Literary Nationalism in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Club Poetry (review)
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Reviewed by
Corey Andrews. Literary Nationalism in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Club Poetry. Studies in British Literature, no. 82 (Lewiston: Edward Mellen Press, 2004). Pp. 378. $119.95. ISBN 0-7734-6463-8

Corey Andrews's study of Scottish clubs as venues for projecting the ideals of community set out in the poetry of Allan Ramsay, James Fergusson, and Robert Burns merits attention for its archival explorations of the world of urbane sociability that emerged in post-Union Scotland. Ramsay's engagements with "The Easy Club" (1712–15), James Fergusson's with "The Cape Club" (1772–74), and Robert Burns's with the Freemasons, the Caledonian Hunt, and the "Crochallan Fencibles" receive thorough scrutiny. The exploration of the unpublished manuscript remains of the Cape Club in particular offers a wealth of insight into the playful world of club mockery. Reading through these case histories, one gets a sense of the social texture of literary conversation in these sodalities.

For all its value as a trove of clubbical creation, however, Andrews's argument concerning clubs as venues for projection of an aestheticized nationality (nationalism without party or political program) fails to convince. The connections between the three cases are not clear-cut despite the fact that circumstances and approaches to imagining a Scottish nation differ greatly from club to club and poet to poet. Thus, the reader cannot induce a stable evolution of the work of organized sociability in relation to Scottish literary nationalism. Perhaps a more troublesome difficulty lies in Andrews's disinclination to explain why certain common elements of national projection in literature do not appear in club verse by his three authors. For example, why does none of these clubs or poets renovate the legendary past, rather than remain content [End Page 97] with merely naming William Wallace or the Bruce occasionally? In the cases of the clubs of Fergusson and Burns, where is the Ossianic impulse in a time of associational nationalism? Why is there no mention of the clubs' whimsically concocted genealogies of origins in the ancient Scottish nation? For example, the Whin Bush club, which Andrews mentions in examining Ramsay's poetry, reveled in this sort of fantasy. Whereas Freemasonry supplied a model for aestheticizing community and had religious or quasi-religious cultus, regalia, ceremony, and invented tradition, why do the clubs lack these things? And what are we to make of sincere nationalistic expressions that merge with the largely satiric, the burlesque, or the parodic? Certainly something more must be said about the artifice and playfulness of these expressions.

Andrews's focus when considering the way Scots poets and clubmen conceived nation may be too constricted. To present the Scottish sense of nationality almost exclusively in tension with an English ideal fails to register the Scottish intelligentsia's larger sense of themselves in the world. If the show is all London, what then does one make of the repeated moments of cosmopolitan consciousness in these clubs' poems—the speakers miming aristocratic Spaniards, or the partisans of Scottish music fretting over Italian music? The members of the Easy Club are cosmopolitans themselves, as Andrews suggests when citing their travel itinerary, which prevented regular club sessions. If Ramsay's circle puzzled over the place of politeness in Scotland, its anxiety was not simply how one's manners and morals stood vis-à-vis London. Politeness was an international practice, associated as much with France as with London, and culturally bound with increasingly potent ties to the conduct of merchants in international trade. In the wake of the collapse of the Scottish attempt to create a commercial empire with the failure of Darien—the failure that forced a bankrupt nation to accede to the Act of Union—anxieties over politeness may have had as much to do with the extent to which Scots wished to be commercial.

The most curious and interesting argument presented about the nationalistic interests of this trio of poets concerns the relationship between conviviality and national society offered in chapter two about Fergusson. In this chapter, Andrews suggests that shared pleasure and exclusivity—the entre-nous spirit of the Cape Club—has an analogic relationship to Scottish nationalism. There was a running...