- Was There a Scottish Literature? A review of Scottish Literature: Character and Influence, by G. Gregory Smith
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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92 ] Was There a Scottish Literature? A review of Scottish Literature: Character and Influence by G. Gregory Smith London: Macmillan, 1919. Pp. viii + 296. The Athenaeum, 4657 (1 Aug 1919) 680-81 We suppose that there is an English literature, and Professor Gregory Smith supposes that there is a Scotch literature.1 When we assume that a literature exists we assume a great deal: we suppose that there is one of the five or six (at most) great organic formations of history. We do not suppose merely “a history,” for there might be a history of Tamil literature;2 but a part of History, which for us is the history of Europe. We suppose not merely a corpus of writings in one language, but writings and writers between whom there is a tradition; and writers who are not merely connected by tradition in time, but who are related so as to be in the light of eternity contemporaneous, from a certain point of view cells in one body, Chaucer and Hardy. We suppose a mind which is not only the English mind of one period with its prejudices of politics and fashions of taste, but which is a greater, finer, more positive, more comprehensive mind than the mind of any period. And we suppose to each writer an importance which is not only individual, but due to his place as a constituent of this mind. When we suppose that there is a literature, therefore, we suppose a good deal. Professor Gregory Smith assumes the existence of a Scottish literature more by the title of his book than by any assertion he makes. For in his treatment, which is fairminded, honest, intelligent and scholarly, he even supplies us with suggestions towards finding reasons to deny the existence of a Scottish literature. He has written a series of essays, dealing with what appears to be one subject, and the conclusion issues very honestly from his treatment that the unity of the subject is not literary but only geographical. What he has done is, because of the reflections it provokes, perhaps more interesting than either of two things he might have done. He might have written a handbook of writers who were born or flourished north of a frontier ; such a book might have a practical utility, without giving occasion to any generalizations. Or he might have made a study of the Scotch mind. [ 93 Was There a Scottish Literature? Such a study might have great interest on its own account, but at all events it is not part of Mr. Gregory Smith’s intention. A book which contains no discussion of Scottish philosophy, which barely mentions the names of Hume and Reid, and only reports the personal dominance of Dugald Stewart in Edinburgh, does not pretend to be a study of the Scotch mind.3 It is only the Scotch mind in literature and belles-lettres that is charted. Because the book is neither a handbook nor a study of the Scotch mind, it is a study of Scotch literature in a sense which requires that there should be an organic formation. What clearly comes out under Mr. Gregory Smith’s handling is the fact that Scottish literature falls into several periods, and that these periods are related not so much to each other as to corresponding periods in English literature. The way in which Scottish literature has been indebted to English literature is different from the way in which English literature has been indebted to other literatures. English literature has not only, at times, been much affected by the Continent, but has sometimes, for the moment, even appeared to be thrown off its balance by foreign influence. But in the long run we can see that the continuity of the language has been the strongest thing; so that however much we need French or Italian literature to explain English literature of any period, we need, to explain it, the English inheritance still more. Scottish literature lacks, in the first place, the continuity of the language. It is precisely in the years when English literature was acquiring the power of a world literature that the Scottish language was beginning to decay or to be abandoned. Gawain Douglas, in Tudor times, is perhaps the last great Scotch poet to write Scots with the same feeling towardthelanguage,thesameconviction,asanEnglishmanwritingEnglish.4 A hundred years later, a Scot unquestionably Scottish, one of the greatest prose writers of his time, Sir Thomas Urquhart, translated Rabelais into a...