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?

No comments: