Thursday, 19 June 2008

A short break

Tomorrow I'm off to Brittany in a Streetcar (car club) car, so no more blogging for 4-5 weeks, though I hope to make up for it when I get back with ideas, pics, reading and observations accumulated.

Monday, 16 June 2008

In praise of millstone grit

I'm getting to know a patch of terrain in the north-western end of the High Peak. It was a fine June day on Friday-- sun and cloud, breeze--and I walked with Jim from their house in Furness Vale over the top to Hayfield.

Once we were out of Furness Vale and across the valley and the road, a footpath took us up tumbledown steps, then up between ash and sycamore and foxgloves and the odd cuckoo-spit patch to open tracks past upland farms.

We could look back and see the village, the canal, the railway and the straggling houses along the A6, and above them stone walls and lush green fields climbing to bare tops, with ever more tops behind them as we climbed. To the north-west we could pick out the plain of Cheshire and the haze of Manchester and were glad not to be in either.

Along our way sheep and lambs were healthy and men were repairing stone walls. The stone farmhouses near the top were uninhabited and used for farmers’ storage, though we could imagine living in them. Swallows swooped around us; we heard and then saw first curlew, then snipe.

On the higher ground the grass changed to the fine, reddish tickly sort that Jim remembered the feel of on his legs as a kid playing on the rec in Wakefield, mixed with cotton grass and a small delicate misty cream flower whose name I once knew (meadowsweet perhaps?).
Paths that followed the walls took us onto the top of the moor and right to the edge, at Big Rock. This is a millstone grit outcrop of the sort that in other places is called a pulpit or a devil’s altar (above Bingley), protruding over a steep drop into the next valley, along which lay Hayfield.
The browner ground on the left is much higher; it’s the moorland where we stood looking down over the valley, across to the bulk of Kinder and over miles of landscape under skies that went from blue at one end to black at the other.

Then down the slope onto a track, past Peek-a-Boo Farm, across the main road and along a back road into Hayfield for pork pies.

This is close to my ideal environment, and Katy, Jim’s partner, grew up in it. Hills and valleys, moorland and fields, woods and crags, rivers and a canal, stone villages, abandoned buildings, dramatic contours, all on a walkable scale, an intricate variety within a five mile compass. What a place for a kid--and not too different from where I lived till I was 12, on the hills on the Pennine slopes above Bradford. For Katy and her friends, an ok comprehensive school in Hayfield and, at weekends and holidays, two railway lines to Manchester.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Saintsbury: second thoughts

I'm beginning to see why the 20th century went off George Saintsbury (see a couple of recent entries). I've been looking at another book of his essays, in which he writes on literary figures about whom I know nothing, like John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1853) and Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802-1839). Among Praed’s poems ‘the peerless Letter of Advice…is as much the very best thing of its kind as the Divine Comedy.’ Rashly, since I haven’t read Praed beyond Saintsbury’s extracts, I'd say that was unlikely.

It’s passages like the following, with enough quotation from Saintsbury’s admired works for us to get an idea of his judgement, that are really are a let-down. Is it just a change of taste since the Victorians (and some of my own English teachers) that makes this sort of poem seem childish and uninteresting?

I haven’t checked to see if F.R. Leavis commented on Saintsbury but I think he would have said S. was a dilettante, not serious. I 'm afraid such a judgement might have been partly fair. Saintsbury romps through the whole of literature, English and French, giving marks. ‘X is better than Y but not quite up to Z or his own later a.’ What often seems to count for him is that a work is the right length for its content, expressed without awkwardness, well-managed in prosody, well-balanced, moderate and sane; that the writer, in fact, writes like a gentleman (a criterion he explicitly invokes here and there). He sees reading as a source of pleasure and cultivation, a central aspect of the good life--the good life of leisure, that is--but not, perhaps, of anything more fundamental—such as life, or the quality of human relations, as Leavis would have it. But Leavis’s puritan criteria excluded a great deal of literature that most of us, and most critics, value.

Saintsbury in the end was prepared to violate all his gentlemanly criteria in valuing Hazlitt, about whom he was in a minority in being right. He was terrifically perceptive on pre-19th century writers, such as Milton (no gentleman); and in his judgment the best poet of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was another non-gent, Blake. Those were not the judgements of a dilettante.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Teenage philosophes

In Philosophie Magazine, in a section on Schopenhauer, among brief accounts by writers and intellectuals of how he has affected them, I find this by one Gabriel Matzneff (my attempt at translation):

“In my adolescence Arthur Schopenhauer was one of my masters; it is he who, more than Nietzche or Dostoyevsky, awoke the life of the mind in me. The state of mind in which, at 17, I was plunged by the discovery of his works was extreme. For example, the idea that the world is pure representation and that if one suppressed this the physical world vanishes… I was like a blind person who had had an operation to remove a cataract and who could suddenly see. Even today Schopenhauer remains an indispensible travelling companion. Exiled to a desert island with an allowance of only one book, I would choose *The World As Will and Representation.”

I wonder: in England, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand… is any teenager awakened into intellectual awareness today by any philosopher? Do other kinds of works–e.g. literature (Dostoyevsky?) –have that effect?

Indeed, do adolescents still experience this sort of awakening at all? If so, what causes it these days?

That’s a genuine question. I have little to do people of that age any more and just don’t know.
I’d actually welcome comments on this, if you can work out how to do it.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Ernie Bevin and English

My scholarly productivity (i.e.publications) isn’t what it was but I've managed to get one thing together recently, for those who might be interested. It’s about Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour government, who left school at 11 and worked in succession as agricultural labourer, carter, leader of the TGWU and wartime Minister of Labour. The article asks how he managed to reach the highest level of government (where he was brilliant, by all accounts) with so little formal education—and draws implications for the ways we should think about education, and about English.

It’s called ‘The Groves of Academe and the 'edgerows of Experience’ and can be got (I hope) from

Sorry – I can’t get this Blogger software to do a link to long URLs.

The publishers require me to add the following:

Author Posting. (c) Peter Medway, 2008.
This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of Peter Medway for personal use, not for redistribution.
The definitive version was published in Changing English, Volume 15 Issue 2, June 2008.
doi:10.1080/13586840802052146 (

Monday, 2 June 2008

Saintsbury again

I recommended Saintsbury in my last entry so here are a couple of chunks. One of my recent discoveries is the pleasure of essays, 18th and 19th century style. These extracts are from Saintsbury's 1895 essay on William Cobbett, whose Rural Rides I've read parts of long ago, and greatly enjoyed, and his Grammar, recently reissued, which is opinionated and often wrong but very readable. I offer these less as affording unusual insight than as a good read.

"...Let it be added that this vast mass [74 works] is devoted almost impartially to as vast a number of subjects, that it displays throughout the queerest and (till you are well acquainted with it) the most incredible mixture of sense and nonsense, folly and wit, ignorance and knowledge, good temper and bad blood, sheer egotism and sincere desire to benefit the country. Cobbett will write upon politics and upon economics, upon history ecclesiastical and civil, upon grammar, cookery, gardening, woodcraft, standing armies, population, ice houses, and almost every other conceivable subject, with the same undoubting confidence that he is and must be right. In what plain men still call inconsistency there never was his equal. He was approaching middle life when he was still writing cheerful pamphlets and tracts with such titles as The Bloody Buoy, The Cannibal’s Progress, and so on, destined to hold up the French Revolution to the horror of mankind; he had not passed middle life when he discovered that the said Revolution was only a natural and necessary consequence of the same system of taxation which was grinding down England. He denied stoutly that he was anything but a friend to monarchical government, and asseverated a thousand times over that he had not the slightest wish to deprive landlords or any one else of their property. Yet for the last twenty years of his life he was constantly holding up the happy state of those republicans, the profligacy, injustice, and tyranny of whose government he had earlier denounced. …

… Only mention Jews, Scotchmen, the National Debt, the standing army, pensions, poetry, tea, potatoes, larch trees, and a great many other things, and Cobbett become a mere, though a very amusing, maniac. Let him come across in one of his peregrinations, or remember in the course of a book or article, some magistrate who gave a decision unfavourable to him twenty years before, some lawyer who took a side against him, some journalist who opposed his pamphlets, and a torrent of half humorous but wholly vindictive Billingsgate follows; while if the luckless one has lost his estate, or in any way come to misfortune meanwhile, Cobbett will jeer and whoop and triumph over him like an Indian squaw over a hostile brave at the stake. Mixed with all this you shall find such plain shrewd common sense, such an incomparable power of clear exposition of any subject that the writer himself understands, such homely but genuine humour, such untiring energy, and such a hearty desire for the comfort of everybody who is not a Jew or a jobber or a tax eater, as few public writers have ever displayed. And (which is the most important thing for us) you shall also find sense and nonsense alike, rancorous and mischievous diatribes as well as sober discourses, politics as well as trade puffery (for Cobbett puffed his own wares unblushingly), all set forth in such a style as not more than two other Englishmen, whose names are Defoe and Bunyan, can equal."

The other, later extract is about Cobbett’s views:

"It is evident that if he possibly could have it, he would have a society purely agricultural, men making what things the earth does not directly produce as much as possible for themselves in their own houses during the intervals of field labour. He quarrels with none of the three orders,--labourer, farmer, and landowner--as such; he does not want 'the land for the people,' or the landlord's rent for the farmer. Nor does he want any of the lower class to live in even mitigated idleness. Eight hours' days have no place in Cobbett's scheme; still less relief of children from labour for the sake of education. Everybody in the labouring class, women and children included, is to work and work pretty hard; while the landlord may have as much sport as ever he likes provided he allows a certain share to his tenant at times. But the labourer and his family are to have 'full bellies' (it would be harsh but not entirely unjust to say that the full belly is the beginning and end of Cobbett's theory) plenty of good beer, warm clothes, staunch and comfortably furnished houses. And that they may have these things they must have good wages; though Cobbett does not at all object to the truck or even the 'Tommy' system. He seems to have, like a half socialist as he is, no affection for saving, and he once, with rather disastrous consequences, took to paying his own farm labourers entirely in kind. In the same way the farmer is to have full stack yards, a snug farm house, with orchards and gardens thoroughly plenished. But he must not drink wine or tea, and his daughters must work and not play the piano.

…But though there is to be plenty of game, there are to be no game-laws. There is to be no standing army, though there may be a navy. There is to be no, or the very smallest, civil service. It stands to reason that there is to be no public debt; and the taxes are to be as low and as uniform as possible. Commerce, even on the direct scale, if that scale be large, is to be discouraged, and any kind of middleman absolutely exterminated. There is not to be any poetry (Cobbett does sometimes quote Pope, but always with a gibe), no general literature (for though Cobbett's own works are excellent, and indeed indispensable, that is chiefly because of the corruptions of the times), no fine arts--though Cobbett has a certain weakness for church architecture, mainly for a reason presently to be explained. Above all there is to be no such thing as what is called abroad a rentier. No one is to "live on his means," unless these means come directly from the owning or the tilling of land. The harmless fund holder with his three or four hundred a year, the dockyard official, the half-pay officer, are as abhorrent to Cobbett as the pensioner for nothing and the sinecurist. This is the state of things which he loves, and it is because the actual state of things is so different, and for no other reason, that he is a Radical Reformer." (59-61)

Saintsbury, George (1895). ‘William Cobbett’ in Essays in English literature 1780-1860, second series, London: Dent.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

In praise of Old Man Saintsbury

‘Orwell observes that “at that time [the 1920s] there was, among the young, a curious hatred of ‘old men’…every accepted institution, from Scott’s novels to the House of Lords, was derided because ‘old men’ were in favour of it”.’ (Jane Stevenson, Edward Burra: Twentieth-Century Eye, p.58). That attitude to Scott etc took until the 1960s to get into exam syllabuses (in the 1950s Scott’s Old Mortality was still an O level text), but it seems to have dominated the ideas of intellectuals, and students, ever since the '20s.

Rarely since I was an undergraduate did I, till recently, read anything pre-1800, except some drama and poetry. Recently I found myself having to teach an existing course called ‘Analysing Written Discourse’. Since ‘discourse analysis’ in linguistics—the intended content--seemed (and seems) thin fare, not least because it largely confines itself to dreary media and political writing of no lasting interest, I thought I'd include literary prose, which got me reading about its history and then going back and reading Bacon, Addison and Steele, Gibbon, Burke, Paine, Macaulay and Lamb. (Hazlitt I had already discovered, no thanks to my education.) I was surprised at the pleasure I got from the feel and texture and flow and flare of this stuff, and realised what people—including our abler school students—were missing in not reading such older texts. Unlike, say, Shakespeare, they don’t present great difficulties to the reader, except sometimes in syntactical complexity.

If I never for many years went to prose literature of the 18th century and earlier, in literary criticism I read nothing before 1920. So I missed an actual 1920s old man (then in his seventies and eighties) who earlier had been a most important writer on literature, George Saintsbury: 1845-1933, professor of rhetoric and English literature at the University of Edinburgh, author of innumerable books on English and French literature, a man who had read everything and no fool. A few years ago I bought his Short (818 pages!) History of English Literature in a second-hand bookshop and ever since have been in the habit, whenever I want to know about some English author or period before 1900, of looking there first and often finding perceptive criticism as well as the facts. For my course on analysing literary prose he was invaluable, in a way that I don’t know any subsequent critic would have been. Since then I've had other books of his from the library, one of the pleasures being the volumes’ history:

That's another Saintsbury book. Sir Sidney Lee, it must be said, did not deface his books with marginalia.

For all that Saintsbury was a Victorian when he wrote his Short History (1898), I have no difficulty in accepting many of his views and observations. I think he’s a good guide, and English teachers would find him a more useful source of insight into the older literature they teach than recent guides which focus on authors’ ideologies and class, race and gender positionings. Saintsbury is interested above all in the quality of the writing in a work, its style, the effects it achieves and what is to be had by reading it. And his own writing, if not always elegant, is often sharp.

Going to Saintsbury is a way of escaping from the academic pedantry of recent times-- as A.C. Grayling, writing about Hazlitt, explains. Saintsbury, he says, was able to appreciate Hazlitt because he (and A.C. Bradley)

"wrote before the twentieth-century turn to academic criticism… which, in making and continually widening the gulf between ‘the world of journalism, where new literature is fostered or starved, and the world of scholarship, where old literature is interpreted and canonized,’ is not concerned with taste, but with technique; not with the common readers’ or viewers’ response to books read or plays or paintings seen, and their connection with life as lived, but with specialist academic interest in methods and classifications, schools and ‘-isms’, unconscious influences, supposed hidden meanings, patriarchal oppressions, deconstruction of texts, and multiple readings. For Hazlitt this latter enterprise would have seemed futile pedantry. Literature, theatre, art and philosophy were in his view matters of direct concern to the experience of life; they made a practical difference; therefore they were to be encountered, and evaluated, and responded to, not only with discrimination and thought, but with feeling. They were to be tested on the pulses, and everything they taught of character and the human condition made a difference to the perceiver’s heart and mind." (Grayling, 2000, The quarrel of the age: the life and times of William Hazlitt, 250)

A great rant. Whatever university courses choose to do, English teaching in schools should side with Grayling, Saintsbury and Hazlitt. In doing so it will find Saintsbury a help in being rigorous in a different way. He’s able to write about style and the way that sentences go in a way that no modern critics do that I know of, except Tom Paulin (who, not coincidentally, has also written a book on Hazlitt). I know there’s more to prose literature than style, but unconsciously at least style has a big effect on us, and it does no harm to bring that sense into consciousness. In this Saintsbury’s learning is a great support.

He’s also good on style in poetry, where he understands metre and rhythm, e.g. in Milton, the scope of whose Paradise Lost called for spacious verse paragraphs. Again, it’s only in the last five years that I've read Milton—how he got missed at university I don’t recall; he is, of course, terrific (except when he’s awful), and I wish someone had made me read him earlier, e.g. for O level. You do have to work a bit at Saintsbury, and look things up; when necessary he’s quite prepared to get technical (I did mention ‘rigorous’):

“… with these… provisos, every line of his can be scanned with perfect strictness as an iambic of five feet in which the following feet are admissible, strictly speaking, in any place--iambus, trochee, anapaest, dactyl, and tribrach while a redundant syllable is allowed in the last. With such precision, and on the whole such judgment, did he apply these principles, that in a certain sense English prosody up to the present time has gone no farther.”

(In his big book on English prosody--the sound and rhythm of poetry—he really goes to town on feet, caesuras, enjambements etc. His original readers with their classical educations would have known the specialist terms.)

Here’s an example that shows one sort of thing Saintsbury does well; it’s a summary of Milton’s contribution to the development of English verse:

“He represents -and almost exhausts--the fourth great influence in English prosody. We have already seen how Chaucer gathered together and put, with an immense contribution of his own, the results of the struggles of Middle English towards such a prosody, and how his example, followed blindly and with a tongue as stammering as the eyes were dim, lasted for more than a century till the changes of the language put it for the moment aside ; how Spenser, partly returning to it, partly gathering up de novo the results of the experiments of his immediate forerunners and the general influences of the Renaissance, gave poetry a fresh start; and, lastly, how the dramatists, and especially Shakespeare, suppled and shook out the texture of the decasyllabic line, varied its cadence, stocked it (on the principles of equivalence or slur) with a great number of new foot combinations, while the lyric and stanza poetry of the fifty years between the Calendar and Milton's “Three and twentieth year” sonnet almost exhausted the possibilities of less uniform verse….

Just at this time came Milton, a poet with an exquisite ear and extraordinary science of form, great learning in his own and other languages, and a predilection for the special form of non dramatic blank verse which, managed as he manages it, at once counteracts the effect of the sharp snip snap couplet and of the wandering, involved, labyrinthine stanza. He tightened up the metre without unduly constricting it; he refined the expression without making it jejune. And in particular his need of an extremely varied line to construct his paragraphs and supply the want of rhyme music, made him, without adopting the sheer abandonment of the late dramatic verse, resort to every artifice of metrical distribution to avoid monotony.”

‘Suppled [sic] and shook out’ – good, eh? And what about ‘the sharp snip snap couplet and [] the wandering, involved, labyrinthine stanza’—though better still without ‘involved’. I didn’t know about the four great influences in English prosody, and now I'm glad to know.

Or is it just me that doesn’t find this stuff intolerably dry and boring?