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The Intellectual Development of Scotland
Chapter IX - The Literary Spirit


It is greatly to be regretted that the spirit of partisanship has entered so deeply into the study of Scottish history. It might be expected that on a subject like literature it would be possible for writers to leave behind the heated atmosphere of ecclesiastical controversy and rise into the ampler air of cultured serenity. Instead, in the case of literature as in the case of science, we find fierce antagonism toward the Church for what is called its obstructive influence upon the purely human side of Scotland's development. Echoing Buckle, disciples of the Humanist cult are never weary of dilating upon the disastrous effects of the Reformation upon the literary side of Scotland. They point to the brilliant outburst of Scottish literary genius in the pre-Reformation period and contrast it with the blight that followed the religious struggle. What is the real explanation? Simply this, as has already been pointed out: the literature of the golden age remained feudalistic when the nation was preparing to enter the path which ultimately brought it within the sweep of the great industrial epoch with the rise of the 'middle classes. The poetry of the time had no vital connection with the new ideas which were in the end to destroy both Feudalism and Romanism. It is a remarkable fact, which bears out this line of thought, that the one man of letters of the pre-Reformation period who lives in popular memory was Sir David Lyndsay. Why? Because he busied himself not with fantastical allegories of a dying civilization, but with the ideas and feelings which were ushering in the new time. The golden age was ended not by the Reformation, but by its own inherent weakness. It breathed the spirit of stagnation notwithstanding its close connection with the Renaissance; it lived in a dying world, and had no vital relation to the world which was being born. Another aspect of the question remains. Is it true that the Reformation was inherently hostile to literature and the new learning generally? That the Reformers were not likely to take kindly to Humanism as it was represented in the semi-Paganism of Italian authors and reflected in much of the objectionable poetry of Scottish writers is highly probable. In their revolt from the doctrinal side of Romanism the Humanists in too many cases revolted also from the ethical side; the result being a kind of literature which, to put it mildly, did not make for righteousness. The Humanists, in their rebound from the ethical strictness of the supernatural theory of life, went to the other extreme, and revelled in a laxity which speedily ended in open and unabashed immorality. Poetry was used not to reveal the ideal, but to glorify the sensual. In their stern battle against Rome, whose moral corruption was as palpable as its theological and ecclesiastical errors, the Reformers were not likely to get much help from a band of literary Pagans who were offering incense at the altar of a degrading naturalism.

That the Reformers had no hostility to learning and literature as such is plain from the great effort they made to foster the intellectual spirit after the downfall of the Romish Church. In remodelling the curriculum at the Universities they gave attention to the various departments of the newest learning of their time. Science and literature were favoured. In pressing their scheme upon the nobility the Reformers said: "If God shall give your wisdoms grace to set forward letters in the sort prescribed, ye shall leave wisdom and learning to your posterity— a treasure more to be esteemed than any earthly treasure ye are able to amass for them." In 1563 a petition was presented to the Queen and Lords of articles requesting reform of the University, " in the name of all that within this realm are desyrous that leirning and letters floreis." The avarice of the nobility was stronger than their love of learning, and the Reformers petitioned in vain.

So far from the Reformers being obstructionists in the sphere of learning and letters, the truth is that the ideals of men like Knox and particularly Melville were high enough and wide enough to include all the intellectual elements of a well-ordered social state. Only ignorance of the literary history of Scotland at the time of the Reformation can explain the constant assertion that intolerance and fanaticism caused a blight to fall upon the Scottish intellect. In strict truth it was only at the Reformation that the mind of Scotland in science and literature received its proper bent. It was only at the Reformation that Scotland became a nation—one in religion, in belief, in sentiment, and in feeling. It was only at the Reformation that Scotland rescued the individual from the tyranny of the feudal despotism of the nobles as well as from the spiritual despotism of the Pope. It was only at the Reformation that in the national mind were sown the seeds of the great literary harvest which was to come to fruition in the eighteenth century. That the harvest did not come sooner was not the fault of the Reformers. That this is so is clear from the earnest efforts made under Andrew Melville for the higher education of Scotland, and the great enthusiasm which existed for classical learning as well as for theology.

The influence of the Reformation in the development of the literary spirit is admitted by no less an authority than the late Professor Masson. In his chapter, "Literary History of Edinburgh" in his Edinburgh Sketches and Memoirs, he says: "The first eighty years of the sixteenth century may be regarded (the pre-Reformation authorship and the first Reformation authorship taken together) as one definitely-marked stage, and the earliest in the literary history of Edinburgh. It was an age of high credit to Scottish literary history all in all."

And yet the fact remains that the literary impulse given by the Reformation was not sustained. A period of intellectual stagnation set in. That it was not due to what has been called the intolerance and fanaticism of the Reformers has been abundantly shown. To what, then, was it due? It was due to the fact that Scotland had other things to think about than poetry and belles lettres. To her was allotted the task of fighting for the fundamental basis of all mental activity, the right to think for herself on religious and ecclesiastical questions. Without independence in these matters no real enduring literature was possible; and while the great battle so victoriously won by the Covenanters and embodied in the Revolution Settlement was in process, the cultivation of literature seemed as much out of place as Nero's fiddling performances while Rome was burning. The cultivation of the Muses is fit only for a time of social stability and leisure. The Reformers and Covenanters fought the great battle of liberty, and it ill becomes those who have entered into their work to traduce their memories and belittle their labours. The literary development interrupted by the contest with Episcopacy made a fresh start when social order was secured by the disappearance of the Stewarts from the scene.

Naturally repressed during the long period of ecclesiastical and political turmoil, the literary side of Scotland made a fresh start with the opening of the eighteenth century. Naturally, too, the development took the form of a reaction from the ideals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the nature of the case those ideals were somewhat narrow and exclusive. Protestantism, as represented by the Covenanting section, drew much too sharp a line between sacred and secular. They modelled the national life too closely upon the Hebrew Theocracy, and treated as unworthy of the serious consideration of men the Hellenic side of human nature —the side which finds expression in literature and art. In the time of storm and stress literature could not thrive, but with some measure of political and social stability and peace it was natural that the Scottish mind should seek to break away from the narrow groove of ecclesiasticism.

In the form of literary activity which sprang up after the Union we can distinctly trace the influence of the reaction. The eighteenth-century temperament in Scotland, averse to the supernatural, turned readily to the natural. The new movement drew its inspiration largely from France, and showed itself in a fondness, in all forms of thought and activity, for qualities and ideals in direct opposition to the Covenanting regime. Instead of the Calvinism of the Reformation and Covenanting periods, we have in the eighteenth century the Humanism of Continental thinkers, particularly the French. In the theological literature of the one period man is viewed a a helpless, depraved being, utterly unfit, apart from Divine help, to rise in the scale of being; in the theological literature of the Humanist period we have man represented as a self-regulating being, capable of following the dictates of an enlightened self-interest. The theological literature of the eighteenth century, as shown in the pages of Hutcheson and Blair, finds its explanation in the fact that the preachers of the time had moved away from the vivid supernaturalism of the early period. The Moderates substituted the watchword Culture for the old Calvinistic watchword Regeneration; and Culture became the watchword in all branches of Scottish eighteenth-century literature. The thinkers of that century, wearied of the strife of the previous century, yearned for a social state from which theological disputes and ideas were banished, and instead there reigned comfort, ease, good breeding and good-fellowship. Tired of the strenuous life of the battle-field, they yearned for the calm of the study and the drawing-room.

We find this feeling reflected in philosophy as well as in theology. It dictated the efforts of Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith to dissociate moral philosophy from theology. It set them, in opposition to the theologians, to seek in human nature, apart from supernatural stimulus, all the necessary inspiration for a well-balanced and cultured humanity. The Hutcheson school, in short, adopted the theory of life which had long been dominant in England and France. In historical writing, too, we trace influences which had their root in the Humanist movement of the eighteenth century. Here supernaturalism is conspicuously absent. Robertson is quite Voltairian in his methods, and Adam Ferguson quite plainly draws his inspiration from Montesquieu. Hume is notoriously secular in his tone, and Adam Smith's conception of society, as revealed in his Wealth of Nations, leaves no room for the theory for which the Covenanters so strenuously fought. In all this we are far removed from the Headship of Christ. The Scottish thinkers did not, like their French brethren, break violently with the current creed; they simply ignored it. They were Deists, not Atheists. God was thought of as a monarch who reigned but did not govern. Man, endowed with reason, was perfectly able to find his way about without supernatural guidance.

When we come to poetry we also detect the influence of the Humanist movement. Given a conception of man in which the elements of mysticism and enthusiasm are absent, in which the admired qualities are goodnature, politeness, dignity, and decorum, and the imaginative literature will faithfully reflect the conception. Shakespeare, with his almost Calvinistic dealings with the supernatural, his fierce energy, his portrayal of the diabolic element in humanity, will be unpopular. In Voltairian language, he will be treated as a barbarian. To the mild loungers of the drawing-room poetry will be nothing if not decorous, measured, correct, pleasing, not rousing, soothing, not stimulating. This is exactly what we find in the poetry of the eighteenth century. Everything was done by rule. Even when in Thomson's Seasons there is a distinct feeling for Nature, we are very far from any higher conception of Nature than that of a piece of wonderful mechanism, the contemplation of which gives pleasure. But the imagination will not be satisfied with the bald literalness of mere scientific description, so, to make it poetic, Nature had to be dotted over with absurd shepherds and shepherdesses and all kinds of semi-mythological extravagances.

Hitherto Scottish literature had been largely imitative. French models were slavishly followed in history, essay-writing, and literary criticism. Everything was sacrificed to correctness—so much that Hume could not tolerate Shakespeare, whose great outbursts of energy and feeling were disconcerting to the nerves of the frigid school. In the main, the literary development of Scotland had been of the self-conscious and hot-house type. A new phase is associated with Allan Ramsay. Somewhat of a Pagan in his methods and ideals, Ramsay gave to the poetry of his time what it sorely needed—naturalness and spontaneity. Moreover, he fought for a natural poetry. He protested against the imitative school. Ramsay restored feeling to its proper place in poetry. He broke down the artificial dykes which had been constructed by the critics of the imitative classical school, and allowed the emotions to play freely upon the ever-changing phenomena of Nature and life. To be in the fashion, Ramsay, of course, had to be anti-ecclesiastical, and in order to be that it was thought necessary also to be anti-moral, with the result that in his poetry Naturalism at times runs riot. Making allowance for the low standard of his age in these matters, Allan Ramsay deserves high praise as perhaps the first Scottish poet who broke down the notion that poetry was mainly a product of the schools, and was intended only for the learned few. In Fergusson the humble side of Scottish life found another representative. In his verses we have a kind of prophetic anticipation of Burns. The Pagan element, which appears in Ramsay's verses only, appeared in the life of Fergusson, and the result we all know. The eighteenth-century reaction from the ideals of the seventeenth century too often acted with disastrous effect in the sphere of personal morality and happiness—a fact which finds dramatic illustration in the career of Robert Burns.


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