by Cairns Craig

Donne Deal

February 18, 2010 | by Cairns Craig

In a now (in)famous review of G. Gre-gory Smith’s Scottish Literature: Character and Influence in 1919, T.S. Eliot asked, “Was there a Scottish Literature?” Had he been posing a similar question today, it might be, “Was there a Scottish Modernism?” Recent shifts in the critical terrain can be charted in two books by Marjory Palmer McCulloch: the first, Modernism and Nationalism (2004), was subtitled Source Documents for the Scottish Renaissance, as though, given definitions of modernism as the ‘cosmopolitan’, there was some uncertainty whether ‘modernism’ and ‘nationalism’ could actually be yoked together. The second Scottish Modernism and its Contexts, 1918–59 (2009) has no such hesitation, confidently asserting an extended modernism distinctively at home in Scotland.

The historical irony, however, is that Eliot’s conception of how English literature could be made modern was based on the work of a Scot — H.J.C.Grierson, born in Ler-wick in 1866, who became Professor of English Literature at Aberdeen in 1894 and then at Edinburgh in 1915. When Eliot sent Grierson a copy of his Collected Poems it was inscribed “to whom all English men of letters are indebted”: the debt was to Grier-son’s edition of Donne (1912) and his anthology of Metaphysical Lyrics (1921), which so radically revised the history of English poetry that they inspired new directions not only in the historical analysis of poetry but in its contemporary writing.

It was in reviewing Grierson’s anthology that Eliot developed his influential account of the “dissociation of sensibility”, which claimed to explain the failures of Victorian poetry: the Victorian poets did “not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose”, whereas “a thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility”. What distinguishes Donne is his ability to bring thought and passion together: “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes”. The ability to link the apparently unconnected is the sign of a poetic mind “perfectly equipped for its work”.

Eliot’s argument derives directly from Grierson’s account of Donne. Earlier critics of Donne had denied that he was a great poet because “his songs and elegies lack beauty”, but Grierson insisted that Donne wrote a “dramatic” poetry which “utters the very movement and moment of passion itself”. More like a novel than traditional verse it presents passion with a “vivid realism”. What replaced beauty in Donne’s poetry was its echoes of European tradition: his “metaphysical” conceits were derived from “the subtlety and erudition of a schoolman”, his “imagery drawn from an intimate knowledge of medieval theology”, his poetic styles from Dante and Petrarch and from the revival of the classics.

Only those who could respond to this rich allusiveness could recognise the qualities of Donne’s work, a theme developed by Grier-son in his essay ‘The Background of English Literature’ (1915), in which he argued that the writer is connected to his audience “by a body of common knowledge and feeling to which he may make direct or indirect allusion, confident that he will be understood”, and the most important element in that “common tradition” is the shared tradition of literature that makes it possible for “the poet’s words [to] waken a succession of echoes” which will go all the way back to ancient Greece or Old Testament Israel. The “want of any traditional background” uniting poets with their readers makes the modern world a “difficult period” for the contemporary poet, because the poet “who wishes to give his work a literary background” must write “necessarily for a limited audience, and to some extent he creates his own background for himself”.

It is an argument elaborated in that founding document of Anglophone modernism, Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), in which he stresses that the poet must have “a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order”. Eliot’s The Waste Land, produced in the year after his essay on the Metaphysicals, not only depends on the allusive method that Grierson had described in Donne’s poetry but is full of allusive echoes derived from Grier-son’s anthology of Metaphysical Lyrics.

Grierson provided Eliot with a tradition which could justify his own poetry by situating Donne as the “shaping and determining influence that meets us in passing from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century”, and by insisting that Donne was “in certain aspects of mind and training the most medieval, in temper the most modern”. The modern in literature is not an acceptance of modernity but resistance to it in the cause of a more coherent “metaphysical” approach to literature. Donne thus became the model for a modernist poetry which would appeal to tradition in order to challenge the dissolution of tradition in the modern world: Grierson’s version of Donne would come to dominate English-language criticism till the 1960s.

In England, for instance, I.A. Richards’s method of ‘practical criticism’, developed in the 1920s, was based on explicating what he described as the interinanimations of lan-guage – the “relevant interaction” between “units of meaning” that revealed how to unite “the whole man by the  affections and the faculties”, that is, to reproduce Eliot’s “unified sensibility”. ‘Interinanimation’, however, was a term that Grierson had discovered in Donne’s manuscripts and had reestablished as the best reading of Donne’s ‘The Extasie’: “When love with one another so/ Interinanimates two souls”. A rediscovered poetic paradox becomes the basis of a theory of what poems like ‘The Extasie’ achieve, and thus define what other poems should aspire to achieve.

Grierson’s notes to Donne’s poetry, analysing the interplay of different possible meanings, became the model of a new kind of criticism whose first great exponent was I.A. Richards’s student, William Empson. His influential Seven Types of Ambiguity specifically cites occasions on which Grierson’s editorial decisions are proven by the fact that they allow a greater play of ambiguity in Donne’s texts, and thus produce more complex linguistic objects. Christopher Norris notes that Empson’s own poetry while he was at Cambridge was “written partly in excited response to the current ‘rediscovery’ of Donne, encouraged both by Eliot’s criticism and Grierson’s classic edition”.

Meanwhile in Wales, the young Dylan Thomas was, according to John Goodby and Chris Wiggonton, “an avid reader of Donne”, and linked Donne’s technique to surrealism in order “to forge a semi-surrealised Metaphysical mode”. When Thomas was received rapturously on the campuses of North America after the Second World War it was because a generation of students had been trained on the analysis of Donne by the so-called New Critics, who followed Richards’s methods of close reading. Its exemplary version is Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn (1947), whose title, taken from Donne’s ‘The Canonization’, acknowledges how central was the “passionate thinking” of Grier-son’s Donne to their understanding of literary history and poetic analysis.

Grierson was no less central to the development of Scottish modernism. Grierson emphasised the tension in Donne’s work between “the strain of dialectic, the subtle play of argument and wit, erudite and fantastic; and the strain of vivid realism”. In Scottish Literature: Character and Influence, published in 1919 but first delivered as lectures in 1913, G. Gregory Smith adopted this opposition as the defining element in the whole tradition of Scottish literature: Scottish literature is shaped on the one hand by its “grip of fact”, its “sense of detail”, its “realism”, and, on the other, by its enthusiasm for “the horns of elfland and the voices of the mountains”. For Smith, “the modern Scot is all for observation or given over to dream, a realist or a fantastic”, producing a “zigzag of contradictions” to which Smith attributes the term “the Caledonian anti-syzygy”. It was a characterisation with which Christopher Murray Grieve was to endow his poetic alter ego, Hugh MacDiarmid, and the debt to Grierson was implicitly acknowledged when Grieve asked Grierson to write an introduction to his first collection of poems, Sangschaw, and dedicated one of the first poems in that collection, ‘I Heard Christ Sing’, to Grierson.

The course Grieve took in modelling Mac-Diarmid as a Scottish modernist followed the path laid down by Grierson’s Donne. If, for Grierson, Donne represented the source of the “modern”, Grieve went one better and insisted it was “back to Dunbar”. If Grier-son’s Donne represented a tradition linking medieval to modern, then, for Grieve, Dun-bar’s “unique intensity of feeling” derived from “Braid Scots” as “a great untapped repository of the pre-Renaissance or anti-Renaissance potentialities which English has progressively foregone”. If part of that continuity was Donne’s underlying Catholicism, then Scotland, too, had to rediscover its Catholic heritage – “the line of hope lies partially in re-Catholization”, Grieve insisted in 1927. If all great poetry was “Metaphysical” because it was “inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence”, then Grieve, through the medium of MacDiarmid, set out to create a “metaphysical poetry” in Scots.

So, when working on A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, Grieve wrote to his former school teacher that  he was trying to recast his material “into a series of metaphysical pictures with a definite progression”, a “metaphysical” intent which was to be underlined when, in 1962, his U.S. editor of his Collected Poems asked for “titles” for the sections of A Drunk Man to make it easier for the Ameri-can audience, and MacDiarmid entitled a key, culminating section – beginning “I tae ha’e heard Eternity”  – ‘Metaphysical Pictures of the Thistle’.

Grierson had prepared the way for this “Scottish Donne” by many times emphasising that Donne’s only peer in modern love poetry was Burns: “it is only in the fragments of Sappho, the lyrics of Catullus, and the songs of Burns”, he wrote, “that one will find the sheer joy of loving and being loved expressed in the same direct and simple language”. If 2009 was the year of celebration of Burns, then 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of Grierson’s death, should perhaps celebrate the Scottish origins of poetic modernism.

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