriage, she is all humble 
love and passionate gratitude. Successful resistance turns lust to 
love; once Squire B. has got over his weakness for seduction and 
rape he is seen by Richardson as a wholly admirable person, not 
only worthy of the love of a virtuous girl like Pamela but deser- 
ving of her humblest obedience and veneration. She considers 
herself unworthy of him. 'My good master,' she writes, 'my kind 
friend, my generous benefactor, my worthy protector, and oh! 
all the good words in one, my affectionate husband, that is soon 
to be (be curbed in, my proud heart, know thyself, and be 
conscious of thy unworthiness!) has just left me, with the kindest, 
tenderest expressions, and gentlest behaviour that ever blest a 
happy maiden. 5 If a man is a wealthy landowner, and handsome 
and graceful in manners to boot, he must be considered wholly 
good so long as he is not being actively bad. Printers do not 
become angels by merely ceasing to threaten girls with sexual 
violence, but evidently squires do. Richardson, of course, would 
have been horrified by such a comment. He claimed that he was 
showing a genuine reformation of character, wrought by Pamela's 
virtue in a young man who had the advantage of an excellent 
moral grounding in childhood. But we know better, and I suspect 
Pamela did. 

This counter pattern which crosses the moral pattern which 
Richardson consciously planned for the work does not, of course, 
spoil the novel; on the contrary, it makes it richer and truer. 
Human nature is like that; motivation is complex, and the 
relation between our moral professions and the full psychological 
explanation of our actions is far from simple. Sometimes it 
almost seems that Richardson knew this and was deliberately 
writing a sly, ironic novel. After Mr B.'s first attempts on her, 
before she has been deceitfully carried off to the country house 
where Mrs Jewkes presides, Pamela very properly decides to go 



38 LITERARY ESSAYS 

home to her parents and leave the scene of temptation; but she 
finds excuse after excuse for not going, and postpones her de- 
parture until Mr B. has managed to mature his plan for tricking 
her into going instead to the house he has waiting for her. And 
though she professes to prefer honest poverty to vicious luxury, 
she makes it quite clear in her letters home that she has grown 
used to a much better way of life than they can afford in their 
humble cottage. She notes all the fine clothes given her by her 
late mistress and her master, and, having completed an inventory 
of what she has, noting what she can in conscience retain, makes 
such remarks as: 'Here is a calico night-gown, that I used to wear 
o* mornings. 'Twill be rather too good for me when I get home; 
but I must have something. . . . And here are four other shifts, 
one the fellow to that I have on; another pretty good one, and 
the other two old fine ones, that will serve me to turn and wind 
with at home, for they are not worth leaving behind me; and 
here are two pairs of shoes; I have taken the lace off, which I will 
burn, and may-be will fetch me some little matter at a pinch, with 
an old silver buckle or two.' Most suggestive of all, she gives up 
the fine clothes her lady had given her, determined not to sail 
under false colours, and provides herself with a new, simpler 
outfit. 

And so when I had dined, up stairs I went, and locked myself up in my little 
room. There I dressed myself in my new garb, and put on my round-eared 
ordinary cap, but with a green knot, my home-spun gown and petticoat, and 
plain leather shoes, but yet they are what they call Spanish leather; and my 
ordinary hose, ordinary I mean to what I have been lately used to, though I 
should think good yarn may do very well for every day, when I come home. 
A plain muslin tucker I put on, and my black silk necklace, instead of the French 
necklace my lady gave me; and put the ear-rings out of my ears. When I was 
quite equipped, I took my straw hat in my hand, with its two blue strings, and 
looked in the glass, as proud as any thing. To say truth, I never liked myself 
so well in my life. 

O the pleasure of descending with ease, innocence, and resignation! 
Indeed, there is nothing like it! An humble mind, I plainly see, cannot meet 
with any very shocking disappointment, let Fortune's wheel turn round as 
it will. 

And down she trips, looking, as she very well knows, more 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 39 

ravishing than ever, and runs straight into her master, who 
pretends not to recognize the 'pretty neat damsel'. 

He came up to me, and took me by the hand, and said, 'Whose pretty maiden 
are you? I dare say you are Pamela's sister, you are so like her. So neat, so 
clean, so pretty! Why, child, you far surpass your sister, Pamela!' 

I was all confusion, and would have spoken, but he took me about the neck: 
'Why,' said he, 'you are very pretty, child: I would not be so free with your 
sister, you may believe; but I must kiss you.' *O Sir,' said I, 'I am Pamela, 
indeed I am: indeed I am Pamela, her own-self I' 

This, and scenes like this, are admirably done, whatever 
Richardson thought he was really doing. It is as though Richard- 
son knows Pamela so well that he has simply to let himself be 
Pamek in order to write the letters. He does not have to under- 
stand her or to analyse her motives, any more than she understands 
and analyses herself. She sets herself out to attract her master from 
the beginning, though she herself does not realize it and perhaps 
her creator does not; but prudence as well as morality demands 
that she keep herself unravished while keeping his interest in her 
at fever pitch. She thinks she is trying to escape his clutches, but 
allows herself to be deflected from her attempts at escape by the 
slightest obstacles (even to the point of supposing an inoffensive 
cow to be a fierce bull), and when he finally lets her go she flies 
back to him at his summons. 

When he releases her, she leaves with a reluctance that surprises 
herself. 'I think I was loth to leave the house. Can you believe it? 
What could be the matter with me, I wonder? I felt something 
so strange at my heart! I wonder what ailed me/ She writes 
home in this troubled state of mind from a village where the 
coach has paused. 'Here I am, at a little poor village, almost such 
a one as yours !' The smallness and poverty of the village (and by 
implication of her parents' home) are mentioned more than once. 
And when Mr B.'s letter arrives, asking her to return (though 
only in the most oblique way promising marriage) she writes in 
her journal, 'O my exulting heart!' She knows now what she 
has wanted all along. 

The rest of Part I and all of Part II are much less interesting. 



40 LITERARY ESSAYS 

The marriage duly takes place, and there is a lively scene a little 
while afterwards when, the Squire being temporarily away from 
home, his sister Lady Davers calls and, assuming that Pamela is 
her brother's mistress and not his wife, abuses her with fine 
snobbish scorn. But after this the book swells into a chorus of 
admiration from the neighbouring gentry. Pamela's story is 
known, and she is trotted around aristocratic drawing-rooms to 
be admired for her successful defence of her chastity and her 
nobility of character. She has perfect manners, and conducts 
herself everywhere with model decorum. Lady Davers is re- 
conciled and joins the chorus of admiration. One of Pamela's 
last acts in Part I is to exercise her benevolence on an illegitimate 
daughter of her adoring husband, product of an early and fully 
confessed amour. 

Part II, added in 1742, to replace and discredit continuations 
(both serious and satirical) by other hands, is a dull marriage 
manual showing the ideal couple in action, with a mild and 
temporary break in perfect felicity when Squire B. becomes 
involved with a widowed countess at a masked ball. (Thus show- 
ing the immorality of masked balls, which Richardson was never 
tired of preaching.) Pamela becomes the oracle, dispensing 
wisdom in her letters on everything from the state of the drama 
to Locke's views on education. The most interesting part of 
Pamela is over by the time her marriage is accomplished. 

Pamela is thus a psychologically realistic fairy tale grounded in 
middle class morality which achieves a level of ironic counter- 
statement by the sheer honesty and accuracy of its heroine's 
self-revelation. Air B. is less successful than the heroine; Richard- 
son had little first-hand knowledge of the manners and conver- 
sation of the higher squirearchy and nobility, and Mr B. is 
interesting only for the reactions he produces in Pamela. It has 
long been the fashion to complain about the morality of the book, 
with its attempt to reconcile virtue with material self-interest. 
But what is wrong with reconciling virtue with self-interest if you 
can? There are three factors involved: what you are really like 
(psychology); what will get you success in this life (prudence) ; 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 41 

what will get you success in the next life and may with luck also 
do so in this (virtue). Pamela is true to her psychology (as one 
might say) and manipulates her virtue into prudence with un- 
conscious art. (One assumes that it is unconscious.) All one can 
say is: nice work if you can get it. 

There is surely nothing immoral in refusing to have sexual 
relations with the man you are in love with until marriage secures 
you a permanent relationship with him. It is not that which seems 
to me the moral flaw in the novel. What I object to is something 
that appears equally clearly in Clarissa, namely Richardson's 
narrow and mechanical view of sex, and indeed of love. Pamela's 
love for Squire B. cannot be easily dissociated from her admiration 
of his position and wealth; once he has been prevailed on to 
behave decently his position and wealth can be allowed to make 
him desirable. It is not that Squire B. marries Pamela because he 
cannot satisfy his lust outside marriage; it is rather that her 
continued defence of her chastity, and his reading of her letters 
and journal, have aroused in him a moral admiration of her 
character which changes his sexual desire into moral approval. 
Sex, wherever it is treated in Richardson, is presented as some- 
thing violent and violating. The notion of mutual sexual 
satisfaction never seems to have occurred to him. None of 
Richardson's rakes seeks such satisfaction; they want to rape; 
they are not sensualists but competitive collectors of virginities 
by violence. In Clarissa, Lovelace achieves his nefarious purpose 
on a drugged and passive victim. It is a purely quantitative 
business, a matter of arithmetic: the more people you can violate, 
the greater your glory as a rake. This is a Kinsey report view of 
sex, a mechanical as well as an unrealistic view. And the rake's 
view of sex as violence' done by the man to the woman is lower 
even than Kinsey. The woman is sacrificed to male violence, and 
even marriage but provides the proper arena for such a sacrifice. 
In Clarissa images of the victim stretched out before the knife 
recur again and again, directly and obliquely. In Sir Charles 
Grandison the wedding night of the hero and heroine is described 
in terms suggestive of the bride as a sacrifice. Richardson under- 



42 LITERARY ESSAYS 

stood the housemaid's quiver of joy at the thought of marrying 
her handsome master, and reproduces this kind of sensibility with 
great brilliance. But that has as little to do either with sex or with 
love as has the attitude of his rakes, for whom a seduction or a 
rape (it is all one to them) is, like climbing Mount Everest, a 
matter of planning and stamina. There is no pleasure in it: the 
pleasure lies in the satisfaction of having done it. One can, if one 
likes, relate this characteristic of Richardson's to the Puritan 
suspicion of sex, but I for one am dissatisfied with such easy 
generalizations. Many Puritans, because of their very suspicion of 
sex perhaps, had an uncanny insight into its nature and working. 
I suspect it has something to do with Richardson's own tempera- 
ment and history. 

Clarissa appeared in eight volumes in 1748. It is a subtler and 
profounder work than Pamela, and by general agreement Richard- 
son's masterpiece. It is impossible to give an adequate account of 
this long and complex novel here, and I must be content with 
noting aspects which I think interesting and significant. In the 
first place, the deployment of the plot is a remarkable achieve- 
ment. Clarissa, the virtuous, beautiful, talented younger daughter 
of the wealthy Harlowes, with a fortune of her own left her by 
her grandfather (but which she has filially surrendered to her 
father), is manipulated from a position which combines the 
height of virtue with the height of material good fortune to one 
in which she is despised and rejected, becoming an almost Christ- 
like figure of the Suffering Servant. This is achieved by no sudden 
peripeteia, no dramatic reversal, but by a brilliantly deployed 
series of little incidents which combine to deny Clarissa the fruits 
of prudence without actually making her an imprudent character 
and eventually close in on her to prevent any return to the world 
of material happiness. Clarissa is manoeuvred into sainthood by 
a cunningly woven mesh of circumstance which seems always 
until almost the very end to allow the possibility of escape back 
into the world of lost prosperity. She is given the appearance of 
guilt without real guilt; she is made to appear to fall without 
having really fallen; almost everybody comes at one time or 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 43 

another to doubt the purity of her motives or the perfection of 
her character. Then, in the end, when public opinion seems to 
have disposed of her for ever, she rises in death from her degra- 
dation to shine on high in glorious resurrection. 

Let me briefly recall the main movements of the story. The 
first major phase of the action concerns the Harlowe family's 
sustained attempt to force Clarissa to marry the stupid, ugly and 
mean-spirited Mr Solmes. The leading spirit here is her con- 
temptible brother, who sees financial advantage to himself in the 
match, while her jealous sister Arabella, suspicious that Clarissa 
is in love with Lovelace (whom she loves but pretends to hate), is 
equally determined to have her married off to Solmes. Her father, 
a gouty autocrat, finds his authority and what he calls his honour 
involved, and insists on the match. Her mother, weakly giving 
in to pressure from the rest of the family, adds her persuasions. 
Meanwhile, Clarissa's brother has insulted Lovelace, who has 
overcome and wounded him in a duel, while Clarissa reluctantly 
consents to a clandestine correspondence with Lovelace in 
order to prevent him from taldng a bloody revenge on the 
Harlowe family. Clarissa is in continuous correspondence 
with her friend Anna Howe, to whom she recounts each clay's 
events. 

The situation here developed enables Richardson to develop a 
much richer moral pattern than anything to be found in Pamela. 
Clarissa, the perfection of whose character is made clear from the 
beginning, finds herself obliged to disobey her parents and at the 
same time involved in clandestine correspondence with a rake. 
Richardson is here exploring, as fully as he can, the borderland of 
his moral universe. Children must obey their parents; but on the 
other hand parents must never force a child into marriage against 
the child's inclinations. These principles Richardson had already 
made clear elsewhere, but they are clear enough in the story. 
Clarissa offers to give up all thoughts of marriage and to live 
single either on the estate her grandfather had left her or anywhere 
else acceptable to her parents. She is suspected of being really in 
love with Lovelace, but she protests that she will have nothing 



44 LITERARY ESSAYS 

more to do with him or any other man if she is allowed to remain 
free of Solmes. But her brother has organized the family to press 
for her marriage with Solmes, and she is confined to her room 
and subjected to every kind of pressure in the hope that she will 
consent to the marriage, in connection with which the most 
elaborate and (to the Harlowe family) favourable settlements 
have been drawn up. The picture of family pressure operating 
on Clarissa is drawn with magnificent vividness. The spiteful 
brother and sister, the tender but insistent mother, the hectoring 
uncles, and in the background the father egotistically insistent on 
his parental rights all this comes through with vividness and 
immediacy from Clarissa's letters to Anna Howe. At the same 
time Anna herself is revealed in her replies as a sprightly and witty 
girl whose chief pleasure in life (to Clarissa's distress) is teasing the 
worthy gentleman whom her mother wants her to marry and 
whom, it is clear, she will eventually marry. (Another piece of 
evidence, incidentally, that Richardson did not understand the 
nature of love between the sexes.) 

We also get occasional glimpses of Lovelace, who is revealed 
as the master mind behind the preposterous behaviour of the 
Harlowe family. By bribing servants to report his determination 
to perform various rash acts in pursuit of his vengeance against 
the Hatlowes and his love for Clarissa, he whips them into a fury 
of determination that Clarissa shall marry the odious Mr Solmes 
at the earliest possible moment. Pressure on Clarissa grows 
stronger and stronger; Lovelace presents himself continually as a 
source of refuge, offering to provide unconditional sanctuary for 
the persecuted girl among the ladies of his family (who, of course, 
all adore her, though by reputation only). Finally, when it looks 
as though Clarissa is to be forced by physical compulsion into 
marriage with Solmes, she momentarily yields to Lovelace's 
suggestion of rescue, only to revoke her acceptance of his offer 
shortly afterwards. But Lovelace refuses to take cognizance of 
her letter of revocation and awaits her at the garden gate with all 
necessary equipment for escape. On her going out to inform 
him that she cannot take advantage of his offer, he contrives a 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 45 

scene which enables him to whisk her off, and henceforth she is 
in Lovelace's power. 

The second movement of the story deals with the struggle 
between Clarissa and Lovelace. He is a rake, and therefore is 
reluctant to marry, though he adores Clarissa. He contrives 
matters so that she is made more and more dependent on him, 
and eventually brings her to London, to an apparently respectable 
lodging house which is in fact a brothel run by an old friend of 
his and staffed by girls whom he has ruined. After much coming 
and going, and a complex series of movements in Clarissa's heart 
towards and away from Lovelace the documentation of this 
shows us Richardson at the height of his powers he attempts her 
virtue by arranging a mock fire and bringing her out of her room 
in her night dress to escape the supposed conflagration. She sees 
his purpose, discovers his trick, and successfully repulses him, 
shaken to the core by his villainy. He is repentant and offers 
immediate marriage, which she proudly rejects. She despises 
him, and will not marry a man whom she despises. He exerts 
himself to restore himself to favour in her eyes, arranging for 
friends of his to play the part of an emissary from her relatives 
offering reconciliation if only she is married to the man she eloped 
with, and even to personate his own noble relations. He succeeds 
to the point of manoeuvring her back to the house of ill fame, and 
there, with the co-operation of the inmates, he first drugs and 
then violates her. Now that he has climbed his Everest and proved 
that it cannot be done without carrying oxygen, as it were, he is 
prepared to concede her true virtue and to marry her. (Of course 
he had pretended to be dying to marry her all the time, but had 
adroitly phrased his offers so as to compel her refusal on each 
occasion.) After illness and hysteria, she escapes from him, and 
ignores his frenzied appeals for forgiveness and immediate mar- 
riage. Meanwhile her friends and relations consider her a ruined 
woman who has wilfully contributed to her own dishonour. Her 
family regard her as a wicked runaway who deliberately chose 
ruin at the hands of a rake. 

The third and final movement of the book deals with Clarissa's 



46 LITERARY ESSAYS 

vindication and sanctification. By means of letters appropriately 
copied and circulated the truth begins to emerge. But her family 
are prevented from knowing the truth until after her death, while 
her dear friend Anna Howe is kept from her by a number of 
contrived circumstances, and even her sympathetic cousin Mor- 
den, who finally arrives home from Italy, is not allowed to come 
to see her until her death is inevitable. All this time the unfortu- 
nate Lovelace is frantically pleading for forgiveness and marriage, 
backed by his powerful family. But Clarissa remains alone, in 
lodgings, befriended by strangers, cut off from friends and 
relations. And there, having made all suitable preparations, she 
dies, before an audience of new-found admirers. Her death is a 
studied presentation of ars moriendi, a high example of the art of 
dying like a Christian. Her family, on finally learning the whole 
truth about her conduct, are consumed by remorse, and her 
funeral is the occasion of its exhibition. Every single wicked 
character in the book then meets an appropriate sticky end. 

Such a sketchy account of the plot can give no impression of 
the book's richness and subtlety, nor can it illustrate the effective 
way in which Richardson moves his heroine from the context of 
this world to her glorious martyr's inheritance of the next. And 
almost until the end he keeps the possibility of marriage with 
Lovelace open. Her friend Ajina Howe urges her that this is the 
way to bring everything to a reasonably happy ending, and the 
Lovelace family, who love and admire her, plead with her to 
reform by marriage the attractive but wayward author of all the 
mischief. At one time she had been prepared to marry him in 
order to reform him, and she admitted, if not love for him, at 
least a predisposition in his favour. But there is no forgiveness for 
violation; she cannot marry a man so wicked, nor can she con- 
sider herself, a violated woman, as someone who ought to marry. 
The grave, and Heaven beyond it, are now her only resource. 
The book, which had begun as an exercise in Holy Living, ends 
as a case history of Holy Dying. * 

Before her violation Clarissa had been prepared to consider 
marriage to the fascinating Lovelace for the purpose of reforming 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 47 

him, and Lovelace himself cunningly played on his need for 
reformation by such means. But that temptation is over once the 
rape has taken place; marriage is henceforth unthinkable to 
Clarissa (but not to her friends), whose thoughts are more and 
more centred on the next world. Attempted violation (such as 
Pamela met with) is one thing; successful violation is another. 
Richardson is not as clear as he might be on the relation between 
guilt and misfortune. Sometimes he suggests that Clarissa (though 
through no fault of her own) is 'ruined', made permanently unfit 
for matrimony by having been forcibly rendered a fallen woman. 
Like so many of his generation and later, Richardson had a purely 
technical view of chastity. Clarissa, though a saint, had lost her 
chastity, so she must give up any hope of accommodation with 
this world. She could not, of course, consider marriage with her 
violator (and Richardson is a cut above many nineteenth-century 
moralists in this), but neither could she respect aay other man 
willing to marry a woman who had lost her 'honour* however 
innocently. 

Perhaps Clarissa could have escaped Lovelace's clutches in time 
if she had really tried. She could easily, it has been suggested, 
have put herself under the protection of the nearest magistrate. 
But to look at her confinement in Mrs Sinclair's house in this way 
is to misunderstand what Richardson is doing. That house has 
by this time become a microcosm of the world, and Clarissa's 
confinement in it is a symbol of her confinement in this wicked 
mundane sphere; the only escape now can be into the next world. 
After her violation, all men are vile. Nothing in this remarkable 
book is more psychologically convincing than Clarissa's horror 
of anything in trousers after her experience at the hands of Love- 
lace. She uses the word 'man' as a term of abuse and contempt, 
and at first refuses to have a doctor in her room during her final 
illness because he is of the male sex. This world, in whose 
social duties man may, with luck, imitate heavenly felicity and 
anticipate his ultimate reward, has become for Clarissa a den of 
iniquity. Her family, obedience to whom is a condition of earthly 
prosperity, have made her obedience impossible. She cannot go 



48 LITERARY ESSAYS 

back to them. She is going home to her father, as she tells Lovelace 
in a deliberately ambiguous note, but it is her Heavenly Father; 
her family relationship is subsumed in the higher relationship to 
God, the Father of all. 

It might be argued that by making Clarissa perfect in beauty, 
virtue and wealth Richardson was deliberately restricting the 
implications of the story. What universal application can be 
drawn from the fate of a character who is endowed with all 
possible good qualities of character and fortune? It can, however, 
be argued with equal plausibility that Richardson, by putting the 
extreme case, by showing how even this perfect creature can be 
caught in the mesh of the wicked world, is extending rather than 
limiting his context. But this whole argument is academic. 
Clarissa is a novel both realistic in its psychology and symbolic in 
its scope and meaning : it elaborates the conditions under which 
virtue can be driven to sainthood. Further it must be remembered 
that for all her saintliness Clarissa is human. She can be proud 
and obstinate, and she has her moments of weakness. And the 
origin of her troubles lay in her breaking of the social rules, 
however innocently. 

Lovelace is a more interesting character than Mr B., though 
no more convincing. He is a mild and timid man's picture of the 
ideal rake, of Satan as gentleman, witty, boisterous, adventurous, 
courageous, ruthless. His letters to his friend Belford are pre- 
posterous enough, showing him as they do congratulating him- 
self on being a rake and introspecting on his rakishness with 
incredible self-consciousness. To us he is less a fascinating villain 
than a cad and a fool, who does not even know how to handle 
his women. But he serves his purpose, which is after all little 
more than that of a catalyst. 

There is much more to be said about Clarissa indeed, I feel 
that I have only touched the fringe of its meaning and its interest 
but I must say a brief word about Richardson's last novel, Sir 
Charles Grandison, published in seven volumes in 1754. The 
relative lack of moral conflict in this work makes it less interesting 
than the other two. Further, Richardson is here concerned ex- 



SAMUEL RICHARDSON 49 

clusively with high life, which was unfamiliar to him, and the 
result is a stiffiiess that compares most unfavourably with Pamela's 
vulgar self-revelations. Who can be convinced by a hero who 
has absolutely everything life has to offer fortune, supreme good 
looks, perfect virtue and perfect prudence? He goes through life 
settling other people's affairs with calm assurance, making friends 
of enemies, disarming those who seek duels with him by a flick 
of his wrist (for he disapproves of duelling), arranging marriages, 
making up quarrels, mingling seemly mirth with grave reproof. 
Nowhere else in Richardson is the public nature of the emotional 
life made so apparent. Everyone reveals his (or, more often, her) 
inmost emotions to everyone else. Letters are shown, copied, 
exchanged. Sir Charles, who first meets the beautiful and virtuous 
Harriet Byron through rescuing her from being carried off by 
the villainous Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, soon reveals to her the 
complicated story of his emotional entanglements in Italy,. and 
she is referred to letters in the hands of the Rev. Dr Bardett, Sir 
Charles' chaplain, for further details. The Italian subplot is melo- 
dramatic and artificial, and the lovely Clementina, 'who would 
have married Sir Charles but for a difference in religion, is an odd 
creature to find in Richardson's pages. But in high life anything 
can happen, and Sir Charles speaks Italian perfectly. The book is 
not, however, as dull as this description might lead one to suppose. 
Lady G.'s accounts of her tiffs with her husband are often lively 
and amusing, and there are other 'humours' in the book to relieve 
the complacent virtue of the hero. 

But if Richardson had written only Sir Charles Grandison he 
would not be remembered today as a novelist. The detail here, 
which is profuse, does not weave the fine psychological and moral 
mesh of Clarissa, nor has it the naive conviction of Pamela. I 
could make a case for Sir Charles Grandison, but it would be 
disproportionate to attempt to do so here at the end of an already 
too crowded discussion of the other novels. I would rather end 
by returning to Clarissa, and urge you to forget what the textbooks 
of literary history say and read this brilliant and original novel 
with a fresh mind. 



THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS 1 

THE SUDDEN and premature death of Dylan Thomas pro- 
duced elegies and appreciations in extraordinary numbers 
on both sides of the Atlantic. Thomas was the most poetical 
poet of our time. He talked and dressed and behaved and lived 
like a poet; he was reckless, flamboyant, irreverent, innocent, 
bawdy and bibulous. His verse, too, had a romantic wildness 
about it that even the reader who could make nothing of it 
recognized as 'poetic'. In the February 1954 issue of the London 
Magazine a twenty-six-year-old poet wrote a letter saying that 
Thomas represented the 'archetypal picture of the Poet' for his 
generation, and that the death of this wild and generous character 
produced 'something like a panic' in the world of letters. He was 
answered in the next issue of the magazine by a thirty-one-year- 
old poet who said that this was puerile nonsense and deplored 
what he called the 'fulsome ballyhoo' which Thomas's death 
evoked in both England and America. There was perhaps an 
element of ballyhoo in the spate of articles about Thomas, but 
sober critical judgment is difficult when one is writing of a 
brilliant young man who has died at the very height of his career 
(or at the very height of his promise; we shall never tell now). 
And surely the exaggeration of the sense of loss at the death of a 
poet is a sign of health in any culture? Now that the shock has 
worn off, however, we can turn more soberly to ask the question : 
What sort of poetry did Dylan Thomas write, and how good 
is it? 

In a note to the collected edition of his poems, Thomas wrote: 
'These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusions, 
are written for the love of Man and in praise of God. . . . ' And 
in his prologue to the same volume he proclaimed his intention of 
celebrating the world and all that is in it: 

1 First published in The English Journal (Chicago), October 1954. 

50 



THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS 51 

... as I hack 
This rumpus of shapes 
For you to know 
How I, a spinning man, 
Glory also this star, bird 
Roared, sea born, man torn, blood blest. 
Hark: I trumpet the place, 

From fish to jumping hill ! Look : 

I build my bellowing ark 

To the best of my love 

As the flood begins, 

Out of the fountainhead 

Of fear, rage red, manalive, . . . 

This prologue is a great hail to the natural world, and man as a 
part of it, and might be taken by the careless reader as an im- 
pressionist outpouring of celebratory exclamations: 

Huloo, my pro wed dove with a flute! 

Ahoy, old, sea-legged fox, 

Tom tit and Dai mouse! 

My ark sings in the sun 

At God speeded summer's end 

And the flood flowers now. 

Yet in fact this spontaneous-seeming poem is a cunningly con- 
trived work in two movements of fifty-one lines each, with, the 
second section rhyming backwards with the first the first line 
rhyming with the last, the second with the second last, and so on, 
the only pair of adjacent lines which rhyme being the fifty-first 
and the fifty-second. Whether the ear catches this complicated 
cross rhyming or not, it is part of a cunning pattern of ebb and 
flow, of movement and counter-movement, which runs through 
the poem. This single piece of evidence is perhaps enough to 
prove that, for all the appearance of spontaneity and sometimes of 
free association that his poems present to some readers, Thomas 
was a remarkably conscientious craftsman for whom meaning 
was bound up with pattern and order. No modern poet in 
English has had a keener sense of form or has handled stanzas and 
verse paragraphs whether traditional or original with more 
deliberate cunning. 



52 LITERARY ESSAYS 

It is worth stressing this at the outset because there are still 
some people who talk of Thomas as though he were a writer of 
an inspired mad rhetoric, of glorious, tumbling, swirling language 
which fell from his pen in magnificent disorder. He has been 
held up by some as the antithesis of Eliot and his school, renoun- 
cing the cerebral orderliness of the 19205 and the 19305 in favour 
of a new romanticism, an engaging irresponsibility. On the 
other hand there are those who discuss his poems as though they 
are merely texts for exposition, ignoring the rhyme scheme and 
the complicated verbal and visual patterning to concentrate solely 
on the intellectual implications of the images. The truth is that 
Thomas is neither a whirling romantic nor a metaphysical imagist, 
but a poet who uses pattern and metaphor in a complex crafts- 
manship in order to create a ritual of celebration. He sees life as a 
continuous process, sees the workings of biology as a magical 
transformation producing unity out of identity, identity out of 
unity, the generations linked with one another and man linked 
with nature. Again and again in his early poems he seeks to find 
a poetic ritual for the celebration of this identity: 

Before I knocked and flesh let enter, 
With liquid hands tapped on the womb, 
I who was shapeless as the water 
That shaped the Jordan near my home 
Was brother to Mnetha's daughter 
And sister to the fathering worm. 



Or again: 



The force that through the green fuse drives the flower 
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees 
Is my destroyer. 



And most clearly of all: 



This bread I break was once the oat, 
This wine upon a foreign tree 

Plunged in its fruit; 

Man in the day or wind at night 

Laid the crops low, broke the grape's joy . . . 



THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS 53 

This flesh you break, this blood you let 

Make desolation in the vein, 

Were oat and grape 

Born of the sensual root and sap; 

My wine you drink, my bread you snap. 

Man is locked in a round of identities; the beginning of growth 
is also the first movement towards death, the beginning of love 
is the first move towards procreation, which in turn moves 
towards new growth, and the only way out of time's squirrel-cage 
is to embrace the unity of man with nature, of the generations 
with each other, of the divine with the human, of life with death, 
to see the glory and the wonder of it. If we ignore the cosmic 
round to seize the moment when we think we have it, we are 
both deluded and doomed: 

I see the boys of summer in their ruin 

Lay the gold tithings barren, 

Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils; 

There in their heat the winter floods 

Of frozen loves they fetch their girls, 

And drown the cargoed apples in their tides. 

Those boys of light are curdlers in their folly, 
Sour the boiling honey; . . . 

This is from an early poem; and several of these early poems strike 
this note the note of doom in the midst of present pleasure, for 
concealed in each moment He change and death. Thomas did not 
rush towards the celebration of unity in all life and all time which 
later became an important theme of comfort for him; he moved 
to it through disillusion and experiment. The force that drives 
the flower and the tree to full burgeoning and then to death 
would destroy him also. Only later came the realization that such 
destruction is no destruction, but a guarantee of immortality, of 
perpetual life in a cosmic eternity: 

And death shall have no dominion. 

Dead men naked they shall be one 

With the man, in the wind and the west moon; 

When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, 

They shall have stars at elbow and foot; 



54 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Though they go mad they shall be sane, 

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again; 

Though lovers be lost love shall not, 

And death shall have no dominion. 

It is this thought that sounds the note of triumph in 'Ceremony 
after a Fire Raid' and which provides the comfort in 'A Refusal 
to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London'. 

*A Refusal to Mourn' is a poem worth pausing at, for it illus- 
trates not only a characteristic theme of what might be called the 
middle Thomas, but also a characteristic way of handling the 
theme. The poem is ritualistic in tone; its dominant images are 
sacramental; and the cunningly contrived rise and fall of the 
cadence of each stanza adds to the note of formal ceremony. 
There are four stanzas, the first two and one line of the third 
containing a single sentence which swells out to a magnificent 
surge of meaning. Then, after a pause, the final stanza makes a 
concluding ritual statement, an antiphonal chant answering the 
first three stanzas. The paraphrasable meaning of the poem is 
simple enough: the poet is saying that never, until the end of the 
world and the final return of all things to their primal elements, 
will he distort the meaning of the child's death by mourning. 
One dies but once, and through that death becomes reunited with 
the timeless unity of things. But the paraphrasable meaning is 
not, of course, the meaning of the poem, which is expanded at 
each point through a deliberately sacramental imagery while at 
the same time the emotion is controlled and organized by the 
cadences of the stanza. The first stanza and a half describe the end 
of the world as a return from differentiated identity to elemental 
unity; 

Never until die mankind making 

Bkd beast and flower 

Fathering and all humbling darkness 

Tells with silence the last light breaking 

And the still hour 

Is come of the sea tumbling in harness 

And I must enter again the round 
Zion of the water bead 



THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS 55 

And the synagogue of the ear of corn 
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound 
Or sow my salt seed 
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn 

The majesty and burning of the child's death . . . 

There is no obscurity here, to anybody who knows Thomas's 
idiom. We have only to recall 'This bread I break was once the 
oat' to realize the significance of the first three lines of the second 
stanza. The water bead and the ear of corn are symbolic primal 
elements, to which all return at the end. But why 'Zion of the 
water bead' and 'synagogue of the ear of corn'? The answer is 
simply that these are sacramental images intended to give a 
sacramental meaning to the statement. It is a kind of imagery of 
which Thomas is very fond (one can find numerous other ex- 
amples, among them such a phrase as 'the parables of sun light' 
in 'Poem in October' or his use of Adam and Christ in his earlier 
poems). One might still ask why he says 'synagogue' and not 
'church'. The answer, I think, is that he wants to shock the reader 
into attention to the sacramental meaning. A more everyday 
religious word might pass by as a conventional poetic image, but 
'synagogue' attracts our attention at once; it has no meaning 
other than its literal one, and therefore can be used freshly in a 
non-literal way. The third stanza continues: 

I shall not murder 

The mankind of her going with a grave truth 

Nor blaspheme down the stations of her breath 

With any further 

Elegy of innocence and youth. 

Here words like 'mankind', 'blaspheme*, 'stations of her breath 
(recalling 'station of the Cross') play an easily discernible part in 
the expansion of the meaning, while the pun in 'grave truth* 
represents a device common enough in modern poetry. The 
concluding stanza gives the reason, the counter-statement: 

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter, 

Robed in the long friends, 

The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother, 



56 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Secret by the umnouraing water 

Of the riding Thames. 

After the first death, there is no other. 

This echoes, in its own way, the opening stanza; but its tone is 
new; it is that of liturgical proclamation. We need not wince at 
the suggestion that long friends' means (among other things) 
worms; worms for Thomas were not disgusting, but profoundly 
symbolic: like maggots they are elements of corruption and thus 
of reunification, of eternity. 

How much a poem of this kind owes to the imagery and to the 
cadence, as well as to the careful patterning, can be seen at once if 
one takes the perhaps extreme method of turning its paraphrasable 
content into conventional rhymed verse: 

Not until doomsday's final call 
And all the earth returns once more 
To that primaeval home of all, 
When on that insubstantial shore 
The tumbling primal waters foam 
And silence rules her lonely home, 

And I return to whence I came, 
The sacramental child of earth, 
Joining with nature to proclaim 
A death that is a second birth 
No, not until that final sleep 
Will I for this dead infant weep. 

She lies with her ancestral dead, 
The child of London, home at last 
To earth from whence all life is bred 
And present mingles with the past. 
The unmourning waters lap her feet: 
She has no second death to meet. 

This is doggerel, of course, but it contains, in however crude a 
form, the essential paraphrasable meaning of the Thomas poem 
yet misses everything of any significance about it. The note of 
ritual, of sacrament, of celebration, achieved through his special 
use of imagery and by other devices, is central in Thomas's 
poetry. 



THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS 57 

I have not given a critical analysis of the poem, but merely 
suggested a way of looking at it. 'A Refusal to Mourn* is a 
characteristic poem of one phase of Thomas's career, during 
which he was drawing together his impressions of the unity of 
all creation and all time to serve the purpose of a specific occasion. 
His earlier poems often fail by being too packed with metaphor 
suggestive of identity. Words like 'Adam', 'Christ', 'ghost', 
'worm', 'womb', phrases like 'the mouth of time', 'death's 
feather', 'beach of flesh', 'hatching hair', 'half-tracked thigh', 
abound, and though each has its orderly place in the poem the 
reader often feels dulled by the continuous impact of repeated 
words of this kind. The sonnet-sequence, 'Altarwise by owl-light', 
contains some brilliant identifying imagery (suggesting the identity 
of man with Christ, of creation with death, of history with the 
present), but it is altogether too closely packed, too dense, to 
come across effectively. The opening is almost a self-parody: 

Altarwise by owl-light in die halfway house 
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies; 
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam, 
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies, 
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news, 
Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow's scream 

The careful explicator will be able to produce informative glosses 
on each of these phrases, but the fact remains that the poem is 
congested with its metaphors, and the reader is left with a feeling 
of oppression. A fair number of Thomas's earlier poems are 
obscure for this reason. It is not the obscurity of free association 
or of references to private reading, but an obscurity which results 
from an attempt to pack too much into a short space, to make 
every comma tell, as it were. With his continuous emphasis on. 
birth, pre-natal life, the relation of parent to child, growth, the 
relation of body and spirit, of life to death, of human and animal 
to vegetable, and similar themes, and his constant search for de- 
vices to celebrate these and identify them with each other, he does 
not want one word to slip which may help in building up the 
total pattern of meaning. One of his poems shows how the 



58 LITERARY ESSAYS 

making of continuous connections and identities can bewilder 

the reader: 

Today, this insect, and die world I breathe, 

Now that my symbols have outelbowed space, 

Time at the city spectacles, and half 

The dear, daft time I take to nudge the sentence, 

In trust and tale have I divided sense, 

Slapped down the guillotine, the blood-red double 

Of head and tail made witnesses to this 

Murder of Eden and green genesis. 

He is saying here, in his compact metaphorical way, that expres- 
sion in language (which means expression in time) breaks up and 
so distorts the original vision. In his desire to avoid that breaking 
up he sometimes piles up the images and metaphors until the 
reader simply cannot construe the lines (as in the sixth stanza of 
'When, like a Running Grace'). But it must be emphasized that 
this is not the fault of a bad romantic poetry, too loose and ex- 
clamatory, but comes from what can perhaps be called the classical 
vice of attempting to press too much into a little space. 

Thomas progressed from those poems in which his techniques 
of identification are sometimes pressed too far, through a period 
of 'occasional' verse in which he focussed his general notions on 
particular incidents and situations to give a grave and formal 
ceremonial poetry ('A Refusal to Mourn', 'Do not go gentle into 
that good night', 'On the Marriage of a Virgin', etc.) to a period 
of more limpid, open-worked poetry in which, instead of en- 
deavouring to leap outside time into a pantheistic cosmos beyond 
the dimensions, he accepts time and change and uses memory as 
an elegiac device ('Poem in October', 'Fern Hill', 'Over Sir John's 
Hill', 'Poem on His Birthday'). But these divisions are not strictly 
chronological, nor do they take account of all the kinds of verse 
he was writing. There is, for example, 'A Winter's Tale', a 
'middle' poem, which handles a universal folk theme with a quiet 
beauty that results from perfect control of the imagery. It is far 
too long a poem to quote, and it needs to be read as a whole to 
be appreciated; it is one of Thomas's half dozen truly magnificent 
poems. 



THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS 59 

Another remarkable poem, which, does not quite fit into my 
threefold classification is 'Vision and Prayer', a finely wrought 
pattern-poem in two parts of six stanzas each. In no other poem 
has Thomas so successfully handled the theme of the identity of 
himself, everyman, and Christ. He imagines himself addressing 
the unborn Christ, who, in his mother's womb, seems separated 
from himself by a 'wall thin as a wren's bone'. The infant in the 
next room replies, explaining that it is his destiny to storm out 
across the partition that separates man from God, and the poet 
identifies himself with the glory and suffering of Christ's re- 
demptive career. The first part of the poem blazes to a conclusion 
with a vision of the triumph and pain of Christ's death. The 
second movement begins in a slow, hushed, almost muttering 
cadence: the poet prays that Christ remain in the womb, for men 
are indifferent and wanton and not worth redemption. Let the 
splendour of Christ's martyrdom remain unrevealed; *May the 
crimson/ Sun spin a grave grey/ And the colour of clay/ Stream 
upon his martyrdom'. But as he ends this sad prayer the sun of 
God blazes forth and takes up the poet in its lightning. 'The sun 
roars at the prayer's end.' No summary or partial quotation can 
do justice to the force and brilliance of this most cunningly 
modulated poem. The stanzas of the first part are diamond- 
shaped, and those of the second part shaped like an hour-glass, 
and this visual device is not arbitrary but reflects and answers the 
movement of the thought and emotion at each point. 

Of the more limpid, open-worked poems of the third period, 
'Poem in October', though written earlier than the others in this 
group, can stand as an excellent example. The poet, on his 
thirtieth birthday, is remembering his past and seeing himself in 
the familiar Welsh landscape as a boy with his mother: 

It was my thirtieth year to heaven 
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood 
And the mussel pooled and the heron 

Priested shore 
The morning beckon 
With water praying and call of seagull and rook 



60 LITERARY ESSAYS 

And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall 
Myself to set foot 
That second 
In the still sleeping town and set forth. 

Again we have the sacramentalizing of nature ('heron priested 
shore') and we have also a sense of glory in the natural world 
which Thomas learned to render more and more effectively as 
his art matured. Again, one cannot see the quality of the poem 
from an extract; elegy is combined with remembrance and com- 
memoration, and the emotion rises and. falls in a fine movement. 
Thomas's radio play, Under Milk Wood, was broadcast by the 
B.B.C. and. won instant approval among professional critics and 
laymen alike. In writing for the radio Thomas naturally avoided 
any too close packing of the imagery, and chose a style closer to 
that of c Poem in October' than to that of his earlier poems. In. 
spite of an occasional touch of sentimentality Under Milk Wood is 
a remarkable performance, one of the few examples in our time of 
spoken poetry 1 which is both good and popular. In estimating 
the loss to literature caused by Thomas's early death, I should be 
inclined to put the cutting short of his career as a poet for the 
radio as the most serious of all. Thomas was by instinct a popular 
poet as he wrote: 

Not for the proud man apart 
From the raging moon I write 
On these spendthrift pages 
Nor for the towering dead 
With their nightingales and psalms 
But for the lovers, then: arms 
Round the griefs of the ages, 
Who pay no praise or wages 
Nor heed my craft or art. 

He had no desire to be difficult or esoteric. He drew on the Bible 
and on universal folk themes rather than on obscure late classical 

1 1 call the language of Under Milk Wood poetry, though it is prose to the eye. 
When I wrote this I had heard the play twice but I had not read it, and there is no 
doubt that to the ear it is poetry. The opposite is true of T. S. Eliot's later plays, 
where the language is verse to the eye but prose to the ear. 



THE POETRY OF DYLAN THOMAS 6l 

writers or Jessie Western's From Ritual to Romance. In Under Milk 
Wood he puts into simple yet powerful and cunning words a day 
in the life of a Welsh village, with each character rendered in 
terms of some particular human weakness or folly. Unlike Eliot, 
Thomas accepted man as he was: he had a relish for humanity. 
By the end of his life he had learned to be both poetically honest 
and poetically simple a difficult combination, especially in our 
time. And in choosing the spoken verse of the radio as a medium 
he was pointing the way towards a bridging of the appalling gap 
in our culture between professional critic and ordinary reader. 

Was he a great poet? Against him it can be argued that his 
range was severely limited, that (in his earlier poems) he overdid 
a handful of images and phrases to the point almost of parodying 
himself, that many of his poems are clotted with an excess of 
parallel-seeking metaphors. I doubt if he wrote a dozen really 
first-rate poems; these would include, among those not hitherto 
mentioned here, 'In the White Giant's Thigh' and 'In Country 
Sleep'. In his favour it can be claimed that at his best he is 
magnificent, as well as original in tone and technique, and that 
he was growing in poetic stature to the last. Perhaps the question 
is, in the most literal sense, academic. It is enough that he wrote 
some poems that the world will not willingly let die. 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 1 

POETS ARE RARELY systematic philosophers. Their vision of 
life is embodied in their poetry, with all the rich overtones 
of symbolic meaning which poetic statement can provide; 
to paraphrase their ideas in prose generalizations is to risk losing 
all that is most valuable in the original. How can we ever discuss 
the philosophy of a poet apart from, his poetry? In 'Song of 
Myself Whitman warned us: *I have no chair, no church, no 
philosophy/ And although, with his characteristic disregard for 
mere consistency, he made many other statements with an exactly 
contrary meaning, the fact remains that to treat Whitman as a 
systematic philosopher is an unrealistic and unprofitable procedure. 
He did, however, have a vision of man, and throughout his life 
he kept exploring ways of communicating it. We can, I think, 
helpfully discuss that vision, examine the ways in which he sought 
to project it and the fundamental attitudes which it implies. 
When Whitman said, C I have no chair, no church, no philosophy/ 
he continued: 

I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange, 
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll, 
My left hand hooking you round the waist, 
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and thepublic road. 

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, 
You must travel it for yourself. 

This is not a philosophical formulation, but a symbolic gesture, 
in which the poet's self is linked both to other selves and to the 
world of external nature; it is a gesture which brings into one 
relationship the three factors of individual identity, love, and 
'landscapes of continents'. Whitman's most memorable utter- 

1 A lecture delivered at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., in January 
I955> as part of the celebrations commemorating the looth anniversary of the 
publication of Leaves of Grass. 

62 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 63 

ances are all symbolic gestures of embracing, pointing, hailing; 
devices for joining the unique and mystical identity of the self 
with the world of his fellow men, of the other unique and mystical 
identities. In the well-known words of his opening 'Inscription' : 

One's-self I sing, a simple separate person, 

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse. 

I am not here concerned with questions of poetic style, and I shall 
not comment on the perhaps embarrassing term 'En-Masse* 
except to note in passing that the strange foreign and supposedly 
foreign, words which "Whitman scattered throughout his poetry, 
often so unhappily, represent a device which he hoped would 
enable him to move from the literal to the symbolic, to- shock the 
reader into recognition of what is really there, to give a new tilt to 
the vision. The simple point about this familiar declaration to 
which I wish to draw attention is that it presents a polarity which 
is a basic preoccupation of Whitman's. The uniqueness and all- 
importance of the identity of the individual, and the human 
necessity of contact both are basic. This is not, perhaps, a 
philosophical tenet; but it is a central part of Whitman's vision. 

Underneath all, individuals, 

I swear nothing is good to me now that ignores individuals, 
The American compact is altogether with individuals, 
The only government is that which makes minute of individuals, 
The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single 
individual namely to You. 

But a few lines further on in the same poem he declares: 
Underneath all is the Expression of love for men and women. 

The dialectic consists sometimes of two terms (the 'Me* and the 
'Not-Me'), sometimes of three (the self, other selves, Nature). 
The poet, says Wordsworth, carries 'everywhere with him re- 
lationship and love*. With this Whitman (who, incidentally, 
refers to Wordsworth very rarely) would have thoroughly agreed. 
He would have agreed, too, with Wordsworth's statement that 
the poet 'considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each 
other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest 



64 LITERARY ESSAYS 

and most interesting properties of nature'. But he was more in- 
sistent than Wordsworth ever was on the compelling mystery of 
identity, and thus knew from the beginning that relationship and 
love involve a paradox. In one of the many advertising blurbs 
for Leaves of Grass which Whitman himself wrote anonymously, 
he said: 

That he writes about himself [Whitman's italics] a criticism often sneeringly 
brought against him is, in fact, the very object of his appearance in literature, 
which is, briefly, to formulate in a poem, with unprecedented candor, a com- 
plete human being, body, mind, emotions, soul. 

But he goes on to add: 

The book weaves and twines in everywhere the different products, climates, 
and all and each of the several United States, by their nomenclature, the South 
as much as the North not a single State or city, and hardly a river or mountain 
left out; all knitted and twisted together, so that their entire geography and 
hydrography are fused in its pages. 

That was in 1873. In 1882, in Specimen Days, he wrote: 

The most profound theme that can occupy the mind of man ... is doubtless 
involved in the query: Wnat is the fusing explanation and tie what is the 
relation between the (radical, democratic) Me, the human identity of under- 
standing, emotions, spirit, &c., on the one side, of and with the (conservative) 
Not-Me, the whole of the material universe and laws, with what is behind 
them in time and space, on the other side? 

It is the old Cartesian dilemma, of the relation between the 
perceiving mind and external reality, complicated by the fact 
that for Whitman external reality included both 'the whole of the 
material universe and laws' and the world of other perceiving 
selves. He solved his dilemma, not philosophically, but poetically. 
The sympathetic imagination, which was the poetic mind at 
work, was by a process of Einfuhlung, of empathy, able to project 
the poet's self into other selves. 'I am the man, I suffer'd, I was 
there,' Whitman exclaims in 'Song of Myself ' after listing varie- 
ties of individuals and their experiences. Indeed, that is the very 
theme of 'Song of Myself, paradoxical though it may sound. It 
is a song of identification. 'I am the hounded skve, I wince at the 
bite of the dogs,' or again, 'Not a mutineer walks handcuff 'd to 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 65 

jail but I am handcuffed to him and walk by his side* we all know 
the familiar passages in which Whitman projects himself into 
other identities. The poetic imagination both realizes the full, 
uiuque identity of the self, and identifies that self with other 
selves. The same point is made, again and again, in that strangely 
moving poem, 'The Sleepers* : 

I go from bedside to bedside, I sleep close with the other sleepers each in 

turn, 

I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers, 
And I become the other dreamers 

I am the actor, the actress, the voter, the politician, 
The emigrant and the exile, the criminal that stood in the box, 
He who has been famous and he who shall be famous after today, 
The stammerer, the well-form'd person, the wasted or feeble person. 

Just as the sympathetic imagination helps Whitman to solve 
one aspect of his dilemma, so sensation and memory together help 
to solve the other, to join man and Nature. Here again he would 
have agreed with Wordsworth, that the poet 'will follow where- 
soever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move 
his wings/ Sensation for Whitman was not merely a bridge 
between the self and the external world; it was a method of 
learning to know the external world from the inside, so that it 
ceases to be external and becomes part of one's self: 

There was a child went forth every day, 

And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became, 

And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, 

Or for many years or stretching cycles of years. 

This sense of anidentity between man and Nature is familiar enough 
in Romantic poetry, and Emerson has his own version of it. But, 
however much Emerson may have influenced Whitman and 
Whitman contradicted himself more than once on this question 
Whitman's view of the relation between man and Nature is 
essentially his own. Perception of Nature, and remembered per- 
ception of Nature, help at the same time to disperse identity, as it 
were, among different natural scenes and objects, and to enrich 
personality by making those scenes and objects part of the self. 



66 LITERARY ESSAYS 

So by love the individual both disperses and fulfils himself, both 
scatters his ego and concentrates it. 

The true personality is thus a microcosm, containing within 
itself potential identification with all other true personalities and 
(in a somewhat obscure sense, it is true) all of Nature. His well- 
known description of himself as 

Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son, 
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding, 
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from 
them, . . . 

emphasizes the paradox: in being most himself, his complete 
bodily self, without repression or emotional over-compensation, 
he becomes the proper equal of others and can, by the exercise 
of the sympathetic imagination, identify himself with them. The 
complete self is both bodily and spiritual, and Whitman is em- 
phatic in declaring that both aspects are equal: 

I have said that the soul is not more than the body, 

And I have said that the body is not more than the soul 

To be capable of the proper kind of imaginative expansion, the 
self must not deny any of its aspects. All human functions, all 
human capabilities, are sacred, and the fulfilled personality who 
is at once most himself and most capable of entering into the lives 
of others denies none. Sex is thus accepted frankly and freely, 
in its physical as well as its other aspects; and, by the same token, 
as he insists so often, the woman is without any possible reser- 
vation the complete equal of the man. 

Though parts of this doctrine were far enough removed from 
the view of the New England Transcendentalists, there were 
some interesting similarities. In 1836 Orestes Brownson had 
described the Transcendentalists' mission as the reconciliation of 
spirit and matter. 'We cannot ... go back either to exclusive 

Spiritualism, or to exclusive Materialism Both have their 

foundation in our nature, and both will exist and exert their 

influence Is the bosom of Humanity to be eternally torn by 

these two contending factions? No. It cannot be. The war must 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 67 

end. Peace must be made. This discloses our Mission. We must 
reconcile spirit and matter; that is, we must realize the atone- 
ment.' This was precisely Whitman's view. The individual whose 
true self combined equally body and soul was for him the root 
fact of existence. The 'rapport' to use one of Whitman's 
favourite words between such individuals and between each 
individual and Nature provides the basis of true civilization; it 
is a prerequisite of the good society. 'Produce great Persons, the 
rest follows,' he declared in 'By Blue Ontario's Shores', and great 
persons for him were real persons, not marionettes, not to use 
another of his favourite terms 'dandified* persons, mechanical 
slaves of fashion or dupes of their own narrow and unrealized 
selves. Everyone is capable of self-realization if not narrowed and 
corrupted by bad influences and bad habits, and that, I think, is 
what Whitman means when he talks about the importance of the 
'average'. He has been accused of putting the average man on a 
pedestal, of being the precursor of those opinion-seekers and 
pollsters who search after a statistical norm and then idolize it as 
the typical American. But clearly Whitman had no such idea in 
his head. No one would have been more horrified than he by 
that modern advertising which suggests that because more people 
are buying x or y then you will naturally want to buy it, or with 
the notion of keeping up with the Joneses. What Whitman 
meant was that the formal attributes of greatness believed in by 
what he liked to call the feudal ages had no necessary connection 
with real human greatness, which was independent of birth, 
social position, formal education, or conventional 'talents'. Poli- 
tical democracy provides the framework, the possibility and 
only that for die full development of personality without regard 
to traditional advantages of rank and so on. Any man engaged in 
his chosen work amid America's teeming society could be a 'great 
person' in Whitman's sense. The stereotype, the parroter of 
dich6s, the man who organizes his thinking (in Matthew Arnold's 
phrase) in terms of catchwords rather than of of ideas, the party 
man, have nothing to do with Whitman's 'average'. 
Whitman's conception of the 'average' is, of course, closely 



68 LITERARY ESSAYS 

related to his view of democracy and of the potentialities of 
America as the home of democracy. Perhaps the most superficial 
aspect of Whitman's political thought was his more or less routine 
acceptance of the notion that free, progressive America could look 
back with scorn on the tyrannies of the European past and equally 
deride the inequalities of the present-day European class system. 
This was a standard enough American doctrine by Whitman's 
day, and he showed no great originality in taking it over. Nor 
was he especially original in demanding a great new truly Ameri- 
can literature instead of a pallid imitation of English writers. 
Emerson, as we all know, had announced at the end of his address 
on 'The American Scholar' that 'we have listened too long to the 
courtly muses of Europe', and Whitman followed with his 'Come 
Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia', his call to the American 
Muse to take up her habitation in the 'better, fresher, busier 
sphere', the 'wide, untried domain', that awaited her. I do not 
mean that Whitman was not in earnest when he said things like 
this; of course he was; but he had more original and profounder 
things to say about the possibilities of American democracy. 
Nothing could be farther from the truth than Sidney Lanier's 
remark that 'Whitman's argument seems to be, that, because a 
prairie is wide, therefore debauchery is admirable, and because 
the Mississippi is long, therefore every American is God'. In the 
letter to Emerson which he included in the 1856 edition of his 
poems he talked of 'that new moral American continent without 
which, 1 see, the physical continent remained incomplete, may be 
a carcass, a bloat'. The physical grandeur of America was a 
challenge to its inhabitants to achieve a comparable grandeur of 
personality, while the growth of the country's population gave 
unprecedented scope to the individual's capacity for imaginative 
understanding and sympathy. Again, in the 1855 preface he stated 
emphatically: 'The largeness of nature or the nation were mon- 
strous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the 
spirit of the citizen.' 

It is in the light of such remarks that we must read Whitman's 
rapt descriptions of the ideal American. He proclaims trium- 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 69 

phantly of the ordinary men and women of America: 'Their 
shadows are projected in employments, in books, in the cities, in 
trade; their feet are on the flights of the steps of the Capitol; they 
dilate, a larger, hrawnier, more candid, more democratic, lawless, 
positive native to The States, sweet-bodied, completer, dauntless, 
flowing, masterful, beard-faced, new race of men/ But of course 
this is not a description of the America he sees; it is a prophetic 
vision of the America he believes in, the America which, he feels, 
will one day come into being. He begins the paragraph which 
contains this description by declaring, 'I am a man of perfect 
faith.' And he adds : 'We have not come through centuries, caste, 
heroisms, fables, to halt in this land today/ His visionary gaze 
is on the future, and he goes on to call on. the American people to 
justify his faith and embody his vision. Further, for all his loving 
play with the names and scenes of America, the country is for him 
a symbol of something larger, of civilization in its ideal develop- 
ment. Just as the individual must fully realize his own personality 
to fulfil himself and to achieve proper 'rapport' with others, so 
the country must fully realize its own personality before it can 
stand as a symbol of something larger than itself. In his vision of 
the Americans of the future, he announces that 'they resume 
Personality, too long left out of mind'. That is the road to the 
true American future. It is, moreover, a road to a goal that can 
perhaps never be fully attained: 'America is not finished, perhaps 
never will be/ 

Political democracy makes it possible for each individual to 
fulfil his own personality, to realize fully his free self. But political 
democracy cannot in itself guarantee that such a development will 
take place. That development needs the assistance of the poet, 
and to embody a vision of it was, for "Whitman, the prime task of 
the American poet. 'I have allowed the stress of my poems to 
bear on American individuality and assist it,' he wrote in *A 
Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads'. The visionary poet 
often deliberately mixes his tenses, and Whitman does it as 
visionaries from Isaiah on have done it. In describing his ideal as 
though it were real, he is behaving as a poet rather than as a 



70 LITERARY ESSAYS 

sociologist, and to accuse Whitman of naivete because his ideal- 
izing descriptions often do not correspond with fact is itself naive. 
And we must remember that the prose of his prefaces often 
written in the same style as his poetry and sometimes embodied 
later in verse is not, merely because it is prose, to be read as 
systematic philosophy or as sociological description: it, too, em- 
bodies the vision. 

Whitman's idealization of the 'average' is not, then, an endorse- 
ment of the Gallup poll or an abandonment to statistics or an 
obsession with mediocrity though some of those who profess 
to follow Whitman are guilty of these errors. The average is for 
him a symbol of the infinite potential of individual personality. 
Political democracy provides the best nursery for personalities, 
with the poet as the best nurse. America, which came into being 
as a nation dedicated to political democracy, and which, by its 
extent, variety and resources, constitutes the best possible arena 
for the display and mutual 'rapport' of varied personalities, is the 
symbolic home of 'great persons 5 . America's duty is therefore to 
exploit its own potentialities as that symbolic home, rather than 
imitate the behaviour of other countries. He was not blind to the 
fact that America often seemed to be neglecting that duty. Demo- 
cratic Vistas is full of bitter denunciations of America's failure to 
be true to her destiny as he saw it: 

I say we had better look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a 
physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more 
hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine 
belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not 
honestly believ'd in (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic scream- 
ings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not every- 
where see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. . . . 

He could even talk (in Specimen Days) of 'the supple, polish* d, 
money-worshipping, Jesus-and-Judas-equaJ&ting, suffrage-sove- 
reignty echoes of current America' incidentally, this in. defence 
of Carlyle, the anti-democrat, with whose criticism of democracy 
in action he found himself forced to agree, for all his profound 
disagreement in principle. He was no happier than many another 



WALT WHITMAN S PHILOSOPHY 7! 

observer about the crudities and cruelties of the Gilded Age. 
America's destiny to produce 'great persons' was being betrayed. 
'But sternly discarding, shutting our eyes to the glow and gran- 
deur of the general superficial effect, coming down to what is of 
the only real importance, Personalities, and examining minutely, 
we question, we ask, Are there, indeed, men here worthy the 
name?' The Emersonian overtones of this question cannot dis- 
guise its heartfelt urgency. Is there', he continues, 'a great moral 
and religious civilization the only justification of a great material 
one?' He makes clear, in Democratic Vistas, that political demo- 
cracy was to be only the first stage, the essential foundation. The 
second stage, also preparatory, was the achievement of material 
prosperity. The third stage, which he announced in his poetic 
visions, was the stage when America, having fully realized herself, 
became the home of great personalities 'these States, self- 
contained, different from others, more expansive, more rich and 
free, to be evidenced by original authors and poets to come, by 
American personalities, plenty of them, male and female, tra- 
versing the States, none excepted and by native superber tab- 
leaux and growths of language, songs, operas, orations, lectures, 
architectures and by a sublime and serious Religious Democracy 
sternly taking command, dissolving the old, sloughing off surfaces, 
and from its own interior and vital principles, reconstructing, 
democratizing society.' 

But what of the masses? "What of his favourite concept, *En- 
Masse'? In a nation of 'rich, luxuriant, varied personal ism' to 
which Whitman looked forward, will we not get something 
rather more like John Stuart Mill's view of society as expressed in 
his essay on Liberty (which Whitman, admired) than the picture 
of 'the broadest average of humanity' to which Whitman looked 
forward? I have already given part of the answer to this question, 
in pointing out that Whitman's notion of the 'average' was 
perfectly compatible with his desire to see rich and varied per- 
sonalities. He was, nevertheless, aware of an apparent contra- 
diction in his thought here, for he saw that unlimited and un- 
regulated individualism could lead in its own way to the negation 



72 LITERARY ESSAYS 

of democracy something that John Stuart Mill also saw later. 
'"We shall,' wrote Whitman in Democratic Vistas, 'it is true, quickly 
and continually find the origin-idea of the singleness of man, 
individuaHsm, asserting itself, and cropping forth, even from the 
opposite ideas. But the mass, or lump character, for imperative 
reasons, is to be ever carefully weigh' d, borne in mind, and pro- 
vided for. Only from it, and from its proper regulation and 
potency, comes the other, comes the chance of individualism. 
The two are contradictory, but our task is to reconcile them.' He 
added an illuminating footnote here: 

The question hinted here is one which time only can answer. Must not the 
virtue of modern Individualism, continually enlarging, usurping all, seriously 
affect, perhaps keep down entirely, in America, the like of the ancient virtue 
of Patriotism, the fervid and absorbing love of general country? I have no 
doubt myself that the two will merge, and will mutually profit and brace each 
other, and that from them a greater product, a third, will arise. But I feel that 
at present they and their oppositions form a serious problem and paradox in 
the United States. 

The relation between the individual and the masses, as Whitman 
saw it, is thus comparable to the relation between the 'Me' and 
the 'Not-me' which I have already discussed. The dialectic here 
is almost Hegelian: out of two apparent opposites a third unity is 
formed the sympathetic, all-inclusive personality out of the 
reconciliation of the 'Me' and the 'Not-me', and the true demo- 
cratic society out of the reconciliation between individual 
and mass. If Whitman, in some of his finest poems, hails 
America in terms which suggest that these reconciliations have 
already been effected, that is a legitimate device of the poetic 
visionary. 

Whitman's vision of the fulfilled individual, the complete 
personality, and his place in a democratic American civilization 
is, as he himself stressed, essentially religious. As he put it in his 
somewhat odd vocabulary: 'Beyond the vertebration of the 
manly and womanly personalism of our western world, can only 
be, and is indeed, to be, (I hope,) its all penetrating Religiousness/ 
It is not, of course, institutional religion that Whitman is talking 



WALT WHITMAN S PHILOSOPHY 73 

about he joins hands with the TranscendentaHsts firmly on this 
point. 'Religion/ he wrote in the same section of Democratic 
Vistas from which I have been quoting, 'although casually arrested, 
and, after a fashion, preserv'd in the churches and creeds, does not 
depend at all upon them, but is a part of the identified soul, which, 
when greatest, knows not bibles in the old way, but in new ways 
the identified soul, which can really confront Religion when it 
extricates itself entirely from the churches, and not before.' 
Whitman was suspicious of institutions and parties. 'Disengage 
yourself from parties,' he cried. 'They have been useful, and to 
some extent remain so; but the floating, uncommitted electors, 
farmers, clerks, mechanics, the masters of parties watching aloof, 
inclining victory this side or that side such are the ones most 
needed, present and future.' The institutions of political demo- 
cracy were necessary to provide an arena in which the individual 
could work out both his personal and his social destiny, but they 
were a means, not an end, and a means easily capable of abuse. 
'Political democracy,' he wrote, 'as it exists and practically works 
in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training- 
school for making first-class men. It is life's gymnasium, not of 
good only, but of all.' Of ecclesiastical institutions, he had not 
even that to say; he had learned suspicion of them from the 
TranscendentaHsts, as well as from the Quaker preference for the 
'inner light'. 

Whitman's faith in America, his vision of a fulfilled and exem- 
plary American democracy, expressed itself inevitably in a form 
which involved a certain amount of disparagement of other 
countries and of the whole past of the Old World, but this is 
neither his characteristic nor his most eloquently expressed mood. 
To the polarities in his thought which I have tried to indicate 
there must be added another that between America and the 
world in general. Though he is ready enough to list the weak- 
nesses of older societies ruled by kings or tyrants and highly strati- 
fied in their organization, he is remarkably generous in his tributes 
to what the New World owes to the Old. As he put it in 'Song 
of the Exposition' : 



74 LITERARY ESSAYS 

We do not blame thee elder World, 

nor really separate ourselves from thee, 
(Would the son separate himself from the father?) 
Looking back on thee, seeing thee to thy duties, grandeurs, through 

past ages bending, building, 
We build to ours today. 

Whitman's vision is essentially cosmic; its identifying gaze moves 
ever outward from the self, and the observing and imagining self 
moves progressively across America and across the world. 'Salut 
au Monde' is rather too much of an exclamatory catalogue to be 
one of his best poems, but it gives nevertheless an impressive 
picture of his vision wandering through history and geography, 
uniting all times and all lands, focussing the cosmos through his 
own consciousness: 

Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens, 

Asia, Africa, Europe, are to the east America is provided for in the 

west, 

Banding the bulge of the earth winds the hot equator, 
Curiously north and south turn the axis-ends, 
Within me is the longest day, the sun wheels in slanting rings, it does 

not set for months, 
Stretch'd in due time within me the midnight sun just rises above the 

horizon and sinks again, 

Within me zones, seas, cataracts, forests, volcanoes, groups, 
Malaysia, Polynesia, and the great West Indian islands. 

There were, of course, contradictions in Whitman's attitude to 
the non-American world we all know Whitman's defence of 
contradictions as there were bound to be for anyone who saw 
America both as the blueprint of a new society, freed from the 
dead hand of old tradition and inequalities, as the symbolic ideal 
of the community where individuals link their personalities in 
perfect association, and as one part of history and geography, 
bound up with the whole world and the whole universe. 

'Passage to India' is Whitman's most mature poetic statement 
on the relation between the New World and the Old. The span- 
ning of the American continent by rail and the linking of Europe 
to India by the opening of the Suez Canal provided a perfect 



WALT WHITMAN S PHILOSOPHY 75 

symbol for the use of his visionary imagination, with its need to 
explore simultaneously the poet's unique self and the world at 
large. The poem is partly about contact /rapport'. 

Passage to India! 

Lo, soul, seest thou not God's purpose from the first? 

The earth to be spann'd, connected by network, 

The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage, 

The oceans to be crossed, the distant brought near, 

The lands to be welded together. 

But contact is only one of the themes. The poem is also a vision 
of history, starting with the dawn of civilization in the East and 
coming up to the modern railway train thundering across the 
American, continent. Old myths of unity now take on new 
meaning, the past becomes alive in a new way: 

Year at whose wide-flung door I sing! 

Year of the purpose accomplished! 

Year of the marriage of continents, climates and oceans! 

(No mere doge of Venice now wedding the Adriatic,) 

I see O year in you the vast terraqueous globe given and giving all, 
Europe to Asia, Africa join'd, and they to the New World, 
The lands, geographies, dancing before you, holding a festival garland, 
As brides and bridegrooms hand in hand. 

Passage to India! 

Cooling airs from Caucasus far, soothing cradle of man, 

The river Euphrates flowing, the past lit up again. 

Passage to India is passage to the past, to 'primal thought', and at 
the same time a challenge for the future. Contemplating the 
potentialities of modern transport, the poet sees life as adventure, 
experience as discovery, bringing the whole self into contact with 
history, geography, society. Characteristically, the great expan- 
sive movement of Whitman's vision is linked to an inward 
movement of self-contemplation 'We too take ship O soul*. 
In the concluding image of the voyage (a favourite of Whitman's) 
he sees himself, the past, India, America coming together in one 
great challenge to further spiritual adventure: 



76 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Passage to more than India! 
Are thy wings plumed indeed for such far flights? 
O soul, voyagest thou indeed on voyages like those? 
Disportest thou on waters such as those? 
Soundest below the Sanskrit and the Vedas? 

Then have they been unleash' d. 
Passage to you, you shores, ye aged fierce enigmas! 
Passage to you, to mastership of you, ye strangling problems! 
You, strew'd with the wrecks of skeletons, that, living, never reach'd 
you. 

Passage to more than India! 

O secret of the earth and sky! 

Of you O waters of the sea! O winding creeks and rivers! 

Of you O woods and fields! of you strong mountains of my land! 

Of you O prairies! of you gray rocks! 

O morning red! O clouds! O rain and snows! 

O day and night, passage to you! 

O sun and moon and all you stars! Sirius and Jupiter! 
Passage to you! 

Passage, immediate passage ! the blood burns in my veins ! 

Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor! 

Cut the hawsers haul out shake out every snail! . . . 

And so to the final cry: 'O farther, farther sail!' A poem about 
history and geography, about the past, present and future of the 
world, ends as an apostrophe to his own soul: a fine example of 
Whitman's counterpointing of the 'Me' and the 'Not-me'. 

Whitman's view of the relationship between the individual, 
society and the cosmos led him occasionally to see the whole of 
life as a sort of cosmic dance in which everyone and everything 
moves according to its own laws and both fulfils its own destiny 
and plays its proper part in the general movement. This is an old 
notion among poets and philosophers, going back to Plotinus 
and beyond. When Whitman declares that 

All is a procession, 

The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion . . . 

he is unconsciously echoing what the Elizabethan poet, Sir John 
Davies, had said in his 'Orchestra*. The measured cosmic dance 



WALT WHITMAN S PHILOSOPHY 77 

began, says Davies, when the world first sprang from its primal 
seeds : 

Since then they still are carried in a round, 
And changing come one in another's place ; 
Yet do they neither mingle nor confound, 
But every one doth keep the bounded space 
Wherein the dance doth bid it turn or trace. 
This wondrous miracle did Love devise, 
For dancing is love's proper exercise. 

Yeats, too, influenced by Plotinus, was to see the relation between 
the individual and the processes of life symbolized by the dance: 

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, 
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? 
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, 
How can we know the dancer from the dance? 

In his vision of the dance of life, therefore, Whitman is perpetu- 
ating an old poetic tradition, and giving it new meaning in the 
light of his own preoccupation with identity and relationship. 
In 'A Song of the Rolling Earth' we get a similar picture of the 
dance of the days and the years and the hours, the stately proces- 
sion of time in the universe, with its relation to human fate: 

Embracing man, embracing all, proceed the three hundred and sixty- 
five resisdessly round the sun; 

Embracing all, soothing, supporting, follow close three hundred and 
sixty-five offsets of the first, sure and necessary as they. 

Life is a formal dance; life and death are part of the same con- 
tinuous process, and immortality is guaranteed because the pro- 
cess is continuous: 

Behold this compost! behold it well! 

Perhaps every mite has once formed part of a sick person yet behold! 

The grass of spring covers the prairies, 

The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden, 

The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward, 
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches, 
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its 
graves . . . 



78 LITERARY ESSAYS 

And again, from the same poem: 

Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient, 

It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions, 

It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions 

of diseased corpses, 

It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor, 
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous 

crops, 
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from 

them at last. 

Life is process, and the fully realized individual's part in the 
process is eternal, and thus we get to a view of immortality : 

I believe of all those men and women that filTd the unnamed lands, 
every one exists this hour here or elsewhere, invisible to us, 

In exact proportion to what he or she grew from in life, and out of 
what he or she did, felt, became, loved, sinn'd, in life. 

On the purely logical level there are of course some inconsisten- 
cies in Whitman's view of immortality; the important thing to 
note is that in passages such as these Whitman is exploring a 
symbolic language in which to suggest his vision of life as grand 
process. We might compare his more conventional use of the 
image of life as a voyage which never ends. 

Another aspect of Whitman's thought which I think is worth 
some discussion is his view of the function of the poet. By the 
poet, of course, Whitman generally means Walt Whitman, for, 
as we have seen, one of his characteristic techniques is to contract 
everything to the self, and then make the self typical and all- 
inclusive through its method of observation and of sympathetic 
identification. The poet for Whitman is, in a sense, the ideal 
observer both of his fellow men and of the natural world (again, 
there is a similarity to Wordsworth's view here). The poet's 
sympathetic identification with what he sees and what he imagines 
is the source of his poetic vision. 'The known universe has one 
complete lover and that is the greatest poet', he wrote in the 1855 
preface, and this sentiment is echoed again and again in both his 
verse and his prose. Whitman has been criticized for the indis- 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 79 

criminate way in which he embraces the universe and everything 
that it contains, good and bad, and it has been more than once 
pointed out that this pragmatic acceptance of whatever is suggests 
not only an unrealistic and facile optimism but also a supreme 
lack of logic in one who at the same time denounced 'the young 
men of These States' as 'a parcel of helpless dandies, who can 
neidier fight, work, shoot, ride, run, command some of them 
devout, some quite insane, some castrated all second-hand, or 
third or fourth, or fifth hand waited upon by waiters, putting 
not this land first, talking of art, doing the most ridiculous things 
for fear of being thought ridiculous, smirking and skipping along, 
continually taking off their hats/ How could Whitman take a 
normative attitude to the civilization of his day if at the same time 
he accepted everything in existence merely because it was in 
existence? I think the answer to this question lies in Whitman's 
view of the nature of a real person. Inanimate Nature and 
animals were all to be accepted; they were what they were, part 
of the process of things. But men who were alone capable of 
betraying their identities by leading second-hand lives in which 
their real selves were not involved could be judged in accor- 
dance with the degree to which they fulfilled the true laws of 
their own personalities. It is significant that after Swinburne 
turned against Whitman, to write a stinging attack on the man 
and his poetry, Whitman remarked of the furious English poet: 
'Ain't he the damndest simulacrum?' Swinburne, in talking this 
frenzied nonsense, was acting as a simulacrum, a pale image of 
his real self, not in his true capacity as a person. And this is the 
way in which Whitman tended to speak of those he disliked and, 
indeed, of all evil in the universe. He did not hold simply that 
'whatever is, is right', but rather that whatever exists in its true, 
undistorted nature is good. The 'parcel of helpless dandies' that 
he attacked were denounced as 'all second-hand, or third, fourth, 
or fifth hand', and that was the real burden of his complaint. 

Now I think that this helps to explain, too, Whitman's in- 
creasing insistence on his originality as he grew older. In repu- 
diating an obvious debt to Emerson and as Esther Shephard 



8O LITERARY ESSAYS 

has pointed out concealing a significant debt to two novels of 
George Sand, Whitman cannot be acquitted of disingenuousness; 
but we can see why it was important to him to keep stressing his 
originality. The real poet was essentially original, true to his own 
vision, transcribing nothing at second hand. If Whitman had 
thought more carefully about the problem of originality, he 
would have seen that it is not necessarily incompatible with 
borrowing : nobody now denies the originality of Shakespeare's 
genius because he took his plots from other writers. But he was 
so obsessed with the importance of renouncing the second-hand, 
of exploiting only his own true self, that he felt it necessary to 
repudiate with increasing urgency any suspicion of borrowing. 
'Self-reliant, with haughty eyes, assuming to himself all the 
attributes of his country, steps Walt Whitman into literature, 
talking like a man unaware that there was ever hitherto such a 
production as a book, or such a being as a writer/ So Whitman 
wrote of himself in an anonymous review of Leaves of Grass in 
1855. The statement is not, of course, literally true, and it is 
inconsistent with what Whitman later said of his early reading 
and the admitted influences on him of the Bible, Ossian, Italian 
opera, and other sources, including the writings of Emerson, 
which, as he once said, brought him to the boil after he had been 
long simmering. Whitman insisted on his originality because 
originality for was him the first prerequisite of the true poet. 
And, of course, essentially he was right: he was, in all that matters, 
a truly original poet. 

The sharpest, and in many ways the most impressive, attack on 
Whitman's view of the poet as the universal lover was made by 
D. H. Lawrence, a man whose vision was in some important 
respects very similar to Whitman's. Lawrence admired Whitman 
as a pioneer and a moral leader (for Lawrence, all great poets were 
moral leaders). 'Whitman, the great poet, has meant so much to 
me. Whitman, the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman, 
the one pioneer.' And again : 'Now Whitman was a great moralist. 
He was a great leader. He was a great changer of the blood in the 
veins of men.' But Lawrence could not stomach Whitman's 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 81 

gestures of universal acceptance. * "I embrace all," says Whitman. 
"I weave all things into myself." Do you really! There can't be 
much left of you when you've done. When you've cooked the 
awful pudding of One Identity.' And Lawrence made devas- 
tating fun of Whitman's statement, *I am he that aches with 
amorous love.' 'Reminds one of a steam-engine,' he said. *A 
locomotive. They're the only things that seem to me to ache with 
amorous love. All that steam inside of them. Forty million foot- 
pounds pressure.' Lawrence also passionately denounced Whit- 
man's indiscriminate acceptance of all kinds of people. 

I think that every one interested in Whitman ought to read 
and ponder Lawrence's essay in Studies in Classic American Litera- 
ture. This comment by a fellow-genius is full of perception and 
has a splendid vigour. It also lays its finger on some key aspects 
of Whitman's thought. Whether we agree with Lawrence or 
not, we ought to know what to say to his charges, for they spring 
from a vision as intense as Whitman's own and more like Whit- 
man's than that of any other critic of him. The real difference 
between them, it seems to me, is that for Lawrence the problem 
of identity, of the fully realized individual, was related to the 
equal and opposite problem of the essential and ultimate otherness 
of other individuals. Lawrence and Whitman agreed on the 
question of identity and self-fulfilment; they differed sharply on 
what Whitman called 'rapport'. The ideal relation between two 
individuals was for Lawrence an almost mystical awareness on the 
part of each of the core of otherness in the other. For Whitman, 
one individual could, as it were, subsume another by sympathy; 
the poet could symbolically become other people without losing 
bis identity indeed, in the very exercise of it. This was danger- 
ous heresy to Lawrence, to whom the notion of the merging of 
personalities was disgusting. In talking of these matters, both 
writers used a symbolic language, and I think myself that Law- 
rence read Whitman rather too literally. But the difference 
between the two views remains. And probably no one will deny 
that on occasion Whitman's gestures of universal acceptance are 
not adequately related to his gestures of identity, and that this 



82 LITERARY ESSAYS 

essential polarity in Whitman's vision did not always produce 
coherent poetic statement. 

Another notion that is important in Whitman's view of the 
poet is that of simplicity. 'Nothing is better than simplicity,' he 
wrote in the 1855 preface. 'Nothing can make up for excess or 
for the lack of definiteness.' By simplicity he meant the poet's 
honesty to his vision, his refusal to distort it by following con- 
vention or fashion. The poet must distort neither side of the 
equation neither himself, the ideally sympathetic observer, nor 
what he sees. 'Men and women and the earth and all upon it,' 
he wrote in the same preface, 'are simply to be taken as they are, 
and the investigation of their past and present and future shall be 
unintermitted and shall be done with perfect candor.' The poet's 
personality, though simple in the sense of honest and true to itself, 
is nevertheless richly endowed. 'The most affluent man is he that 
confronts all the shows he sees by equivalents out of the stronger 
wealth of himself.' This most interesting statement (again from 
the 1855 preface) shows clearly that, in spite of his insistence on 
simplicity, Whitman did not regard the poet's relation to what 
he observed as one of naive confronting, of the bare meeting of 
eye and object. Nor did he take the view of Francis Bacon, who 
had defined the poet as one who 'submits the shows of things to 
the desires of the mind'. For Whitman, the poet's mind, while 
retaining its simplicity in the sense that it refused to be side-tracked 
by artistic conventions that bore no relation to its own vision, was 
richly enough stored to contain within itself what one might 
call 'objective correlatives' to all that it might see or imagine. It 
was this that enabled the poet to subsume other characters, and it 
was precisely on this point that Lawrence so fiercely opposed 
Whitman. 

It is difficult for any poet to bring the life of imagination into 
contact with daily living. From what little we know of Shakes- 
peare's life, there appears to have been no sign, in his daily 
behaviour, of the imaginative fire that burned within him. Law- 
rence, preoccupied throughout his life, as Whitman was, by 
relationship and love, expressed his affection in real life by throw- 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 83 

ing crockery and by other kinds of childish violence. But Whit- 
man desired to carry over the symbolic life of the poet's imagi- 
nation into the daily life of the poet's person. 'First be yourself 
what you would show in your poem,' he wrote in one of his 
anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass. This is not as unusual a 
view as some critics have supposed : it was common enough in 
Renaissance Europe, as the life of Sir Philip Sidney indicates, 
and its most eloquent expression is found in Milton's 'Apology 
for Smectymnuus', where he wrote that 'he who would not be 
frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, 
ought himself to be a true poem'. Whitman's attempt to act out 
his conception of the poet in his daily life resulted in what has 
been called, with considerable justice, 'Whitman's pose'. Miss 
Esther Shephard, in her book with this title, makes great play of 
the fact that Whitman took this pose in large part from a novel 
by George Sand, whose influence on him he carefully concealed. 
This side of Whitman is rather childish, it is true, and not parti- 
cularly admirable. But I cannot bring myself to feel, with Miss 
Shephard, that it is wholly reprehensible and represents a stain 
on Whitman's poetic character. If George Sand's novel, The 
Countess of Rudolstadt, fired his imagination, there is nothing 
wrong in that; if it led him to dress and behave in a certain way, 
we may smile at the childishness of poets ; if Whitman scrupulously 
concealed die fact that the novel was important for him well, 
every writer is entitled to his reticences, and in any case it was not 
essentially important to him. It released something in him; it did 
not put it there. The same can be said for the influence on him of 
phrenology. But the point I am concerned with here is that 
Whitman was a poseur because he felt it necessary to act out in 
real life his conception of the way a poet's imagination works. It 
may be naive in Whitman, as in Milton, to make this simple 
correlation between man as poet and man in his everyday be- 
haviour; the poetic imagination, we may fed, does not spring in 
such a simple way from a poet's outward life. But I cannot see 
why Whitman's childishness as a poseur should affect our view of 
his poetry or our assessment of his poetic vision. 



84 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Another aspect of Whitman's conception of the poet concerns 
his view of the relation between poetry and religion. He shared 
fully Matthew Arnold's view that in the modern world poetry- 
was to take over the task hitherto performed by religion. e View'd 
today/ he wrote in Democratic Vistas, 'from a point of view 
sufficiently over-arching, the problem of humanity all over the 
civilized world is social and religious, and is to be finally met and 
treated by literature. The priest departs, the divine literatus 
comes.' There were two possible implications of this view. One, 
suggested by Arnold and developed by Walter Pater, was that 
religion should be assimilated to poetry, and its true function is 
to stimulate aesthetic awareness. The other, which represented 
Whitman's view, was that poetry should be assimilated to religion, 
the poet becoming the prophet. So that the view that the poet 
must take over the task of the priest led in Pater to the aestheti- 
cizing of religion and in Whitman to the opposite the making 
of poetry into prophecy. 

I have already noted that for Whitman the poet was the ideal 
observer, looking at his fellow-men and at the natural world with 
an all-embracing sympathetic imagination. It is also worth ob- 
serving that for Whitman the poet's observation had what might 
be called a supreme normality: the poet saw things as they really 
were, in their right place. He expressed this thought both in the 
prose of the 1855 preface and in verse. * Of all mankind the great 
poet is the equable man. Not in him but off from him things are 
grotesque or eccentric or fail of their sanity. Nothing out of its 
place is good and nothing in its place is bad. He bestows on every 
object or quality its fit proportions neither more nor less. He is 
the arbiter of the diverse and he is the key. He is the equalizer of 
his age and land ... he supplies what wants supplying and what 
wants checking/ The poets' vision penetrates to the inner law of 
things; he sees everything as it truly is. This again is related to 
Whitman's optimism and his view, which I have already dis- 
cussed, that whatever exists in its proper place is good. 

For all the wide-ranging panoramic expansion of Whitman's 
poetry, we keep being continually impressed as we read by the 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 85 

importance to him of the centre (he uses the image of the hub of 
the wheel). The individual looks out, and the world falls into 
shape around him. Every real person and concrete thing is the 
centre of a pattern in the universe, and Whitman comes back 
again and again to that centre, as in the conclusion to Democratic 
Vistas 'the main thing being the average, the bodily, the con- 
crete, the democratic, the popular, on which all the superstruc- 
tures of the future are to permanently rest*. Again, this links his 
view of American democracy with bis view of poetry. 

For what he called 'dandified* poetry Whitman had a mixture 
of admiration and contempt. The poetry of Tennyson, for ex- 
ample, he admired as being 'of a very high (perhaps the highest) 
order of verbal melody, exquisitely clean and pure, and almost 
always perfumed, like the tuberose, to an extreme of sweetness'. 
But it was 'a verse of inside elegance and high-life'. As Whitman 
saw it, poetry to Tennyson was 'a gentleman of the first degree, 
boating, fishing, and shooting genteelly through nature, admiring 
the ladies, and talking to them, in company, with that elaborate 
half-choked deference that is to be made up by the terrible license 
of men among themselves'. This is perceptive, and true in its way. 
He goes on to say that Tennyson 'does not ignore courage, but 
all is to show forth through dandified forms'. 'The models are 
the same both to the poet and the parlors. Both have the same 
supercilious elegance, both love the reminiscences which extol 
caste, both agree on the topics proper for mention and discussion, 
both hold the same undertone of church and state, both have the 
same languishing melancholy and irony, both indulge largely in 
persiflage, both are marked by the contour of high blood and a 
constitutional aversion to anything cowardly and mean, both 
accept the love depicted in romances as the great business of a life 
or a poem, both seem unconscious of the mighty truths of 
eternity and immortality, both are silent on the presumptions of 
liberty and equality, and both devour themselves in solitary 
lassitude.' This is not so much an indictment of Tennyson 
(though it has some shrewd hits) as a definition of his own kind 
of poetry, which is the new American poetry, by contrasting it 



86 LITERARY ESSAYS 

with what it is not. No account of Whitman's view of poetry 
would be complete without some reference to his descriptions of 
poetry such as Tennyson's. 

Finally, there is Whitman's interest in language, as evidenced 
by his article on 'Slang in America' and his notes for An American 
Primer. 'Language', he wrote in the former, 'is not an abstract 
construction of the learn'd, or of dictionary-makers, but is some- 
thing arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, tastes, of long 
generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close 
to the ground.' Whitman was aware that language was not 
simply a medium of expression that happened to be available for 
use: it was bound up with human history and psychology. The 
jottings in An American Primer are fascinating, ranging with lively 
curiosity over a wide area of questions concerned with language 
words deriving from different trades and professions, changes 
in the meaning of words as a result of social or other changes, the 
varieties and significance of place names, words deriving from 
national character, and so on. And always there is an exultation 
in the rich expressiveness of the English language and at the same 
time an insistence that Americans should develop the language in 
their own way. 'American writers', the notes conclude, 'are to 
show far more freedom in the use of words Ten thousand native 
idiomatic words are growing, or are today already grown, out 
of which vast numbers could be used by American writers, with 
meaning and effect words that would be welcomed by the 
nation, being of the national blood words that would taste of 
identity and locality which is so dear to literature.' 'Identity and 
locality' : even in his discussion of language Whitman comes back 
in the end to this essential feature of his vision. 

I have tried to say something about Whitman's view of the self, 
society and nature, and the relation between the three; the relation 
of all this to his view of American democracy; his attitude to 
America and to other countries; his notion of the Dance of Life; 
his concept of the poet and the poet's function; and his view of 
language. I must insist again, as I did at the beginning, that to 
abstract these points from the way they appear in his own writing 



WALT WHITMAN'S PHILOSOPHY 87 

is both misleading and unfair; yet the procedure is inevitable if 
we are to discuss the philosophy of a. poet at all. I hope at least 
that I have succeeded in making clear my own view that in spite 
of contradictions, absurdities, pretentious and affected termin- 
ology, and other obvious faults, Whitman had a vision, and a true 
poetic one, and in his best poetry that vision comes through, not 
as a philosophic system, but as a series of symbolic gestures, 
moving, exciting, illuminating. To that, and to the lively poetic 
prose of the prefaces, we return. Perhaps the best conclusion to 
any account of Whitman's philosophy would be Whitman's own 
words from the poem beginning 'Myself and mine* in Birds of 
Passage: 

I call to die world to distrust the accounts of my friends, but listen to 

my enemies, as I myself do, 
I charge you forever reject those who would expound me, for I 

cannot expound myself, 

I charge that there be no theory or school founded out of me, 
I charge you to leave all free, as I have left all free. 

We return in the end, not to grandiose theories of mankind, but 
to the concrete projection of the living individual; from this, the 
true poetic vision stems: 

Behold a woman! 

She looks out from her quaker cap, 

her face is clearer and more beautiful than the sky. 

She sits in an armchair under the faded porch of the farmhouse, 
The sun just shines on her old white head. 

Her ample gown is of cream-hued linen, 

Her grandsons raised the flax, and her grand-daughters spun it with 
die distaff and the wheel. 

The melodious character of the earth, 

The finish beyond which philosophy cannot go and does not wish 

to go, 
The justified mother of men. 



SCOTT'S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 1 

IN THE MINDS of too many teachers of English and in the pages 
of too many histories of English literature, Scott is an ultra- 
romantic figure who began his literary career under the 
influence of a rather extravagant German romanticism, moved 
from there to a general passion for antiquities, ballads and every- 
thing that was old, quaint, 'gothic' or picturesque, and then 
proceeded to embody this passion in a series of historical novels 
full of scenes of heroism, chivalry and general *tushery\ In 
justice to those who present this distorted picture, it must be 
admitted that there is an element of truth in it: in his youth Scott 
was inclined to be romantic in this sense, in his narrative poems he 
does illustrate something of this attitude, and in later life, when 
inspiration flagged, he fell back on 'tushery' more often than his 
admirers would like to admit. But Scott's best and characteristic 
novels are a very different matter. They might with justice be 
called 'antiromantic' fiction. They attempt to show that heroic 
action, as the typical romantic writer would like to think of it, 
is, in the last analysis, neither heroic nor useful, and that man's 
destiny, at least in the modern world, is to find his testing time 
not amid the sound of trumpets but in the daily struggles and 
recurring crises of personal and social life. The courageous and 
passionate Jacobite rebel of Redgauntlet is dismissed at the end of 
the novel with a smile and a shake of the head, all his heroics 
reduced to a kind of posturing that one pities rather than admires; 
but humble Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian, who has led 
her life among simple folk and walks to London to try to get a 
reprieve for a sister whose offence, after all, was both common- 
place and sordid, is granted her heroic moment, her 'crowded 
hour of glorious life', and she finds it when, against all the laws 
of romance and chivalry, she pours out her heart in her humble 

1 Erst published in Nineteenth Century Fiction, September 1951. 
88 



SCOTT'S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 89 

Scots diction before a queen who is less a queen than a normally 
sensitive woman. And when Jeanie tries to find out how she can 
repay the kindness of the noble duke who had helped her to her 
interview with the queen, she asks: 'Does your honour like 
cheese?' That is the real Scott touch. 

It is worth noting that the heroine of the novel considered by 
most critics to be Scott's best is a humble Scottish working girl. 
If Scott is to be classed as a romantic (though it is time we aban- 
doned such indefinite and overworked terms), he must be re- 
garded as at least as close to Wordsworth as to Coleridge. In the 
well-known fourteenth chapter ofBiographia Literaria, Coleridge 
described the different parts he and Wordsworth had agreed to 
play in the production of Lyrical Ballads: 

It was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and charac- 
ters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward 
nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these 
shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment 
which constitutes poetic faith. Mr Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to 
propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every 
day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the 
mind's attention to the lethargy of custom. . . . 

If we forget the tapestry figures of Scott's later novels and think 
of those which we cannot but remember most vividly Jeanie 
Deans, Andrew Fairservice, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, Dugald Dalgetty, 
Saunders Fairford, Caleb Balderstone, Baron Bradwardine, Edie 
Ochiltree, and a host of others who live in the minds long after 
the plots of the novels in which they appear are forgotten we 
realize that he is at least as successful in 'giving the charm of 
novelty to things of every day' as in the task assigned to Coleridge. 
It is a well-known fact that die titular heroes of Scott's novels are 
generally less real than the minor characters who abound in his 
works. It is, as a rule, the unheroic characters who have the most 
vitality: the pusillanimous gardener, Andrew Fairservice, is a 
more real and, fundamentally, a more important character in 
Rob Roy than the theatrical Helen Macgregor. 

What does this mean? Are we to conclude that Scott had skill 



90 LITERARY ESSAYS 

in creating lively minor characters, but failed in the general plan 
and structure of his novels? The answer to this and other ques- 
tions lies in an examination of the kind of historical novel that 
Scott wrote, of the part played by the historical element in those 
novels and its relation to the other elements. 

To identify Scott as a historical novelist is to place him in a 
category too wide to be helpful. A historical novel can be pri- 
marily an adventure story, in which the historical elements merely 
add interest and a sense of importance to the actions described; 
or it can be essentially an attempt to illustrate those aspects of the 
life of a previous age which most sharply distinguish it from our 
own; or it can be an attempt to use a historical situation to illus- 
trate some aspect of man's fate which has importance and meaning 
quite apart from that historical situation. Stevenson's Kidnapped 
comes into the first category, and here, too, are many of the 
novels of Dumas; the eighteenth-century 'gothic' romance comes 
into the second; and the best of Scott's novels come into the third. 
Obviously, the least important kind is the second, for it considers 
the past simply as picturesque, and picturesqueness is merely a 
measure of the ignorance of the beholder. Cowboys are doubt- 
less picturesque to New Yorkers, but they are not so to themselves 
or to their immediate associates. Mexicans may be picturesque to 
North American tourists, and Scottish fishwives to English artists, 
but their picturesqueness is obviously not an intrinsic quality. It 
is no exaggeration to say that to treat history as picturesque is the 
most superficial and least significant way of treating it. Scott did 
so occasionally, when he was tired or too hard pressed, and occa- 
sionally, too, he mingled the first of my two categories with the 
second and produced a picturesque historical adventure story, as 
in The Talisman, which is reasonably good of its kind but the kind 
does not stand very high in the hierarchy of literary forms. The 
work by which he must be judged for it is only fair to judge a 
writer by his most characteristic achievement -avoids the pictur- 
esque and seeks rather to bring the past nearer than to exploit its 
remoteness. 

The novels on which Scott's reputation as a novelist must stand 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST pi 

or fall are his 'Scotch novels' those that deal with Scottish his- 
tory and manners and not even all of those. Waverley, Guy 
Mannering, The Antiquary, Old Mortality, The Heart of Midlothian, 
Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermoor, A Legend of Montrose and 
Redgauntlet all, except Redgauntlet, earlier novels constitute 
Scott's list of masterpieces. There are others of the Waverley 
Novels of which no novelist need be ashamed, many with ex- 
cellent incidental scenes and memorable character studies, but this 
group of Scottish novels all possess Scott's characteristic virtues, 
and they represent his particular kind of fiction at its very best. 

The fact that these novels are all concerned with Scottish history 
and manners is intimately bound up with the reasons for their 
being his best novels. For Scott's attitude to life was derived 
from his response to the fate of his own country: it was the 
complex of feelings with which he contemplated the phase of 
Scottish history immediately preceding his own time that pro- 
vided the point of view which gave life often a predominantly 
tragic life to these novels. Underlying most of these novels is a 
tragic sense of the inevitability of a drab but necessary progress, a 
sense of the impotence of the traditional kind of heroism, a 
passionately regretful awareness of the fact that the Good Old 
Cause was lost forever and the glory of Scotland must give way 
to her interest. 

Scott's attitude to Scotland, as Edwin Muir pointed out some 
years ago in a thoughtful and provocative study, 1 was a mixture 
of regret for the old days when Scotland was an independent but 
turbulent and distracted country, and of satisfaction at the peace, 
prosperity and progress which he felt had been assured by the 
Union with England in 1707 and the successful establishment of 
the Hanoverian dynasty on die British throne. His problem, in 
one form or another, was the problem of every Scottish writer 
after Scotland ceased to have an independent culture of her own: 
how to reconcile his country's traditions with what appeared to 
be its interest. Scott was always strongly moved by everything 
that reminded him of Scotland's past, of the days of the country's 

1 Scott and Scotland, Roudedge, London, 1936. 



92 LITERARY ESSAYS 

independence and the relatively recent days when the Jacobites 
were appealing to that very emotion to gain support for their 
cause. He grew up as the Jacobite tradition was finally ebbing 
away, amid the first generation of Scotsmen committed once and 
for all to the association with England and the Hanoverian dynasty. 
He felt strongly that that association was inevitable and right and 
advantageous he exerted himself greatly to make George IV 
popular in Scotland yet there were strong emotions on the other 
side too, and it was these emotions that made him Tory in politics 
and that provided the greater blessing of leading him to literature 
and history. 

Scott was two men: he was Edward Waverley and Baron 
Bradwardine, Francis Osbaldistone and (say) Mr Justice Ingle- 
wood, Darsie Latimer and, if not Redgauntlet himself, some one 
more disposed to his side than Darsie was. He was both the 
prudent Briton and the passionate Scot. And in many of his 
novels he introduces the loyal and respectable Englishman, allows 
him to be temporarily seduced by the claims of Scottish nation- 
alism in one form or another, and then, reluctantly, sends him 
back to his respectable way of life again. So Edward Waverley 
leaves the Highlands and shakes off his associations with the 
Jacobite Rebellion, and Francis Osbaldistone leaves Rob Roy 
and returns to his father's London countinghouse. 

This conflict within Scott gave life and passion to his Scottish 
novels, for it led him to construct plots and invent characters 
which, far from being devices in an adventure story or means to 
make history look picturesque, illustrated what to him was the 
central paradox of modern life. And that paradox admitted of 
the widest application, for it was an aspect of all commercial and 
industrial civilizations. Civilization must be paid for by the 
cessation of the old kind of individual heroic action. Scott wel- 
comed civilization, but he also sighed after the old kind of indivi- 
dual heroic action. Scott's theme is a modification of that of 
Cervantes, and, specifically, Redgauntlet is Scott's Don Quixote. 

Many of Scott's novels take the form of a sort of pilgrim's 
progress : an Englishman or a Lowland Scot goes north into the 



SCOTT'S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 93 

Highlands of Scotland at a time when Scottish feeling is running 
high, becomes involved in the passions and activities of the Scots 
partly by accident and partly by sympathy, and eventually extri- 
cates himself physically altogether but emotionally not quite 
wholly and returns whence he came. The character who makes 
the journey is the more deliberate side of Scott's character, the 
disinterested observer. His duty is to observe, to register the 
proper responses, and in the end to accept, however reluctantly, 
the proper solution. It is not this character but what he becomes 
involved in that matters: his function is merely to observe, react, 
and withdraw. To censure Scott for the woodenness of his 
heroes characters like Edward Waverley, Francis Osbaldistone, 
and many others is to misunderstand their function. They are 
not heroes in the ordinary sense, but symbolic observers. Their 
love affairs are of no significance whatsoever except to indicate 
the nature of the observer's final withdrawal from the seductive 
scenes of heroic, nationalist passion. Waverley does not marry 
the passionate Jacobite Flora Maclvor but the douce and colour- 
less Rose Bradwardine; Waverley's affair with these two girls is 
not presented as a serious love interest, but as a symbolic indication 
of the nature of his final withdrawal from the heroic emotions of 
the past. That withdrawal is never quite one hundred per cent: 
Waverley does marry the daughter of a Jacobite, but of one who 
has given up the struggle, and Francis Osbaldistone does (we are 
told in an epilogue, though we are not shown how it happens) 
marry Di Vernon, but only after she has dissociated herself from 
her violently Jacobite father and after Francis himself has, for all 
his earlier rebellion against a life of commerce, returned to his 
father's business. These pilgrims into Scotland carry back some- 
thing of older attitudes that must be discarded, but only as a 
vague and regretful sentiment. Even Rob Roy tells Francis that 
the wild and heroic life may be all very well for himself, but it 
won't do for his children they will have to come to terms with 
the new world. 

The Jacobite movement for Scott was not simply a picturesque 
historical event: it was the last attempt to restore to Scotland 



94 LITERARY ESSAYS 

something of the old heroic way of life. This is not the place for 
a discussion of the real historical meaning of Jacobitism I am 
concerned at present only with how Scott saw it and how he used 
it in his novels. He used it, and its aftermath, to symbolize at 
once the attractiveness and the futility of the old Scotland. That 
Scotland was doomed after the Union of Parliaments of 1707 and 
doubly doomed after the Batde of Culloden in 1746; the after- 
math of 1707 is shown in The Heart of Midlothian and of 1746 in 
Redgauntlet. In both novels, explicitly in the latter and murmuring 
in an undertone in the former, there is indicated the tragic theme 
(for it is tragic) that the grand old causes are all lost causes, and 
the old heroic action is no longer even fatal it is merely useless 
and silly. One thinks of the conclusion of Bishop Kurd's Letters 
on Chivalry and Romance: 'What we have gotten by this revolu- 
tion, you will say, is a great deal of good sense. What we have 
lost is a world of fine fabling/ But to Scott it was more than a 
world of fine fabling that was lost; it was a world of heroic 
ideals, which he could not help believing should still be worth 
something. He knew, however, even before it was brought 
home to him by Constable's failure and his consequent own bank- 
ruptcy, that in the reign of George IV it was not worth much 
certainly not as much as novels about it. 

Scott has often been presented as a lover of the past, but that is 
a partial portrait. He was a lover of the past combined with a 
believer in the present, and the mating of these incompatible 
characters produced that tension which accounted for his greatest 
novels. Writers on Scott have often quoted that passage in the 
second volume of Lockhart's Life describing Scott's outburst to 
Jeffrey on the question of legal reforms: 'He exclaimed, "No, no 
'tis no laughing matter; little by little, whatever your wishes 
may be, you will destroy and undermine, until nothing of what 
makes Scotland Scotland shall remain." And so saying, he turned 
round to conceal his agitation but not until Mr Jeffrey saw tears 
gushing down his cheek/ One might put beside this Scott's 
description of his purpose in his introduction to the Minstrelsy of 
the Scottish Border: 'By such efforts, feeble as they are, I may con- 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 95 

tribute somewhat to the history of my native country; the peculiar 
features of whose manners and character are daily melting and 
dissolving into those of her sister and ally. And, trivial as may 
appear such an offering, to the manes of a kingdom, once proud 
and independent, I hang it upon her altar with a mixture of 
feelings, which I shall not attempt to describe.' 

But we must remember that this lover of old traditions engaged 
heavily in financial speculations with publishers and printers and 
spent a great deal of his life poring over balance sheets and esti- 
mates of probable profit. One might contrast with the above 
quotations not only many of Scott's own practical activities but 
such remarks as the one he made in his Journal after dining with 
George IV: 'He is, in many respects, the model of a British 

monarch I am sure such a character is fitter for us than a 

man who would long to head armies, or be perpetually inter- 
meddling with lagrandepolitique! He did not seem much worried 
there about ancient traditions. 

It is this ambivalence in Scott's approach to the history of his 
country combined, of course, with certain remarkable talents 
which I shall discuss later that accounts for the unique quality of 
his Scottish novels. He was able to take an odi et amo attitude to 
some of the most exciting crises of Scottish history. If Scott's 
desire to set himself up as an old-time landed gentleman in a large 
country estate was romantic, the activities by which he financed 
or endeavoured to finance his schemes were the reverse, and 
there is nothing romantic in James Glen's account of Scott's 
financial transactions prefixed to the centenary edition of his 
letters. He filled Abbotsford with historical relics, but they were 
relics, and they gave Abbotsford something of the appearance of 
a museum. He thus tried to resolve the conflict in his way of life 
by making modern finance pay for a house filled with antiquities. 
This resolution could not, however, eliminate the basic ambi- 
valence in his approach to recent Scottish history: that remained, 
to enrich his fiction. 

This double attitude on Scott's part prevented him from taking 
sides in his historical fiction, and Sir Herbert Grierson has com- 



96 LITERARY ESSAYS 

plained, though mildly, of this refusal to commit himself. e Of the 
historical events which he chooses for the setting of his story/ 
writes Sir Herbert, 'his judgment is always that of the good sense 
and moderated feeling of his own age. He will not take sides out 
and out with either Jacobite or Hanoverian, Puritan or Cavalier; 
nor does he attempt to transcend either the prejudices or the con- 
ventional judgment of his contemporaries, he makes no effort to 
attain to a fresh and deeper reading of the events.' Sir Herbert 
partly answers his own criticism later on, when he concedes that 
Shakespeare likewise concealed his own views and did not stand 
clearly for this or that cause. But there are two questions at issue 
here. One is whether Scott's seeing both sides of an historical 
situation is an advantage or a disadvantage to him as a novelist; 
the other is whether, as Sir Herbert charges, he accepts the pre- 
judices or the conventional judgment of his contemporaries and 
"makes no effort to attain to a fresh and deeper reading of the 
events'. I should maintain that his seeing both sides is a great 
advantage, and, as to the second point, that, in terms of his art, 
Scott does attain to a fresh and deeper reading of the events. I say 
in terms of his art, because I of course agree that there is no overt 
philosophizing about the meaning of history in Scott's novels. 
But the stories as told by Scott not only 'attain to a fresh and 
deeper reading of the events', but also, I submit, do so in such a 
way as to illuminate aspects of life in general. As this is the crux 
of the matter, it requires demonstration in some detail. 

Let us consider first Waverley, Scott's initial essay in prose 
fiction, and a much better novel, I venture to believe, than most 
critics generally concede it to be. I have already pointed out that 
the plot is built around an Englishman's journey into Scotland 
and his becoming temporarily involved in the Jacobite Rebellion 
on the Jacobite side. How does he become so involved and how 
are the claims of the Jacobite cause presented? First he becomes 
angry with his own side as a result of a series of accidents and 
misunderstandings (undelivered letters and so on) for which 
neither side is to blame. In this mood, he is willing to consider 
the possibility of identifying himself with the other side the 



SCOTT'S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 97 

Jacobite side and does so all the more readily because he is in- 
volved in friendly relations with many of its representatives. He 
admires the heroism and the clan spirit of the Highlanders, and 
their primitive vigour (as compared -with the more disciplined 
and conventional behaviour of the Hanoverian troops with whom 
he formerly served) strikes his imagination. He becomes tem- 
porarily a Jacobite, then, not so much because he has been 
persuaded of the justice of the cause, or because he believes that a 
Jacobite victory would really improve the state of Britain, but 
because his emotions have become involved. It has become a 
personal, not a national, matter. 

It should be noted further that Waverley goes into the High- 
lands in the first place simply in order to satisfy a romantic 
curiosity about the nature of the Highlanders, and it is only after 
arriving there that he succumbs to the attractions of clan life. 
Not that his reason ever fdly succumbs: though he comes to 
realize the grievances of the Highland Jacobites, he has no illusions 
about their disinterestedness or their political sagacity, and even 
when he does surrender emotionally he remains critical of many 
aspects of their behaviour. Thus it is emotion against reason, the 
past against the present, the claims of a dying heroic world against 
the colder but ultimately more convincing claims of modern 
urban civilization. 

The essence of the novel is the way in which these conflicting 
claims impinge on Waverley. It is worth noting that Waverley, 
though he began his progress as a soldier in the army of King 
George, did not set out completely free of any feeling for the 
other side. Though his father had deserted the traditions of his 
family and gone over completely to the Government, his uncle, 
who brought him up, was an old Jacobite, and his tutor, too, 
though an impossible pedant who had little influence on Waver- 
ley, supported the old regime in both Church and State. Waver- 
ley thus belonged to the first generation of his family to begin his 
career under the auspices of the new world specifically, to be- 
come a soldier of King George as a young man. That new world 
was not yet as firmly established in Scotland as it came to be 



98 LITERARY ESSAYS 

during Scott's own youth : there was still a possibility of successful 
rebellion in Waverley's day, but none in Scott's. It was too late 
for Scott to become a Jacobite, even temporarily, except in his 
imagination, so he let Waverley do it for him. The claims of the 
two sides are a little more evenly balanced for Waverley than for 
Scott, yet even in the earlier period the issue is never really in 
doubt, and Waverley's part in the Jacobite rebellion must be 
small, and must be explained away and forgiven by the Govern- 
ment in the end. Above all, it must be a part entered into by his 
emotions on personal grounds rather than by his reason on grounds 
of national interest. 

I have said that the essence of Waverley is the way in which the 
conflicting claims of the two worlds impinge on the titular hero. 
The most significant action there cannot concern the hero, but 
involves the world in which he finds himself. It is important, of 
course, that the hero should be presented as someone sensitive to 
the environment in which he finds himself; otherwise his function 
as the responsive observer could not be sustained. To ensure that 
his hero is seen by the reader as having the proper sensitivity, 
Scott gives us at the opening of the book several chapters describing 
in detail Waverley's education and the development of his state 
of mind. Waverley's education, as described in Chapter Three, 
is precisely that of Scott himself. By his undisciplined reading of 
old chronicles, Italian and Spanish romances, Elizabethan poetry 
and drama, and 'the earlier literature of the northern nations', 
young Waverley was fitted to sympathize with the romantic 
appeal of the Jacobite cause and its Highland supporters. This, as 
we know from Lockhart and from Scott's own account, was 
Scott's own literary equipment, and it qualified Waverley to act 
for him in his relations with the Scottish Jacobites. 

Waverley became involved in the affairs of the Highlands 
through a visit to his uncle's old friend, Baron Bradwardine, the 
first in Scott's magnificent gallery of eccentric pedants. The 
baron remains a sort of halfway house between the two sides: a 
Jacobite who takes the field in '45, he is nevertheless not as com- 
pletely committed to the cause as such characters as Fergus Mac- 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 9p 

Ivor and his sister. Flora, and at the end he is pardoned and restored 
to his estate. Bradwardine is a Jacobite more from, his love of 
ancient traditions than out of any political feeling, and it is there- 
fore proper that he should survive to indulge his love of the past 
harmlessly in antiquarian studies and pedantic conversation. Scott 
can afford to relax with such a character, as with other minor 
characters who do not serve to symbolize the extremes of one 
side or the other : and that is why we find so many of Scott's minor 
characters more real than some of the principals their function 
is to live in the story and represent the more realistic, tolerant life 
of more ordinary folk whose destinies are less affected by changes 
of dynasty than those of higher rank. This is particularly true of 
such minor characters as Davie Gelladey and Duncan Macwheeble. 
Their function is similar to that of Justice Shallow and Master 
Silence in Shakespeare's Henry W\ they illustrate a kind of life 
that adapts itself easily to changes and is not really implicated in 
the civil conflicts surrounding it. 

The characters in Waverley are marshalled with great skill. First 
we have the protagonists on either side : Fergus and Flora Maclvor 
represent different aspects of the Jacobite cause, Fergus displaying 
that mixture of ambition and loyalty which Scott regarded as an 
important characteristic of Highland chiefs, Flora embodying a 
purer and more disinterested passion for the cause; and on the 
other side is Colonel Talbot, the perfect English gentleman, des- 
pising the uncouth ways of the wild Highlanders and representing 
civilized man as Scott thought of him. In between the two sides 
stands Baron Bradwardine, the nonpolitical Jacobite, who does 
not have to die for his faith but is content to be left in the end 
with his antiquities and old-fashioned code of behaviour. Then 
there are the minor characters on either side, who represent either 
life persisting in ordinary human forms in spite of everything, or, 
as in the case of Evan Dhu Maccombich, the humble follower 
who does what he considers his duty out of simple loyalty to his 
ideals and without any understanding of the issues at stake. And 
in the centre is Edward Waverley, registering his creator's re- 
actions to what goes on axound him. He admires courage, honours 



IOO LITERARY ESSAYS 

loyalty on either side, welcomes the victory of the Hanoverians 
yet sorrows over the fate of the fallen and then returns for good 
to the victorious side, taking with him a wife from among the 
less fanatical of the Jacobites. His attitude to Fergus Maclvor is 
not unlike that of Brutus to Caesar 'there is tears for his love; 
joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his 
ambition'. 

If there is no new historical interpretation of the Jacobite Re- 
bellion in this novel, there is certainly a profound interpretation 
of what it meant in terms of human ambitions and interests and 
in terms of that conflict between the old world of heroic action 
and the new world of commercial progress which, as we have 
seen, was so central to Scott. It is the same kind of interpretation 
that we find in Shakespeare's Henry IF: while accepting the most 
enlightened contemporary view of the history involved, it uses 
that history as a means of commenting on certain aspects of life 
which, in one form or another, exist in every age. This is surely 
the highest function of the historical novel as of the history play. 

The high-ranking characters in the novels are often the most 
symbolical, and they cannot therefore easily step out of their 
symbolic role in order to act freely and provide that sense of 
abundant life which is so essential to a good novel. This is there- 
fore achieved by the minor characters (and here again the com- 
parison with Shakespeare suggests itself). The 'humours' of 
Baron Bradwardine, the complacent professional zeal of Bailie 
Macwheeble, the simple and eloquent loyalty of Evan Dhu 
these give Waverley its essential vitality, though I think it is a 
fault in the novel (one which Scott corrected in his subsequent 
work) that they play too small a part while too large a part is 
pkyed by the more rigid actions of the major figures. The tragic 
seise that romantic man must compromise with his heroic ideals 
if he is to survive in the modern world gives way as the book 
comes to a close to the less elevated sentiments of the realistic 
common man. Waverley, leaving Carlisle after the execution of 
Fergus Maclvor, makes a motion as though to look back and see 
his friend's head adorning the battlements, but here, significantly, 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 101 

that whole episode ends he is prevented by his Lowland Scots 
servant Alick Polwarth, who tells him that the heads of the exe- 
cuted men are on the gate at the other side of the town: "They're 
no there. . . . The heads are ower the Scotch yate, as they ca' it. 
It's a great pity of Evan Dhu, who was a very well-meaning, 
good-natured man, to be a Hielandman; and indeed so was the 
Laird o' Glennaquoich too, for that matter, when he wasna in ane 
o' his timvies.' Similarly, when Waverley, now heir to a fortune, 
communicates to Bailie Duncan Macwheeble his plans to marry 
Rose Bradwardine, the worthy legal man brings die level of the 
action effectively down to that of ordinary professional success. 

'Lady Wauverley? ten thousand a-year, the least penny! Lord preserve 
my poor understanding!' 

'Amen with all my heart,' said "Waverley, *but now, Mr Macwheeble, let 
us proceed to business/ This word had a somewhat sedative effect, but the 
Bailie's head, as he expressed himself, was still 'in the bees*. He mended his pen, 
however, marked half a dozen sheets of paper with an ample marginal fold, 
whipped down Dallas of St. Martin's Styles from a shelf, where that venerable 
work roosted with Stair's Institutions, Direleton's Doubts, Balfour's Pratiques, 
and a parcel of old account books opened the volume at the article Contract 
of Marriage, and prepared to make what he called a *sma' minute, to prevent 
parties frae resiling'. 

Thus the marriage of the heir to the Waverley estates to the 
daughter of the pardoned Jacobite is made real by a lawyer's 
jotting down a 'sma' minute, to prevent parties frae resiling*. 
Though we may have to abandon our dreams, the author seems 
to be saying, life goes on in spite of us, with its small daily matters 
for tears or laughter, of which, in spite of all alarums and excur- 
sions, human existence largely consists. It was because, at bottom, 
Scott had a tremendous feeling for this kind of ordinary daily life 
that he was able to suppress die implicit tragic note in so many 
(but not in all) of his novels and leave the reader at the end to put 
heroic ideals behind him with a sigh and turn with a smile to the 
foibles of ordinary humanity. And I should add that that smile 
is always one of tolerant fellow-feeling, never of condescension. 

The subtitle of Waverley is "Tis Sixty Years Since*, and the 
phrase is repeated many times throughout the book. It deals, that 



102 LITERARY ESSAYS 

is to say, with a period which, while distant enough to have a 
historical interest, was not altogether out of the ken of Scott's 
own generation. In the preface to the first edition of The Antiquary 
his third novel, Scott wrote: 'The present work completes a 
series of fictitious narratives, intended to illustrate the manners of 
Scotland at three different periods. Waverley embraced the age 
of our fathers, Guy Mannering that of our youth, and the Antiquary 
refers to the last years of the eighteenth century/ (Scott, it will 
he remembered, was born in 1771.) As Scott comes closer to his 
own. day, the possibilities for heroic action recede and the theme 
of the lost heir is introduced as a sort of substitute. It was with 
recent Scottish history that Scott was most concerned, for the 
conflict within himself was the result of relatively recent history. 
The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 was the watershed, as it were, 
dividing once and for all the old from the new, and Scott there- 
fore began his novels with a study of the relation between the two 
worlds at that critical time. It was not that the old Scotland had 
wholly disappeared, but that it was slowly yet inevitably dis- 
appearing that upset Scott. Its disappearance is progressively 
more inevitable in each of the next two novels after Waverley. 
Guy Mannering is not in the obvious sense a historical novel at 
all. It is a study of aspects of the Scottish situation in the days of 
the author's youth, where the plot is simply an excuse for bringing 
certain characters into relation with each other. Once again we 
have an Englishman Colonel Mannering, who, like Edward 
Waverley, shares many of his creator's characteristics coming 
into Scotland and surrendering to the charm of the country. Scott 
has to get him mixed up in the affairs of the Bertrams in order to 
keep him where he wants him. Round Guy Mannering move 
gypsies, smugglers, lairds, dominies, lawyers and fanners, and it 
is to be noted that none of these characters, from Meg Merrilies 
to Dandie Dinmont, belongs to the new world: they are all 
essentially either relics of an earlier age, like the gypsies, or the 
kind of person who does not substantially change with the times, 
like that admirable farmer Dandie. These people are made "to 
move around the Bertram family, or at least are brought into the 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST IO3 

story through some direct or indirect association with that family, 
and the family is decayed and impoverished. The lost heir is 
found and restored, and, largely through the benevolent offices 
of an English colonel, a Scottish landed gentleman is settled again 
on his ancestral acres. That is how things happen in the days of 
Scott's youth: no clash of arms or open conflict of two worlds, 
but the prophecies of gypsies, the intrigues of smugglers, the 
hearty activities of farmers, all set against the decay of an ancient 
family and all put to right in the end with the help of a gypsy, an 
English officer, and a Scottish lawyer. If the heroic element is 
less than in Waverley, the element of common life is greater, and 
the two virtues of honesty (in Dinmont) and urbanity (in Coun- 
sellor Pleydell) eventually emerge as those most worth while. 

Counsellor Pleydell is a particularly interesting character be- 
cause he represents that combination of good sense and humanity 
which Scott so often thought of as mediating between extremes 
and enabling the new world to preserve, in a very different 
context, something of the high generosity of the old. Pleydell is 
a lawyer, essentially middle ckss and respectable, but he is drawn 
with such sympathy that he threatens to remove most of the 
interest from the rather artificial main plot and share with Daadie 
Dinmont the reader's chief attention. If the gypsy Meg Merrilies 
provides something of the old-world romantic note and she 
does so with great vigour and effectiveness the lawyer and the 
farmer between them represent the ordinary man providing com- 
fort for the future. The bluff courage and honesty of the former 
and the kindly intelligence of the lawyer dominate the story at 
the end. 

Scott knew much of rural superstitions from the ballads, and he 
saw them as part of the ancient Scotland no less than Jacobitisna or 
the feudal system. The gypsy prophetess Meg Merrilies is thus in 
a way the counterpart in this novel of Fergus Maclvor in Waverley. 
She, too, dies a violent death at the end of the book, and the stage 
is left to the representatives of the less spectacular virtues. The 
different strata of dialogue here are as dear as in the earlier novel. 
Erst listen to die simple yet eloquent speech of the gypsy: 



104 LITERARY ESSAYS 

'Ride your ways,' said the gypsy, 'ride your ways, Laird of Ellangowan 
ride your ways, Godfrey Bertram! This day have ye quenched seven smoking 
heardis see if the fire in your ain parlour bum the blyther for that. Ye have 
riven the thack off seven cottar houses look if your ain roof-tree stand the 
faster. Ye may stable your stirks in the shealings at Derncleugh see that the 
hare does not couch on the hearthstane at Ellangowan. Ride your ways, 
Godfrey Bertram what do you glower after our folk for? There's thirty 
hearts there, that wad hae wanted bread ere ye had wanted sunkets, and spent 
their life-blood ere ye had scratched your finger. Yes there's thirty yonder, 
from the auld wife of an hundred to the babe that was born last week, that ye 
have turned out o* their bits o' bields, to sleep with the tod and the black-cock 
in the muirs! Ride your ways, Ellangowan, Our bairns are hinging at our 
weary backs look that your braw cradle at hame be the fairer spread up not 
that I am wishing ill to little Harry, or to the babe that's yet to be born God 
forbid and make them kind to the poor, and better folk than their father! 
And now, ride e'en your ways; for these are the last words ye'll ever hear Meg 
Merrilies speak, and this is the last reise that I'll ever cut in the bonny woods of 
Ellangowan.' 

This is the high note, popular yet passionate, the note that Scott 
learned from the Border ballads. If one puts beside this the con- 
versation between Counsellor Pleydell and Dandie Dinmont in 
Chapter Thirty-six and compares again with that the magnificent 
domestic scene at the Dinmont farm of Charlies-hope in Chapter 
Twenty-four (both unfortunately too long for quotation), one 
gets a view of the range of Scott's dialogue from the passionate 
outburst of the gypsy to the humorous realism of the talk between 
Pleydell and Dinmont and the sympathetic domestic scene at 
Charlies-hope. These three passages illustrate Scott's basic equip- 
ment as a realistic 'social* novelist. 

Finally, one should note a brief remark of Mr PleyddTs which 
illustrates perfectly his position as a sensible but sensitive man who 
had made a proper adjustment between his emotions and his way 
of life. Colonel Mannering has asked him what he thinks of the 
points of difference between the passionate old Covenanting clergy 
and the modern moderates, and this is his reply: 

*Why, I hope, Colonel, a plain man, may go to heaven without thinking 
about them at all besides, inter nos, I am a member of the suffering and 
Episcopal Church of Scotland the shadow of a shade now, and fortunately 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 105 

so but I love to pray where my fathers prayed before me, without thinking 
worse of the Presbyterian forms, because they do not affect me with the same 
associations.* 

I cannot attempt, in the space at my disposal, to give an account 
of the action of Guy Mannering or to illustrate how Scott mani- 
pulates his characters in order to produce the required picture of 
the Scotland of his youth. Nor can any account of the richness 
and vitality of the novels be given by a few brief quotations. But 
I must note that here, as so often in Scott, the formal plot is merely 
a device for bringing the necessary characters and situations into 
the novel : it is not a plot in the Aristotelian sense at all, but merely 
a stage contrived to accommodate the appropriate actors. Yet 
the action is not episodic: it all contributes to a central pattern, 
which is not, however, that laid down by the external plot 

One further point before I leave Guy Mannering. The nearer to 
the present Scott moves the more likely he is to present men of 
noble birth simply as fools. Those who think of Scott as the 
passionate defender of aristocratic privilege should note that the 
most highly born character in Guy Mannering is Sir Robert 
Hazlewood, whom Scott represents as a pompous ass, so obsessed 
by the dignity of his ancient lineage that he can talk of little else, 
and in other respects a selfish and foolish nonentity. Similarly, 
Sir Arthur Wardour of The Antiquary, equally obsessed by his 
noble ancestry, is shown as a gullible fool, and much less sympa- 
thetic than the antiquary himself, who, it should be noted, is of 
humble origin and a Whig. 

The scene of The Antiquary is the Scotland of Scott's own day. 
The external plot, which is once again that of the lost heir, is, as 
usual, not to be taken seriously: its function is to bring the faintly 
drawn Englishman Lovel into Scotland and so set the appropriate 
characters into motion. In three successive novels Scott begins by 
bringing an Englishman into Scotland, by sending forth an ob- 
server to note the state of the country at the time represeated by 
the novel's action. Lovel, of course, is no more the hero of The 
Antiquary than Christopher Sly is the hero of The Taming of the 
Shrew, and his turning out at the end to be the lost heir of Glen- 



106 LITERARY ESSAYS 

allan is the merest routine drawing down of the curtain. The life 
of the novel and it has abundant life centres in the Scottish 
characters whom the plot enables Scott to bring together, and in 
their reactions to each other. Jonathan Oldbuck, the antiquary 
(and it should be noted that there are antiquaries of one kind or 
another in a great many of Scott's novels) represents one kind of 
compromise between the old world and the new that is possible 
in the modern world. A descendant of German printers, a man 
of no family in the aristocratic sense, and a Whig in politics to 
boot, Oldbuck is yet fascinated by Scotland's past and spends his 
life in antiquarian studies. In the modern world the past becomes 
the preserve of the interested historian, whatever his birth or 
politics, while those who attempt to live in the past in any other 
way become, as Sir Arthur Wardour becomes, ridiculous and 
insufferable. Sir Arthur, continually lording it over the antiquary 
because of his superior birth, nevertheless knows less of Scottish 
history and traditions than the antiquary and is so vain and stupid 
that he falls a prey to the designing arts of an imposter who 
swindles him out of his remaining money, so that he has to be 
rescued through the influence of his friends. Sir Arthur is the 
comic counterpart of the tragic hero ofRedgauntlet: both illustrate 
the impossibility of seriously living in the past after 1746. In The 
Antiquary the prevailing atmosphere is comic. This is unusual in 
Scott, however often he may end his novels with a formal c happy 
ending' so far as the superficial plot is concerned. The melo- 
dramatic Glenallan episode in this novel and the drowning of the 
young fisherman Steenie Mucklebaddt give a sense of depth and 
implication to the action, but they do not alter its essential 
atmosphere. In this novel, too, the hero is the character who pkys 
the dominant part the antiquary himself, the good-humoured, 
pedantic, self-opinionated, essentially kindly gentleman who is in 
many respects a latter-day version of Baron Bradwardine. Round 
him move Edie Odhiltree, the wandering beggar; the humble 
fishing family of the Mucklebackits; Caxon, the comic barber 
who deplores the passing of powdered wigs but takes comfort in 
the three yet left to him; the foreign imposter Dousterswiver ; and 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST IOy 

other characters illustrative of the kind of life the east coast of 
Scotland (apart from the big cities) had settled down to by the 
end of the eighteenth century. 

The plot of The Antiquary is even less important than that of 
Guy Mannering. It is essentially a static novel, in a sense a novel of 
manners, and the parts that stand out in the memory are such 
scenes as the gathering in the Pairport post office when the mail 
comes in, the antiquary holding forth at dinner or at a visit to a 
neighbouring priory, Sir Arthur and his daughter trapped by the 
tide and rescued by Edie Ochiltree and Lovel, the interior of the 
humble fishing cottage after Steenie's drowning, and similar 
pictures, many of them admirable genre portraits in the Flemish 
style. And as always in Scott, the novel lives by its dialogue, 
the magnificent pedantic monologues of Oldbuck, the racy Scots 
speech of Edie Ochiltree, the chattering of gossips in the post 
office, the naive babbling of Caxon. No action, in these early 
novels of Scott, ever comes to life until somebody talks about it, 
whether in the sardonic tones of Andrew Fairservice, the ver- 
nacular declamations of Meg Merrilies, or the shrewd observa- 
tions of Edie Ochiltree. And it is to be noticed that the dialogue 
is at its best when it is the speech of humble people: Scott could 
make them live by simply opening their mouths. 

The characteristic tension of Scott's novels is scarcely perceptible 
in The Antiquary, though I think it can be discerned by those who 
look carefuUy for it. In Old Mortality it is present continuously 
and is in a sense the theme of the story. In this novel Scott goes 
back to the latter part of the seventeenth century to deal with the 
conflict between the desperate and embittered Covenanters and 
the royal armies intent on stamping out a religious disaffection 
which was bdund up with political disagreements. Though this 
was an aspect of Scottish history which, in its most acute phases 
at least, was settled by the Revolution of 1689, it represented a 
type of conflict which is characteristic of much Scottish history 
and which Scott saw as a struggle between an exaggerated royal- 
ism and a fanatical religion. It should be said at the outset that as a 
historical novel in the most literal sense of the word as an accu- 



108 LITERARY ESSAYS 

rate picture of the state of affairs at the time this is clearly Scott's 
best work. Generations of subsequent research have only con- 
firmed the essential justice and fairness of Scott's picture of both 
sides. The only scholar ever seriously to challenge Scott on this 
was the contemporary divine, Thomas McCrie, who made an 
attack on the accuracy of Scott's portrait of the Covenanters, but 
posterity has thoroughly vindicated Scott and shown McCrie's 
attack to have been the result of plain prejudice. 

But we do not read Old Mortality for its history, though we 
could do worse. We read it, as Scott wrote it, as a study of the 
kinds of mentality which faced each other in this conflict, a study 
of how a few extremists on each side managed, as they so often 
do, to split the country into warring camps with increasing 
bitterness on the one side and increasing cruelty on the other. 
Scott's interest, of course, would lie in the possibilities for com- 
promise, in the technique of adjustment, in the kind of character 
who can construct a bridge between the two factions. And just 
as Edward Waverley, the loyal Englishman, became involved in 
spite of himself on the Jacobite side in 1745, so Harry Morton, the 
sensible, moderate, good-hearted Scot, becomes involved ,in 
similar circumstances on the side of the Covenanters. The Fergus 
Maclvor of the Covenanters is the magnificently drawn fanatic, 
Balfour of Burley. The leader of the other side, the famous 
Claverhouse, 'Bonnie Dundee', is introduced in person, and a 
convincing and powerful portrait it is. Between these extremes 
are all those whom varying degrees of zeal or loyalty brought 
into one camp or the other. The novel contains one of Scott's 
finest portrait galleries. On the Government side there is Claver- 
house himself, his nephew Cornet Grahame, the proud Bothwell, 
descendant of kings, that perfect gentleman Lord Evandale, Major 
Bellenden, the veteran campaigner, and some minor figures. On 
the Covenanting side there is a whole array of clergymen, from 
the fanatical Macbriar to the more accommodating Poundtext, 
each presented with an individuality and with an insight into the 
motives and minds of men more profound than anything Scott 
had yet shown. The realistic, commonsense Cuddie Headrigg 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 

trying, in the interests of their common safety, to put a curb on 
the tongue of his enthusiastic Covenanting mother produces some 
of the finest tragicomedy (if one may call it that) in English 
literature: there are many passages here that would be worth 
quoting if space did not forbid. The pious and kindly Bessie 
Maclure shows the Covenanting side at its best, while the generous 
Lord Evandale plays the same part for the other side. It is in the 
gradations of the characters on either side that Scott shows his 
greatest insight into the causes of civil conflict. Total conviction 
is comparatively rare on either side, and when it is, it is either 
bitter and passionate, as in Balfour of Burley, or nonchalantly 
self-assured, as in Claverhouse. 

If Scotland had not torn itself in two before the issues presented 
in the eighteenth century were ever thought of, the fate of the 
country might have been different, and Scott's study of the last of 
the Scottish civil wars before the Jacobite Rebellions is thus faked 
with his major preoccupation the destiny of modern Scotland. 
If moderate men on both sides could have won, the future would 
have been very different. But, though there were moderate men 
on both sides and Scott delighted to draw them, their advice in 
the moments of crisis was never taken. There is no more moving 
passage in the novel than the description of Morton's vain attempt 
to make his fanatical colleagues behave sensibly before the Batde 
of Bothwell Brig. There is a passion behind die tilling of much 
of this story that is very different from the predominantly sunny 
mood of The Antiquary. The extremists prevail, the Covenanting 
army is destroyed, and a victorious Government takes a cruel 
revenge on embittered and resolute opponents. This is one novel 
of Scott's where the moderate men do not remain at the end to 
point the way to the future. Morton goes into exile and can 
return to Scotland only after the Revolution. Lord Evandale 
meets his death at the hands of a desperate man. And if the leaders 
on both sides the ruthless fanatic Burley and the equally ruthless 
but gay cavalier Claverhouse both go to their death before the 
novel ends, there is no particular hope implied by their elimination. 

Morton returns to marry his love, and the prudent Cuddie 



IIO LITERARY ESSAYS 

settles down to be a douce henpecked husband, but the life has 
gone out of the novel by this time. The dominating figure, 
Balfour of Burley, may have been an impossible fanatic, but he 
represented a kind of energy possessed by none of the wiser 
characters. Harry Morton, the observer, the man who sees some- 
thing good on both sides and is roped into the Covenanting side 
by a series of accidents, represents the humane, intelligent liberal 
in a world of extremists. Old Mortality is a study of a society which 
had no place for such a character: it is essentially a tragedy, and 
one with a very modern ring. 

If Old Mortality is, from one point of view, Scott's study of the 
earlier errors which made the later cleavage between Scotland and 
her past inevitable (for it is true to say that after the Covenanting 
wars the English saw no way but a union of the two countries to 
ensure the perpetual agreement of the Scots to the king chosen by 
England and to prevent the succession question from being a 
constant bugbear), Rob Roy is a return to his earlier theme, a study 
of eighteenth-century Highland grievances and their relation to 
Scotland's destiny. It is, in a sense, a rewriting of Waverley and 
the main theme is less baldly presented. The compromise char- 
acter here is the ever-delightful Bailie Nicol Jarvie, the Gksgow 
merchant who is nevertheless related to Rob Roy himself and, 
for all his love of peace and his commercial interests, can on 
occasion cross the Highland line into his cousin's country and 
become involved in scenes of violence in which, for a douce 
citizen of Glasgow, he acquits himself very honourably. 

Rob Roy represents the old heroic Scotland, while the worthy 
Bailie represents the new. The Union of 1707 may have been a 
sad thing for those who prized Scotland's independence, but to 
the Bailie and his like it opened up new fields for foreign trade, 
and brought increased wealth. * Whisht, sir! whisht!' he cried 
to Andrew Fairservice when the latter complained of the Union. 
It's ill-scraped tongues like yours that make mischief between 
neighbourhoods and nations. There's naething sae gude on this 
side o' time but it might have been better, and that may be said o' 
the Union. Nane were keener against it than the Glasgow folk, 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST III 

wi' their rabblings and their risings, and their mobs, as they ca* 
them nowadays. But it's an ill wind that blaws naebody gude 
let ilka ane roose the ford as they find it. I say, let Glasgow 
flourish! whilk is judiciously and elegantly putten round the 
town's arms by way of by word. Now, since St. Mungo catched 
herrings in the Clyde, what was ever like to gar us flourish like 
the sugar and tobacco trade? Will anybody tell me that, and 
grumble at a treaty that opened us a road west-awa' yonder?* 
Rob Roy is courageous and sympathetic, and Helen Macgregor, 
his wife, is noble to the verge of melodrama, but they represent a 
confused and divided Highlands and are, after all, nothing but 
glorified freebooters. Scott, in the person of Francis Osbaldistone, 
pities their wrongs and feels for their present state, but he knows 
that they and what they stand for are doomed indeed, they 
admit it themselves and throws in his lot with the prudent 
Bailie. 

It is, of course, grossly to simplify a novel of this kind to present 
its main theme in such terms. For Scott's sympathy with both 
sides leads him to produce scene after scene in which one group 
of characters after another moves to the front of the stage and 
presents itself in the most lively fashion. And the dialogue is some 
of the best Scott ever wrote. The Bailie is a perpetual delight, 
with his garrulity, prudence and essential generosity. The scene in 
the Glasgow prison, where he encounters his Highland relative; the 
episode at the clachan at Aberfoyle where he defends himself in 
a fierce tavern brawl with a red-hot poker; and his dialogue with 
the proud Helen Macgregor when she threatens him with instant 
death no reader of Rob Roy can fail to feel the vitality and, what 
is more, the essential preoccupation with those aspects of human 
character which make men interesting and diverse enough to be 
worth contemplating at all which are manifest in these chapters. 
And the humour for the book abounds in humour is the rich 
humour of character, not mere superadded wit or cleverness. 
When the Bailie stands before the mdodramatic Helen in immi- 
nent danger of being bundled into the lake on her hysterical 
orders, his conversation is absolutely central to his character: 



112 LITERARY ESSAYS 

'Kinswoman,' said the Bailie, 'nae man willingly wad cut short his thread 
of life before the end o' his pirn was fairly measured off on the yard-winles 
And I hae muckle to do, an I be spared, in this warld public and private 
business, as well that belanging to the magistracy as to my ain particular 
and nae doubt I hae some to depend on me, as puir Mattie, wha is an orphan 
She's a farawa* cousin o' the Laird o' Limmerfield Sae that, laying a' this 
thegither skin for skin, yea all that a man hath will he give for his life.' 

That is the Bailie in danger; and here he is in the comfort of his 
own home, explaining the virtues of his brandy punch: 

'The limes/ he assured us, 'were from his own little farm yonder-awa 
(indicating the West Indies with a knowing shrug of his shoulders), 'and he had 
learned the art of composing the liquor from auld Captain CofEnkey, who 
acquired it,' he added in a whisper, 'as maist folks thought, amang the Buc- 
caniers. But it's excellent liquor/ said he, helping us round; 'and good ware 
has often come frae a wicket market. And as for Captain Coffinkey, he was a 
decent man when I kent him, only he used to swear awfully but he's dead, 
and gaen to his account, and I trust he's accepted I trust he's accepted/ 

The Bailie dominates the book, and Andrew Fairservice, the 
dour Lowland gardener, comes a close second. One of Scott's 
most unattractive characters (he is the degenerate scion of the 
Covenanting tradition, while the Bailie is its more attractive heir: 
Calvinism and commerce often went together), Andrew has a 
flow of insolent, complaining and generally irritating conver- 
sation which is nevertheless irresistible. As Lord Tweedsmuir has 
said, 'he never opens his mouth but there flows from it a beautiful 
rhythmic Scots'. He is a constant irritant to the nominal hero, 
whose servant he is, and a constant joy to the reader. That ability 
to make an offensive character attractive through the sheer 
literary quality of his offensiveness, as it were, is surely the mark 
of the skilful artist. And such, I would maintain, Scott at his best, 
and in spite of certain obvious faults, always is. 

There are two pivots to this novel; one is the relations between 
Francis Osbaldistone and his friends with Rob Roy and his 
friends, and the other is Francis's relations with his unde and 
cousins. It is, I believe, a mistake to regard the family compli- 
cations in Rob Roy as mere machinery designed to provide a 
reason for young Osbaldistone's journey into Scotland: they 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 113 

loom much too largely in the novel for that. They represent, in 
fact, a statement of the theme on which the Rob Roy scenes are 
a variation the impossibility of the old life in the new world. 
Francis's uncle is an old-fashioned Tory Jacobite squire, com- 
pletely gone to seed, and his sons are either fools or villains. This 
is what has become of the knights of old they are either free- 
booters like Rob Roy, shabby remnants of landed gentry like Sir 
Hildebrand, or complete villains like Rashleigh. Francis's father 
had escaped from this environment to embrace the new world 
wholeheartedly and become a prosperous London merchant. He 
is at one extreme, Bailie Nicol Jarvie is the middle figure, and 
Rob Roy is at the other extreme. But die pattern is more com- 
plicated than this, for the novel contains many variations on each 
type of character, so much so, in fact, that it is an illuminating and 
accurate picture of Scottish types in the early eighteenth century. 
And through it all runs the sense of the necessity of sacrificing 
heroism to prudence, even though heroism is so much more 
attractive. 

It is interesting to observe that Scott tends to lavish most of his 
affection on the middle figures, those who manage to make them- 
selves at home in the new world without altogether repudiating 
the old. Such characters Jonathan Oldbuck, Counsellor Pley- 
dell, Bailie Nicol Jarvie are always the most lively and the most 
attractive in the novels in which they occur. They represent, in 
one way or another, the kind of compromise which most satisfied 
Scott. 

Of The Heart of Midlothian, which most critics consider the best 
of Scott's works, I shall say nothing, since I have analysed it in 
accordance with the view of Scott here developed in the intro- 
duction to my edition of the novel. 1 

The Bride of Lammermoor, which followed The Heart of Mid- 
lothian, presents the conflict between the old and the new in naked, 
almost melodramatic terms: the decayed representative of aa 
ancient family comes face to face with the modern purchaser of 
his estates. The book is stark tragedy, for the attempted com- 
1 Rinehart, New York, 1948. 



114 LITERARY ESSAYS 

promise the marriage between the old family and the new is 
too much for circumstances, and the final death of hero and 
heroine emphasizes that no such direct solution of the problem is 
possible. Too few critics have observed the note of grim irony 
in this novel, which goes far to neutralize the melodrama. The 
portrait of the Master of Ravenswood is bitterly ironical, and 
there is irony too in the character of his taithful servant, Caleb 
Balderstone. The pride of both master and servant, which has no 
justification in their present circumstances or achievements, is a 
grim mockery of that heroic pride which motivated the knights 
of old. Ravenswood is a tragic counterpart of Sir Arthur War- 
dour of The Antiquary: both retain nothing of value from the past 
except an unjustified pride. 

A Legend of Montrose the companion piece of The Bride of 
Lammermoor in the third series of 'Tales of My Landlord* is a 
slighter novel than those I have been discussing : it lives through 
one character only, Captain Dugald Dalgetty, the only military 
figure in English literature beside whom Fluellen looks rather 
thin. But this one character is sufficient to illuminate the whole 
story, since, in a tale concerning the Civil War of the 16405, he 
represents the most complete compromise figure the mercenary 
soldier, trained in the religious wars of the Continent, willing to 
fight on and be loyal to any side which pays him adequately and 
regularly. This is another novel of a divided Scotland divided 
on an issue foreshadowing that which divides the two camps in 
Old Mortality. Here again we have Highland heroism presented 
as something magnificent but impossible, and the main burden of 
the novel falls on Dugald Dalgetty, mercenary and pedant (a 
most instructive combination to those interested in Scott's mind), 
the man of the future who, ridiculous and vulgar though he may 
be, has a firm code of honour of his own and performs his hired 
service scrupulously and courageously. 

After The Bride of Lammermoor and A Legend of Montrose Scott 
turned to other fields than relatively recent Scottish history, and 
in Ivanhoe he wrote a straight novel of the age of chivalry without 
any attempt to relate it to what had hitherto been the principal 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST Ilf 

theme of his prose fiction the relations between the old heroic 
Scotland and the new Anglicized, commercial Britain. A novel 
like Ivanhoe, though it has qualities of its own, is much more 
superficial than any of the Scottish novels, and is written thrbugt- 
out on a much lower plane. Scott did not, in fact, know the 
Middle Ages well and he had little understanding of its social or 
religious life. But he returned later to the theme which was always 
in his mind, and in Redgauntlet produced if not certainly the best, 
then the most illuminating of his novels. 

Redgauntlet is the story of a young Edinburgh man who be- 
comes involved against his will in a belated Jacobite conspiracy 
some twenty years after the defeat of Prince Charlie at Culloden. 
The moving spirit of the conspiracy turns out to be the young 
man's own uncle (for, like so many of Scott's heroes, young 
Darsie Larimer is brought up in ignorance of his true parentage), 
who kidnaps him in order that, as the long-lost heir to the house 
of Redgauntlet, he may return to the ways of his ancestors and 
fight for the Pretender as his father had done before him. Darsie, 
of course, has no liking for this role so suddenly thrust upon him, 
and is saved from having to undertake it by the complete collapse 
of the conspiracy. That is the barest oudine of the plot, which is 
enriched, as so often in Scott, with a galaxy of characters each of 
whom takes his place in the complex pattern of late eigbteenth- 
century Scottish life which the novel creates. 

As with most of the Scottish novels, the story moves between 
two extremes. On the one hand, there is the conscientious lawyer 
Saunders Fairford, his son Alan, who is Darsie's bosom friend 
and with whom Darsie has been living for some time before the 
story opens, and other characters representing respectable and 
professional Edinburgh. Saunders Fairford is Scott's portrait of 
his own father, and the figure is typical of all that is conventional, 
hard-working, middle-class, unromantic. At the other extreme 
is Darsie's uncle, a stern fmatical figure reminiscent of Balfour of 
Burley. Between the two worlds that of respectable citizens 
wtc are completely reconciled to the new Scotland and that of 
fanatical Jacobites engaged in the vain, task of trying to recreate 



Il6 LITERARY ESSAYS 

the old Scott places his usual assortment of mediating figures, 
from the blind fiddler, Wandering Willie, to that typical com- 
promise character, the half-Jacobite Provost Crosbie. This is the 
Scotland in which Scott himself grew up and in which he recog- 
nized all the signs of the final death of the old order. For most of 
the characters Jacobitism is now possible only as a sentiment, not 
as a plan of action. But to Redgaundet, who has dedicated his 
life to the restoration of the Stuarts, it is a plan of action, and the 
tragedy for the novel is essentially a tragedy lies in the manner 
of Ms disillusion. 

The story opens with the usual pilgrim's progress. Darsie, tired 
of his law studies and happily possessed of an independent income, 
decides to leave the Fairfords', where he has been staying, and take 
a trip to south-west Scodand for diversion. We are presented first 
with a series of letters between Darsie and his friend Alan Fairford, 
the former on his travels, the latter at home in his law studies pre- 
paring himself to be called to the Bar. These letters are written 
with a speed and deftness and with a lively fidelity to character 
that carry the reader easily into the story. Darsie becomes in- 
volved in a series of adventures which bring him into contact with 
a number of characters whom Scott needs to present in order to 
round out his picture, then is kidnapped by his uncle, and finally 
discovers his real birth and the destiny his uncle intends for him. 
The story, opened by letters, is continued in Scott's own person, 
with the help of the journal Darsie keeps while held in confine- 
ment by his uncle. This technique is not in the least clumsy, but 
keeps the emphasis at each point just where Scott needs it. Alan 
goes off to rescue his friend, but not before Scott has given us a 
brilliant picture of Scottish legal life, a perfect epitome of the 
professional activity which then was and to a certain extent still 
is the basis of Edinburgh's existence. Edinburgh and its worthy 
citizens are in no danger of losing their heads over an impossible 
and reactionary ideal. We move from there to Darsie and his 
uncle, and gradually the two sets of characters get nearer each 
other, until the climax, which is the end of the novel. Nowhere 
else (as Mr Edwin Muir has pointed out) did Scott express so 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 

explicitly and so vigorously his sense of the doom of the old 
heroic life. In the modern world such ideals were not even 
dangerous, they were only silly, and though Scott accepted this, 
it was with the deepest reluctance and with all his instincts out- 
raged. Consider the climax of Redgauntlet, after the pathetic little 
conspiracy has been discovered and the Government representa- 
tive enters the room where the conspirators are arguing among 
themselves. As General Campbell, the Government emissary, 
enters, Redgauntlet challenges him in the old style: 

'In one word, General Campbell,* said Redgaundet, 'is it to be peace or 
war? You are a man of honour and we can trust you/ 

'I thank you, sir/ said the General; 'and I reply that the answer to your 
question rests with yourself. Come, do not be fools, gentlemen; there was 
perhaps no great harm meant or intended by your gathering together in this 
obscure corner, for a bear-bait or a cock-fight, or whatever other amusement 
you may have intended, but it was a litde imprudent, considering how you 
stand with government, and it has occasioned some anxiety. Exaggerated 
reports of your purpose have been laid before government by the information 
of a traitor in your councils; and I was sent down to take command of a 
sufficient number of troops, in case these calumnies should be found to have 
any real foundation. I have come here, of course, sufficiently supported both 
with cavalry and infantry, to do whatever may be necessary; but my commands 
are and I am sure they agree with my inclination to make no arrests, nay, to 
make no further inquiries of any kind, if this good assembly will consider their 
own interests so far as to give up their immediate purpose, and return quietly 
home to their own houses.' 

'What! all?' exclaimed Sir Richard Glendale 'all, without exception?' 

"ALL, without one single exception/ said the General; 'such are my orders. 
If you accept my terms, say so, and make haste; for things may happen to 
interfere with his Majesty's kind purposes towards you all' 

'His Majesty's kind purposes!' said the Wanderer [i.e., Charles Edward, the 
Pretender, himself], 'Do I hear you aright, sir?' 

*I speak the Thing's very words, from his very lips,' replied the General. * "I 
will," said his Majesty, "deserve the confidence of my subjects by reposing my 
security in the fidelity of the millions who acknowledge my title in the good, 
sense and prudence of the few who continue, from the errors of education, to 
disown it." His Majesty will not even believe that the most zealous Jacobites 
who yet remain can nourish a thought of exciting a civil war, which must be 
fetal to their families and themselves, besides spreading bloodshed and ruin 
through, a peaceful land. He cannot even believe of his Iringman^ that he would 



Il8 LITERARY ESSAYS 

engage brave and generous, though mistaken men, in an attempt which must 
ruin all who have escaped former calamities; and he is convinced, that, did 
curiosity or any other motive lead that person to visit this country, he would 
soon see it was his wisest course to return to the continent; and his Majesty 
compassionates his situation too much to offer any obstacle to his doing so.' 
'Is this real?' said Redgaundet. *Can you mean this? Am I are all, are 
any of these gentlemen at liberty, without interference, to embark in yonder 
brig . . . ?' 

*You, sir all any of the gentlemen present,' said the General 

*Then, gentlemen/ said Redgauntlet, clasping his hands together as the 
words burst from him, 'the cause is lost for ever.' 

It is important for a proper understanding of Redgaundet's 
character to note that his zeal is not only for the restoration of the 
Stuarts; it is, in some vague way, for the restoration of an inde- 
pendent Scotland, and his dominant emotion is Scottish national- 
ism rather than royalism. Scott made him a symbol of all that the 
old, independent Scotland stood for, and that is why his fate was 
of so much concern to his creator. No reader can mistake the 
passion of the scene from which I have just quoted: Scott, who 
burst into tears when he heard of old Scottish customs being 
abolished and who protested in horror when, at the -uncovering of 
the long-hidden crown jewels of Scotland, one of the commission- 
ers made as though to place the old Scottish crown on the head 
of one of the girls who were present the Scott who, in his heart, 
had never really reconciled himself to the Union of 1707 (though 
he never dared say so, not even in his novels), was portraying 
in the character of Redgaundet something of himself, something, 
perhaps, of what in spite of everything he wished to be. But as 
Darsie Latimer who is clearly a self-portrait, though a partial 
one he only touched the fringe of that tragedy, without be- 
coming involved in it. 

There are other characters and episodes in Redgauntlet worth 
dwelling on the character of the Quaker, the episode of the 
attack on the fishing nets in the Solway, and that admirable short 
story, 'Wandering "Willie's Tale'. One might, too, ekborate 
on the structure of the novel, which is perfecdy tied to- 
gether, and there is the recurring dialogue, which, as always in 



SCOTT'S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST lip 

Scott's Scottish novels, keeps abundant life continually buttling. 

Basing Scott's claim on these Scottish novels, what then was 
his achievement and what is his place among British novelists? It 
might be said, in the first place, that Scott put his knowledge of 
history at the service of his understanding of certain basic para- 
doxes in human society and produced a series of novels which 
both illuminates a particular period and throws light on human 
character in general. His imagination, his abundant sense of life, 
his ear for vivid dialogue, his feeling for the striking incident, and 
that central, healthy sense of the humour of character, added, of 
course, essential qualities to his fiction. But it was his tendency 
to look at history through character and at character through the 
history that had worked on it that provided the foundation of his 
art. Scott's might be called a 'normal' sensibility, if such a thing 
exists. He has no interest in aberrations, exceptions or perversions, 
or in the minutiae of self-analysis not unless they have pkyed a 
substantial part in human history. Fanaticism, superstition, pe- 
dantry these and qualities such as these are always with us, and 
Scott handles them again and again. But he handles them always 
from the point of view of the ordinary sensitive man looking on, 
not from their own point of view. We see Balfour of Burley 
through Morton's eyes, and Redgaundet through Darsie Lati- 
mer's. We feel for them, understand them even, but never live 
with them. That is what I mean when I talk of Scott's central 
vision: his characters and situations are always observed by some 
one standing in a middle-of-the-road position. That position is 
the position of the humane, tolerant, informed and essentially 
happy man. It is fundamentally the position of a sane man. Scott 
was never the obsessed artist, but the happy writer. 

Scott's abundant experience of law courts, both in Edinburgh 
and in his own sheriffdom, gave him a fund of knowledge of 
ordinary human psychology, and he had besides both historical 
knowledge and imagination. His eccentrics are never as funda- 
mentally odd as Dicken's eccentrics: they are essentially ordinary 
people, people he had known in one form or anotfrer. Most 
important of all, Scott enjoyed people, in the way that Shakespeare 



I2O LITERARY ESSAYS 

must have done. They live and move in his novels with a Fal- 
staffian gusto. There is indeed something of Shakespeare in Scott 
not the Shakespeare of Hamlet or Othello, but the Shakespeare of 
Henry IK or Ttvelfth Night, and perhaps also of Macbeth. His gift 
for dialogue was tremendous, and his use of Scottish dialect to 
give it authenticity and conviction is unequalled by any other 
Scottish novelist except very occasionally John Gait, Stevenson 
in Weir ofHernriston, and perhaps Lewis Grassic Gibbon in. our 
own century. In spite of all the tragic undertones in so many of 
his novels, most of them are redeemed into affirmations of life 
through the sheer vitality of the characters as they talk to each 
other. Scott's gallery of memorable characters characters who 
live in the mind with their own individual idiom cannot be 
beaten by any other British novelist, even if we restrict the 
selection to some eight of Scott's novels and ignore all the rest. 
But they are not merely characters in a pageant: they play their 
parts in an interpretation of modem life. I say of 'modern life' to 
emphasize the paradox: Scott, the historical novelist, was at his 
best when he wrote either about his own time or about the recent 
past which had produced those aspects of his own time about 
which he was chiefly concerned. 

Of course Scott was often careless. He wrote fast, and employed 
broad brush strokes. Sometimes we feel that he wholly lacked 
an artistic conscience, for he could do the most preposterous 
things to fill up space or tie up a plot. His method of drawing 
up the curtain is often clumsy, but once the curtain is up, the 
life that is revealed is (in his best novels) abundant and true. 
Scott can be pompous in his own way when his inspiration 
flags, but he never fools himself into mistaking his pomposity 
for anything else. Above all, though he is concerned about life 
he is never worried about it. We read his best novels, therefore, 
with a feeling of immense ease and satisfaction. We may be 
moved or amused or excited, but we are never worried by them. 
His best novels are always anchored in earth, and when we think 
of Helen Macgregor standing dramatically on the top of a cliff we 
cannot help thinking at the same time of the worthy Bailie, 



SCOTT S ACHIEVEMENT AS A NOVELIST 121 

garrulous and kindly and self-important; Counsellor Pleydell is 
die perfect antidote to Meg Merrilies, and even Redgaundet must 
give way before Wandering Willie and Provost Crosbie. The 
ordinary folk win in the end, and paradox again the Wizard 
of the North finally emerges as a novelist of manners. 



CHRISTOPHER NORTH 1 

IN THE SUMMER OF 1802 a seventeen-year-old student at the 
University of Glasgow read with enthusiasm the new edition 
of Lyrical Ballads and then sat down and wrote Wordsworth 
a long letter. 'To you, sir, 5 he told the poet, 'mankind are in- 
debted for a species of poetry which will continue to afford 
pleasure while respect is paid to virtuous feelings, and while 
sensibility continues to pour forth tears of rapture.' The writer 
of the letter was John Wilson, a tall, handsome young man from 
Paisley who was entering on a phase of orgiastic cultivation of 
sensibility from which he never fully recovered. The following 
year he left Glasgow for Oxford, where he divided his time 
between the writing of sentimental verses, fierce but brief bouts 
of reading, and the more robust activities of wrestling and cock- 
fighting. For Wilson was a man of great physical strength and 
immense energy, a tremendous walker and a keen fighter, and 
he strode about Oxford like a giant. 

This combination of gush and energy is the clue to his character 
and career. The moral earnestness of the early Romantic Move- 
ment worked on his native tendency to emotional self-indulgence 
to develop a taste for lachrymose sentimentalities of the most 
embarrassing kind; but at the same time his enormous vitality, 
his relish of sensation and of physical exertion, gave him a gusto 
that often enabled him to carry off his emotional debauches with 
dash and even splendour. In another age he might have written 
Rabelaisian stories or been a revivalist or run a one-man radio 
show. As it was, he became a journalist and a professor of moral 
philosophy. The journalist was Christopher North, the fluent, 
lively, unpredictable, reckless, self-contradictory, flamboyant, 
mischievous and wholly preposterous contributor to Blackwood's 
Magazine i the professor held the Chair of Moral Philosophy at 
1 A talk broadcast in the Third Programme on 8th August 1954. 
122 



CHRISTOPHER NORTH 123 

Edinburgh from 1820 until 1851, an absolute impostor, dependent 
for his lectures on material supplied to him regularly by a friend, 
a fraud, a windbag, who declaimed high sounding platitudes in 
a magnificent voice to cheering students. 

On leaving Oxford, Wilson decided that he wanted to be a 
Lake Poet, like Wordsworth; having a respectable private for- 
tune, he settled at Elleray on. Windermere, where he led a 
strenuous outdoor life, climbing, riding, walking, fishing, swim- 
ming and sailing, and also writing poetry which showed a certain 
emotional and verbal facility and a taste for a melodramatic plot. 
Wilson is now very properly forgotten as a poet, though he wrote 
poetry sporadically all his life. 

At Elleray Wilson got to know Wordsworth and De Quincey, 
and began to fancy himself as a literary man. He married in 18 n, 
and this seems to have inspired him to read for the Scottish Bar. 
The next three years found him often in Edinburgh, but his 
centre was still Elleray and his ambitions combined those of 
country gentleman, and man of letters when in 1815 his fortune 
disappeared through the dishonesty of an uncle and he was forced 
to change his way of life. He moved with his family to Edinburgh 
to live with his mother, with the aim of making his literary 
reputation in the Athens of the North. 

The Scottish Bar in the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth 
century was often the road to a literary life, as the careers of Sir 
Walter Scott and his son-in-law J. G. Lockhart clearly show. 
Wilson never practised law, but, much more important for his 
career, he got to know Lockhart and the circle of lively young 
advocates in which Lockhart moved. This led eventually to his 
joining Lockhart in writing for Blackwood's Magazine, which was 
founded as a Tory rival to Jeffrey's Edinburgh Review in 1817 by 
William Blackwood, a shrewd, energetic and ambitious pub- 
lisher with a flair for publicity and a total lack of scruple. Wilson's 
vigour and his ability to write about anything in a tone of 
exalted conviction made him just the man for the new magazine. 
Blackwood } s made Wilson and Wilson made Blackwood* s. Or 
perhaps it would be truer to say that Blackwood's made Christo- 



124 LITERARY ESSAYS 

pher North, for that was the name by which he became familiar 
to the readers of 'Maga*, as everyone in Edinburgh called it. 

With Wilson, Lockhart and James Hogg, 'the Ettrick Shep- 
herd', behind him, Blackwood was convinced that he could 
challenge the Whigs with a formidable rival periodical, and he 
was right. 'Maga' opened with a bang in October 1817, with 
three highly controversial articles, all of course anonymous. The 
first was a violent and unscrupulous attack on Coleridge, in the 
guise of a review of Biographia Liter aria\ the second (first of the 
notorious series on 'The Cockney School of Poetry') blasted the 
morals of Leigh Hunt; and the third, which excited the good 
citizens of Edinburgh to frenzy, was a mock biblical story entitled 
'The Chaldee Manuscript', purporting to be a translation of a 
recently recovered ancient manuscript but in fact telling with 
thin disguise the story of the conflict between Whig and Tory 
literary characters in Edinburgh with a juicy revelling in per- 
sonalities. In the words of Professor Ferrier, Wilson's son-in-law, 
who later edited his father-in-law's works: 'The Chaldee Manu- 
script was the first trumpet-note which dissolved the trance of 
Edinburgh, and broke the spell of Whig domination. ... It fell 
on Edinburgh like a thunderbolt. . . . The satellites of the [Whig] 
party were scandalized. They protested lustily against the out- 
rageous personalities and profanities of the Chaldee. . . . Friends 
and foes were alike confounded: the Tories were perplexed; the 
Whigs were furious.' 

'The Chaldee Manuscript' was a joint composition by Wilson, 
Lockhart and Hogg. Hogg's was the original idea, but Wilson 
and Lockhart did most of the writing, sitting up to do it one night 
until eight the next morning, with a bowl of punch, and Black- 
wood beside them egging them on. The story begins with an 
account of Edinburgh and of Blackwood and goes on to tell of 
the founding of 'Maga* : 

And I saw in my dream, and behold one like the messenger of a King came 
toward me from the east, and he took me up and carried me into the midst of 
the great city that looketh toward the north and toward the east, and ruleth 
over every people, and kindred, and tongue, that handle the pen of the writer. 



CHRISTOPHER NORTH 125 

And he said unto me, Take heed what thou seest, for great things shall come 
of it; the moving of a straw shall be as the whirlwind, and the shaking of a 
reed as the great tempest. 

And I looked, and behold a man clothed in plain apparel stood in the door 
of his house: and I saw his name, and the number of his name; and his name 
was as it had been the colour of ebony, and his number was the number of a 
maiden, when the days of the years of her virginity have expired. 

The ebony name is of course Blackwood, and the number 
refers to his shop at 17 Princes Street. 

Quite apart from the personalities involved, the element of 
biblical parody in the story gave strong offence to the orthodox. 
Scott disapproved, as he continued to disapprove of 'MagaY 
personal violence. 'I trust you have had enough of certain pranks 
with your friend Ebony/ he said to Wilson and Lockhart at 
Abbotsford the following autumn. But they hadn't: there was 
much more scandal to come. Blackwood' s, in fact, soon established 
a reputation for outrageous anonymous personal attacks on all 
sorts of people, and Wilson was responsible for some of the most 
violent. 

Whether the attack on Coleridge was by Wilson is not certain. 
His friendship for Coleridge need not have stopped him, for he 
regarded these attacks as enormous jokes which could be per- 
petrated on friend and foe alike. But they were always anonymous 
and though he wrote them with immense gusto he would sweat 
with fear and anguish if it looked as though his authorship was 
going to be revealed. In 1825, in the character of Christopher 
North, he wrote that * Wordsworth often writes like an idiot. . . . 
He is, in all things, the reverse of Milton, a good man, and a bad 
poet , . . Not one single character has he created not one 
incident not one tragical catastrophe. He has thrown light on 
no man's estate here below; and Crabbe, with all his defects, 
stands immeasurably above Wordsworth as the Poet of the Poor. 
... I confess that the "Excursion" is the worst poem, of any 
character, in the English language.' This was written just after 
Wilson had returned from being entertained by Wordsworth at 
Rydal Mount, where he had protested his friendship and admira- 



126 LITERARY ESSAYS 

tion for the poet. In the same essay he attacked Scott, who had 
always "befriended him, as 'a tame and feeble writer'. Then, when 
a threat of litigation by an Irishman named Martin, whom he had 
fiercely attacked in the same piece, made it look as though Black- 
wood might be forced to reveal that Wilson was the author, 
Wilson took to his bed in despair and wrote to Blackwood that, 
on learning of the matter, 1 was seized with a trembling and 
shivering fit, and was deadly sick for some hours. ... To own 
that article is for a thousand reasons impossible. It would involve 
me in lies abhorrent to my nature. I would rather die this evening.' 
Others on 'Maga' were motivated by political bias, but Wilson 
was an utterly irresponsible critic, liable to be carried away by his 
own verve and gusto and precipitated into saying the most 
outrageous things. Yet by the same token his critical essays for 
*Maga' had a splendid energy, especially after he had assumed the 
character of Christopher North. That pseudonym was not at 
first reserved for any individual contributor, and was liable to be 
used by any of the regulars, but by degrees it became established 
as Wilson's property, and it was certainly his invention. To write 
as Christopher North seemed to precipitate the extrovert side of 
his nature and to eliminate, at least for long periods, the moralizing 
sentimentalist. This is particularly true of the series called Nodes 
Ambrosianae, which again were not at first all written by Wilson 
but which eventually became his sole property. These are dia- 
logues, himself as Christopher North and James Hogg as the 
Ettrick Shepherd being the most regular participants. The Ettrick 
Shepherd represents a happy idealization of Hogg, who is pre- 
sented in the Nodes as a true pastoral poet, simple, active, generous 
and master of a fine Scots prose. The Nodes might be anecdotal, 
jocular, convivial, critical, or any or all of these together. Inci- 
dental songs and poems might be included, sometimes a genuine 
poem of Hogg's. Here is an example of the dialogue. The charac- 
ters are North, the Ettrick Shepherd and a friend called Tickler. 
As always, the Shepherd gets the best speeches: 

North: I wish you would review these four volumes, James, for next 
Number. 



CHRISTOPHER NORTH 127 

Shepherd: Tuts what's the use o' reviewin? Naething like a skreed o* 
extracts into a magazeen taken in the kintra. When I fa' on, tooth and nail, on 
an article about some new wark, oh, Mr North, but I'm wud when I see the 
cretur that undertaken to review' t, setting himsel wi' clenched teeth to compose 
a philosophic creecticism, about the genius of an owther that every man kens 
as weel as his ain face in the glass and then comparing him wi' this, and 
contrastin him wi' that and informin you which o J his warks are best, and 
which warst, and which middlin balancin a genius against himsel, and settin 
his verra merits against his character and achievements instead o* telling you 
at aince what the plot is about, and how it begins, and gangs on, and is wunded 
up; in short, pithy hints o' the characters that feegur throughout the story, and 
a maisterly abridgement o* facts and incidents, wi' noo and then an elucidatory 
observation, and a glowing panegyric; but, aboon a' things else, lang, lang, 
lang extracts, judiciously seleckit, and lettin you ken at ance if the owther has 
equalled or excelled himsel, or if he has struck out a new path, or followed the 
auld ane into some unsuspeckit scenery o' bonny underwood, or lofty standards 
or whether but I'm out of breath, and maun hae a drink. Thank you, Mr 
North that's the best bowl you've made yet. 

Tickler: I never had any professed feeling of the super- or prefer- natural in a 
printed book. Very early in life I discovered that a ghost, who had kept me 
in a cold sweat during a whole winter's midnight, was a tailor who haunted 
the house, partly through love, and partly through hunger, being enamoured 
of my nurse, and of the fat of ham which she gave him with mustard, between 
two thick shaves of a quartern loaf, and afterwards a bottle of small-beer to 
wash it down, before she yielded him the parting kiss. After that I slept 
soundly, and had a contempt for ghosts, which I retain to this day. 

Shepherd: Weel, it's verra different wi' me. I should be feared yet even for 
the ninth pairt o' a ghost, and I fancy a tailor has nae mair ; but I'm no muckle 
afieckit by reading about them an oral tradition out o' the mouth o' an auld 
grey-headed man or woman is far best, for then you canna dout the truth o" 
the tale, unless ye dout a' history thegither, and then, to be sure, you'll end in 
universal skepticism. 

North: Don't you admire the romances of the Enchantress of Udolpho? 

Shepherd: I hae nae doubt, sir, that had I read Udolpho and her ither romances 
in my boyish days, that my hair would hae stood on end like that o' ither folk, 
for, by nature and education baith, ye ken, I'm just excessive superstitious. But 
afore her volumes fell into may haunds, my soul had been frichtened by a* 
kinds of traditionary terrors, and mony hunder times hae I maist swarfed wi' 
fear in lonesome spats in muirs and woods, at midnicht, when no a leevin thing 
was movin but mysel and the great moon. Indeed, I canna say that I ever fan* 
mysel alane in the hush o* darkened nature, without a beatin at my heart; for 
a sort o' spiritual presence aye hovered about me a presence o' something like 



128 LITERARY ESSAYS 

and unlike my ain being at times felt to be solemn and nae mair at times sae 
awfii' that I wushed mysel nearer ingle-licht and ance or twice in my life- 
time, sae terrible that I could have prayed to sink down into the moss, sae that 
I micht be saved frae the quaking o' that ghostly wilderness o' a world that 
wasna for flesh and bluid! 

North: Look James look what a sky! 

Shepherd: There'll be thunder the morn 

The greatest joke in Wilson's life was his appointment to the 
Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh in 1820. It was an 
unashamedly political appointment. By far and away the best 
available candidate for the position was Sir William Hamilton, 
but Hamilton was a Whig, and the Town Council, which made 
the appointment, had a large Tory majority. The Whigs did not 
give up without a fight. 'The Chaldee Manuscript' and other 
indiscretions of Blackwood* s were cast up against him and his 
moral character impugned, much to Wilson's anguish, for, fierce 
though his own critical attacks could be, he could not bear the 
slightest touch of adverse criticism himself. Scott and other 
influential Tories bestirred themselves on his behalf. In the end, 
Wilson won easily, by twenty-one votes to nine. Christopher 
North became Professor Wilson, or, rather, the split in Wilson's 
personality became permanent, and Christopher North and John 
Wilson went different ways. The contributions to 'Maga' con- 
tinued, and Christopher North's journalistic career went on its 
spirited way undeterred by the moral obligations of the professor. 

When Wilson learned that he had got the Chair, jubilation 
soon gave way to panic. He had now to give regular lectures on 
moral philosophy, and what did he know of moral philosophy? 
He sat down and wrote an impassioned plea to his old college 
friend Alexander Blair, a critic and philosopher who kter became 
Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at University College, 
London, but who was now working at his father's soap factory 
near Birmingham. After telling Blair of his appointment, and 
describing the anguish he had suffered during the campaign of 
defamation against him, he went on: 'God only knows what is 
to be the ultimate issue. One thing is certain, that if I can get 



CHRISTOPHER NORTH T2p 

through the first course of Lectures with reputation, my future life 
may glide on usefully and respectably. I therefore, my best friend, 
conjure you by all that is holy beneath the heavens to listen, now, 
to my words and, if you can do what I now implore, you will 
confer upon me the greatest blessing one human being ever con- 
ferred upon another, and, ultimately, be no sufferer in anything 
yourself/ 

Wilson went on to implore Blair to come to Edinburgh for 
three months and help him prepare his lectures. When Blair 
delayed, the appeals became more and more frenzied. 'Till I hear 
that you are coming, I cannot rest nor begin to do anything. 
Though when I hear a detailed account from you of the first part 
of the course, and of what things in it you wish me to try I will 
make the attempt before you come. Whatever subjects you 
propose to me, let them be tolerably easy. ... I am terrified to 
lie down each night and know that another day has gone by 
uselessly/ 

Blair could not come to stay with Wilson in Edinburgh, but he 
helped his friend by writing a series of long impersonal letters 
which contained the substance of a course in moral philosophy. 
This set the pattern that was to continue for years. Wilson de- 
pended absolutely on Blair's letters, and could not lecture at all 
without them. Sometimes the expected letter did not arrive until 
the morning of the lecture, and he read it on his way to the 
university. Wilson's appeals to Blair make the most extraordinary 
reading. When a student asks a question or proposes an objection, 
Wilson has him put it in writing and forwards it to Blair for his 
answer. Here is a typical extract from a letter to Blair: 1 enclose 
a letter from one of my students. If the objections in it appear 
good and worthy of answer I wish you to state them as general 
objections to our Theory, and to refute them.' Or this: 'Could 
you send me a good letter-full on the effects of passion on asso- 
ciation? Any thing you chuse bold and eloquent.' 

On 24th March 1826 he appealed for a suitable concluding 
lecture: 'Last day it would greatly injure me not to have a good 
lecture. . . . The subject 1 propose is "General Education". . . . 



I3O LITERARY ESSAYS 

It is for the I2th of April. Think for a day or two before you 
begin treat the subject according to your own views send it 
off to me in letters, writing off-hand and vigorously, but not 
disturbing me for God's sake/ 

What sort of professor did this second-hand philosopher make? 
He was a roaring success from first to last. His impressive bearing, 
his tremendous voice, his gift for impromptu rhetoric of the most 
luscious kind, enabled him to take off from Blair's material and 
soar into vague, impassioned eloquence. Few remembered what 
he said, but all agreed that he was wonderful. Trembling with 
anxiety and apprehension a few moments before, he would brace 
himself, stride into the lecture hall, prop a number of Blair's 
letters up in front of him the students thought he was impro- 
vising from random notes jotted on the backs of old envelopes 
and thunder away. David Masson, who later became Professor 
of English at Edinburgh, attended Wilson's lectures as a young 
man, and gave this account of them: 

As far as ever I could ascertain, it was nothing that could in any conventional 
sense be called a systematic course of Moral Philosophy that Wilson adminis- 
tered to his students, but a rich poetico-philosophic medley in all the styles of 
Christopher North, with the speculative made to predominate as much as 
possible. His way was to come in from his ante-room with a large bundle of 
ragged papers of all sorts and sizes . . . and, throwing these down on the desk 
before him, either to begin reading from them, or sometimes, having apparendy 
failed to find what he wanted uppermost, and having also felt in vain in his 
waistcoat pockets for something likely to answer the purpose, to gaze wildly 
for a moment or two at a side-window, and then, having caught some thread 
or hint from the Tron Church steeple, to begin evolving what seemed an 
extempore discourse. 

The first time that I heard him, the effect of these preliminaries, and of his 
generally wild and yellow-haired appearance, so much stranger than anything 
I had been prepared for, almost overcame my gravity, and I had to conceal my 
face for some time behind a hat to recover sufficient composure to look at him 
steadily. The voice and mode of delivery were also singular. It was not so 
much reading or speaking as a kind of continuous musical chaunt, beginning 
in a low hollow tone, and swelling out wonderfully in passages of eloquence, 
but still always with a certain sepulchral quality in it a moaning sough as of 
a wind from the timbs, partly blowing along and partly muffling the purely 
intellectual meaning. From my recollections of him, ... I should say that the 



CHRISTOPHER NORTH 131 

chief peculiarities of his elocution, in addition to this main one, were, in the 
first place, a predominance of u among his vowel-sounds, or a tendency of 
most of his other vowels, and especially the 0, to pass more or less into one of 
the sounds of ; and, in the second place, the breaking up of his sentences in the 
act of uttering them by short pants or breathings, like ugh! interjected at 
intervals. ... In speaking in one of his lectures of the endurance of remorse, 
and in illustrating this by the fancy of the state of mind of a criminal between 
his condemnation and his execution, he wound up, I remember distinctly, 
with a phrase uttered, as regards the longer interjected breathings, exactly thus : 
'Ay! and there may be a throb of remorse (ugh!) even at that last moment 
when the head tumbles into the basket of the executioner (ngh!)\ the last 
ugh! being much the most emphatic. 

Habitually eloquent, after a manner which these and other peculiarities 
rendered unlike the eloquence of any one else, Wilson was sometimes so deeply 
and suddenly moved by the feeling of what he was saying or describing that he 
rose to unusual heights of impassioned and poetical oratory. In particular, 
there were certain lectures, the time of the coming round of which was always 
duly known, when his class-room was crowded by professors and strangers in 
addition to his students, in expectation of one of his great outbursts. . . . 

But though his students cheered him, we do not remember 
John Wilson as a moral philosopher today. Nor do any of us 
look into the twelve-volume collected edition of his works as 
critic, essayist, short-story writer and poet His ultra-sentimental 
tales of Scottish village life anticipate the worst of the Kailyard 
school; his poetry is facile and derivative; his criticism is unprin- 
cipled and erratic. But at his best Christopher North had the kind 
of brilliance that comes from sheer energy. The Nodes Ambrosia- 
nae, self-consciously picturesque, exaggerated, preposterous, as 
they often are, nevertheless are above all living: they project 
the man's own image of himself with brilliant clarity, as well as 
with a boisterous kind of wit that is like nothing else in English 
or Scottish literature. He played up to his own notion of 
romanticism, and produced a unique brand of it. 



THE WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 1 

WLIVE IN AN AGE of handbooks and digests, and textbooks 
f literary history, as of almost everything else, have for 
u ome time been commonplaces of the schoolroom. Yet 
Scottish literature has, even in Scotland, escaped this treatment. 
Neither T. F. Henderson's informative and methodical Scottish 
Vernacular Literature, A History, published at the end of the last 
century, nor J. H. Millar's discursive and opinionated Literary 
History of Scotland, which appeared at the beginning of this one, 
nor Agnes Mure Mackenzie's breathless and idiosyncratic His- 
torical Survey of Scottish Literature to 1714, now some twenty years 
old, nor John Speirs' scrappy and intermittendy perceptive little 
book on The Scots Literary Tradition which came out in 1940, has 
either established itself as a textbook or succeeded in imposing an 
accepted pattern on the Scottish literary scene. In the minds of 
most people who think at all about Scottish literature, there lies 
a picture in four sections: the first shows the so-called Scottish 
Chaucerians, mediaeval, vigorous, and at once Scottish and 
European; the second is of the eighteenth-century revival, with 
only the figures of Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns discernible, 
and the first two not very clearly; the third presents Whistle Binkie 
and the Kailyard and is generally agreed to be something that one 
shakes one's head over; and the fourth shows Hugh MacDiarmid, 
perhaps Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sydney Goodsir Smith, and the 
whole controversy about the Scottish Renaissance and Lallans. 
A few may discern the figure of George Douglas Brown, flourish- 
ing his House with the Green Shutters, between the Kailyard and 
the Renaissance. The ballads are there somewhere, too, but 
nobody knows precisely where. Scott, Gait and the nineteenth 
century Scottish novel do not seem to be part of many people's 

1 Delivered before the Edinburgh Branch of the Saltire Society on nth 
December 1954. 

132 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 133 

picture of Scottish literary history these days. And as for what 
happened between the Middle Scots poets and Allan Ramsay 
well, there was the Reformation, and civil war, and between 
them Scottish literature somehow got lost until the stability of 
the eighteenth century made its rediscovery possible. 

I do not think that this is an unfair picture of how even informed 
people think of Scottish literary history. Nor is this view alto- 
gether absurd; it is in many respects just, although, I would 
suggest, woefully inadequate and in parts somewhat distorted. 
That we need a new perspective on the history of Scottish litera- 
ture, a patterning of its material at once richer and subder, is surely 
beyond dispute. The question to which I wish to address myself 
is this: How are we to look at Scottish literature in order to dis- 
cover that pattern, and what sort of pattern will it turn out to be? 
Which is tantamount to asking: How should Scottish literary 
history now be written? 

I am not rash enough, or arrogant enough, to try to give a 
complete answer to this question. What I want to do rather is to 
present some of the material for an answer and show some of the 
preliminary questions that must be faced before that answer can 
be given. The first of such preliminary questions is the simple and 
fundamental one : What is literary history? History, we all know, 
is more than a list of names, events and dates; and literary history 
is more than a chronological list of authors with descriptions and 
summaries of their works. The literary historian must, of course, 
have the texts of previous literature available to him : literary history 
cannot be written before there are libraries and catalogues. But 
if his own work is to be more than a chronological catalogue he 
must have some ideas of causation and continuity, some sense of 
the cultural context, some insight into the way in which the arts 
are related to the civilization of which they are a part. His 
apparatus must be flexible: rigid theories of psychological or 
sociological causation only result in the torturing of the material 
until it fits the Procrustean bed of pre-conceived notions of cause 
and effect. On the other hand, it must not be so flexible as to 
provide a totally different kind of explanation for every new 



134 LITERARY ESSAYS 

phenomenon, explaining one writer by the tradition within which 
he worked, another by personal frustrations, a third by the region 
in which he was born and a fourth by the Zeitgeist. The true 
historian the historian, that is, who wishes to provide new 
illumination and understanding by presenting his material in a 
historical way must be able to manipulate a great number of 
different factors with tact and wisdom. There is the life of art 
itself, with its own traditions and its own laws of development; 
there are social, economic, political, religious, and psychological 
factors; there are accidents of time and place, and actions and 
reactions of every kind which help to condition the texture both 
of a culture in general and of the work of any given writer. 

The literary historian must have a rich enough dialectic if I 
may use that ugly term to enable him to manipulate these various 
causal factors with reference to each movement and to each 
author that he takes up, emphasizing now one kind of cause, now 
another, but always remembering the complexity of causation 
which lies behind even the simplest cultural phenomenon. He 
should not, for example, employ a rigid opposition between a 
pair of mutually exclusive concepts such as faith and reason, or 
romantic and classical, explaining literary movements in terms 
of simple alternation between one and the other, for that is to do 
violence to the richness and variety of the life of the imagination 
out of which literature arises. We shall never understand, for 
example, the complex figure of Allan Ramsay, who is at the 
same time an Augustan character trying to introduce the idiom 
of London's Age of Elegance into Edinburgh and the exponent 
and practitioner of a colloquial Scots vernacular, if we try to fit 
him into a naive classic-romantic antithesis. Nor can we pro- 
perly see or explain Burns if we see him through the spectacles of 
the English literary historiographers as a pre-Romantic looking 
forward to Wordsworth and the English Romantic Movement. 
And the fatuousness of seeing Burns as a pre-Romantic and Scott 
as a Romantic thus making 'Holy Willie's Prayer' a precursor 
of Rob Roy is sufficiently evident. In the context of European 
literature Scott has appeared to some as the founder of a new 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 135 

romantic interest in the feudal glories of the mediaeval past; but 
if we accept this, what becomes of The Heart of Midlothian, The 
Antiquary, Old Mortality and Redgauntlet, among Scott's greatest 
and most characteristic novels, which record the transition from 
the heroic to the modern world and explore the relation between 
heroism and prudence, with the triumph always accorded in the 
end to the latter? It is not Rob Roy but Bailie Nicol Jarvie, not 
the knight at arms but the antiquary who researches into his 
exploits, not Balfour of Burley but the representative of mo- 
deration and compromise, not the spectacular prison-breaker but 
the humble Jeanie Deans, who evoke Scott's deepest sympathetic 
understanding; and Redgauntlet's hysterical and anachronistic 
knight-errantry is dismissed with a smile and a shake of the head. 
We must beware of importing into Scottish literary history the 
categories of the English literary historiographer. 

The Scottish literary historian can, however, learn a great deal 
from his English colleague, if he knows when to see him as an 
example and when as a warning. The historical patterning of 
English literature began in the eighteenth century, and it is in- 
structive to see what preparation was necessary before it was able 
to emerge. Bibliographical and biographical material came first. 
John Leland and John Bale in the sixteenth century first collected 
the names, and the tides of the works of all the English-born 
writers they could discover. In the seventeenth century a critical 
tradition began to emerge, enabling writers to discriminate be- 
tween the good and the less good. In the same century began the 
tradition of writing 'Lives of the Poets' that culminated a century 
later with Dr Johnson. Libraries, too, were being built up and 
organized, so that older texts were available. The Bodleian was 
founded about 1600 and its first catalogue published in 1605. The 
manuscript riches of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges were 
catalogued by Edward Bernard in 1697. The great collection 
founded by Sir Robert Cotton (now part of the British Museum 
collection) remained in private hands throughout the seventeenth 
century but passed to the nation in 1700. The catalogue of the 
Harleian Collection was published by order of the Trustees of the 



136 LITERARY ESSAYS 

British Museum in 1759. Three years later we learn that Thomas 
Warton was thinking 'in earnest' about his history of English 
poetry, whose first volume appeared in 1774. By this time also 
theories about the nature of primitive poetry and the relation 
between poetry and civilization had been put forward by in- 
numerable critics and philosophers. There was also a sufficient 
body of linguistic knowledge available, largely as a result of the 
Herculean labour of the great George Hickes at the end of the 
seventeenth century. 

Libraries, catalogues, bibliographies, biographies, notions of 
causation and development, linguistic knowledge these are some 
of the prerequisites for literary history, and their necessarily slow 
development explains why literary history is such a late kind of 
writing to appear in any culture. I have mentioned library 
catalogues more than once, and though this may seem a very 
minor tool for the literary historian, it is crucial nevertheless. 
Uncatalogued libraries, where the reader stumbles on older works 
without knowing what he is to expect in advance, produce anti- 
quaries, not historians. It is no accident that it was only after the 
Harleian Collection, so rich in earlier English literature, had been 
catalogued, that Thomas Warton decided to write the first His- 
tory of English Poetry. Scotland has tended to run to antiquaries 
rather than historians partly at least because so much material of 
prime importance for the writing of Scottish cultural history has 
lain so long uncatalogued in the basements and attics of both 
libraries and private houses. The history of the Scottish song-lyric 
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, for example, a matter 
of the first importance for our understanding of what really 
happened to Scottish poetry in the so-called 'gap* between the 
end of the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century has remained 
so long unwritten because there were no public indications of 
where the relevant material might be found. The material exists; 
it is being patiently ferreted out by individual researchers; but 
history has been held up, and in some cases distorted, for lack of 
proper signposts to the material. 

We in Scotland have the libraries, though they are not cata- 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 137 

logued as well as they might be ; we have the linguistic and textual 
scholarship; we have now, I think, the interest and perhaps even 
the zeal. Have we the critical tradition which is necessary to 
define the scope and perspective of a literary history? In spite of 
the many individual essays devoted to a revaluation of the Scottish 
literary tradition that have appeared during the last twenty years 
or so, I am not sure that we can say that we have the critical 
tradition. The spate of creative activity associated with the Scot- 
tish Renaissance has, it is true, been moved in some degree by a 
replacement of Burns by Dunbar as the Scottish poet who ought 
to be looked back to, as well as by a fierce repudiation of the 
Kailyard tradition, but this represents an emotional need rather 
than a clear critical perception. I do not think that we have had 
in Scotland a really lively critical tradition since the rhetorical 
school of Hugh Blair and Lord Kames in the eighteenth century. 
Careful critical studies of individual authors are now the great 
necessity. Perhaps I may be allowed to say that my own studies 
of Robert Burns and of Robert Louis Stevenson were intended 
as humble contributions to that kind of critical revaluation on 
which the new historian of Scottish literature must depend. I 
should like to see full-dress critical studies of all the major and 
many of the minor Scottish poets. We talk so much of Dunbar 
and his importance for the history of Scottish poetry. Where is 
the great new critical book on Dunbar, or on any of the Middle 
Scots poets? We are producing editions, yes, and biographies, 
but the full-dress book-length critical revaluations have still to 
come. And the significant new history of Scottish literature waits 
for them. 

As for general theories of causation and continuity: there has 
been a considerable amount of controversy on such matters in 
Scotland during the last two decades, but far too much of it has 
been facile sloganizing. Dr Agnes Mure Mackenzie's lively re- 
writing of Scottish political history has many virtues, thoughnotall 
will agree with her point of view, but her work is largely written 
in what I must pedantically call a two-term dialectic Scotland 
versus England, the Presbyterian versus the Episcopalian, and so 



138 LITERARY ESSAYS 

on which, it seems to me, is neither rich nor flexible enough to 
enable a full and fair picture to be presented. We still need a great 
deal more exploration of the nature and the various metamor- 
phoses of Scottish culture, and its relation not only to European 
culture and to English culture but to what might be called its own 
anti-self. 

I said earlier that the English literary historiographers could 
present us with warnings as well as with examples. The chief of 
those warnings is provided by their tendency to slip into a simple- 
minded teleological kind of interpretation, what I call the hills- 
and-valleys method of writing literary history. We know that 
Shakespeare was the greatest Elizabethan dramatist, so we look 
for anticipations of his qualities in earlier dramatists and call them 
pre-Shakespearean. We know that Chaucer was the greatest 
mediaeval English poet, so we set him likewise on a peak and 
visualize earlier poets struggling up to the Chaucerian heights and 
later poets Lydgate, Occleve, and so on slipping down on the 
other side into the bog of late mediaeval dullness. Similarly, early 
Tudor lyrics are presented as movements towards the Elizabethan 
lyrical efflorescence, as though Wyatt and Surrey said to each 
other: 'The Golden Age of the Elizabethan lyric will be along 
soon; we'd better start practising for it/ There is, of course, some 
truth in this view (though it is a fact that the Tudor lyric is most 
successful when it is most mediaeval), but when such a method 
is used to discuss literary movements it can become intolerable. 
Certain early nineteenth century poets show a new kind of 
interest in Nature, a preference for introspective, personal, poetry, 
a love of the Middle Ages, and a kind of poetic idiom which 
differs sharply from that of Thomson and Gray. Very well then: 
we call these qualities not all found in the same poets the 
Romantic Movement and look for traces of them in earlier 
writers. When we find them, we call the writers who display 
them pre-Romantic. So we have Thomson in diction poles 
apart from Wordsworth showing an interest in Nature, and he 
is promptly labelled pre-Romantic because of it. 'Wordsworth 
will be along in a couple of generations; I'd better get this Nature 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 139 

thing prepared for', he mutters to himself as he writes 'The Sea- 
sons*. So Gray, because he could be wild and extravagant, is for 
very different reasons called a pre-Romantic. The fact that 
Johnson and Wordsworth both disliked Gray for the same reasons 
does not seem to have caused the literary historians to hesitate in 
applying this classification. And if, as so many of these historians 
did, you consider the Romantic Movement a Good Thing, a 
blessed return to freedom and spontaneity after neo-classic rigidity 
the one far-off divine event towards which all eighteenth century 
poetry steadily moves, you go down the waiting list of eighteenth 
century poets and give them marks according as they anticipate 
this glorious revolution. That this is a method calculated to 
distort beyond all recognition the true nature and achievement of 
the eighteenth century poets and for that matter of the nine- 
teenth century poets too hardly needs demonstration. We see 
the great Elizabethans waving across the arid gulf of the later 
seventeenth and the eighteenth century to the Romantics on 
their peak. And then a revolution in taste occurs. The Romantics 
are decried, the metaphysicals elevated as the height of English 
poetry; Pope is reinstated, Tennyson replaced by Hopkins; Mr 
Cleanth Brooks writes his Modern Poetry and the Tradition and 
lo ! every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill laid 
low; the valleys become hills and the hills valleys; the garment of 
the earlier literary historians is simply turned inside out. 

Of course there are peaks in any literature; there are dull 
periods and new flowerings; but to see any period simply in the 
light of its falling away from an earlier kind of excellence or its 
anticipation of a future one is not to see it in itself as it really is. 
We must never allow the historical pattern to distort our vision 
of the individual literary figure. So, in Scottish literature, we 
must not undervalue Stevenson because he comes between Whistle 
Binkie and the final extremes of the Kailyard. Our task is, on the 
contrary, to understand how the virtues and the limitations of 
Stevenson's art are related to the texture of the Scottish culture of 
his day. Nor, to take another example, must we despise The Gude 
and Godlie Ballatis which possess many real beauties, as well as 



I4O LITERARY ESSAYS 

some absurdities because they represent a Puritan impulse which 
in other respects has done some harm to Scottish culture. Do not 
misunderstand me : I am not pleading for critical relativism. I am 
not saying that everything must be praised as good of its kind. 
Not at all : the ideal literary historian must never confuse explana- 
tion with evaluation and allow himself to praise something as 
literature merely because it is interesting as a symptom or an 
effect. What I do insist on is that he should not allow his historical 
pattern to distort his view of the individual work. And that 
meaiis that the pattern should be rich and flexible enough to be 
really helpful, to illuminate rather than to smother. Simplifi- 
cation is of course inevitable in any kind of historical writing; 
one simplifies in order to see the total picture more clearly. Naive 
over-simplification, on the other hand, only obscures the total 
picture. 

So much for the pitfalls. Let me now turn to my original 
question: How should we look at Scottish literature in order to 
discover its historical pattern? There is, of course, no simple or 
single answer, certainly none that I should be prepared to give in 
a preliminary discussion of this kind. All I wish to do here is to 
present some considerations which are important to anyone con- 
cerned with this question. We need not expend overmuch in- 
genuity in distinguishing the origins of Scottish literature from 
other elements in Northumbrian writing : all nations have a be- 
ginning somewhere and at some time, and there is nothing 
unusual or upsetting to national pride about the fact that the Scots 
literary language was, at cue stage of its development, identical 
with the Anglian speech of northern England or that Northumbria 
as a linguistic region straddled what were to become the national 
boundaries of England and Scotland. As Dr Agnes Mure Mac- 
kenzie has pointed out, Scotland has a long past but she is a new 
nation. The Scottish literary language developed as the nation 
developed, and to deny Scots its independent status as a national 
tongue on the grounds that at an early stage in its career it was 
part of a wider linguistic unity makes as much sense as to deny 
English its status as an independent language on the grounds that 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 14! 

the Saxons brought their speech with them from the district later 
called Schleswig Holstein. If Scots, in the modern sense of the 
term, is the Scottish language which developed from the northern 
form of Anglian speech, the important question for the Scottish 
literary historian is not so much the implications of its origin it 
is what it developed into, not what it arose from, that concerns 
him as its relation to the two other literary languages of Scotland, 
Gaelic and Latin. 

The Latin question is common to all European literatures 
in the Middle Ages, and it is a nice point whether historical 
treatment of a national literature should take equal account of the 
important material produced in Latin, or whether the national 
tradition should be defined strictly in terms of language. Is the 
history of English literature the history of literature written in 
English, or the history of all literature produced in England which, 
in any way at all, reflects English thought or sensibility? Most 
literary historians have taken it to be the former, and have omitted 
works written in Latin as they have omitted those in Anglo- 
Norman. One can argue for either procedure. I myself would be 
inclined to say that, while the historian of English literature should 
not give equal attention to Latin literature produced in England, 
he should take sufficient note of it to make clear that the country 
was employing an international literary medium at the same time 
as it was employing a national one, and some discussion of the 
relation between national and international elements in a literary 
culture would follow from this. In Scotland, always in many 
senses a more European country than England, the Latin literature 
is of considerable importance in defining the relation of Scottish 
to European culture, and should be given at least some considera- 
tion from that point of view: George Buchanan, for example, 
represented Scotland in Europe in a very special way. 

The Scottish Gaelic tradition presents, in many ways, more 
formidable claims. It links Scottish culture, not with the Latin 
culture of mediaeval Europe, but with the Celtic culture of 
Ireland, always somewhat apart from what might be called the 
Mediterranean centre of mediaeval European influence. The 



142 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Mediterranean centre produced the great Rose tradition which is 
so important in European poetry; the garden of the love alle- 
gories is the standard setting for a whole literary genre. Dunbar is 
in touch with this tradition when he writes, at the beginning of 
'The Golden Targe': 

Ryght as the stern of day begouth to schyne, 
Quhen gone to bed war Vesper and Lucyne, 

I raise and by a rosere did me rest; 
Up sprang the goldyn candill matutyne, 
With clere depurit bemes cristallyne, 

Glading the mery foulis in thair nest; 

Or Phebus was in purpur cape revest 
Up raise the lark, the hevyns menstrale fyne 

In May, in till a morrow myrthfullest. 

We know this rose garden and this May morning. It comes from 
the secular Mediterranean centre of mediaeval European poetry, 
just as the powerful poem 'Done is a battell on the dragon black' 
or 'Ane ballat of our Lady' represents the religious Latin tradition, 
deriving from the mediaeval Latin hymn. But when Henryson, 
towards the beginning of 'The Testament of Cresseid', writes: 

I mend the fyre and beikit me about, 
Then tuik ane drink my spreitis to comfort, 
And armit me weill fra the cauld thairout: 
To cut the winter nicht and mak it schort, 
I tuik ane Quair, . . . 

or Dunbar writes his 'Tydings fra the Session', each has his eye 
on the local Scottish scene and derives his imagery and his attitude 
from a particular Scottish situation. That is one polarity between 
the European (either secular or religious or both) and the purely 
Scottish. It is not difficult for the literary historian to come to 
terms with that. But turn from these poems to, say, this song by 
Mary MacLeod: 



Ged a theid mi do m leabaidh 
Chan e cadal as miannach learn 
Aig ro mheud na tuik 
Is mo mhuileann gun iarann air; . . . 



Though I go to my bed 
It is not sleep that I wish, 
For the flood is so great 
And my mill is unshod. . . 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 143 

This is the opening of a poem addressed to Iain MacLeod on his 
presenting the poetess with a snuff-mull. In subject, in tone, in 
literary convention, it is worlds away from the Mediterranean 
centre, and in its mixture of formality and spontaneity equally 
far from the 'realistic' elements in Dunbar and Henryson. The 
difference is not to be explained by the fact that Mary MacLeod 
lived some two hundred years after the Middle Scots poets I have 
quoted, for the poem is equally different from anything produced 
in England or Lowland Scotland at this time. It represents a 
different poetic tradition and a different tradition of sensibility. 
The situation is complicated by the fact that Mary MacLeod's 
poetry stands between the older Gaelic poetry of the formal bardic 
schools and the more popular, less rhetorical verse of eighteenth 
century Scottish Gaelic poets: this is a polarity within Gaelic 
literature itself, and to consider it adequately would take us into 
the relation between the older Scottish Gaelic literature and the 
Gaelic literary language that was evolved chiefly in Munster. It 
was only in die seventeenth century that a Scottish Gaelic tradi- 
tion, independent of the formal, rhetorical training of the Irish 
schools, began to develop, to produce in the eighteenth century, 
with the poetry of Alexander Macdonald, Duncan Ban Macintyre, 
Dugald Buchanan and Rob Donn Mackay, a minor Scottish 
Gaelic literary Renaissance. The first printed work by a Scottish 
writer written in what could be called Scottish Gaelic as distinct 
from Irish Gaelic was the small collection of poems published for 
Alexander Macdonald in Edinburgh in 1751 with the significant 
tide Ais-eiridh na Sean Chanain Albannaich, or Revival of the Old 
Scottish Tongue. 

What is the historian of Scottish literature to make of all this? 
How is he to handle the Gaelic tradition, how present it in relation 
to the Scots tradition? Does the turning away from the Irish 
bardic schools to produce a more purely Scottish poetry fit in to 
any total picture of the Scottish literary tradition? Does the 
outburst of Jacobite Gaelic poetry in eighteenth century Scotland 
arise from the same impulse which produced so much Jacobite 
Scots song and which, by providing a new folk emotion for the 



144 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Scottish people at a period in civilization when folk emotion was 
dying out, delayed so remarkably the sophistication of Scottish 
song? Scottish literary historiography must surely consider these 
matters, as it must consider the odd fact that Lowland Scotsmen 
fussed and flurried over Macpherson's Ossian while totally ignor- 
ing the contemporary Gaelic poetry being produced on their very 
doorstep. The pattern here is extraordinarily complex, and the 
historian's duty is to make sense of it without naive over-simplifi- 
cation. There is a chronological line, with a tradition mutating 
according to its own laws; there are intersecting circles of cultural 
influence, Lowland, Highland, Irish, English, European; there are 
shifting relations between the writer and his audience; there are 
social, political and economic developments which produce 
special problems for the Scottish writer. 

Coming to terms, then, with Scotland's three literary languages 
presents a challenging problem of organization and interpretation 
for the historian of Scottish literature. The problem is relatively 
simple as far as mediaeval literature is concerned, but when 
English develops as a fourth language (or rather replaces Latin as 
the third) the situation becomes much more complex, not to say 
confused. We all know about the political, religious and social 
reasons which sent Scottish writers more and more to English as 
their medium of expression, and we know something of the 
divided sensibility that resulted. But the transition has never been 
either fully explained or fully documented. We know that the 
prestige of Elizabethan English literature, the removal of the 
Scottish King to London to ascend the English throne, the natural 
turning of a Protestant Scotland towards a Protestant England, 
the growing English political influence, all tended to encourage 
Scotsmen to write in English, and that Puritan suspicion of secular 
love poetry sent much folk poetry underground, whence it 
partially re-emerged in unexpected ways in the eighteenth cen- 
tury. But how much really went underground? And how much 
of it was really folk poetry? What was the position of Scottish 
court poetry at the end of the sixteenth century, and how far are 
the popular songs that later came to the surface derived from 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 145 

these court poems? Has the migration of Scottish court poets, 
and musicians, in 1603 really been documented and examined? 
Have the enclaves of older Scots poetry and music which survived 
the Reformation at Aberdeen and elsewhere been properly in- 
vestigated? Most historians of Scottish literature are content to 
jump across what they conceive to be the gap between the end 
of the Middle Ages and the eighteenth-century revival. But it is 
the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that provide the clue to 
what really happened to Scottish culture and to the Scottish 
sense of nationality, and the literary historian must look at the 
relatively scanty data provided by this period very carefully 
indeed. 

One of the most important phenomena demanding the in- 
vestigation of the historian of Scottish literature is the mutation 
of the Scots literary language into a vernacular. Montgomerie, 
writing in the latter part of the sixteenth century, could produce 
a stanza like this: 

Like as the dumb solsequium, with care ourcome 

Dois sorrow, when the sun goes out of sicht, 
Hings doun his head, and droops as dead, nor will not spread 
But locks his leavis through langour all the nicht, 
Till foolish Phaeton rise 

With whip in hand, 
To purge the crystal skyis 

And licht the land. 
Birds in their hour waitis for that hour 

And to their prince ane glaid good-morrow givis; 
Fra then, that flour list not till lour, 
Bot laughs on Phoebus loosing out his leavis. 

This shows art, gravity and a sensibility thoroughly at home in 
the convention it uses. Only some twenty years later, Sir Robert 
Aytoun was writing thus: 

Why did I wrong my judgement so 
As to affect where I did know 

There was no hold for to be taken? 
That which her heart thirsts after most, 
If once of it her hope can boast, 

Straight by her folly is forsaken. 



146 LITERARY ESSAYS 

There are three obvious ways in which this stanza (which, how- 
ever, it must be remembered, was meant to be sung) differs from 
Montgomerie's. First, it is written in English, not in Scots; 
secondly it is derivative rather than traditional; thirdly, it belongs 
to an exercise, an etude, rather than to a fully realized poem. At 
this stage, at least, there is a loss involved in a Scottish poet's 
moving from Scots to English. 

Another comparison will take us a stage further. Going back 
to Alexander Scott, we find a stanza like this : 

For nobillis hes not ay renown 
Nor genrillis ay the gayest goun, 
Thay cary victuallis to the toun 

That werst dois dyne: 
Sa blissely to the busk I boun, 
Ane uthir eitis the berry doun 

That suld be myne. 

The opening of Sempiirs 'Habbie Simson' is in the same stanza 
form: 

Kilbarchan now may say alas! 

For she hath lost both game and grace, 

Both Trixie and The Maiden Trace; 

But what remead? 
For no man can supply his place: 

Hab Simson's dead. 

There is a difference in weight here; though both Scott and 
Sempill use images and expressions drawn from popular speech, 
Scott's language is more highly charged, it has more gravity and 
greater reverberation. 'Habbie Simson' is sprightly popular verse 
written for amusement by a member of the landed gentry, and 
written in a language which by this time few educated people 
felt to be suitable for the highest kind of art. True, it draws on a 
tradition of poetry of popular revelry which earlier had produced 
such poems as 'Christ's Kirk on the Green' and 'Peblis to the Play', 
but it is frivolous rather than truly humorous because it does not 
grow out of that tradition but uses it in what might almost be 
called a patronizing way. This is not to say that the 'Epitaph on 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 147 

Habbie Simson' is not an important poem; it is indeed important 
historically, both for drawing attention to the possibilities of folk 
humour as a way of bringing the vernacular into current poetry 
and for reviving a stanza form which was to play such an impor- 
tant part in eighteenth century Scottish poetry, but it lacks a 
dimension. Between Sempill of Beltrees and Burns Scottish 
vernacular poetry had to learn how to be the product of the whole 
man, how to achieve scope and density in short, how to recover 
that lost dimension. Where it did so, it was by transmuting anti- 
quarian, patriotic and patronizing gestures towards the vernacular 
into something deeper, something with an organic connection 
with contemporary sensibility; and that transmutation was itself 
made possible by re-establishing living contact with certain im- 
portant currents in Scottish literature and Scottish folk poetry. 

The difference between a vernacular and a language is that in 
the latter case there is aliterary tradition, arising out of the different 
forms of the spoken language and transcending them, which 
reflects back on the spoken language and gives it a steady re- 
lationship to the national culture. Once the literary tradition is 
broken, once there is no literary language growing out of the 
spoken language (however different from it it may be, and how- 
ever many artificial elements may have been added), the spoken 
language is bound to disintegrate into a series of regional dialects. 
So, after the Norman Conquest of England, the central literary 
position of West Saxon was lost, since French replaced Anglo- 
Saxon as the literary language, and Middle English fell into a 
series of regional dialects. Only after the re-establishment of 
English as the literary language of England did a linguistic norm 
emerge and, while differences between spoken dialects persisted, 
the language was pulled together by the integrating force of a 
literary tradition. Similarly, in Scotland, Middle Scots (whatever 
its original relationship with Northumbrian English) had, in 
virtue of its literary tradition, been a language and not a verna- 
cular; Scots became a vernacular only after the literary language 
of its serious writers had ceased to be Scots. How to use the 
vernacular as a language in serious literature (that is, in literature 



148 LITERARY ESSAYS 

that was more than an antiquarian exercise, a jest, or a tour de 
force) was the problem faced by Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns. 
The problem was never permanently solved, for English re- 
mained the main language of serious expression; it was solved 
occasionally and temporarily, partly by happy accident, partly 
by the intervention of genius. 

'Habbie Simson' is a vernacular squib; 'Holy Willie's Prayer' 
is a Scots poem, written in a literary language in which English 
and Scots reinforce each other. Yet the latter is not quite the 
same kind of thing that Alexander Scott or Montgomerie wrote. 
Burns only re-established contact with the Scots literary tradition 
by looking at it through the spectacles provided by folk song and 
other kinds of popular art, and as a result the tradition as he uses 
it is a composite one, in which the satiric boisterousness of Lynd- 
say's Satire of the Three Estaitis, the happy artifice of Montgomerie, 
the stark clarity of the ballads, the richness and warmth and 
earthiness of folk song, the pious beat of Scottish psalmody, 
combine to produce a precarious but while it lasted a brilliant 
unity. It was Burns' predecessors who made that synthesis pos- 
sible; it was his own genius that made it brilliant; it was the 
cultural context of his time that made it precarious. 

That cultural context requires the most careful examination. 
The nature of the Scottish poetic tradition which James Watson 
revived in 1706 the year before the incorporating union between 
England and Scotland was finally voted with the publication of 
the first volume of his Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots 
Poems both Ancient and Modern, is of prime importance for an 
understanding of what happened to Scottish poetry in the eight- 
eenth century. With its mixture of poems of popular revelry, 
laboured exercises in courtly English, macaronics, mock elegies, 
serious sixteenth century Scots poems, trivial epigrams and epi- 
taphs, poems by Drummond and Montrose, flytings, laments, and 
miscellaneous patriotic pieces, it appears at first to represent the 
casual putting together of whatever Watson found to his hand. 
Yet (except for ballads, which it lacks, and songs, which are few, 
and the perhaps surprising lack of anything by Lyndsay) the 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 149 

collection represents -with a fair degree of accuracy the different 
kinds of material available for the development or reconstruction 
of the Scottish poetic tradition in the eighteenth century. The 
tradition of the makars was represented by Montgomerie (we 
must wait until Ramsay to find the so-called Scottish Chaucerians 
made available) ; the courtly tradition in English by Dnimmond 
and Aytoun; the older popular tradition by 'Christ's Kirk on the 
Green' and the newer by 'Habbie Simson' and other pieces; 
various kinds of popular and semi-popular Scottish song were 
represented, some in Scots and some in English, though the col- 
lection was not strong here; the characteristic Scottish humour 
and Scottish violence are represented in several ways, as is the 
goliardic tradition as it developed in Scotland and the tradition 
of macaronic humour associated with it. What Watson printed 
represented things that were still going on in Scotland, though 
often not on the surface. In bringing them to the surface he 
prevented them from being obscured completely by the new face 
of Scottish culture and at the same time helped to divert patriotic 
attention from politics to literature. It is true that that attention 
was mixed up in many quarters with confused ideas about the 
vernacular and primitive poetry and the natural man, and this 
confusion made serious difficulties for Burns. But it also provided 
an environment which encouraged the production of an enriched 
vernacular poetry under certain circumstances and at certain levels, 
and that was decisive for the course of eighteenth century Scottish 
poetry. 

Much has been written on the eighteenth century movement, 
but, it seems to me, its full complexity and significance for the 
literary historian has not yet been fully appreciated. Allan Ram- 
say's extraordinary mixture of vanity, coyness, genteel pretension, 
urban swagger, rustic colloquialism and Scottish patriotism, his 
split personality and basic uncertainty of taste, reflect the con- 
fusions and difficulties of the Scottish cultural scene of his day as 
well as his own psychology. Robert Fergusson's independence of 
the literati, resulting in part from the self-confidence that a formal 
education gave him he had not the inferiority complex about 



ISO LITERARY ESSAYS 

his small knowledge of the classics which both Ramsay and 
Burns had and the quiet assurance which he manifested in the 
writing of his Scots poems, must also be considered as an illumi- 
nating product of the reaction of personal circumstance with the 
historical situation. That the Cape Club provided a better 
atmosphere for a poet than the self-conscious young would-be 
gentlemen of the Easy Club provided for Ramsay or the Tar- 
bolton Bachelor's Club for Burns is an important fact for the 
historian of Scottish literature. While Ramsay declared with 
nervous defensiveness that he understood Horace but faintly in 
the original and Burns found it expedient to present himself to 
the genteel world as a remarkable example of the natural man, 
Fergusson wrote as he pleased and cheerfully thumbed his nose at 
Dr Johnson and his Scottish admirers. Fergusson's student days at 
St. Andrews had put him in touch with the old goliardic tradition ; 
his language combined elements from his parents' Aberdeenshire, 
from the Fife of his university days, from the Edinburgh he was 
born and worked in, and from the older literary Scots of his 
reading. All this means that he was in a better position to face 
the problem of writing in the vernacular, and of raising the ver- 
nacular to the level of a literary language, than either Ramsay 
had been or Burns was to be; but his sadly early death ruined that 
prospect. If Fergusson had lived to meet Burns and discuss Scot- 
tish poetry with him, the story to be told by the Scottish literary 
historian today might be a very different one. 

And what of the galaxy of eighteenth century Scottish philo- 
sophers, historians and scientists who wrote in English? How is 
the pattern of their activity to be woven together with that of the 
Ramsay-Fergusson-Burns movement? We must remember that 
David Hume was an ardently patriotic Scot as well as a good 
European, but his Scottish loyalties led him to acclaim as magni- 
ficent much worthless English poetry written by Scotsmen. This 
paradox deserves more exploration and explanation than it has so 
far received. Or again, what of the rhetorical critical tradition 
of the eighteenth century Scottish critics? The role which Burns 
played before the Edinburgh gentry (but fortunately played less 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 151 

and less in his own poetry) and the critical reception of the Kil- 
marnock volume in Edinburgh were alike determined by the 
notions of primitive poetry which were being put forward by the 
Edinburgh critics and which are related to the general excitement 
about primitive poetry to be found in such various scholars and 
poets as Bishop Lowth, Thomas Gray and Bishop Percy. This 
concept of primitive poetry, which was taken to include every- 
thing from the Old Testament to Scottish folk song and from 
the supposed oral literature of the American Indians to Ossian, 
provided a back door, as it were, through which Scottish ver- 
nacular poetry could be smuggled into the drawing rooms of the 
literati Unless we understand this, we not only misunderstand 
the relation of the vernacular to the genteel tradition in late 
eighteenth century Scotland, but are also liable to underrate the 
dangers and the temptations which threatened Burns. The degree 
to which Burns escaped those dangers and resisted those tempta- 
tions is astonishing. 

These considerations far from exhaust the aspects of eighteenth 
century Scottish literature demanding further investigation by 
the potential historian of Scottish literature. The various forms 
in which a frustrated Scottish national feeling expressed itself 
culturally in the eighteenth century have never been fully exa- 
mined, nor has the cultural significance of what Burns called 
'sentimental Jacobitism' been properly explored. The relation 
between national tradition and commercial progress as reflected 
in the activities of Glasgow merchant princes and Edinburgh 
lawyers is relevant here, and helps to explain Scott, whose greatest 
novels, as I have suggested, record with reluctant approval the 
modulation of a heroic into a commercial civilization. Scott, like 
Cervantes, saw that in the modern world knight-errantry is at 
best a splendid folly and at worst a brutal brigandage (Rob Roy 
combined both), and Redgauntlet is Scott's Don Quixote. He 
sighed for the Stuarts, and worked himself to exhaustion in order 
to make George IV popular in Scotland. His best novels, like his 
life, record the price of progress. 

The nineteenth century has its own problems. The cultural 



152 LITERARY ESSAYS 

significance of the Edinburgh periodicals of the earlier part of the 
century; the fate of the Scottish novel; the significance of Whistle 
Binkie, which is not simply a sentimentalizing of Scottish life but 
the deliberate introduction of the Scot as what might be called a 
music hall figure, thus pointing the way to Harry Lauder and the 
twentieth-century Scotch comics (it has never been noted how 
many Irish comic poems there are in Whistle Binkie the Irishman 
had already become a stock figure of comedy, the fate of oppressed 
groups everywhere); the enormous effects of industrialization on 
urban Scottish life and imagination; the strangling of Highland 
society and culture after the '45 Rebellion with all the sad results 
in Highland depopulation, urban overcrowding, and the des- 
truction of communal life ; the growth of the Kailyard ; the various 
nineteenth century attempts at a Scottish literary renaissance; the 
significance of such figures as James Hogg (whose Memoirs of a 
Justified Sinner is one of the greatest pieces of imaginative prose 
produced in Scotland in modern times) and Robert Louis Steven- 
son; such phenomena as the popularity of Professor Wilson's 
(Christopher North's) flamboyant and sentimental lectures on 
moral philosophy at Edinburgh University .or the character and 
pretensions of Professor John Stuart Blackie; the ideal of the lad 
of pairts and the part played in the formation of taste and character 
by the Scottish educational system these are only a few of the 
many themes and problems which the future historian of Scottish 
literature must weave convincingly into his pattern. 

And then the reaction; the anti-Kailyarders, the modern re- 
naissance, the controversy about Lallans, the attempt to discover 
or create a new inclusive Scottish literary language; the re- 
emergence of Gaelic poetry. When he conies to modern Scotland 
the historian will, I think, do well to regard English as a medium 
for Scots writers comparable to Latin in the Middle Ages a 
widely understood medium always available to the educated man 
and one means of linking the national with the universal, but 
never at the expense of a more purely indigenous Scots literary 
language. The attempts of those who have been striving to 
recreate such a Scots literary language must surely be seen against 



WRITING OF SCOTTISH LITERARY HISTORY 153 

the relevant historical background. No literary language has ever 
been merely the spoken language; the language of Dunbar, like 
that of Chaucer and. that of Shakespeare, goes down into the 
spoken language at the same time as it reaches far beyond it into 
a richer, and, if you like, an 'artificial', vocabulary. The modern 
Lallans movement, revolting against the conception of Scots as 
a number of regional dialects to be used in comic or sentimental 
verse, and going back to the golden age of Scottish poetry in the 
fifteenth century when Scots was used more richly and variously 
than it has ever been used since, must be seen as an attempt to 
bring together elements from Middle Scots, from modern Scot- 
tish dialects and from English in order to form again a rich and 
subtle literary language. Such a language is bound to be synthetic, 
but 'synthetic' is not a term of abuse: it is a term applicable to any 
literary language in the making. The historian will seek for the 
proper analogies to illuminate what has been going on; he may 
think of the language of Wyatt and Surrey and the English 
'courtly makers' of the sixteenth century when the modern 
English poetic language was in the making. There is always a 
certain amount of wastage in such experimentation think of all 
the ink-horn terms that went into and then out again from the 
English language in the sixteenth century; but at the end came 
Shakespeare. 

My task is not, however, to defend the modern movement, 
still less to write any section of the new history of Scottish litera- 
ture I am trying to point to. I have tried simply to suggest some 
lines of approach and indicate some important questions which 
remain to be answered before such a work can be profitably 
undertaken. 



A CAMBRIDGE DIALOGUE 1 

SCENE: Over port in the Combination Room of College 

CHARACTERS 

The Master Professor Nuclear 

Mr. Brightly Mr. Penumbra 

Dr Mutation Dr Price 

Professor Elmer Dreibelbis (a Fulbright Fellow from America) 

The dialogue opens in medias res : 

Dr Price: . . . And what, Penumbra, was the price of bread in 
Lou don in 1340? 

The Master: Dear me, what an odd question. 

Mr Penumbra: The price of bread was what it always was in 
every healthy community labour and faith. 

Dr Price: That, my dear Penumbra, is sheer obfuscation. How 
the devil can you hope to understand the past if you ride rough- 
shod over facts in that way? What do you know about wool in 
Leicester in the thirteenth century? What was the effect on the 
ordinary citizens' lives of the practices of 'regrating' and Tore- 
stalling'? What sort of underwear do you think Richard II wore, 
and where did he get it? 

Mr Brightly: That were indeed to consider too curiously. I see 
no reason why we should extend the limits of our curiosity with 
respect to persons in the past beyond the limits we observe in 
considering those of the present. I neither know nor care what 
kind of underwear Sir Winston Churchill wears nor how many 
times a week or a day the Duke of Edinburgh changes his 
shirt. It has always seemed to me that the idlest of all speculations 
has been the perennial concern, among those dwelling outside 
Caledonia, as to what a Highlander wears under his kilt. 

1 First published in the Cambridge number of The Twentieth Century, 
February, 1955. 

154 



A CAMBRIDGE DIALOGUE 155 

Dr Price: Ah, but did you know, Brightly, that Robert die 
Bruce' s father fled from Yorkshire to Scotland because he was in 
debt to the Jews and was unable to pay? And that this Anglo- 
Norman gentleman, fleeing north out of the most strictly eco- 
nomic motives, founded the modern Scottish nation? No no, 
you can't dismiss the real facts of history so airily. Whisky was 
first invented by the Irish as an embrocation for sick mules, and 
came over from Ireland to Scotland in the baggage of a group of 
Scottish poets returning to their native land from one of the 
bardic schools of Munster. Having no mules, they used it on 
themselves, internally, with very agreeable effect. And now 
Scotch whisky is the greatest single dollar-earning export of the 
United Kingdom. Doesn't that make you think? 

The Master (muttering to himself): Ah, but where will you 
find such men, and such mules? 

Mr Penumbra: No one will deny that these facts are interesting, 
Price. But they are not important. Of course, they may be of 
temporary importance to a certain number of people at a certain 
time, but it would argue a grossly distorted scale of values to 
consider that they are of any ultimate importance. The most 
important thing to human beings is whether they are to be saved 
or damned. Yes, I know you think this sounds old-fashioned, 
and it is old-fashioned. The notion that because something is 
old-fashioned it is wrong is a very odd one indeed. I don't know 
what Chaucer paid for a loaf of bread or what Richard II wore 
next to his skin. But I do know that Chaucer and Richard and I 
all agree about Heaven and Hell, and I know, too, that Saint 
Thomas a Becket wore a hair shirt next to his skin. 

The Master: Uncomfortable, my dear boy, damnably uncom- 
fortable. I should hate to think that any of our young men went 
in for such an er unhygienic practice. The Greeks knew 
better than that. It was said of the Getan god Zalmoxis that he 
was born clad in a bear's skin (from which, indeed, he derives 
his name), and the Greeks believed that at one period of his 
life he was a skve to Pythagoras of Samos before beiag manu- 
mitted and returning to his own people. Thus even a god, if he 



156 LITERARY ESSAYS 

wears hair next to his skin, becomes a slave of die philosopher. 
There are no hair shirts on Greek statues, Penumbra. 

Mr Penumbra: No, Master: but there are often fig leaves. What 
more vivid testimony to the truth of the story in Genesis and the 
awful reality of the Fall of Man? 

The Master: I can't say that I altogether approve of the fig leaf 
used for the purpose of concealment. I find the male anatomy 
attractive in all its features. Fig leaves in cooking, now, are 
another matter: I know a little Greek restaurant in Soho which 
does the most admirable things with them. 

Mr Penumbra: 1 should be the last man to despise modern Greek 
cooking, or indeed any of the delights of the flesh. I don't want 
you to think that, because I believe that the only really important 
thing about a man is whether he is going to be saved or damned 
and I mean by that quite literally whether he will go to Heaven 
or to Hell I don't think that other things are worth attending 
to also. All I maintain is that these other things belong to a lower 
sphere, as it were. Sub specie aeternitatis, it doesn't matter a hoot 
what port I am drinking this evening. But in this world we do 
not pass our life sub specie aeternitatis; the world and the flesh must 
have their due. Chaucer had great fun with the Canterbury Tales, 
and then wrote his 'Retraction saying in effect that all his lively 
satirical writing was but childish nonsense in the sight of Heaven. 
Price, the decanter stays with you. 

Professor Dreibelbis: If I may break into this fascinating conver- 
sation, I should like to say, Professor, if you'll pardon me, that 
you seem to be having it both ways. You want your hair shirt 
and your bottle of wine. 

Mr Penumbra: My dear Professor Dreibelbis (but you must not 
call me professor: I am but a humble lecturer), of course I want 
to have it both ways. And why not? Man is both body and 
spirit, has something of the animal and something of the divine 
in him. Animals and angels can have it one way: man, being 
fatally dualistic, must be content to indulge both sides of his 
nature. Doubtless if the Fall had not occurred, man would have 
become more and more spiritual and, as Milton suggested in 



A CAMBRIDGE DIALOGUE 157 

Paradise Lost, eventually reached a state evenhigher than the angels. 

Professor Dreibelbis: So the Fall enables you to enjoy your 
liquor, eh, Dr Penumbra? 

[Mr Penumbra (muttering): I do not hold a doctor's degree.] 

Professor Dreibelbis: I'm afraid I find it hard to see why you 
consider it a bad thing. 

Mr Penumbra: It was Noah who discovered the uses of the 
grape. He sinned in so doing, but glory to him nevertheless. 
That is a paradox, Dreibelbis: we must be content to accept it 
as such. 

Professor Dreibelbis: All I can say, Dr Penumbra, is that I don't 
fancy going to Heaven if they don't serve dry Martinis there. 

Mr Penumbra: If you ever get to Heaven, Professor Dreibelbis, 
you won't want dry Martinis. Having once tasted the celestial 
liquor, you will wonder how you ever could have abided the 
earthly variety. 

The Master: and cocktails most of all. Ugh! Now my idea 
of nectar is of something light and dry, like a Montilla, an 
unfortified sherry. Or perhaps a hock. There are those who 
think of it as port, but surely nectar is not a dessert wine? The 
late Dr Variorum once confessed to me that he always thought 
of it as a white Montrachet; Professor Scholiast of Aberdeen once 
told me he thought of it as one of the lighter Highland malt 
whiskies an Ihchgower, say, or a Glen Grant, though he himself 
preferred the heavier Campbeltowns and Islays. On the other 
hand, old Textual of Magdalen has always insisted that it must be 
a Beaujolais not a Burgundy, because he was certain that the 
pinot noir grape could not possibly be grown in the Islands of the 
Blessed (I forget his reason for this) ; but the Camay, a grape which 
changes its quality marvellously according to the latitude in 
which it grows, he held to be the most probable source of 
the heavenly liquor. An odd view, I must confess, because, 
while I have drunk some excellent Beaujolais, it can hardly be 
compared to its Burgundian cousins in respect of nobility. 
Softness, yes; fruitiness, yes but then if you want softness and 
fruitiness, what is wrong with a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape? 



158 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Rhone wines in Heaven! A strange thought! But I digress. 

Mr Penumbra: None of these parallels really holds, Master. I 
admit it seems strange to us I myself am very partial to a good 
claret, and would consider life the poorer without my daily 
bottle of Pontet Canet but the fact is that in our fallen natures 
we cannot have the remotest conception of the food and drink 
consumed by the angels (and I agree with Milton and certain of 
the Fathers that angels both partake of nourishment and excrete). 
Allegory and symbol are our only resource. That is where the 
Middle Ages, superior to us here as in so many other respects, 
evoke our admiration and wonder: they knew that the only way 
to shadow forth the ultimate truths was to avoid the documentary 
and concentrate on the allegorical. But it is a habit of mind we 
have lost. We are the poorer for it. 

Mr Brightly: Come come, Penumbra, do you really think we 
should be better off if all the poets of the last few hundred years 
had kept on writing things like The Romance of the Rose and The 
Faerie Queene? Surely the greatest thing that ever happened to 
literature was the liberation of the spirit of humane curiosity into 
the complexities of the human animal. That spirit the spirit of 
Montaigne and of Shakespeare is the source of the greatness of 
King Lear as well as of Emma and Great Expectations and Middle- 
march and Portrait of a Lady, and of all that is best in English 
poetry from Chaucer to Dylan Thomas. You talk with a curious 
complacency about Chaucer's 'Retraction'. That, if you will 
forgive my saying so, Penumbra, is a typical piece of modern 
cant. Chaucer's humane, ironic gaze on the human scene owed 
nothing significant to his religious views, and all that the 'Re- 
traction* meant was that he realized that great literature and 
mediaeval Christianity were incompatible, and as an act of pru- 
dence plumped for the latter in the end. It seems to me downright 
dishonest to glory in the brilliant humanist irony of, say, 'The 
Nun's Priest's Tale' and at the same time to hold that the mediae- 
val concentration on the next world and concern with saving 
one's grubby little soul was something wonderful, to be held up 
for our imitation. 



A CAMBRIDGE DIALOGUE 159 

Mr Penumbra: No soul is grubby or little in the eyes of its 
Maker, Brightly. But I am familiar with your argument. Indeed, 
I once thought that way myself, I can assure you that you labour 
in a wilderness of confusions. It would take too long to demon- 
strate all of them, and this is not, perhaps, the proper place to do 
so. All that I will say now is that you can't have truly great 
literature without a sense of man's place in the w T hole divine 
scheme of things and of the radical imperfection of human nature. 
The true 'modern cant' if I may borrow your expressive term 
is that man is self-sufficient and perfectible and human progress 
automatic and inevitable. 

Mr Brightly: Such a view is hardly modern, Penumbra. Rous- 
seau and Godwin and Shelley perhaps held it; I don't know 
anyone who holds it today. The great modern orthodoxy is that 
unless you revel in the total depravity of human nature and in the 
fact of human guilt, you cannot do anything decent at all. All 
this chat about literature and original sin, which started with 
T. E. Hulme and T. S. Eliot. Talk of confusion of thought! It's 
one thing to say that human nature is limited and imperfect 
that is true enough in all conscience. But that has nothing to do 
with the theological dogma of original sin, which states that 
every person born in the world is morally culpable because Adam 
ate die apple in the garden. Even if one inherits imperfection, 
one cannot inherit guilt surely a most diabolical doctrine. The 
fact is, of course, that man is capable both of appalling horrors 
and of incredible nobility and self-sacrifice, and history shows no 
correlation whatever between religious faith and the latter. Take 
a look at Runciman on the Crusades. The only consistent force 
for good in human conduct has been the humane, liberal imagi- 
nation. It flashes forth rarely enough in human affairs, but when 
it does it works the only real miracles in both life and letters. 

Mr Penumbra: I can understand someone believing that in 1913 ; 
it seems ina edible to me that any thoughtful person can believe 
it today, having seen what the humane, liberal imagination, as 
you call it, has done to civilization two world wars and number- 
less other horrors, including the hydrogen bomb. 



160 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Mr Brightly: That's an argument one hears so often today, but 
how wrong it is ! Was Hitler a humane liberal? Was Stalin? It 
seems to me monstrous to blame modern wars and other horrors 
on the very people who alone protested against them. The hu- 
mane, liberal imagination was not strong enough to stop these 
things, I grant you. It still operates in only a minority of men. 
And it was that minority that Hitler persecuted and all modern 
dictators have set out to destroy. You may not have had an ideal 
world if, say, Bertrand Russell had been guiding world affairs for 
the last fifty years, but you would have had a better world than 
the one we have had, and a lot better world than that of your 
precious Middle Ages. 

The Master: We must not become heated, my dear boy. And 
it is a mistake to preach to one's colleagues. If you have anything 
to say, say it to the young men. They alone will never betray you. 

Mr Brightly: The young men are all so busy genuflecting and 
contemplating the total depravity of their souls these days that 
there is no getting at them. 

The Master: Fashions change, my dear boy, fashions change. 
And genuflection, if done with proper grace, can be a charming 
gesture. 

Mr Penumbra: Never mind, Brightly. Though we disagree 
fundamentally, we can still talk to each other; so there is hope 
for us both. 

Mr Brightly: Yes, we can still talk to each other, and neither of 
us need fear the Inquisition or the concentration camp. That's 
one victory, at least, for the agnostic liberal tradition you 
dislike so. 

Professor Nuclear: These arguments fall strangely on the ears of 
a mere scientist. But I confess I was relieved not to hear the 
familiar charge that the modern scientist is to blame for all the 
troubles of the modern world. 

The Master: I don't think anyone would blame you personally, 
Nuclear. You play a good hand at bridge and take an intelligent 
interest in the life of the College. la fact, my dear fellow, I don't 
know what we'd do without you. All the same, I do wish you 



A CAMBRIDGE DIALOGUE l6l 

chaps would stick to things like Archimedes' principle and per- 
haps a little dabbling in electric light and even wireless. I under- 
stand that it is quite likely that you will blow up the whole world 
by accident one of these days. I think that would be deplorable. 

Professor Nuclear: Look, Master. What we physicists are doing 
is trying to find out things about the structure of the physical 
world. We didn't set out to make H-bombs. Our object has 
always been to find things out. What use is made of our know- 
ledge what we ourselves are asked to do with it is society's 
responsibility, not ours. 

Professor Dreibelbis: But isn't the scientist a member of society 
too? 

Professor Nuclear: Of course he is. And he reads his newspaper 
and votes and does all the other things that a responsible citizen 
does. All this nonsense about scientists living in ivory towers! 
The scientist does his professional job like everybody else. His 
job is to find out as much as possible about the physical structure 
of the universe. 

Professor Dreibelbis: And let the chips fall where they may? 

Professor Nuclear: I don't know about chips: my point is 
simply that scientists are not responsible for what society decides 
to do with their knowledge. 

Mr Brightly: But only scientists can make atom bombs, and 
if they refused to make them, they couldn't be made. 

Professor Nuclear: True enough, Brighdy. And I may tell you 
that such a thought has often crossed the minds of many of us 
who are working in this field. But who are we to set ourselves up 
against the rest of society? We are not expert politicians or 
strategists. We are scientists. 

Mr Brightly: Yes, but you said a moment ago that you were 
also citizens. And in a democratic state, citizens make policy. 

Dr Price: Don't you believe it, Brighdy. In the kind of poli- 
tical democracy that we enjoy, citizens have the right to 
help to decide which among several self-chosen politicians 
should make policy for them. That is all. That is as far as demo- 
cracy can go in a large modern industrial state. Had you 



162 LITERARY ESSAYS 

or I any vote in deciding whether Germany should re-arm? 

Mr Brightly: No; I see your point of course, Price. It's a matter 
of delegation. Our elected delegates decide for us, even on issues 
which are not discussed at the time of election. I suppose the only 
alternative would be a referendum whenever any issue of major 
policy arose, or a General Election every few months. 

The Master: The Greek city state was the only democracy, my 
dear boy. The idea, like the word, is Greek. But how tawdry 
the word has now become! The true democracy, as I see it, is 
a state where everyone takes his wine like a gentleman. Have you 
noticed the way the young men wolf their food in hall these days? 
I deplore such lycanthropic dining. 

Dr Mutation: If I may butt in with an irrelevant question: I 
have been pondering the etymology of your name, Dreibelbis. 
I thought at first it must be Pennsylvania Dutch, so-called, but 
reflection has failed to yield any satisfactory etymology. 'DreibeT 
is, I believe, Low Dutch for 'trigger of a rifle', but I cannot 
connect that with the element 'bis'. 

Professor Dreibelbis: I don't blame you, Dr Mutation. As a 
matter of fact, we all thought in our family that the name was 
Pennsylvania Dutch we've lived a long time in Pennsylvania 
until my elder brother was offered a partnership in a big Phila- 
delphia law firm. 

Dr Mutation: Offered a partnership ? I'm afraid I don't see 
the connection. 

Professor Dreibelbis: Well, it was like this, doctor. My brother 
was offered a partnership in the big kw firm one of the biggest 
in the country of Antonelli, Murphy and Rabbinowitz. You 
know how it is one partner gets the Italian clientele, another 
the Irish, another the Jewish, and so on. Well, my brother was 
offered a partnership, but they felt that Antonelli, Murphy, 
Rabbinowitz and Dreibelbis was too heavy a mouthful, so to 
speak. So he got in touch with an English professor at Penn 
State that's where he'd gone to school, though he had a scholar- 
ship at the University of Pennsylvania too and asked him what 
Dreibelbis meant in English. He was going to change his name 



A CAMBRIDGE DIALOGUE 163 

to the English equivalent. But the English professor couldn't 
figure out what Dreibelbis meant. So he told my brother to 
search among his family papers and try and find out where the 
family originally came from. Well, it sure was a crazy story. It 
turned out, from some papers a cousin of ours was able to turn 
up, that the family had originated in France, in a little village 
somewhere on the lower slopes of the Alps, and that the name 
was originally e de ville basse' ; that means 'of the low town'. 
Then they moved to the Rhine, where the name became Ger- 
manized into Dreibelbis. So the English professor suggested that 
my brother change his name to Lowton. And that's what he did. 
Antonelli, Murphy, Rabbinowitz and Lowton the law firm is 
now sounds just right. 

Dr Mutation: 1 see. Most interesting. But you didn't follow 
your brother's example? 

Professor Dreibelbis: And change my name? No. I figured that 
what was good enough for my father and grandfather was good 
enough for me. 

Mr Penumbra: I'm glad to see someone who doesn't believe in 
automatic progress and has some feeling for tradition. 

Mr Brightly: What about the progress from De Ville Basse to 
Dreibelbis? Just the kind of textual corruption which enabled 
the Church to read irrelevant prophecies into the Hebrew pro- 
phets. That's tradition for you. 

Professor Dreibelbis: But I do believe in progress, Dr Penumbra. 
I think you people are too easily put off by the horrors of the 
recent war. If you looked at civilization from further west, you'd, 
get a different view, I think. Take a typical small town in the 
American Middle West, for example, the kind that produces the 
average American analysed by the sociologists. Healthy, well-fed 
children, all of them getting a decent education; comfortable 
homes, everyone in touch with the world through radio and TV; 
clean hygienic stores, with all perishable food kept under re- 
frigeration; a high standard of living all round; workers in 
factories enjoying better working conditions and higher wages 
than ever before in history; farms run by the latest kinds of 



164 LITERARY ESSAYS 

machinery, and the farm worker no longer the illiterate clod he 
was in European countries not so long ago; and everyone with a 
chance, real freedom of opportunity oh, I know it's the fashion 
for intellectuals to sneer at America's material progress, but 
believe me, Dr Penumbra, these are things to be proud of. I know 
that American TV isn't the great cultural force that it might be 
and that we've no third programme on our radio, and I know 
about horror comics and the Kinsey report and McCarthyism. 
We're far from perfect, Dr Penumbra, but we've got one hell of 
a lot that no other country has had before, and I guess that's 
progress sure enough. 

Mr Penumbra: It's a question of the price you pay for such 
material progress, Professor. 

Dr Price: The economy of a modern industrial state forces its 
own cultural pattern. There is, of course, a certain levelling 
down. Education is free and universal, but watered. Commercial 
wireless and television are forced to play down to the most certain 
(that is, the lowest) responses of the largest number of people, 
because the broadcasting companies are selling guaranteed audi- 
ences as well as time. Differences in native endowment between 
people are denied or minimized. Advertising exploits people's 
fear of being different. In America we see the culture of the 
modern industrial state more clearly than here, but it is essentially 
the same picture as here. We are on the same road. It is silly to 
attack these features of modern civilization as American wicked- 
ness. We should welcome America as the mirror in which we 
can see ourselves krger than life-size. 

Mr Penumbra: You enjoy the spectacle? 

Dr Price: As an economic historian, I appreciate it. I ask myself 
how it is related to die price of a Ford car in 1920. The answer 
satisfies my sense of the fitness of things. 

Mr Brightly: The modern economist is the last survivor of the 
species of disinterested scholar; the man who loves knowledge 
for it's own sake like Browning's Grammarian. I salute you, Price. 

Dr Price: My dear Brightly, if the prevision of a former bursar 
of this college had not resulted in the laying down of some 



A CAMBRIDGE DIALOGUE 165 

extraordinarily good port, purchased at a very reasonable price 
shortly before the war, you would not now feel like saluting me. 

The Master: Ah, you mean that that was Dionysus speaking 
not Clio? It has always struck me as odd that the libations offered 
to the Muses consisted of water or milk, and honey. Now, honey 
I understand, is used in the preparation of Drambuie, a Scottish 
liqueur derived from whisky, and perhaps the Muses were partial 
to some kind of Drambuie. I can't understand the milk though 
perhaps Calliope, being the Muse of epic poetry, required a 
sustaining diet of milk stout; you need stamina to complete an 
epic. But what a vulgar drink! Water of course, has its uses. 
*'Apiorov ^v uSwp, as Pindar sang, 'water is best'; and I like to 
think that by some proleptic feat of the imagination, not un- 
common in poets, he was telling us that, in the words of my old 
friend Professor Scholiast, an authority on Scotch whisky, soda 
should be avoided like the plague in drinking a true Highland 
malt whisky, and a few drops of pure spring water five drops 
of water per half gill of whisky, to be exact should be added to 
release the natural oils. The natural oils of genius are, however, 
seldom released by water. 

Professor Nuclear (rising): Well, Master, I must be off My 
genius, such as it is, is oiled enough, and I must get back to the lab. 

The Master: Back to the ! At this time of night! My dear 
boy, surely this is carrying your zeal for scientific discovery rather 
far? I know that the great Euclides (he of Alexandria, I mean; 
Euclides of Megara, though a dialectician of no mean order, had 
lesser claims to fame) the great Euclides did say that there was 
no royal road to geometry; but Archimedes, who was a physicist 
like yourself, made his greatest discovery in his bath. Is there not 
a moral there? 

Professor Nuclear: I have no doubt that you could extract 
several, Master. But the college bathrooms are hardly fitted for 
scientific research. And I have an experiment set up at the lab. 
which I must take a look at. 

The Master: Well well, goodnight, my boy. I commend your 
zeal. But don't go and blow us all up. 



166 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Professor Dreibelbis (rising) : And I must go too, Master. I have 
to finish writing my report for the Fulbright people tonight. 

The Master: You mean, you are required to report on us? 

Professor Dreibelbis: Not on you, Master, on myself and what 
I've been doing. I suppose they want to know whether I've 
made good use of my year here. 

The Master: And have you? 

Professor Dreibelbis: It's been a wonderful year, Master. Cam- 
bridge has something which no other university has got, I know 
there are plenty of crazy people here, but you'll find them in 
any academic community. What I like best about it is the variety 
of people's interests. Why, I've heard physicists discussing T. S. 
Eliot and linguists talking about the philosophy of history. The 
other day I met a man who was writing a book on Rudyard 
Kipling, and 1 discovered that he was in history, not in English 
at all! Now that's a very remarkable thing, Master, and it's 
something we don't have in America. When I see the Master of 
one of your colleges writing to the London Times about the 
weather or the migration of birds, I know that I'm in the presence 
of a very precious feature of English civilization. 

The Master: Greek, Dreibelbis, Greek. When Sophocles wrote 
the Antigone, the Athenians were so impressed that they appointed 
him a general in the war against Samos. Cambridge still preserves 
something of the Greek view of the whole man; there is, I think, 
a freer meeting of different disciplines here than at most other 
places. Of course, you Americans elect your generals as Presi- 
dents, but then you have a constitution that keeps them from 
carrying out their policies. 

Mr Penumbra: Was it not here at Cambridge that psychology 
was first joined with literary criticism and anthropology with the 
study of religion? I fear these mis-matings, Master. 

The Master: Fear of where the intellect leads is improper in 
Cambridge, my dear Penumbra, a city where, like Socrates, we 
are taught to follow whithersoever the argument leads us. Good 
night, Dreibelbis: speak kindly of us in your report. 



THE 'NEW CRITICISM': SOME QUALIFICATIONS 1 

MR WILLIAM O'CONNOR'S article on the 'new criticism' pro- 
vides an interesting conspectus of some of the main trends 
in modern critical thought, written by one who is in 
substantial agreement with the whole modern movement. It 
seems to me, however, that it shows an insufficient awareness of 
possible alternatives to that 'new' approach which regards the 
primary problem in the critical examination of a work as the 
demonstration of its 'internal consistency'. The only alternatives 
he actually mentions are 'scholarship' (he points out early in his 
essay 'the chief differences between die new criticism and scholar- 
ship') and the method which employs 'the old dichotomy of 
content and form'. Now, in the first place, 'the chief difference 
between the new criticism and scholarship' as explained by Mr 
O'Connor is the difference between any criticism and scholarship. 
Scholarship throws light on the social and biographical origins of 
a work, on the cultural environment out of which it sprang, and 
on the transmission of the text, and thus often enables the critic 
to understand in some degree how the work came to be written 
and to see more clearly the meanings of certain parts of the text; 
but his job as a critic, whether his brand of criticism be old or 
new, remains the assessment of the literary worth of the work in 
question. The new criticism has no monopoly in this perception. 
As for the escape from the dichotomy of content and form, this 
has been sought by generations of critics and has been achieved in 
one fashion or another by many who take wholly different posi- 
tions from those taken by any representative of the new move- 
ment by R. L. Stevenson and John Middleton Murry, to men- 
tion only two, who are as different from each other as from any of 

1 This essay was written in 1950 in reply to an article explaining and defending 
the new movement in literary criticism (especially American literary criticism) 
which appeared in the American periodical, College English. 

167 



168 LITERARY ESSAYS 

those mentioned by Mr O'Connor. I think it is not unfair to say 
that many who appreciate and have profited from the achieve- 
ments of the new critics (and I consider myself one of those) 
nevertheless resent the assumption of some of their spokesmen 
that they alone are really critics, all others being mere scholars, 
historians, Em/Z55-hunters, 'positivists', or unprincipled im- 
pressionists. 

One can see, of course, what it is that leads them to such a view. 
The new critics have taken criticism more seriously grimly, even 
than representatives of other schools of thought, and, at least 
from Dr Leavis on, have seen the function of the critic as central 
to a civilization. Not only have they taken every opportunity to 
differentiate between criticism and other kinds of literary investi- 
gation, but they have also, unlike the more traditional critic, 
refused to start by a consideration of the impact of the work on 
the ordinary cultivated reader and then proceed to explain that 
impact in terms of the work's qualities. Instead, they have made 
critical analysis a tool for the total reassessment of the impact. 
They have striven by every possible means to widen the breach 
between amateur and professional criticism: even their vocabulary 
helps to serve this purpose, so that when Mr John Crowe Ransom 
writes an essay on the nature of poetry, he does not call it, as 
critics of other schools would, 'The Nature of Poetry', but 
'Poetry: A Note in Ontology'. 

There is both good and bad in this, just as there is both good 
and bad in the criticism of criticism which the new critics en- 
courage (and of which the present discussion is an example). 
Criticism of criticism is, after all, an intellectual luxury and may 
lead to an inability to enjoy more nourishing fare. It is the chief 
penalty of becoming a professional literary man,' Mr T. S. Eliot 
once remarked to Mr William Empson, 'that one can no longer 
read anything with pleasure/ The phrase 'curl up with a good 
book' has been cheerfully abandoned to the Philistines, and people 
who take literature seriously are supposed to have more rigorous 
methods of dealing with the work of poets and novelists. 

Of course, there is much gain in this rigour. The scrutinizing 



THE 'NEW CRITICISM': SOME QUALIFICATIONS 169 

of literary theories is not only a valuable philosophical activity 
calculated to throw light on the differentiating characteristics of 
the literary work of art but it also sometimes helps us to approach 
individual works with a clearer understanding of what they are 
and so of how to read them with greater understanding and satis- 
faction. These are two separate, though related, functions of 
criticism one might call them roughly the 'philosophical' and 
the 'appreciative' and when their separate nature is not realized 
much confusion may result. It would be absurd to maintain that 
no Greek appreciated Sophocles until Aristotle had written the 
Poetics, or that English playgoers had to wait for A.C. Bradley or 
Professor Heilman before they could understand and enjoy King 
Lear. Appreciation can be independent of critical theory a 
proposition which the new critics do not explicidy deny but a 
denial of which seems to be implicit in much of their writing. 
But if we do not concede that it is possible to enjoy art without 
formal training in criticism and without possessing general ideas 
about aesthetics, we are flying in the face of experience, setting 
up a priestly critical profession to mediate between artists and their 
public, and encouraging the growth of the most barren kind of 
academicism in matters artistic and literary. 

We all agree that criticism is valuable, but we must be clear 
about its kind of value. Eliot has defined criticism in the sense in 
which we are using the term as 'the commentation and exposition 
of works of art by means of written words* a reasonable, if 
inelegant, definition; but it should be noted that the definition 
itself says nothing of what this 'commentation and exposition* is 
supposed to achieve. In the same essay, as Mr O'Connor has 
reminded us, Eliot denies that criticism is 'autotelic' (it should be 
said that this essay was written in 1923, before Eliot had rid him- 
self of that pontifical pretentiousness in manner and vocabulary 
which mars some of his early prose) and specifically asserts that it 
must always profess an end in view, which he roughly defines as 
'the elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste'. But 
we must go further than this. 'Elucidation' is an ambiguous word, 
and 'the correction of taste' an even more ambiguous phrase. 



170 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Elucidation itself will vary according to the purpose of the eluci- 
dator. Miss Lily Campbell's elucidation of Shakespeare's historical 
plays is very different in nature and purpose from the elucidation 
supplied by, say, John Palmer in his Political Characters of Shakes- 
peare, a fact which Mr O'Connor sees but which he might have 
explored further. A poem or a play or a novel can be very many 
things at the same time a reflection of the cultural climate of its 
age, a document in the mental history of its author, a carefully 
patterned arrangement of words, ideas, images and situations, a 
fable, a piece of rhetoric, and the communication of a unique 
insight into an aspect of human experience through one or several 
of these means. We may choose to elucidate the work as any one 
of these things, or as any two, or as so many as we think we can 
handle. 

But our new critic, with his awareness of the difference between 
criticism and scholarship, has his answer at once: 'There is no real 
difficulty here,' he will reply. 'What the literary critic should 
concern himself with is the work qua work of art. He should 
ignore it as a document in the history of ideas, as an expression of 
the writer's personality, or as anything but a poem or a play or a 
novel, and the problem is to find out what a poem or a play or a 
novel really is, what it is uniquely, what it is that no other form of 
written expression is. Having done this, he can proceed to de- 
monstrate its special formal qualities and exhibit it as a literary 
work of art/ He then proceeds to find a formula which will 
define the quiddity of a literary form and goes on to the analysis 
of individual texts which demonstrates that any given example 
conforms to this definition. 

This is all very appealing. The human mind has a fondness for 
definitions and categories, for contrasts and exclusions, for analytic 
demonstrations. Nevertheless, a sense that the true quality of a 
poem somehow escapes this sort of defining and categorizing and 
demonstrating has persisted throughout the history of criticism 
and has given rise to every kind of evasive impressionism in order 
to avoid coming to grips with the basic question of whether and 
why a given poem is good. It were as wise to cast a violet into 



THE NEW CRITICISM : SOME QUALIFICATIONS IJI 

a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its 
colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into 
another the creations of a poet,' wrote Shelley; but the modern 
critic, in spite of his awareness of the uniqueness of a given work of 
art, is made uncomfortable by such statements because they open 
the door to autobiographical chatter masquerading as criticism. 
And there again we can understand and sympathize with this 
insistence that without a stem formal discipline real criticism is 
impossible. 

But in a sense 'real criticism' is impossible. This is not by any 
means to say that there are no standards of value, that we must 
fall back on personal taste, or vague impressionism, or on mere 
gush. We do, however, mean that no critical statement about a 
work of literary art least of all, about a poem can be a com- 
plete statement of what it is and why it is good. On the level of 
aesthetic theory, it may be possible to construct a set of valid 
general principles, but practical criticism, criticism designed to 
demonstrate the nature and quality of a work and so to increase 
understanding and appreciation, must always be fragmentary, 
indirect, approximate, and can never be a complete and wholly 
satisfactory description of what in fact takes place in the work 
of art. 

It is not difficult to see why this should be so. A poem is an 
immense complex of meaning which is nevertheless simple and 
immediate in its impact, and it is impossible to describe that com- 
plex and simultaneously to account for its impact. To resolve the 
poem into mere complexity by analytic discussion is often useful 
and helpful, but it hardly begins to explain, the reasons for its 
total impact on the experienced and sensitive reader, nor does it 
necessarily increase appreciation for the inexperienced. The rich- 
ness and uniqueness of poetic statement, so rightly insisted on by 
the new critics, is far too often underestimated in their practice, 
for in their desire to concern themselves only with literary criteria 
they are liable to narrow their analysis so as to exclude all elements 
that are not exclusively related to those criteria. But the fact is 
that there is no such thing as a purely literary work of literature. 



172 LITERARY ESSAYS 

A work of literary art is necessarily a mixed form. It produces its 
effect by being several things at once not by mere complexity 
but by operating simultaneously on several different levels not 
only of meaning but of existence. 

Our search for 'criteria that make possible judgments about 
literary worth', in Mr O'Connor's phrase, if pursued with a dis- 
interested desire to find out what a work of literary art really is 
rather than with a desire to find merely a consistent method, will 
eventually turn up the fact that literary discourse is by its very 
nature several kinds of discourse at once. A poem is a structure 
with 'internal consistency', but it is also often a fascinating record 
of the poet's mind, a period-piece reflecting with moving bril- 
liance die climate of an age, and a story. We may differentiate 
uses of language in a poem which are not to be found in other 
ways of writing, but this does not mean that the full impact of a 
poem can be determined by examining only its differentiating 
qualities. Who can hear Mozart played on the harpsichord with- 
out enjoying, as part of his reaction to the actual music, the 
poignant feeling of listening to the gaiety of a lost civilization? 
Is this reaction 'impure', sentimental, irrelevant? If, in seeing 
Hamlet, we appreciate its dramatic structure and its poetic magni- 
ficence while, at the same time, seeing it as the work of Shake- 
speare the Elizabethan, are we being aesthetically wicked? A 
work of literary art, which, because of its richness, its use of so 
many elements of expression, can be so many things at once, is 
often, also, a work of history and of autobiography and of moral 
philosophy; and its impact on us is the more profound because it 
is all these things. In appreciating a work of art, we have only 
one ear cocked for 'internal consistency', for the purely 'formal' 
aspect. And often when such consistency has been demonstrated 
we do not read the work with any richer enjoyment. 

The new critics, of course, have their answer here. Messrs 
Wimsatt and Beardsley, in a widely discussed article (duly cited 
by Mr O'Connor), have in their very title boldly stigmatized as a 
'fallacy' the consideration by the critic of the impact of a work on 
the reader. Their concern with what a literary work is, uniquely 



THE NEW CRITICISM : SOME QUALIFICATIONS 173 

and formally, rather than with the reasons for which it is enjoyed, 
logically leads them to dismiss the testimony of those who enjoy 
literature as irrelevant. The new criticism tends, in fact, to be 
impatient with the testimony of readers. A poem, the argument 
seems to run, should be enjoyed for those of its aspects which 
differentiate it from other forms of discourse; whether it is ever so 
enjoyed is considered an irrelevant question. This is a seductively 
tidy way of looking at things as though we were to enjoy people 
only for such of their attributes as distinguished them from all 
other kinds of living creatures and not for their total selves but 
it leads, in criticism as in morality, to a puritanism which does 
violence to the values found in experience. 

Why, it might be asked, is the 'affective fallacy' in any sense a 
fallacy? The value of literature surely lies in its actual or potential 
effect on readers admittedly, on experienced and sensitive read- 
ers, on readers who have had sufficient exposure to this kind of 
thing to have developed a proper responsiveness and discrimina- 
tion. To deny this is to fall into the 'ontological fallacy' of believ- 
ing that a work of art fulfils its purpose and achieves its value 
simply by being, so that the critic becomes concerned only to 
demonstrate the mode of its being by descriptive analysis. This 
is comparable to saying that a body of moral laws exists in order 
to have an internal logical structure and that to consider the effect 
of obeying any given law would be to move from questions of 
moral philosophy to questions of social or individual behaviour. 
Literature is a phenomenon produced by men in order to com- 
municate in a certain way with their fellows. In the last analysis, 
the test of its value can be judged only by the receiver, and judged 
by him on some kind of 'affective* theory. Of course the critic 
must consider the means by which this special kind of communi- 
cation in virtue of which literary discourse differs from other 
kinds of discourse is achieved, and this in turn leads him to an 
examination of internal consistency as one among many charac- 
teristics of a work of art. (The new critics generally talk as 
though it were the only essential characteristic.) But we must 
distinguish between means and ends. Poetry, in the largest sense 



174 LITERARY ESSAYS 

of the word, is a unique method of making a unique kind of 
communication, and it is the real or potential effectiveness of the 
communication which justifies the method, not vice versa. 

There is, of course, the question of communication to whom. 
Who is the ideal reader whose reactions are to be taken as the 
norm? We must not take a purely pragmatic view and send out 
pollsters to find out who are most affected by which works to 
that extent Messrs Wimsatt and Beardsley are right. The ability 
to discriminate between more and less effective uses of the 
medium of poetry is achieved by deep and wide experience in 
reading. The most brilliant literary mind, if faced only by the 
poems of Eddie Guest, might believe that they represented the 
height of poetic expression; but, given the opportunity to read 
widely and richly, he will change his views. Deep and wide 
reading provides a better training in critical appreciation than a 
thousand ingenious analyses of poems. If critical analysis be 
provided as well, the process can be speeded up, and the reader 
may be made aware of how the effects which he appreciates are 
achieved and that in itself increases appreciation. 

The best 'appreciative' criticism is that which enables the reader 
to get a glimpse of the real life in a work: having glimpsed it, he 
can proceed to enter into all its rich vitality. No critical method is 
absolute, foolproof, or 'true'. I have known students who have 
been more effectively brought to see the essential life in a poem 
by hearing it read aloud slowly than by the most careful analysis 
of its structure. Art is meant to be experienced, and the function 
of criticism is to assist that experience. 1 After reading some of the 
new criticism, one might imagine that an effective stage perfor- 
mance would achieve less towards an understanding of Hamlet 
than an analysis of its internal consistency made in the study. 
Criticism of any work of art is a kind of performance, a sort of 
substitute for performance. Part of the true glory of a scene in 
Hamlet may be brought out for students by having them act it out. 
There are, of course, other ways, and the careful discussion of 

1 'Be minute,' wrote Coleridge to Sotheby, 'and assign your reasons often, 
and your first impressions always* (my italics). 



THE NEW CRITICISM ! SOME QUALIFICATIONS 175 

structure, imagery and similar points can be of immense help. But 
to say that what matters about a work of art is not its communi- 
cative potential but its internal consistency is to put the cart before 
the horse completely. 

One must not forget the pedagogical aspect of criticism. As far 
as its classroom use is concerned, the function of criticism is to 
increase awareness of what a work of literary art really is and by 
so doing to increase appreciation of it. To teach a student that 
criticism always and necessarily involves demonstration of internal 
consistency, or of paradox, or of ambivalent meanings, or what 
have you, may be useful but is often fatal. If the student does not 
learn that such devices are means to achieve a communicative 
effect and that the reader remains dead to the work so long as that 
communicative effect remains unachieved, then he has learned 
only to be a pedant. How often have I seen a student who has 
got it into his head that ingenuity of analysis is the mark of the 
good critic proceed to make a pretentious fool of himself by 
demonstrating with misguided ingenuity the existence of mani- 
festly absurd meanings in some poem or story. There is such a 
thing as a 'feeling' for a work and its period which can save one 
from such barren stupidities. Our new critics generally have this 
feeling, because they are men of wide reading and historical 
knowledge. They have assimilated a whole historical tradition, 
and they know, before they approach Hamlet as professional 
critics, to what area of human sensibility and significance it be- 
longs. In their demand that all works should be treated as though 
they were contemporary and anonymous they are in effect re- 
quiring the student of today to do without tools which they 
themselves are continually using, though often not consciously. 
There is, in fact, no limit to what ingenious analysis can achieve 
by way of demonstrating complexity and consistency of structure 
in any work at all, good or bad : how far you can go is taught you 
by your 'taste' and taste is the sum of what you have learned 
about art by willing and interested exposure to it. It necessarily 
includes an element of historical discrimination, since wide read- 
ing experience is bound to produce in a reader of any native 



176 LITERARY ESSAYS 

sensitivity at all some awareness of the difference between the 
cultural points of reference of, say, Milton and Matthew Prior. 
This does not mean that there may not be even greater differences 
between two contemporary writers. 

It is not wise to give the student the impression that the end- 
product of literary activity is the critical analysis of the work and 
not the work itself. I do not suggest for a moment that the new 
criticism would maintain such a preposterous position, but its 
practitioners often implicitly suggest this attitude. Literature 
exists to be read and enjoyed, and criticism, at least in its peda- 
gogical aspect, exists in order to increase awareness and so increase 
enjoyment. The purely philosophical critic may entertain himself 
by trying to isolate the quiddity of poetry (but I should maintain 
that the quiddity of poetry is that, unlike all other forms of 
communication, it has no single quiddity), but the 'appreciative' 
critic will use any means at his disposal analytic, descriptive, 
histrionic, yes, even historical to arouse alert interest, to produce 
that communicative impact without which all further critical 
discussion is useless. 

Another objection might be brought against much (but not all) 
of the new criticism. Even if we agree that it is possible to isolate 
and define the differentiating qualities of a work of literary art, 
we may not agree that those qualities are to be discussed in terms 
of structure. To many of the new critics all criticism is analysis 
of structure, and demonstration of value is demonstration of 
structural complexity and coherence. There are, however, many 
valuable kinds of literature whose value does not reside in their 
structural effectiveness. There is not even a single poetic use of 
language. Good verse can consist of prepositional statements 
neatly phrased, with an agreeable rhythm and pleasantly chiming 
rhymes serving more or less as pleasing decoration (as in John 
Pomfret's 'The Choice', for example), or, at the other end of the 
scale of poetic expression, it may be like a poem of Donne's or of 
the later Yeats, a flaming organic unity in which every element 
in the expression contributes equally to the total communication. 
To place a poem in this scale is not necessarily to pass any value- 



THE 'NEW CRITICISM': SOME QUALIFICATIONS 177 

judgment on it, for there can be good poems at any place in the 
scale. We may with some justice hold, however, that the poten- 
tialities for really impressive poetic expression are less likely to 
exist at the lower end of the scale and that the most effective 
poems are those which come in the middle or higher parts of the 
range. Such questions can only be resolved by reading poems and 
considering what each achieves. One might say that at the lower 
end of the scale of poetic expression the handling of language is 
nearer to that of prose or perhaps to that of non-artistic literary 
expression and that it makes less use of the characteristically poetic 
ways of handling language. But is this necessarily a value- 
judgment? Is the best poetry the most poetical poetry, poetry 
which uses most of those aspects of language which differentiate 
the poet's use of it from other kinds of use? And, anyway, is this 
difference to be explained in terms of structure? The point is, to 
say the least, arguable. 

By concentrating on what they deem to be the differentiating 
qualities of poetic expression (in the widest sense of 'poetic') and 
by seeing these qualities in terms of complexity and coherence of 
structure, many of the new critics often find themselves unable to 
cope with such simpler forms of literature as the verse-essay or 
the song-lyric. The new criticism is incapable, for example, of 
demonstrating the magnificence of Burns's songs (which I have 
recently seen dismissed with something very like contempt by a 
young critic). The devices by which Burns, in 'Auld Lang Syne', 
sublimates nostalgia for the past in present good fellowship to 
close with a formal social gesture which holds past and present 
together for one tenuous moment by ritual, man's way of marking 
permanently the fleeting meanings of things this sort of thing 
cannot be handled or even discussed by the new criticism without 
embarrassment. And what of the devices by which lyrics are 
fitted to music? These are some of the areas in which modern 
criticism, largely because of its persistence in considering every 
'affective' theory as a 'fallacy' and thus clinging to what I have 
called the 'ontological fallacy', is seriously inadequate. 

This has an effect on the vocabulary of the new criticism and, 



178 LITERARY ESSAYS 

indeed, on its prose style, which as a rule is ugly and clotted. 
There seems to be a tendency to equate grace and clarity with 
superficiality and a preference for a technical jargon which is not, 
in fact, necessary in order to communicate adequately. Some of 
the results of this for example, the comical 'Glossary of the New 
Criticism' which appeared in Poetry some time ago are likely to 
encourage the worst kind of verbal exhibitionism and, among the 
hangers-on of the movement, have often done so. 

But it would be unjust to judge the new criticism by its more 
ragged camp followers. All I am concerned to do here is to point 
to some limitations and inadequacies of its characteristic method. 
I certainly recognize its great achievement in helping to abolish 
from our colleges the mumbling survey course consisting of 
biographical facts combined with lists of adjectives appropriate to 
each writer and in insisting on the close reading of individual 
texts. But the alternative is not necessarily to throw out all that 
Mr Ransom, for example, or Mr Wimsatt would like to throw 
out, to remove from our critical vocabulary all adjectives de- 
signed to point to the nature of the work's impact on die qualified 
reader, to manipulate a few pretentious technical terms. We can 
learn from the new critics without using their jargon, adopting 
their puritanism, or employing their Procrustean method of 
forcing every literary work into a pattern of complex coherence 
or ambivalence or paradox or some such criterion. We can learn 
to read carefully, sensitively, critically, without losing sight of the 
richness and essential 'impurity' of all effective literary art and 
without forgetting that, as the rejected Saintsbury once remarked, 
'in the house of poetry are many mansions'. What we want is a 
richer, not a narrower, aesthetic than the traditional combination 
of autobiographical impressionism and description. Catholicity 
of taste does not mean the abandonment of standards, nor does 
the recognition that different kinds of value may legitimately be 
called 'literary' imply the loss of critical principles. In the last 
analysis, the characteristic method of the new criticism im- 
mensely helpful though it has been, and brilliantly as it is often 
employed is inadequate because it is too easy. Its tendency 



THE NEW CRITICISM : SOME QUALIFICATIONS 179 

towards what Professor Crane has called 'critical monism' leads 
to a drastic oversimplification of what in fact a work of literary 
art is, what kind of pleasure it gives, and why it is valuable. It is 
the invention of ardent but simple minds and, too often, of minds 
that are really happier talking about literature than reading and 
enjoying it. 



THE CRITICISM OF FICTION: 
SOME SECOND THOUGHTS 1 

FICTION is TODAY, as it has been for some time, the dominant 
literary form, and one might suppose, therefore, that modern 
criticism would have devoted itself particularly to the novel 
and the short story. The modern critic, however, has preferred 
to concentrate on poetry, for reasons which are not difficult to 
see. The abundance and variety of fiction makes the establishment 
of critical norms for that art a very difficult business; ideals of 
complexity and consistency of structure can be applied to lyrical 
poetry without too much strain, but the novel is often a more 
discursive form and rarely one in which the readers' main interest 
lies in the appreciation of structural artfulness. Not that structural 
artfulness is lacking in a good novel, but it is not often what the 
reader is primarily interested in seeing. 

One can, of course, develop an ideal definition of a good novel 
which would recognize that, in the artistic handling of prose 
narrative, the total significance flowers cumulatively out of the 
handling of each unit of meaning at each point. If I may be 
allowed to quote from one of my own earlier attempts to grapple 
with this problem, I might give the following ideal definition: 
'Fiction as an art form is the narration of a series of situations that 
are so related to each other that a significant unity of meaning is 
achieved; the situations are presented in language such that at 
each point in the progress of the narrative the kind of relation 
between retrospect and anticipation is set up that continually and 
cumulatively reinforces the desired implications of the plot, so 
that plot becomes symbolic as well as literal in its meaning/ And 
I added: 'One definition of a "bad novel" would therefore be a 
novel in which no adequate complex of meaning has been 
achieved, where the devices of style, structure, etc., which the 

1 A lecture delivered at the University of Rochester, N.Y., in 1950. 



THE CRITICISM OF FICTION l8l 

author has employed have not been adequate to shape the work 
into an illuminating unity.' 1 Symbolization, the development of 
new meanings out of situations by the way in which they are 
arranged, ordered and presented, would thus depend equally on 
style and structure style being the handling of the presentation 
at each particular point, and plot the larger aspects of the same 
thing. On this definition, style would become a function of plot, 
and expression and structure would be part of a single complex of 
effective artistic communication. 

The fact is, however, that such a definition, though useful as 
indicating an ideal towards which the art of fiction tends, is rarely 
if ever an accurate account of what goes on in a novel. Even in 
lyric poetry, where intensity of expression is at its maximum and 
the fusion of the different elements that make up the poem can 
almost achieve a unity which gets beyond chronological sequence 
to lie in the mind as a single instantaneous pattern, this kind of 
unity is never wholly achieved, and the fact that the expression 
takes place in units that are deployed in a chronological sequence 
makes it impossible for the whole poem to burst into total meaning 
outside time, as it were. Indeed, it might be maintained that if a 
poem could achieve this kind of simultaneity it would cease to 
be a poem; for, after all, its medium is language and language 
depends on time, on the arrangement of a sequence, in order to 
communicate at all. One might say that lyrical poetry tends 
towards the escape from the time dimension, approaching ever 
nearer to this ideal as the poem becomes more finely wrought, 
but that if it were ever fully to achieve this ideal it would cease 
to exist. 

With fiction, the unreality of the ideal definition is more clearly 
demonstrable. It can be applied with profit, though never wholly 
literally, to Flaubert, to some of James, to some of Stevenson; but 
what of Scott and Dickens and Trollope? A great deal of English 
fiction is much more muddied with life, much more crowded 
with boisterous irrelevanties, than any Flaubertian or Jamesian or 

1 A Study of Literature, Cornell University Press and Oxford University Press, 
1948, p. 55- 



182 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Stevensonian definition of the art of fiction would allow. 'Most 
people suppose,' wrote Stevenson to James in 1884, ' . . . that 
striking situations, or good dialogue, are got by studying life; 
they will not rise to understand that they are prepared by deli- 
berate artifice and set off by painful suppressions/ By what is the 
relation between 'deliberate artifice' and the knowledge of life 
in a novel of Dickens? Where did Scott get the vernacular 
dialogue which is what provides the true vitality in all his Scottish 
novels? The English tradition is rich in novels whose whole glory 
is their wealth of shouting and jostling characters who are brought 
vividly to the reader's eye by means of a superficial and not very 
craftsmanlike plot, and who are dismissed only when their creator 
has become exhausted. Dryden's famous remark on the Canter- 
bury Tales 'Here is God's plenty' has nothing to do with struc- 
ture or pattern, yet it is a remark peculiarly applicable to the 
work of English novelists from Defoe to Joyce Carey. 

Let us put the question another way. Few critics would deny 
that Willa Gather's Alexander's Bridge, a finely constructed but 
lifeless novel written under the influence of James, is much inferior 
to the same writer's The Song of the Lark, which is crowded with 
details that have no proper place in the plot, is structurally 
defective, and comes to an end only when the author has nothing 
more to say. In spite of its formal defects, The Song of the Lark is 
a rich and satisfying novel, pulsing with life, creating its own 
universe as it moves, picking out and presenting vividly freshly 
remembered incidents from the author's childhood. Language 
here has been made to hold life, and though there are moments in 
the novel which irritate or offend, the work as a whole has force 
and vitality and can be read with satisfaction by the most sophis- 
ticated reader. 

Are there, then, two criteria, one drawn from art and one 
drawn from life? Must we distinguish between the kind of novel- 
ist who achieves an artful disposition of the pattern, and the kind 
who, disregarding the more purely aesthetic aspects of his work, 
creates a convincing and lively world of action? To do so would 
represent a complete abdication of the critic's function. The 



THE CRITICISM OF FICTION 183 

distinction here is surely not between die artful and die lively, but 
between different kinds of artfulness. James himself talked about 
the necessity of 'the sense of felt life' in a novel, and it would 
never have occurred to him to sacrifice this to superficial neatness 
of form. To achieve the illusion of a living and pulsing world is 
not the work of the man who merely knows life and feels strongly 
about it; it is the work of the writer who can handle language in 
such a way that what he knows and feels can be carried alive into 
the reader's imagination. We most adequately face our problem 
by realizing that form manifests itself in a variety of ways, that an 
episodic novel may have an adequate form of its own even though 
its structure is neither complex nor consistent, that, in fact, the 
novel fulfils itself in many and various ways and no single defini- 
tion of a good novel will do. 

The richness of a Dickens novel has its own means of com- 
municating itself, and it is not ardess. The fact that Dickens wrote 
many of his novels for serial publication, that he did not always 
know what he was going to do with his characters once he had 
created them, that he sometimes had no notion of how he was 
going to end a novel until he had written a substantial part of it, 
would all mean eventual failure if he were writing The Portrait 
of a Lady or even Treasure Island. There are, of course, some 
Dickens novels Great Expectations, for example where struc- 
tural unity does exist and is of the greatest importance in achieving 
the total effect; but The Pickwick Papers in one way and Nicholas 
Nickleby in anodier illustrate how a novel can move along in no 
particular direction once it has set up a world for it to move in, 
and what we enjoy here is not the movement but what it brings 
us to. 

The universe of each of these two Dickens novels is both rich 
and consistent, even diough the structure may not be consistent. 
The universe is created by character, not by plot, the only function 
of plot being to deploy the characters. (Character itself is created 
by art, working with the raw materials supplied by observation 
and imagination.) The death of litde Nell in The Old Curiosity 
Shop is preposterously sentimental; it is a bad scene, and offends 



184 LITERARY ESSAYS 

most of us, but it does not kill the novel, as it would kill another 
kind of novel, for as an ending it is not necessary to complete the 
novel's meaning, and as an episode it exists by itself, to be taken 
or left. 

We turn to Trollope, not a great novelist but an agreeable one, 
and ask ourselves what is the 'peculiar pleasure' we derive from 
his works. He, too, creates a fictional world, but it exists not so 
much in virtue of the fascinating and lively characters who inhabit 
it as in virtue of its concreteness and inclusiveness. Trollope's 
world is a 'probable' world, and we enjoy living in it in a relaxed 
and even escapist way because it is easy to enter, pleasant to walk 
about in, and adequately credible. It is, of course, dangerous to 
generalise about Trollope, who wrote so many different kinds of 
novels : but at least it might be said that he is read today (and he 
is read surprisingly widely) because his world of muted crises, of 
human situations presented and worked out against a stable 
background, is both valid and self-contained. There are no 
passionate glimpses into the well-springs of human nature, nor 
do the plots build up cumulatively a unique insight which depends 
for its adequate presentation on the continuous relation between 
style and structure; there is little 'symbolization' and clearly no 
searching for le mot juste. Trollope makes language carry con- 
viction; the pressure is low and the craftsmanship is only adequate, 
but the fictional world does emerge, convincing, logical, argee- 
able and interesting to contemplate. This is doubtless a minor 
kind of art, but it is civilized and pleasant. 

A very different kind of self-contained world is that created by 
Joyce's Ulysses. Here the structure is important, but not in the 
way that the structure of, say, Madame Bovary is important. 
More accurately, one might say that the structure of Ulysses is 
important the way it is in Flaubert, but it has a still more impor- 
tant function to emphasize the completeness and logicality of 
the world which the novel creates as it moves. The more I read 
Ulysses, the less interested I am in the working out of the Homeric 
theme or in the organization of the plot as organization. I find 
myself more and more fascinated by the completeness of the 



THE CRITICISM OF FICTION 185 

world presented, by the fact that an incident on page 25 is ex- 
plained and illuminated by another incident on page 300, that an 
unexplained gesture of Leopold Bloom in the fourth episode is 
given logic and meaning with reference to something that happens 
or is explained twenty episodes further on. This is a novel which 
cannot possibly be appreciated on first reading, not because we 
lack the Homeric clues (which are quite unimportant and can in 
fact be totally ignored by the reader without much loss) but 
because a great deal of the pleasure we get out of the book derives 
from our recognition when reading a passage on, say, page 20 
that what is said here has richer meaning with reference to a 
fragment of conversation on page 200, an incident on page 250, 
or a character's recollection on page 300. This is not what we 
normally mean by adequacy of structure, for that kind of struc- 
ture is cumulative, and builds up its meanings in chronological 
sequence, taking account of the fact that our memory of early 
incidents fades as we get further into the book. But Ulysses makes 
no concessions to memory; its effects are not achieved cumula- 
tively but simultaneously; to enjoy the book fully we must have 
it all lying in our mind at once and see as we read any given part 
all the other parts which support and explain it and which in turn 
are supported and explained by this part. The simultaneity 
(which, as I have noted in discussing lyric poetry, can never be 
really achieved) is not, of course, present in the actual process of 
reading, which takes place in time, but if we know the book well 
and remember it in detail we can compensate for chronology by 
memory. 

The richness of Ulysses is thus very different from that of The 
Pickwick Papers. It is not the gusto and vitality of Joyce's novel 
which impress us (as they so often do in Dickens) so much as the 
sheer completeness and self-consistency of the world in which 
the characters move. It all fits together; everything has a satisfy- 
ing meaning if we are familiar enough with the novel to keep in 
mind all the relevant passages simultaneously. This is a kind of 
effect difficult to parallel elsewhere in fiction. The enjoyment to 
be derived from this savouring of the interrelationships between 



l86 LITERARY ESSAYS 

the different parts of the world created by the novel does not 
come from the appreciation of form as such, but from the pleasure 
of inhabiting a fictional universe so much more totally known to 
us in its interrelated parts than anything can be in real life. As far 
as I know, this kind of effect and value in fiction has not been 
recognized by critics. 

The very completeness of Joyce's world prevents us from being 
overcome by a sense of its abundance, for a sense of abundance 
arises when we get glimpses of more characters than we can 
properly account for. Quaint or lively characters who emerge 
out of a dim background to reveal themselves as comic or pic- 
turesque and then return to the unknown from whence they came 
can add immensely to the sense of life in a work; one might 
consider the function of minor characters in Scott, for example. 
Scott's handling of minor characters, particularly of the dialogue 
he puts into their mouths, does have real relevance to the over-all 
structure of the novel, but we appreciate this aspect of his work 
not because we appreciate this relevance but because these charac- 
ters help to make the world in which they dwell both more 
interesting and more human. Interestingness is a criterion no 
serious critic has dared to apply to art, but I can see no reason why 
it should not be applied. We must, of course, distinguish it from 
suspense and other ways of holding attention, which may be 
quite meretricious. By interestingness I mean the ability to in- 
trigue and fascinate the reader the more he reads not simply the 
ability to make him read on in order to find out what happens 
next, but the power to keep him absorbed in the individual 
incident. Mere truth is no more valid a criterion for art than for 
philosophy. What is obviously true is liable to be trite: what 
might be true and is at the same time suggestive, intriguing, 
attention-compelling, is a better criterion to apply to both 
philosophy and art. Devices for increasing the interestingness of 
a work of fiction may be quite independent of the conventionally 
accepted formal properties and may be successfully practised 
independently of diem. 

Aristotle, we all know, said that plot was the c souT of drama, 



THE CRITICISM OF FICTION 187 

and in a sense this is certainly true for Greek drama and for much 
subsequent drama and fiction. But is plot the 'soul 5 of Shake- 
speare's Henry IV, Part I? The story of that play is important; the 
patterning of events, with their causal connections, helps to give 
the play its meaning, to make the whole thing pleasingly com- 
prehensive as a unit. But does the 'peculiar pleasure' we derive 
from the play really derive from the manner in which the various 
incidents are arranged with respect to each other? There could 
be no play without the plot, true enough, but the richness of 
dialogue and incident, the bubbling vitality which is conveyed 
not by the order in which things happen but by the way in which 
they happen, by the life which springs from the characters in 
operation this is what we most enjoy the play for, and this is 
achieved not by structural artfulness but by artfulness in the use 
of language to present the given incident. What Levin Schiicking 
called, in a somewhat different connection., Shakespeare's 'epi- 
sodic intensification' can be usefully applied to any play or novel 
in which the life emerges through the energy and colour of the 
individual incident, and where the work as a whole is a series of 
such incidents linked by relatively flat passages whose function, is 
to ensure that the nominal structure does not fall apart. 

I am not trying to restore the old distinction between the novel 
of character and the novel of incident, though this has its uses, but 
I am maintaining that there are kinds of interest in fiction which 
do not depend on those qualities of organization which we like 
to think of as of basic significance in a work of art. Professor R. S. 
Crane, in a brilliant article in the American Journal of General Edu- 
cation for January 1950, has analysed the structure of Tom Jones 
in astonishing detail. He does not, however, raise the question 
of the part played by structure in the total impact of the novel. 
In what degree do the kinds of interest which we find in Tom 
Jones depend on this structure a structure, it might be added, 
whose complexity nobody can see until Professor Crane has 
pointed it out? This is not a rhetorical question but one which 
deserves a careful and an honest answer. 

I suppose that Professor Wimsatt of Yale would say that this 



188 LITERARY ESSAYS 

line of argument is an example of the 'affective fallacy', and that 
the whole notion of interestingness as a criterion is based on the 
erroneous assumption that the way in which the work affects the 
reader (albeit the experienced and sensitive reader) is critically 
relevant. But the ontological fallacy, which is the name I give to 
what he and others profess, is even more misleading, for it 
assumes that the essence of a work of art is something different 
from its capacity for being properly perceived. If Berkeley's 
theory of knowledge had been applied to art, Dr Johnson could 
never have refuted him by kicking a stone: for the esse of a work 
of art is its pertipi. That being so, what we perceive is of the first 
importance, and the quality of the perception depends directly 
on the original creator who arranged things in terms of their 
perceptive potentialities. The artist, like God, works in a com- 
municative medium, and the test of his success is the reactions of 
the qualified receiver. In examining the reactions of the qualified 
receiver (reader, in the case of novels) the critic can determine the 
kinds of appeal different kinds of work possess, and he can then 
proceed to find out what it is in them which accounts for the 
appeal. The most fruitful criticism always operates in this way: 
it clarifies and explains effects with reference to their causes in the 
work. 

There are more types of artfulness at work in fiction than are 
dreamed of in our philosophy. How does Jane Austen, for 
example, achieve that sublime clarity of presentation which is a 
source of perpetual wonder to the reader, and what is the relation 
of that clarity to her characteristic irony? The analysis of the 
relation of style to plot in her novels will go only a little way in. 
answering these questions, and the mere analysis of structure will 
not begin to answer them. The wit of Huxley's Antic Hay is part 
of the texture of the dialogue, and that texture cannot be dis- 
cussed with the same critical tools which can demonstrate the 
cunning of James's The Turn of the Screw. Fiction is, in fact, a 
blanket term which covers many different kinds of skills, many 
different ways of handling narrative in language, for many 
different purposes. 



THE CRITICISM OF FICTION 189 

There are even important differences in what might be called 
the unit of artifice. In some novelists it is possible to examine 
each phrase, noting the effectiveness of the smallest unit of ex- 
pression and its contribution to the sum of significance. We all 
know we have the author's word for it that this can be done 
for Flaubert, where the slightest alteration in the form of ex- 
pression can be disastrous to the shape of the whole paragraph 
and so to the rhythm of the total work. But in, say, Hardy's 
The Return of the Native the unit of artifice is large: it is not die 
individual word or phrase, but the swell of the whole paragraph, 
and as long as that swell is maintained one could change phrases 
and even whole sentences without impairing the work in the 
least. Thi$is equally true of Scott, thoughnotwhereheis working 
with vernacular dialogue, and indeed it is true of most nineteenth 
century English novelists except (odd juxtaposition !) Emily Bronte 
and Stevenson. It is quite unrealistic to suggest that in Hardy's 
novels the expression at each point is so perfectly subdued to die 
total intention that the smallest alteration would be fatal. One 
could alter or omit large passages without the most perceptive 
critic being aware that anything was wrong. Hardy's massive, 
flinty style is based on a large unit of artifice, not, as with Flaubert, 
on a small one, and differences of this kind must be noted by the 
critic if he is not to make a fool of himself by applying analytic 
techniques indiscriminately whether or not diey are appropriate 
to the kind of craftsmanship the artist employed. 

We are inclined to be hypnotized by the word 'artist'. If the 
writer is an artist, we maintain, then he must be aware all die time 
of the precise relation of each individual stroke to the total effect 
he is aiming at. But two things should be remembered: one is 
that artists are men, and therefore fallible, and their works are 
thus no more perfect than the highest kind of human achievement 
in other categories; the other is that the term 'artist' covers a great 
many different ways of handling a communicative medium, and 
brilliant craftsmanship may be demonstrated by any one of an 
indefinite number of kinds of cunning. This is particularly true 
of the novel, which in English especially is aa 'impure' art form 



LITERARY ESSAYS 

or at least we have to consider it impure if we hold too narrow 
a definition of art. Our ideal definition of the novel is helpful if 
we consider it as an ideal towards which certain kinds of fiction 
tend; but if we allow it to determine in advance what we are 
going to see in a novel, it will end by obscuring the reasons why 
fiction is in fact enjoyed, and thus divorcing the critic wholly 
from the appreciative reader. A critic so divorced is engaged 
merely in a kind of pedantic play, which may be amusing to 
himself and his fellow professionals but has no further function. 
It is in order to avoid this that I have thought it worth while to 
emphasize certain distinctions between different kinds of novels 
and their 'peculiar pleasures'. 



TRANSLATING THE HEBREW BIBLE 

PERHAPS THE BEST-KNOWN PASSAGE from the Bible, to English- 
speaking people, is the Authorized Version rendering of the 
23rd Psalm: 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still 
waters. 

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his 
name's sake. 

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear 
no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. 

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou 
annointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over. 

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I 
will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. 

This is an English poem, grave and pellucid in style, and it has 
left a permanent influence on the imagery of English poetry and 
the rhythms of English prose. The tone, one might say, is 
Anglican, the same tone that we find in that great Church of 
England poet, George Herbert. A Hebrew psalm has in this 
version become an Anglican poem; it is a rendering of the 
original Hebrew, true enough, but the rendering is stamped with 
the temper of those who made it. Phrases such as 'green pastures' 
and 'still waters', which are so important in setting the tone of 
the whole poem, are not, in fact, literal renderings of the Hebrew 
'binoth deshe and 'al mai mnuchoth 9 , which mean, respectively, 
'by pastures of tender grass' and 'by waters of quietness'. The 
Douay version, translating from the Latin Vulgate, renders the 
second verse : 'In place of pasture there he hath placed me. Upon 
the water of refection he hath brought me up', and though the 
literal meaning is similar, the lyric flow has disappeared. 

The difference is not doctrinal. The Anglican calm of the 
Authorized Version rendering does not arise from the fact that the 



Ip2 LITERARY ESSAYS 

translators were drawing on the special features of their variety 
of Protestant Christianity, for many of the special features of 
their translation came originally from the Geneva translation of 
1560, which was the work of Puritans who worked before the 
Anglican compromise and who would not have accepted it if 
they had known of it. The Geneva version begins: 'The Lord is 
my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to rest in grene 
pasture, and leadeth me by the stil waters. He restoreth my 
soule, . . . ' The English psalter of 1530 begins the psalm: 'The 
lorde is my pastore and feader: wherfore I shal not wante. He 
made me to feade on a full plenteous bade grownde: and did 
dryve and retche me at layser by the swete ryvers.* 

The personality of the psalm, as it were, differs in each render- 
ing. In the Vulgate the notion of 'Shepherd' disappears completely, 
and instead of the psalm opening 'The Lord is my shepherd; I 
shall not want', it begins : 'Dominus regit me, et nihil mihi deerit' 
(The Lord rules me, and nothing will be lacking to me). The 
'green pastures' of the Geneva and Authorized versions are in the 
Vulgate the much more factual, even technical, 'in loco pascuae, 
while 'super aquam refectionis ('upon the water of refection', as 
we have seen Douay translate it) stresses the reviving nature of 
the waters and says nothing about their stillness. The whole tone 
of the psalm is more businesslike and practical in the Vulgate. 

Luther's German version has the greenness, but makes the water 
fresh rather than still: 'Er weidet mich auf einer grunen Aue, and 
fiihret mich zumfrischen Wasser? This is not too far removed from 
the Authorized Version, though the first verse in Luther 'Der 
Herr ist mein Hirte; mir wird nichts mangeln has not the flow of 
the English, due largely to the accumulation of consonants. 'Mir 
wird nichts mangeln 9 is a clumsy mouthful beside 'I sh.aU not want', 
with its liquid '11' and V. And no European translation has the 
perfect simplicity of the Hebrew: 'Yahwe ro-i, lo echsor! 

If you cannot achieve the simplicity of the Hebrew original, 
you can always try for a quite different effect. Here are the first 
two verses of the psalm in de Saci's French Bible (Paris, 1759) : 

C 9 est le Seigneur qui me conduit: rien ne pourra me mwquer. 



TRANSLATING THE HEBREW BIBLE 193 

U ma ttabli dans un lieu abondant en paturages: il ma tlevt pres Sum eau 
fortifiante. 

This is translated from the Vulgate, not the Hebrew, but it is 
equally removed in tone from both. Nor does it bear any resem- 
blance to the efficient German or the limpid English. The first 
verse reads like a line from a neo-classic tragedy. One can almost 
imagine someone inquiring of the heroine -Phedre, say, 

Ah Ph&dre, who leads you yonder through the dark? 
and Phedre answering, 

C'est le Seigneur qui me conduit: rien ne pourra me manauer. 
('Tis the noble lord himself: I can lack nothing now.) 

Further, 6 eau fortifiante 9 suggests smelling salts, and the 'lieu abon- 
dant en paturages suggests Marie Antoinette playing at being a 
milkmaid rather than the realities of pastoral life in Palestine. 

Every language, and sometimes every age, produces its own 
Bible. The Authorized Version, with which English-speaking 
readers are most familiar, represents the final successful attempt, 
after nearly a hundred years of continuous effort, to put the Bible 
into an English which does no violence to the natural genius of 
the language: the Hebrew Bible is in this version a work of 
English literature, and has all the assurance of an original work. 
One can see this assurance developing through the earlier versions. 
Here is the Authorized Version rendering of Joshua 24.26: 'And 
Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God, and 
took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by 
the sanctuary of the Lord/ This is a simple enough sentence, 
done in workmanlike prose, flowing naturally with nothing 
forced or artificial about it. Compare it with the version in 
Matthew's Bible of 1537: 'And Josua wrotte these wordes in 
the boke of the law of God, and toke a great stonne and pitched 
it on ende in the sayde place euen vnder an ocke that stode in the 
sanctuary of the Lorde.' There is a verbosity here, arising from 
the translator's anxiety to get in all of his original, and as a result 
the tone is somewhat forced, the passage is not yet properly 
acclimatized in English. 



194 LITERARY ESSAYS 

The Hebrew Bible, when properly domiciled in seventeenth 
century English (and seventeenth century English, which Dr 
Johnson in his Dictionary drew on as the great standard of English 
vocabulary, has become the norm of English religious speech), 
has a quality, a tone, even a meaning, as different from that of the 
original as from that of any other translation. Luther's Bible, 
which is the German equivalent of the English Authorized Version, 
gives a very different feel to the passage from Joshua which I have 
just quoted: "Undjosua schrieb dies alles ins Gesetzbuch Gottes; und 
nahm einengrossen Stein und richtete ihn auf daselbst einer Eiche, die 
bey dem Heiligthum des Herrn war! How different in essential 
meaning is 'ins Gesetzbuch Gottes" from 'in the book of the law of 
God', and again how different both these renderings are from the 
three stark Hebrew words, 'b'sefer torath elohim. The German is 
stark in its own way, but with the starkness of a report written 
by an efficient civil servant. The English, with its long run of 
monosyllables, each a word of elemental significance ('book', 
law', *God',) has certain overtones of familiarity, or at least of 
simple customarrness, for all its dignity. Yet Hebrew, Authorized 
Version and Luther are more like each other than either is to the 
English version of Monsignor Knox, who renders the phrase 'in 
the book which contained the divine law', adding a verb and 
changing a noun phrase into an adjective and in so doing giving a 
sophisticated abstractness to the whole notion. 

A good test of the intention of any translator, or group of 
translators, is their rendering of the very first verse of the Hebrew 
Bible. The Authorized Version translates : 'In the beginning God 
created the heaven and the earth', and you might think that that 
was the only possible way to translate a very straightforward 
original (unless, perhaps, you decided to make 'heaven' plural, 
because of the form 'shamayim). Monsignor Knox, however, 
renders the sentence: 'God, at the beginning of time, created 
heaven and earth', which is a very different idiom indeed, an 
idiom of didactic elegance rather than of primitive simplicity. 
The French has something of Monsignor Knox's tone: 'Au 
commencement Dieu cria le del et la terre 9 , which becomes even more 



TRANSLATING THE HEBREW BIBLE 195 

pronounced in the following verse: 'La terre etait informe et toute 
nue; les tenebres couvraient la face de Yabime; et YEsprit de Dieu etait 
portesur les eaux? The difference between this and the Authorized 
Version 'And the earth was without form, and void; and dark- 
ness was upon the face of the earth. And the spirit of God moved 
upon the face of the waters', is the difference between Virgil and 
Homer, between the artificial epic and the natural epic. Indeed, 
such a phrase as 'les tenebres couvraient la face de Yabime might have 
come out of Victor Hugo. Luther is much more like the Author- 
ized Version: 'Am Anfang schuf Gott Himmel und Erde. Und die 
Erde war wuste und leer, und es warfinster aufder Tiefe; und der Geist 
Gottes schwebete aufdem WasserJ 

The interesting word in the German is 'schwebete (hung in. 
suspense, hovered) as a rendering of the Hebrew 'merachephetK- 
Both the Authorized Version and Douay render simply 'moved', 
while the Vulgate has 'ferebatur (was borne), translated in the 
French version as 'etait porte. There is a long exegetical tradition, 
both Jewish and Christian, attached to this word. The great 
eleventh century Jewish commentator Solomon ben Isaac (gener- 
ally known as Rashi) explains that the Throne of Glory was 
suspended in the air and hovered over the face of the waters, 
sustained by the breath (the Hebrew 'ruach 9 means both 'breath* 
and 'spirit 5 ) of God and God's command, like a dove hovering 
over die nest. Basil and other patristic commentators render 
*incubabat\ which again has the notion of brooding and hatching. 
And in Paradise Lost Milton (who knew Hebrew) wrote of the 
Holy Spirit: 

Thou from the first 

Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread 
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss 
And mad'st it pregnant. 

Sir Thomas Browne, in his Religio Medici, has the sentence: 'That 
is that gentle heat that brooded on the waters, and in six days 
hatched the world/ And Andrew Marvell, in his poem 'The 
Waterfall', has the following lines: 



196 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Unless that spirit lead his mind 
"Which first upon thy face did move, 
And hatch* d all with his quickning love. 

In the face of this strong tradition in favour of the notion of 
brooding and hatching as implied in 'merachepheth 9 , the Author- 
ized Version translators stuck to the simple 'moved'. The case is 
interesting, for as a rule the use of biblical ideas of this kind in 
English literature after 161 1 came through the Authorized Version. 
There was, in fact, no word which would express in English the 
varied suggestions attached to the original, and rather than do 
violence to the language, the translators kept the simple and 
general word, 'moved'. It is testimony to the store they set by 
simple and idiomatic English. 

Consider another example. Most of us know the opening of 
the 4oth chapter of Isaiah from Handel's magnificent setting of 
'Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people', in his Messiah. The whole 
of that passage in English has a grand cadence to it, rising to a 
climax on 'her iniquity is pardoned' and dying away immediately 
afterwards to a perfect close. (Handel, who wanted to end on 
the climax, left out the closing phrase.) 

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. 

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is 
accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she has received of the Lord's 
hand double for all her sins. 

The meaning of the fine opening phrase is not clear. It seems 
to mean 'Comfort yourselves, my people', but in fact the 'ye' is 
not reflexive and the sense is, 'Comfort my people (says God to 
the prophet)'. The Authorized Version translators risked ambi- 
guity, not this time in order to keep the individual words simple, 
but for the sake of the cadence. (There is even some reason for 
believing that they deliberately tried to imitate the rhythm of the 
original Hebrew, and put in the ambiguous 'ye' so that the phrase 
would correspond in its cadence with the Hebrew 'nachamu, 
nachamu ami 9 .) The Vulgate does have the reflexive sense; there 
God is calling on the people to comfort themselves: ' Consolamini, 



TRANSLATING THE HEBREW BIBLE 197 

consolamini popule meus, dicit Deus vester,' which, the French ren- 
ders: 'Consolez-vous, mon peuple, consolez-vous, dit votre Dieu.' 
The ceremonial note of the English disappears in the utilitarian 
Vulgate (though the Latin has a sonority of its own) and, even 
more completely, in the elegant French. The French, indeed, 
sounds to English ears rather like a ticket agent announcing 
politely to a crowd of customers that all his tickets are sold out 
and they must comfort themselves as best they can. Luther (fol- 
lowing the Hebrew meaning) renders: 'Trostet, trostet, mein Volk, 
spricht euer Gott\ which is forceful and effective. The German 
continues: 'Redet mit Jerusalem freundlich und prediget ihr, dass ihre 
Ritterschaft ein Ende hat, denn ihre Missethat ist vergeben; denn sie hat 
zweyfaltiges empfangen von der Hand des Herrn, urn alle ihre Sunde* 
This sounds a bit like a list of instructions issued in triplicate to 
subordinate officials, but it has good prose rhythm and a fine 
solidity. Solidity is perhaps the characteristic quality of Luther's 
Bible. The English Bible, at least in the Authorized Version, has 
a flowing limpidity combined with occasional ritual overtones; 
the French Bible is elegant and polished and discreet; the German 
Bible has a solid middle-class ring about it: it is a book for 
substantial biirgerliche readers who stand no nonsense. A simple 
Bible, a polite Bible, a bourgeois Bible and the Hebrew Bible 
is none of these. 

Another test is the famous and difficult one from the last 
chapter of Ecclesiastes. The Authorized Version reads: 

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men 
shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those 
that look out of the windows be darkened, 

And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is 
low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music 
shall be brought low; 

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the 
way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, 
and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go 
about the streets: 

Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the 
pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern. 



Ip8 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Douay, rendering literally from the Vulgate, reads : 

When the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall 
stagger, and the grinders shall be idle in a small number, and they that look 
through the holes shall be darkened: 

And they shall shut the doors in the street, when the grinder's voice shall be 
low, and they shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of music 
shall grow deaf. 

And they shall fear high things, and they shall be afraid in the way, the almond 
tree shall flourish, the locust shall be made fat, and the caper-tree shall be 
destroyed: because man shall go into the house of his eternity, and the mourners 
shall go round about in the street. 

Before the silver cord be broken, and the golden fillet shrink back, and the 
pitcher be crushed at the fountain, and the wheel be broken upon the cistern. 

The obscurity is equal in both versions. The Authorized Ver- 
sion makes capital out of the obscurity by choosing words which, 
although simple in themselves, have overtones of vague sugges- 
tion. 'And all the daughters of music shall be brought low,' is 
more suggestive than the matter-of-fact 'shall grow deaf of the 
Vulgate, and 'or ever the silver cord be loosed' more evocative 
than 'before the silver cord be broken'. Douay tries to bully the 
true sense out of the words by rendering each one with literal 
correctness; the Authorized Version, while as literal as it can be, 
chooses words which suggest meanings even when the precise 
significance is obscure. Thus in the Authorized Version Eccle- 
siastes is an English prose poem, and in the Douay translation 
Ecclesiastes is a very competent rendering of a difficult Vulgate 
text. 

Dr Robert Gordis, in his edition and translation of Ecclesiastes 
published in New York in 1945, gives us the modern scholar's 
view of what the Hebrew really means: 

In the day when the watchmen of the house tremble, 

And the strong men are bent. 

And the grinding maidens cease, for they are few, 

And the ladies peering through the lattices grow dim. 

When the doubled doors on the street are shut, 

And the voice of the mill becomes low. 

One wakes at the sound of a bird, 



TRANSLATING THE HEBREW BIBLE 199 

And all the daughters of song are laid low. 
When one fears to climb a height, 
And terrors lurk in a walk. 

The hair grows white, like ripe almond-blossom, 
The frame, bent like a grasshopper, becomes a burden, 
And the caper-berry can no longer stimulate desire. 

So man goes to his eternal home 

While the hired mourners walk about in the street. . . . 

This certainly clears up many obscurities. Much of the sug- 
gestiveness is gone, but we really do know what the passage is all 
about. To read this after reading the Authorized Version is like 
looking at a distant mountain view after the mist has cleared and 
the sun has come out; in the mist it seemed wonderful and 
romantic, but we could not make out the individual features of 
the scene at all. Clear and simple though the Authorized Version 
so often is, readers respond more often than they think to the 
vague thrills of the mist-enwrapped view rather than to the 
details of the landscape. (One could go through the Book of 
Job, for example, and point out scores of phrases which, in the 
Authorized Version, have had an immense influence on the de- 
velopment of English religious thought every one of them mis- 
understood. But this is partly due to mistranslation of a difficult 
text.) 

But to return to Ecclesiastes. Consider now de Saci's French 
translation of the passage I have been discussing: 

lorsque les gardes de la maison commemeront a trembler; que les hommes les plus 
forts s ebranleront; que celles qui avaient accoutuml de moudre } seront reduites en 
petit nombre et deviendront oisives, et que ceux qui regardaient par les trous, seront 
couverts de timbres; 

quand onfermera lesportes de la rue, quand la voix de celle qui avait accoutume de 
moudre serafaible, quon se levera au chant de Foiseau et que les files de Vharmonie 
deviendront sourdes; . . . 

avant que la chaine d 9 argent soit rompue, que la landelette d'or se retire, que la 
cruche se brise sur lafontaine, et que la roue se rompe sur la dterne. 

The rhythms here are not dissimilar from those of the Author- 
ized Version they derive from the grouping of the phrases in 



2OO LITERARY ESSAYS 

the original Hebrew, and carry over in some degree into all 
translations but there is a tone of secular elegance about the 
French which derives from some profound quality of the French 
literary language. And while the German retains the note of 
romantic suggestion, it seems more solidly grounded in physical 
occurrences than it does in the English: 

. . . Und die Thtiren auf der Gasse geschlossen werden, doss die Stimme der 
Milllerin leise wird, und erwachet, wenn der Vogel singet, und sich bucken die. 
Tochter des Gesangs. . . . 

There is something about 'VogeF that is lacking in 'bird', and a 
phrase such as 'und erwachet, wenn der Vogel singe? suggests a 
characteristic phase of German romantic poetry, while 'and he 
shall rise up at the voice of the bird' (every word a monosyllable) 
has an elemental folk feeling. The whole German rendering of 
this passage is to the English of the Authorized Version rather 
what the heavy magic of Heine's 'Das ist der alte Marchenwald 9 is 
to the less sophisticated mystery of one of Wordsworth's 'Lucy' 
poems: 

Rolled round in earth's diurnal course 

With rocks and stones and trees. 

There are, of course, other translations of the Hebrew Bible 
besides English, French and German, each of which has its own 
special flavour. The Italian, for example, sounds curiously un- 
scriptural to those (and they probably include most non-Italian 
readers of the language) who have got used to Dante as the 
standard Italian example of a serious, formal, yet simple imagery 
and vocabulary, and it is always a shock to find that the Italian 
Bible sounds much more like the Decameron than like the Divina 
Commedia. There is no limit to the comparing of different trans- 
lations of the Hebrew Bible or to the different kinds of passages 
narrative, prophetic, lyrical, gnomic whose varying appearance 
in different languages can be discussed. The Hebrew Bible is the 
source of many different Bibles, each drawing out some quality 
in the original which would not at first necessarily strike the 
reader of the Hebrew text; each is biblical in its own way, yet 



TRANSLATING THE HEBREW BIBLE 2OI 

none can claim to reflect wholly the Hebrew Bible. But then 
what 'the Hebrew Bible' is can never be fully stated: it, too, 
has been a different book to different readers and to different 
generations. 

There are other, and perhaps more profound, questions to be 
asked about the translation of the Bible besides the literary ones. 
Have different religions, and different denominations, managed 
to produce renderings which convey a significance peculiar to 
their own beliefs? This is certainly true of some key passages, for 
example, in the prophets and in the Book of Job. For I know that 
my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day 
upon the earth', is the Authorized Version rendering of Job. 19.25, 
and the reference is considered to be to the coming of Christ. 
The American Jewish translation of 1917 renders : 'But as for me, 
I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He will witness at the 
last upon the dust', where the Redeemer is, of course, God. In 
fact, however, the Hebrew word 'goali probably has a legal 
significance: much of the Book of Job is couched in legal ter- 
minology, with Job demanding- to know what offence he is 
charged with and asking for a defending counsel to take up his 
cause. In this verse he seems to be expressing confidence that 
eventually a defending attorney will stand up for him (against the 
satan, who is not the Devil but the angel charged with public 
prosecutions, as it were, by God). Both Jewish and Christian 
interpreters have taken a more general, and indeed a more im- 
pressive, meaning out of the text, but in doing so have obscured 
the significance of much of its characteristic imagery. This is in 
interesting case of the development of religious ideas changing 
the meaning of the text. 

A more obvious case is Isaiah 7.14, where the traditional 
Christian rendering was for centuries: 'Behold, a virgin, shall 
conceive . . . ' and the passage was taken as a prophecy of the 
virgin birth of Christ. Modern, Christian scholarship recognizes 
that 'virgin' is a deliberate mistranslation of the Hebrew, and 
the American Revised Standard Version reads 'Behold, a 
young woman shall conceive', in agreement with Jewish render- 



2O2 LITERARY ESSAYS 

ings. Then there is Isaiah 14.12, translated in the Authorized 
Version as : 'How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of 
the morning', in accordance with the traditional Christian view 
that this is a reference to the fall of Satan. But the Hebrew word 
'hekl 9 means 'morning star' (rendered in Latin as 'Lucifer', 
'light-bearer') and the prophet is using the term figuratively for 
Babylon, which had fallen from its position of power and radiance ; 
the Babylonians worshipped Istar, the morning star. The Ameri- 
can Jewish translation renders : 'How art thou fallen from heaven, 
O day-star son of the morning!' while the American Revised 
Standard Version renders similarly: 'How you are fallen from, 
heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn!' Modern scholars, whatever 
their religious beliefs, tend to put accuracy before doctrinal con- 
siderations, with the result that there is much less difference 
between Jewish and Christian renderings of the Hebrew Bible 
today than there was three centuries ago. 

More interesting, perhaps, than differences in the rendering of 
individual words and phrases are the doctrinal implications of a 
translation as a whole. As long as the Catholic Church did not 
believe in vernacular translations, and held even the Vulgate to 
be what might almost be called a technical work for the pro- 
fessional churchman, there was no attempt to give grace and 
polish to biblical renderings. The mediaeval Catholic layman got 
his knowledge of the Bible indirectly through sermons and other 
intermediary presentations by priests. And when the climate of 
opinion eventually moved the Roman Catholic Church to bring 
out its own translation, at the beginning of the seventeenth 
century, it produced a flinty literal rendering from the Vulgate. 
In direct contrast, left-wing Protestantism believed in the Bible 
as the only true source of the Christian religion and strove to 
make vernacular versions available to all. But the belief in the 
literal verbal inspiration of the Bible which accompanied this 
attitude led to the Bible being regarded as a sort of divine refer- 
ence book, to be quoted, regardless of the general context of any 
given passage, as a series of separable texts, each with its precise 
and literal significance. This produced no more feeling of literary 



TRANSLATING THE HEBREW BIBLE 2O3 

style than the Catholic belief in the professional and technical 
nature of the Bible. It was left for the Anglican Church, which 
believed in vernacular translation without going so far as the 
bibliolatry of the Puritans, and considered the Bible as a monu- 
ment of divine eloquence rather than as a divine reference book, 
to sponsor Bible translation as a work of literature as well as a 
work of theology. The Authorized Version, more than any 
other biblical translation in any European language, was a literary 
rendering; it was not a 'crib' but a work of literature in its own 
right, written in a style which generations of translators had 
gradually developed as the appropriate English style for that kind 
of work. It is interesting that now that the Catholic Church has 
long regarded vernacular translations as perfectly proper, the 
modern Catholic translator tries hard to be literary rather than 
technical in his rendering. Monsignor Knox's translation of the 
Old Testament is the most 'literary' ever produced; it is written 
in a deliberately artificial style, with carefully modulated rhythms, 
paragraphs rising and falling in studied cadence, and sentences 
flowing in a manner reminiscent of the later George Moore: 

Thus Noemi left her dwelling place; and when she set foot on the road that 
led to the domain of Juda, she turned to her companions, and bade either go 
back to her own mother's house; May the Lord shew kindness to you, she 
said, as you have shewn kindness to the memory of the dead, and to me; may 
you live at ease with new husbands. And with that she gave them a parting 
kiss. But no, they wept aloud, and declared they would go on in her company, 
to the home of her own people. Come with me, my daughters? she answered. 
Nay, you must go back. I have no more sons in my womb to wed you; go 
back, daughters, and leave me; I am an old woman, past the age for marrying. 

This is a remarkable accomplishment, and not merely a stylistic 
one, for there is much scholarship distilled in each turn of phrase; 
yet one cannot help feeling that this is almost too literary, that the 
churchman converted to the view that the Bible which is a basic 
technical document of his faith is also a supreme work of literature 
is demonstrating rather too flamboyantly his new state of mind. 

To most English-speaking readers, the literary style, or styles, 
rather, for the Bible has many, made popular by the Authorized 



204 LITERARY ESSAYS 

Version seem to be most appropriate, because they are the most 
familiar, and the problem is to make the Bible more accurate 
without losing that cherished traditional flavour. The Revised 
Standard Version, which is a revision of a revision of the Author- 
ized Version, retains some of its magic but it has inevitably also 
lost much, in its striving after greater accuracy. The American 
Jewish translation, though it called itself 'a new translation', kept 
the basic idiom of the Authorized Version more than might have 
been expected. (For example, it preserved the misleading 'y e ' 
in 'Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people', where the Revised 
Standard Version has, 'Comfort, comfort my people says your 
God'.) What do we now demand of an English translation of 
the Bible? Surely a translation which is both accurate and grace- 
ful, based on the soundest available scholarship and expressed in 
fluent, idiomatic and dignified English. Such a translation is 
bound to abandon even more of the Authorized Version tradition 
than either the Revised Version or the Revised Standard Version 
has done; yet to go to the other extreme and deliberately cut off 
the poetic overtones of the original (as Dr Gordon sometimes 
does in his version of Ecclesiastes, rendering, for example, 'Cast 
thy bread upon the waters' as 'send your goods overseas', which 
is a dull paraphrase, not a translation) is useless self-denial. A 
scholarly literary translation, deriving without prejudice or pre- 
conception from the best scholarship wherever it is found, and 
creating its own style as it moves according to the literary forms 
of the original, about which so much new knowledge is now 
available, is a desideratum for Jew and Gentile alike. But the 
problem is not as easy as this. The Bible is not only what modern 
scholarship holds the text to mean; it is also what the text has 
meant to generations of devout readers. Modern scholarship, 
after all, is concerned to reconstruct the meaning originally in- 
tended by die first writers or compilers of the text, but that 
meaning caiuiot have been constant even for those early writers. 
The simplest lyric poem, as every modern critic knows, takes on 
new meanings with each sensitive reading, and how much more 
so must a work like the Bible! Can modern scholarship in the 



TRANSLATING THE HEBREW BIBLE 2O5 

English-speaking world conceive of a translation which, while 
accurate and literary, manages at the same time to convey in its 
idiom something of what the Hebrew Bible has meant to gene- 
rations of readers, both Jewish and Christian? The ideal may sound 
Utopian, but it is surely a task worth attempting. 



RELIGION, POETRY AND THE 'DILEMMA' OF THE 
MODERN WRITER 1 

N" EARLY THREE HUNDRED YEARS AGO JOHN MILTON, pondering 
in his age and blindness over the mysteries of human fate 
and thinJdng doubtless of the bitter frustrations and dis- 
appointments of his own life, put into the mouth of his hero 
Samson an almost desperate questioning of God's ways with 
man: 

God of our Fathers, what is man! 
That thou towards him with hand so various, 
Or might I say contrarious, 

Temper'st thy providence through his short course, 
Not evenly, as thou rul'st 
The Angelic orders and inferior creatures mute, 
Irrational and brute. 

Nor do I name of men the common rout, 
That wand'ring loose about 
Grow up and perish, as the summer fly, 
Heads without name no more rernember'd, 
But such as thou hast solemnly elected, 
"With gifts and graces eminently adorn' d 
To some great work, thy glory, 
And people's safety, which in part they effect: 
Yet toward these, thus dignifi'd, thou oft, 
Amidst t-hir highth of noon, 

Changest thy countenance and thy hand, with no regard 
Of highest favours past 
From thee on them, or them to thee of service. 

The cry is a familiar one in the history of literature. Why do the 
wicked prosper and the virtuous suffer? It was a very real question 
for Milton as he sat in darkness and heard the bells ring out the 
end of all his political hopes, the end of his dream of being the 

1 Delivered at the Institute for Religious and Social Studies, New York, on 
3 ist January, 1950. 

206 



POETRY AND RELIGION 20y 

poet and prophet of a new and regenerate England; as he heard 
the celebrators of the restoration of Charles II, 

The Sons 
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine, 

roistering in the streets outside. 'Why standest Thou afar off, O 
Lord? Why hidest Thou thyself in times of trouble? . . . For the 
wicked boasteth of his heart's desire, and the covetous vaunteth 
himself, though he contemn the Lord.' So the Hebrew psalmist 
had long before asked the same question. It was Job's question, 
too. 'Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard : I cry aloud, 
but there is no justice.' 'Wherefore do the wicked live, become 
old, yea, are mighty in power?' 

This old question of theodicy, of the justice of God, or, if we 
prefer, of the way in which the universe is organized so far as it 
affects man, has long been a central theme in literature. The 
answer is generally given in terms of attitude rather than of logic. 
Job's problem disappears in a note of wonder wonder at the 
grandeur and immensity of creation. The psalmist finds refuge in 
faith: 'Better is a little that the righteous hath than the abundance 

of many wicked For the wicked shall perish, and the enemies 

of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs they shall pass away in 
smoke, they shall pass away.' The Prometheus of Aeschylus, on 
the other hand, strikes a note of heroic self-confidence eo-o/oas- 
ju'co? e/cSi/ca iraex^ 'behold me, how unjust are my sufferings'. 
These are very different answers to a single question, but they are 
all literary answers rather than philosophical solutions. By this 
I mean that the answers have force and meaning in virtue of 
their poetic expression, of the place they take in the myth or 
fable or situation presented, and of the effectiveness with which 
they project a mood. Job's solution is no answer if detached from 
its eloquent expression and paraphrased as a philosophical position. 
Such a procedure would make Job sound merely pusillanimous, 
just as it would make the psalmist a naive self-deceiver and 
Prometheus a futile exhibitionist. In other words, we see in 
earlier literature a religious (or mythological) tradition and a 
literary tradition mutually supporting each other, each depend- 



208 LITERARY ESSAYS 

ing on the other for full richness of expression and significance. 
Let me try to explain this point more fully by turning again to 
Milton. We know that the justification of the ways of God to 
men, the professed theme of Paradise Lost, was a major pre- 
occupation of Milton's throughout his life. We see the problem 
first stated in 'Lycidas', a poem ostensibly lamenting the death of 
a young friend who died before he was able to fulfil his promise 
as poet and teacher but actually concerned with the larger prob- 
lem of the ambitious idealist in an uncertain and arbitrary world. 
What is the use of dedicating oneself to a future of service to 
humanity (in Milton's case, through the writing of poetry 'doc- 
trinal and exemplary to a nation') if one might be cut off at any 
moment, before even one's period of self-preparation was 
completed? 

Alas! What boots it with uncessant care 
To tend the homely slighted Shepherd's trade, 
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse? 
Were it not better done as others use, 
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade, 
Or with the tangles of Neaera's hair? 

The question is turned this way and that throughout the poem, 
and every kind of traditional answer suggested before the real 
answer emerges in the mood and tone of the conclusion: 

Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th* Oaks and rills, 
While the still morn went out with Sandals gray. 
He touch* t the tender stops of various Quills, 
With eager thought warbling his Doric lay: 
And now the Sun had stretch* d out all the hills, 
And now was dropt into the Western bay; 
At last he rose, and twich't his Mande blue: 
Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new. 

Like God's answer to Job in the whirlwind, this is not a logical 
disposal of the problem, but the distillation of a mood in the 
light of which die poet is able to carry on. The quiet sunrise 
which proclaims a new day brings a note of humility and accep- 
tance to the poet, who now describes himself as an 'uncouth 
swain* that is, an unknown or unlearned rustic and with that 



POETRY AND RELIGION 20p 

comes the determination to do what one can while one can, to 
enjoy such beauty as life grants and to turn one's hand to what 
lies to be done without too much speculation on possible accidents : 
'Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new' has the sound 
both of peace and of purpose. 

When his blindness came, some fifteen years later, Milton 
again raised the question of God's justice in so dealing with him: 

When I consider how my light is spent, 
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, 
And that one Talent which is death to hide, 
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent 

To serve therewith my Maker, and present 
My true account, lest he returning chide; 
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied, 
I fondly ask? 

But Patience replies, and stills the poet's questioning with a 
picture of various services rendered by different men actively or 
passively, God being best served by those Vho best bear his mild 
yoke'; and the poem ebbs quietly away on the concluding line: 
'They also serve who only stand and wait/ Has this answer 
vindicated God's justice? No; but it has projected a mood in the 
light of which life seems more interesting, more significant, and 
more tolerable. 

In Paradise Lost the justification of the ways of God to men is 
developed on a more deliberate and even grandiose scale. On the 
surface Milton, by telling the story of man's fall in Eden, is 
showing that man fell by a deliberate abuse of his free-will, so 
that he has himself and not God to blame, and also pointing out 
that God provided a scheme of redemption which would enable 
those who made the effort to attain to a state far above that from 
which Adam fell. Thus man deserved what he got by deliberately 
doing evil, but God in His mercy brought good out of evil by 
the Christian scheme of redemption. This is the cold, paraphras- 
able message of Paradise Lost, but it is neither the true meaning of 
the poem nor the real way in which Milton justified the ways of 
God to men. The real justification of God's dealings with men 



210 LITERARY ESSAYS 

lies in the implicit contrast between the ideal idleness of the 
Garden of Eden and the changing and challenging world of moral 
effort and natural beauty which resulted from the Fall. This 
argument is presented obliquely and continuously through mood 
and imagery: when the beauty of Eve in her unfallen state is 
described in terms of classical myths which give an atmosphere 
of ineffable loveliness to the whole picture we get a sense of values 
which can only emerge in the fallen human imagination. The 
posdapsarian world (to use the theological term) may lack the 
bliss of Eden, with its perpetual spring and its freedom from the 
curse of earning one's daUy bread by the sweat of one's brow, 
but the procession of the seasons which was part of the punish- 
ment of the Fall provides some of Milton's most moving imagery, 
while symbols of rustic labour with its beauty and dignity con- 
tradict or at least modify the explicit statement that work was 
imposed on man as a curse. Even prelapsarian nature, ideal 
nature before the Fall, can only be made desirable in our eyes in 
terms drawn from a posdapsarian consciousness, just as good can 
only be made significant in terms of moral effort against known 
evil evil known only in man's fallen state. 

The real theme of Paradise Lost is man's essential and tragic 
ambiguity, illustrated in the fact that love is bound up with 
selfishness (as when Adam follows Eve's example in eating the 
forbidden apple because he cannot live without her) ; that good 
is bound up with evil; that the beauty which adorns the earth as 
it passes from seed-time to harvest, from the white of winter to 
the gay colours of spring, is bound up with change, and change, 
which means growth, also means decay; that the rich pattern of 
different human civilizations as Milton passes them under review 
with all the magic of exotic and musical place names and the 
excitement of geographical discovery was made possible by the 
curse of Babel; that the dignity and beauty of rustic labour, the 
basis of some of Milton's finest similes, is the other side of the 
law which decrees starvation and suffering for those who can 
find no land or no work. In the personal outburst at the beginning 
of the third book, what the blind Milton most laments are those 



POETRY AND RELIGION 211 

sights of seasonal change which resulted from the loss of Eden's 
perpetual spring : 

Thus with the Year 
Seasons return, but not to me returns 
Day, or the sweet approach of EVIL or Morn, 
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summer's Rose, 
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine; 
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark 
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men 
Cut off. ... 

They are 'the cheerful ways of men' still, in spite of 'the sons of 
Belial flown with insolence and wine'. And the curse that e in the 
sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread' can make possible the 
imagery of such lines as these: 

As one who long in populous City pent, 
Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Air, 
Forth issuing on a Summer's Morn to breathe 
Among the pleasant Villages and Farms 
Adjoin'd, from each thing met conceives delight, 
The smell of Grain, or tedded Grass, or Kine, 
Or Dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound. . . . 

This is how Milton justifies the ways of God to men by 
showing through the emotional pattern of his great poem how 
everything worth while that we can conceive of is made possible 
by the results of the Fall. Again, this is not a logical but a poetic 
solution to his problem, like the solution of Job and of the 
psalmist. A religious tradition and a poetic sensibility co-operated 
to produce an effect which needed both but which was wholly 
produced by neither. 

In Samson Agonistes Milton handled this problem for the last 
time. Samson the hero was brought pitifully low, apparently 
deserted by God, and he recovered only to destroy himself with 
his enemies. Samson's moral recovery is a main theme of the 
play, but we know from the beginning that there is no going back 
to the young heroic Samson doing great deeds for his country. 
He recovers only to die. Is that fair or just on God's part? Is that 
the only answer to his great cry: 'God of our Fathers, what is 



212 LITERARY ESSAYS 

man!'? No: the real answer is an aesthetic one; it lies in the 
'katharsis' which the tragedy produces. The chorus sums up the 
significance of the action in the well-known conclusion: 

His servants he with new acquist 
Of true experience from this great event 
With peace and consolation hath dismist, 
And calm of mind, all passion spent. 

This is Milton's interpretation of the Aristotelian 'katharsis', the 
purgation of the emotions through pity and fear, which is 
Aristotle's view of the function of tragedy. The calm of mind 
produced by the tragic 'katharsis' is at the same time the mood 
which accepts God's dealings with men as just. At the end of his 
life Milton completely and finally reconciled religion and aes- 
thetics, the Christian and the humanist, by justifying the ways of 
God to men in terms of a mood distilled aesthetically by tragedy. 
What Professor Douglas Bush has called 'the dilemma of a sacred 
poet and a Puritan bred in the congenial air of Renaissance 
classicism' was resolved by applying a classical notion of the 
function of tragedy to the solution of Job's question. 

What I am trying to show is that the interplay between religious 
and aesthetic impulses has always been fruitful in literature and 
that an appreciation of it is independent of the reader's creed or 
philosophical system. One could demonstrate a similar interplay 
in Dante and Shakespeare as well as in the Greek dramatists. But 
I must hasten on, to ask the questions that we are most concerned 
with here. Has the contemporary literary artist anything to learn 
from this? Has die disintegration of community of belief which 
most observers agree to be a characteristic of our present age 
altered the situation so radically that the kind of thing done by 
Aeschylus and Dante and Milton. posing questions suggested by 

religion and answering them in literary or aesthetic terms 

becomes impossible? Is there an unbridgeable gap between the 
past of literature and the contemporary literary artist? 

These are not easy questions to answer, and they certainly 
cannot be adequately answered here. I am all too conscious of 
the dangers of facile generalization and of the ease with which a 



POETRY AND RELIGION 213 

showy thesis can be developed by the manipulation of an arbitrary 
selection of examples. As I try to cast my mind's eye over the 
vast array of works of literary art from the Book of Job to a 
poem by Mr Eliot and think of the numerous changes in taste 
and attitude, the immense diversity of works and of writers, and 
the vastly different conscious objectives which different artists 
have set themselves, I can see how tentative and inadequate any 
answer to the questions I have raised must be even if I were much 
more of a polymath than I can allow myself to claim. But in the 
realm of critical ideas nothing significant can be achieved without 
boldness; so, having listed the dangers, let me now proceed to 
ignore them. 

What does the loss of a common background of religious 
attitudes and symbols mean to literature? The problem has 
agitated poets for over a century. Nearly a hundred years ago 
Matthew Arnold, in his poem 'Dover Beach', expressed a view 
which is central to our present discontents. Looking out over 
the Straits of Dover on a calm, moonlit night he listened to 
the splash of the waves on the shore and thought how Sophocles 
had heard in that sound 'the turbid ebb and flow of human 
misery'. He continued: 

The Sea of Faith 

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore 

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd. 

But now I only hear 

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 

Retreating, to the breath 

Of the night-wind down the vast edges drear 

And naked shingles of the world. 

Ah, love, let us be true 

To one another! for the world, which seems 

To lie before us like a land of dreams, 

So various, so beautiful, so new, 

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, 

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; 

And we are here as on a darkling plain 

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, 

Where ignorant armies clash by night. 



214 LITERARY ESSAYS 

This mood of what Professor Trilling has called 'controlled 
self-pity', this elegiac note which enables the poet to face a world 
without faith, represents a rather different use of poetic devices 
from that which we find at the conclusion of Job or even in 
Milton. The earlier writers, it is true, projected a mood, which is 
what Arnold is doing, but it was a mood which enabled man to 
achieve new equanimity and go about his business untroubled. In 
Job, in the older Greek dramatists, in Dante, in many of Shakes- 
peare's tragedies, and in Milton, a 'katharsis' is achieved which 
frees writer and reader alike from inhibitive brooding. One 
might even venture a rash generalization and say that these older 
works freed man for action, while much romantic literature 
consigns man to perpetual introspection. In fact, this might be 
if not an adequate at least a workable definition of the two terms, 
'classical' and 'romantic'. When Milton grows impatient with 
God and his destiny he writes a poem which resolves his doubts 
through projecting a mood of acceptance and preparation for 
action. Keats, concerned with the same fear that haunted Milton 
in 'Lycidas', afraid, that is, lest he might die 'before my pen has 
gleaned my teeming brain', found an answer in pure introspection : 

When I behold upon the night's starred face 
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, 
And think that I may never live to trace 
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance; 
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour, 
That I shall never look upon thee more, 
Never have relish in the fairy power 
Of unreflecting love then on the shore 
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think 
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink. 

How different this is from 'Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and 
Pastures new' or even 'They also serve who only stand and wait'. 
Can we go so far as to say that an art with a religious back- 
ground can achieve 'katharsis' more effectively than one without 
one? The Romantic poets, who substituted introspective plan- 
gency for religious assurance, often saw the function of art quite 
differently from the way in which Dante or Shakespeare saw it. 



POETRY AND RELIGION 215 

Differences between Dante the mediaeval Catholic and Shake- 
speare the tolerant humanist are numerous and profound enough, 
but they are both religious in the sense in which I am using the 
term, a sense in which Keats and Tennyson and Matthew Arnold 
are not religious. The ending of Hamlet or Macbeth, with the 
reasserting of the norm and the preparation for daily activity is, 
in the largest symbolic sense, comparable to the ending of Dante's 
Inferno : 'e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle (And thence we came 
forth to see again the stars). 

The release from troubled introspection into action is, however, 
very far from being the objective or the achievement of, say, 
Tennyson's 'Break, break, break', Arnold's 'Dover Beach' we 
can all add indefinitely to the list which cultivate that very state 
from which the classical 'katharsis' (I am using the term now 
widely and symbolically) seeks to relieve writer and reader. The 
cultivation of this state is not, it should be added, peculiar to the 
English Romantic poets : there is, in fact, no more perfect example 
of it than in that remarkable sonnet 'L' Infinite 9 by the Italian poet 
Leopardi in which a mood of complete surrender to trance-like 
contemplation is deliberately cultivated : 

Cosi tra questa 

Immensita s'annega il pensier mio: 
E il naufragar me. dolce in questo mare. 

Thus amid this vastness my thought is drowned, 
And shipwreck is sweet to me in such a sea. 

The mood of 'Dover Beach' or 'Break, break, break' is not, of 
course, uniquely Romantic : it is not the mood so much as the use 
to which it is put in the poem that differentiates Arnold's des- 
cription of the waves breaking on the lonely shore from similar 
descriptions in the classics from say, the picture of Achilles in 
the twenty-third book of the Iliad mourning for his dead comrade 
Patrodus as he lay ev Kadapa> 56 k KV^ar 9 CTT' ytovos tfAuJeovcov 
(in a lonely place where the waves plashed upon the shore). 
That is one of the most evocative if you like, romantic lines 
in Greek literature, but its purpose is not to exploit the temporary 



2l6 LITERARY ESSAYS 

mood of plangent meditation but to prepare the way for the 
final 'katharsis' of Achilles' anger and grief. 

Nevertheless, as Matthew Arnold saw as clearly as anybody, a 
mood of self-pity, however controlled and beautifully expressed, 
cannot for long remain a literary norm. In England, the mid and 
late nineteenth century poets played all possible variations on it 
and its potentialities were soon exhausted. A classical reaction set 
in in the second decade of the present century, with T. E. Hulme 
calling on the poets, in a misquoted line from the seventeenth 
century dramatist John Webster, to 'end your moan and come 
away'. Hulme advocated, and prophesied, a period of c dry, hard, 
classical verse'. The cry was taken up by Eliot and others, and a 
revolution in poetic taste was achieved within a generation. 'The 
poet', wrote Eliot in 1917, 'has not a "personality" to express, but 
a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a persona- 
lity, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar 
and unexpected ways.' But in fact neither Eliot nor any other 
significant poet of our time was content to make of poetry the 
mere arranging of impressions and experiences in peculiar and 
unexpected ways. If the classical poets again using the terms 
widely and symbolically had created literature by exploiting the 
impact of personality on a religious tradition, and the Romantic 
poets had exploited personality by itself, what was the modern 
poet to do, who shared the Romantic poets' confusion about 
religion and at the same time repudiated their exploitation of 
personality? They could, of course, take Voltaire's position, and 
say that if God did not exist it would be necessary to create him, 
and some of the arguments brought forward by Air Eliot in his 
prose writing almost suggest that at tunes this is the line that he 
took. In his later poetry, however, from 'Ash Wednesday' on, 
Mr Eliot has been concerned with the impact of personality on a 
religious tradition, and in the Four Quartets he has been remarkably 
successful in distilling a mood in the light of which the religious 
position becomes meaningful if not logically demonstrable. And 
that, as we have seen, is the way classical art works. 
But Mr Eliot's solution is not wholly satisfactory, and certainly 



POETRY AND RELIGION 2iy 

not one that can be successfully employed by others, because, 
however sincerely his religious emotion is felt (and it is not for 
the literary critic to presume to judge that), the materials it works 
on are academic and its documents not central to any religious 
tradition. (Saint John of the Cross, for example, is a more 
fundamental source of imagery and structure in many of his 
poems than the Bible or the prayer book, and there is a curious 
air of coy connoisseurship about his handling of religious docu- 
ments.) There is, in fact, however much Mr Eliot may repudiate 
personality in poetry, a highly idiosyncratic personality at work 
here whose solutions of common problems are not really helpful 
to others, for all the influence of his merely technical procedures 
on younger poets. 

The conflict between faith and reason, between religion and 
experience, is not the modern problem our contemporary writers 
have to solve. The more vital the religious tradition, the more 
real and fruitful has that conflict been : it is, as I have tried to show, 
in Job, the Greek dramatists, Paradise Lost, as well as in Dante and 
Shakespeare. The modern problem is to find a valid tradition 
with reference to which literary artists can pit their personality 
with poetic profit. There is always a gap between a traditional 
formulation of values and individual experience, and across that gap 
sparks the poetic insight. You can sometimes get away with mak- 
ing your own tradition, as in a sense Eliot has, for his Christian 
tradition is not, I venture to think, identical with any of the main 
forms of the Christian tradition in Western civilization, but there 
is something both artificial and dangerous about this: for how 
can there be tension between your personal experience and the 
impersonal tradition, when the impersonal tradition is something 
you have discovered or created for yourself? Yet there are ways 
out of this dilemma dangerous ways, and not always imitable 
ways,but nevertheless ways which have on occasion been success- 
fully taken. Let me glance briefly at two of these, that taken by 
W. B. Yeats and that taken by Dylan Thomas. 

There is a well-known statement of his early position made by 
Yeats in his autobiographical work, The Trembling of the Veil: 



2l8 LITERARY ESSAYS 

I am very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, 
of the simple-minded religion of my childhood, I had made a new religion, 
almost an infallible church of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of 
personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on 
from generation to generation by poets and painters with some help from 
philosophers and theologians 

If this was all that Yeats had done, he would not have become 
the great poet we know him to have been. For to repudiate the 
religious tradition and to put in its place a tradition derived from 
the reflection of that repudiated tradition in art and philosophy 
is neither logical nor helpful. What is religion but the primary 
expression of those basic myths and values which in turn are used 
by artists in the way I have tried to suggest? The genuine agnostic 
can understand and appreciate a religious tradition in life and art, 
and understand how the tensions between that tradition and in- 
dividual personality have helped to produce great art, but he 
certainly cannot go to that art and pick out from it a religious 
tradition unacceptable to him in its explicit form, though Yeats 
was not alone in thinking that this could be done. What makes 
Yeats's statement of his problem so interesting is not the solution 
he suggests but the awareness of the problem that it shows. He 
needed a religious tradition to work with, but he could not accept 
any tradition specifically denominated as religious. 

We know, of course, what he eventually did. He built for 
himself out of the oddest and most miscellaneous material a 
symbolic system with reference to which he could organize his 
poetic expression. But if it was his own system, created by 
himself, how could he set himself over against it to develop those 
tensions between individual insight and impersonal system which 
I have suggested are the most significant way in which a poet can 
use a tradition? The answer is that the conflict in Yeats's poems is 
not between himself and the system, but between two aspects of 
the system, which, being a dialectical one, a balancing of opposites, 
afforded him all the tensions he could handle. The system itself, 
with its lunar phases and towers and spinning tops and spiral 
staircases, was based on the perpetual merging of opposites. As 



POETRY AND RELIGION 

you climb the spiral staircase you move through all the points on 
the circumference of a circle, but when you reach the top of the 
spiral, which is a circle with an infinitely small circumference, 
you are at all points in the circumference simultaneously. Yeats's 
poetic imagery had been from the beginning dominated by a 
conflict of opposites; in his early poetry we find perpetually the 
human world contrasted with the supernatural world of faery, 
the familiar and domestic with the wild and strange, the tame 
with the heroic, the Christian with the pagan. Later on, his 
images seem to coalesce into a tertium quid, so that simple contrasts 
disappear and we find symbolic probings into the underlying 
affinity of apparent opposites. We have this implicidy in the 
'Byzantium' poems, and quite explicitly in some of the 'Crazy 
Jane' poems : 

A woman can be proud and stiff 

When on love intent; 

But Love has pitched his mansion in 

The place of excrement; 

For nothing can be sole or whole 

That has not been rent. 

Or consider: 

Bodily decrepitude is wisdom: young 
We loved each other and were ignorant. 

Or this, from 'A Woman Young and Old' : 

How could passion run so deep 

Had I never thought 

That die crime of being born 

Blackens all our lot? 

But where the crime's committed 

The crime can be forgot. 

'Out of our quarrel with others we make rhetoric/ Yeats once 
remarked; 'out of our quarrel with ourselves, poetry/ Instead of 
the two poles being personality and tradition, they become op- 
posing aspects of personality. A self-made tradition can only be 
of value to the literary artist when it contains self-contradictions. 
My thesis has been, as will, I hope, be dear by now, that a 



220 LITERARY ESSAYS 

religious tradition is of value to the literary artist as providing a 
challenge to individual experience out of which art may result. 
When that tradition disintegrates, the poet can take refuge in 
elegiac introspection or he can create or discover a tradition of 
his own. The former practice may produce much that is valuable, 
but in the nature of things it cannot be maintained for long, its 
potentialities being limited and its possibilities soon exhausted. 
The latter can only work when the created or discovered tradition 
is complex enough to contain within itself the tensions which the 
great artist needs ; if it does not contain those tensions, then the 
artist is merely shadow boxing when he employs the tradition, 
since, being the product of his own imagination, it cannot at the 
same time be a challenge to his imagination. 

Thus Yeats's dialectical symbolic system if I may use such an 
ugly term for lack of a better enabled him to organize the images 
and ideas in his poetry so as to achieve profound poetic statement. 
Instead of his own personality wrestling with the tradition, we 
find opposing elements of his own personality fighting it out and 
becoming reconciled within the tradition that he pieced together 
himself. This does not mean that we must understand still less 
that we must agree with the fantastic system which Yeats 
elaborated in A Vision before we can understand or appreciate his 
poems. Of his best poems it can be safely said that his system is a 
device to help him achieve the rich and significant patterning of 
image and idea out of which effective poetic expression is distilled. 
That significant patterning can be recognized, with all its rich 
overtones of meaning, in such a poem as 'Byzantium' without 
any reference to A Vision. Indeed, an attempt to interpret the 
poem too specifically in terms of Yeats's system narrows the 
meaning unduly and shuts off the reverberating meanings which 
give the poem its greatness. There are some poems of Yeats 
which do require the application of the system for their appre- 
ciation, but these are his less successful ones. 

Dylan Thomas has achieved a very different kind of richly 
echoing poetic statement, but his success, too, is the result of his 
creation or discovery of a synthetic tradition in the light of which 



POETRY AND RELIGION 221 

the proper tensions can be created and resolved. Christianity, 
Freudian psychology, Welsh folklore, are only some of the 
elements which he employs together in profound counterpoint 
to produce some of the most exciting poetry of our time. For a 
clearer understanding of what modern problem Thomas is solving 
by this counterpointing of apparently contradictory elements in 
our culture, let me quote from an author who, in an earlier phase 
of his career, was painfully aware of the problem, and who has 
since tried to solve it in a very different way from that chosen by 
Thomas. Aldous Huxley, in the opening chapter of his novel 
Antic Hay (1923) makes Theodore Gumbril, the disillusioned 
school master, meditate in the school chapel as follows : 

No, but seriously, Gumbnl reminded himself, the problem was very 
troublesome indeed. God as a sense of warmth about the heart, God as exulta- 
tion, God as tears in the eyes, God as a rush of power or thought that was all 
right. But God as truth, God as 2 4- 2=4. that wasn't so clearly all right. Was 
there any chance of their being the same? Were there bridges to join the two 
worlds? 

Gumbril decided that there were not, and therein lay his dilemma. 
Or again, take the description of the string orchestra in the third 
chapter of Point Counter Point (1928) : 

Pongileoni's blowing and the scraping of the anonymous fiddlers had 
shaken the air in the great hall, had set the glass of the windows looking on to 
it vibrating; and this in turn had shaken the air in Lord Edward's apartment on 
the further side. The shaking air rattled Lord Edward's membrana tympani; the 
interlocked malleus, incus, and stirrup bones were set in motion so as to agitate 
the membrane of the oval window and raise an infinitesimal storm in the fluid 
of the labyrinth. The hairy endings of the auditory nerve shuddered like weeds 
in a rough sea; a vast number of obscure miracles were performed in the brain, 
and Lord Edward ecstatically whispered *Bach!' 

God as a sense of warmth about the heart as opposed to God 
as 2+2=4; music as a series of sound waves impinging on a 
physiological organism and music as something significant and 
moving these are expressed as irreconcilable alternatives. Both 
explanations seem to be true, yet each seems to deny the other* 
If the dilemma is posed this way, the only solution would seem 
to be either complete scepticism or complete irrationality, and 



222 LITERARY ESSAYS 

neither scepticism nor irrationality can provide a proper environ- 
ment for great art. "What the modern artist needs is some device 
which will enable him to hold these conflicting attitudes in sus- 
pension, as it were, or perhaps it could be better described as a 
state of tension, or of counterpoint, so that instead of being in- 
hibitive of value they can increase and enrich value. 

Huxley's observation about music is neither new nor original. 
Shakespeare's Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, remarks in 
an ironic moment: Is it not strange that sheeps* guts should hale 
souls out of men's bodies?' Unlike Huxley, Shakespeare was not 
tortured by this perception: he includes it dramatically as one 
element in the complex and paradoxical nature of things, so that 
it enriches rather than frustrates his picture of human values in 
action. 

Returning now to Dylan Thomas, we note that his poetic 
technique enables him to handle in brilliant counterpoint all the 
different explanations of human situations given by religion, 
science, and folklore: 

I, in my intricate image, stride on two levels, 

Forged in man's minerals, the brassy orator 

Laying my ghost in metal, 

The scales of this twin world tread on the double, 

My half ghost in armour hold hard in death's corridor, 

To my man-iron sidle. 

Beginning with doom in the bulb, the spring unravels 
Bright as her spinning-wheels, the colic season 
Worked on a world of petals; 
She threads off the sap and needles, blood and bubble 
Casts to the pine roots, raising man like a mountain 
Out of the naked entrail. 

Beginning with doom in the ghost, and the springing marvels, 

Image of images, my metal phantom 

Forcing forth through the harebell, 

My man of leaves and the bronze root, mortal, unmortal, 

I, in my fusion of rose and male motion, 

Create this twin miracle. 

What the modern artist needs is not so much a faith as a poetic 



POETRY AND RELIGION 223 

principle to enable him to counterpoint against each other the 
different aspects of knowledge of which the modern world has 
made him aware. Consider this fact. "We know, or we think 
we know, so much about psychological conditioning, about the 
psycho-somatic aspects of illness, about the effect of childhood 
frustrations on adult vices, that we are in danger of being unable 
to pass any moral judgment on individuals. This man committed 
rape or murder, but we know that he saw something terrible in 
the woodshed when he was three, was brought up in a slum, was 
bullied by a drunken stepfather, had his emotions and instincts 
warped and frustrated in this way or that, so that we cannot really 
blame him for what he eventually was driven to do. Tout com- 
prendre, cest tout pardonner, to know all is to forgive all, says the 
French proverb; but to forgive all is to make it impossible to 
write the Divine Comedy or Hamlet or Paradise Lost. If we knew 
all about the inhibitions of King Claudius's childhood, we could 
not make him the villain in a tragedy. If we knew all lago's 
psychological history we might be tempted to spend all our 
sympathy on him rather than on Othello. And it did not take 
even that much psychology to make the Romantics turn Milton's 
Satan into a hero. If our judgments of men are to be dissolved, in 
psychological understanding, we can no longer pattern a tragedy 
or create any significant work of art with a human situation as 
its subject matter. Certainly a behaviourist psychology and I 
use this term in its widest sense leaves little room for an appraisal 
of personality as such, and without an appraisal of personality as 
such why should Hamlet's death be any more significant than 
that of Polonius? 

Yet Hamlet's death, and all that leads up to it is significant 
because it is implicitly set against a tradition of what is valuable 
in human personality, and out of the implicit conflict with this 
tradition which held, among other things, that a good man was 
doing right to punish an evil one the tragedy emerges. Cannot 
we too acquire a double vision and set the fact of value in human 
personality beside the psychological knowledge that would seem 
to break down the basis of such value, and contemplate the sub- 



224 LITERARY ESSAYS 

sequent tensions in art? Cannot the poet, at least, answer Huxley's 
question by accepting simultaneously both of his alternatives as 
each true in its own way and finding a richness of observation 
and expression in which the conflict can be resolved? Even in 
life, cannot we both forgive a man and pass judgment on him? 
All the more so, surely, should we be able to achieve this twofold 
attitude in art, which has so many devices for focussing multiple 
vision. 

The problem of the modern literary artist, therefore, is not to 
find usable myths so much as to find ways of handling knowledge 
in a context of value. Knowledge should explain without ever 
explaining away ;-proof that Keats' s genius flowered early because 
he had tuberculosis neither explains away the genius nor makes 
tuberculosis a desirable disease; a study of the nervous system can 
tell us all sorts of fascinating things about what makes us tick, but 
cannot alter the basic fact that we do tick and the conviction that 
in the last analysis that fact is mysterious and ineffable; neither 
physiology nor psychology nor sociology nor economic history, 
for all the valuable insights they give us into man's behaviour, can 
alter the fundamental mystery of the god in the machine man 
being, as Molly Bloom describes a character in Joyce's Ulysses, 
'poached eyes on ghost'. 

So I dissociate myself from the myth-hunters, who see the 
modern literary artist's basic need as new myths, as well as from 
those who deplore the lack of a common religious background 
in our civilization. I think cultural pluralism is a good thing. I 
think it is both wise and civilized to realize that no single religious 
creed represents either the final historical truth about what hap- 
pened or the final theological truth about the nature of man and 
his relations with ultimate reality, but that any creed may have 
valuable insights to contribute. Any piece of faith which is 
destroyed by new knowledge is destroyed only in its formal ex- 
pression, not in its fundamental reality or if it is destroyed in its 
fundamental reality, then it clearly corresponds to no real need 
or perception and ought to be abandoned cheerfully. We need 
neither new knowledge nor new faith, but rather the ability to 



POETRY AND RELIGION 225 

handle what we have. And that ability, since it involves the 
counterpointing of apparently contradictory insights, can best be 
given us by the artist, whose profession it is to distil rich signifi- 
cance out of such counterpointing. 

There is then no inseparable gulf between the modern literary 
artist and his predecessors. If his predecessors enjoyed a more 
stable background of belief, they still needed to set their individual 
insights against that background before they could achieve the 
highest kind of art. We have more balls to juggle in the air, more 
conflicting claims to focus into a rich pattern of significance, more 
items of knowledge to organize into a profound and total vision 
of man's fate. That what should be regarded as an opportunity is 
often regarded as an inhibition is the result of social and other 
factors too complicated to be discussed here. Part of the trouble 
with the modern artist is that he has too many tools and a very 
indistinct notion of what he should do with them, with the result 
that he spends a great deal of time simply displaying them. If the 
artist would spend less time alternately bewailing his 'alienation' 
from society and flourishing his unemployed skills he might 
realize the exciting opportunity that awaits him. Everybody is 
so busy explaining everybody else's lack of success. To the chorus 
of breast-beaters, prophesiers of doom, laudatores temporis acti, 
beraters of popular taste, deplorers of poets' obscurity, interpre- 
ters of the modern dilemma, and all the poetasters, criticasters, and 
undertakers of the Muse who dance upon the grave of literature 
in the expectation of being hired to conduct the funeral, I can 
only say, as the Lord said to Job as he sat wailing among the ashes, 
'Who is this that darkeneth counsel with words without know- 
ledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man.'