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Scottish Review

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For Puir Auld Scotland's Sake
Plea for Scottish Literature at the Universities


WE live in times of rapid transition. A spirit of cosmopolitanism is abroad, which, not without its benefits, is not without its evils. Science has furnished it with wings. It finds them in electricity and steam. Among its bad effects is the effacement of national distinctions by the imposition of a uniformity of ideas, taste, and character in the denationalised unit of society. Burns prayed for the time when man to man the world o’er would brither be an’ a' that. But he did not pray for the abolition of the Scottish language and the destruction of the national sentiment. Universal uniformity of character—if the expression be not absurd,—and let us therefore rather say universal monotony of manners, is not the consummation of brotherhood so devoutly wished. What the poet in his capacity of prophet prayed for and foresaw was sentient and not automatic life; it was the creation of a living, loving, many-sided and free community of nations, and not the manufacture of wooden images cut to a selected pattern.

There is much in national life that is worthy of preservation, and the preservation of which is not inimical but healthily helpful to the formation of a bond of brotherhood the wide world over. It is a great mistake, if it is not sheer madness, for a nation to discountenance and finally cut off as objects which cannot be contemplated without a feeling of shame, all its idiosyncracies, peculiarities, and distinctive growths in order to make way for the introduction of foreign fashions and alien novelties, the cherished, and, it may be, the deservedly and properly cherished products of a neighbouring people, but no more adapted to the inhabitants of the country among whom they are introduced than the palm is adapted to the soil, and climate, and scenery in which the pine bourgeons and grows. It is not a change in hereditary institutions, unless they stand self-condemned, that is desiderated in this reforming, or rather uniforming nineteenth century ; but a change in their front and attitude, where they have become jealously exclusive, or ungenerously hostile and aggressive. Here* in this ancient kingdom of Scotland, now an honourable and vital part of the great British Empire, we run much risk, from the very liberalism of our sentiments, of losing, if not our national character, at least the more visible signs of it in the necessary intimacy of our union with powerful and populous England. The disappearance of those characteristic signs, in so far as they are the exponents of what is noble, beautiful, and true in the national history and life, is much to be lamented; for they serve as monuments and memorials to each successive generation, the educative value of which lies partly in the closeness and vigour of their appeal, and partly in their maintenance of what the French have happily termed prestige. Remove these, or suffer them by neglect to decay* and Scotland, though unconquered by the sword, becomes a species of English province, which has no native national past, and whose share in the glorious ancestral possessions of England dates no farther back than the time of the Union. The roots of the national life are mutilated, if not absolutely cut away, at that point.

One of the most characteristic signs of Scottish national life is to be found in the literature and literary history of the country. Her Kirk and her literature have been Scotland’s most distinctive monitors—are her most distinctive memorials. Of her Kirk nothing need be said here except that, with not more desert, it has had better fortune than her literature. The condition of Scottish literature at the present time is simply deplorable. It is not alone that the language, but that the knowledge of it, is dying out, and the literature expressed in it is becoming a sealed book except to the initiated. It exists as a living speech in much of its traditionary purity and perfection on our isolated uplands and in rural nooks and pastoral wildernesses, remote from the great thoroughfares and centres of life and enlightenment. But lift and transport to the flags of Princes Street a cock-laird who has grown ancient among the Ochils, and his attire and demeanour will be less outlandish than his speech will prove, in the strictest sense, uncouth to well-nigh every man he accosts in a vain endeavour to ‘speer’ his way out of the town. To young men under thirty his tongue will sound like a hitherto unclassified estray from Babel. They will laugh at a language in which their grandfathers expressed their wants and wishes, and which their fathers may know but no longer use. It is not forgotten that many, belonging chiefly to the humbler classes in our large towns, use what is commonly regarded as the vernacular speech; but much of it, and the quantity is increasing, is English, both in word and idiom, pronounced with a semi-Anglified and wholly hybrid accent It is unavoidable, and, some1 may think, hardly to be lamented, that the old language of the Scottish lowlands should die away from the lips of men; but it is a real misfortune that the knowledge of it should decay. It enshrines a literature, especially in the department of poetry, of which no nation need be ashamed—of which, one who knows it may venture to say, any nation may be proud. Mr Matthew Arnold, referring lately with little sympathy to Scottish literature, and claiming it as a contribution to the vast storehouse of English literature, declared, as well he might, that it is a far more serious and important contribution than that of America. A Scottish critic, who has felt its influence in himself, and seen it upon the national life, would speak of it with more knowledge, more praise, and more enthusiasm, as the names of Wilson, Hogg, Scott, Burns, Fergusson, and Ramsay, among the modern, and Dunbar, Lyndsay, Douglas, and Barbour, among the ancient ‘makkars' crossed his memory, like the brightest links in a chain of brightness, to which, it would not be forgotten the anonymous authors of our lovely legendary ballads added a precious and peculiar lustre. It is bad enough that as a people we have ceased to remember our patristic poets, and that we are ignorant of the fact that there was an earlier Burns, of no less vigour and versatility than the later, in William Dunbar; but even the later Burns is becoming ancient, and his genius, like the light enclosed in a lantern—to borrow Cowper’s metaphor—is but dimly appreciated by our modern city youth. His very songs, partly from a supposed coarseness in their sentiments, partly from their unintelligibility, and partly from a wretched taste that drops as vulgar whatever is popular or rustic, are seldom or never heard in what is known as fashionable quarters ; and it would seem that they require the patronage and exposition of a well-known ex-professor to make them fairly popular among the gentility of the provinces. It is a state of matters unjust to the memory of our native authors, disgraceful to our patriotism, and detrimental in many ways to our national interests.

The question arises: What should be done to arrest the decay of interest in our national literature, and to maintain and revive in that respect one of the fading, because neglected, influences which have a beneficial effect upon our national life? Costly reproductions of our earlier, and cheap reprints of our later, literature are not enough. Our Universities should take up the question, and should answer it by founding a Chair or at least establishing a few lectureships for Scottish literature. We have a Chair for the preservation and elucidation of the Celtic language and literature. Scottish literature, it is safe to say, is a more interesting, more important, and more national subject; and the want of a recognised and accessible authority for its interpretation is becoming more and more clamant. At present it is merely left to shift for itself. The professors of English literature are overburdened with their subject proper, and have not the time, if they had in every case the inclination, to attend to Scottish literature. Some of them have other subjects—such as rhetoric in the case of Edinburgh University—associated with the main duties of their office. It is not only the study of the literature of Scotland proper, but the means of estimating distinctly Scottish influence on English literature and in English literature, and of safeguarding the language now in extreme danger at the hands of impertinent writers ignorant of Scottish idiom as well as Scottish diction, which need to be provided for. It seems a strange thing that no provision yet exists at any of our four Universities for an object so worthy, so necessary, and so national. Perhaps we wait till Germany shall have shamed us into showing our piety. When a Chair has been founded at Berlin for the exposition of Scottish literature, we may then expect to hear some talk of establishing another in Edinburgh.


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