Older Masters: Essays and Reflections on English and American Literature

By Donald Davie | Go to book overview

12
Two Reviews

I

The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope:Lives, Example, and the Poetic Response. By Howard Erskine-Hill. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1975.

This is one of those very rare books which truly deserve the description: humane scholarship. It is very learned indeed, the product of what must have been many years of patient and meticulous research, nearly all of it among MSS in the British Museum, the archives of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, the Birmingham Reference Library, the Dorset and Herefordshire and Staffordshire Record Offices, and so on, not to mention family papers still in private hands. In England, I am afraid, we have become unused to literary scholars undertaking and carrying through original researches on this scale, especially when the scholar is a full-time teacher, as Dr Erskine-Hill is. Such 'grubbing', we tend to suppose, can be left to the historian and the biographer. But Howard Erskine-Hill has acted on the principle that I dare say we would all uphold in theory: that not just literary history but literary criticism involves us in the labours of the historian and the biographer, and not solely or chiefly with printed sources. How to do the grubbing while not losing sight of what the grubbing is for (that is to say, the incontrovertible illumination of great works of the imagination) is something so difficult that we are tempted to think it impossible, and to think we can get round it by division of labour, Dryasdust painstakingly turning up materials which Bright Critic can then Polish and put into patterns. Perhaps that two-stage process really can extend our knowledge and our understanding at times; but the gains are never so firmly secured, never so conclusively established, as when it is one and the same mind that has carried the project through from first to last, that first grubbed and then reflected on what his grubbings had brought him, that proceeded as historian, as biographer, and as critic, each in due order. This is what Howard Erskine-Hill has done; his book is a great achievement, and also a great pleasure. It is even in its sober

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