Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism

By Pittock, Murray | The Byron Journal, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Scotland and the Borders of Romanticism


Pittock, Murray, The Byron Journal


SCOTLAND AND THE BORDERS OF ROMANTICISM. Edited by Leith Davis, Ian Duncan and Janet Sorensen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. viii + 248. ISBN 0-521-83283-7. £45.00.

The exclusion of Scotland and Scottish literature from accounts of Romanticism would have seemed extraordinary in the world before 1945, when Burns was the subject of as many articles as Shelley or Coleridge, and Sir Walter Scott was a staple of School Certificate English Literature across England and Wales. Yet, as Sharon Ruston's recent survey of teaching Romanticism in the UK indicates, these authors remain at the margins of the curriculum: and while the critical neglect of Burns remains extraordinary, his excision from companions and guides, gatekeepers to the academy, is even more marked than the absence of refereed journal articles or critical collections.

New Criticism was in large part to blame for the onset of this state of affairs. Scottish writing was historical, associational, socially embedded, used to switching linguistic codes. Its texts were neither transparent nor self-sufficient: they often referred to the almost occluded public sphere of Scotland itself; they often invited readings which depended on inside knowledge. They were difficult; they seemed alien. In the aftermath of World War II, their Herderian qualities were not appreciated: the project of defending Scotland as a Kulturstaat seemed altogether too redolent of a blood and soil literature from which the Coleridgean aesthetic could free us, even though the German idealism of its intertexts was perhaps a more dangerous avatar of 1939-45 than Herder, the Grimm brothers or The Scottish Musical Museum could ever be. No matter: literature purged of the historied ground of its being was the purified text of the open society's monasticism - dedicated to the spiritual and solitary life of the verbal icon, and never more than among the contemplatives of the Romantic Order.

The rejection of this critical school, of the Romantic ideology and of the evasion of history, has changed Romantic Studies enormously in the last 25 years. Scotland is still a problem, though, perhaps for the reason advanced by Ian Duncan and his collaborators in the introduction here: that Scotland can paradigmatically be seen as a mixture of 'lachrymose Ossianism' and an 'avidly rational' social culture (as in Blackwood's, the Edinburgh Review and so on) that 'produced the Victorians'. Hard-nosed and soft-hearted, this is a version of G. Gregory Smith's 'Caledonian Antisyzgy' updated, but rendered no more plausible thereby. The introduction to this collection of essays deals with this challenge with immense theoretical dexterity: it is a pleasure to read, and the three editors give ample reason to justify their reputation as among the leading critics of Scottish literature in North America. …

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