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Bonds of Union

Isabelle Bour
Antoine Mioche

“No Nationality without Literature”1

Cairns Craig

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  • 1 A longer version of Professor Craig’s argument is to appear in Scotland and Ireland: Culture and S (...)

1My title comes from an early essay of W. B. Yeats’s, published in United Ireland, May 14, 1892, in which Yeats declares that there “is no nationality without literature, no literature without nationality” (Yeats, “Irish Intellectual Capital” 224). The issue, in the political and cultural context of the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, was not a simple one. If there was a literature, which nation did it attest to; if there was a nation, which literature did it demand? Yeats’s essay was provoked by the accusation from nationalists in Dublin that his—and his friends’—literary efforts in London were tantamount to making London “the intellectual centre of Ireland” (223). Far from supporting an Irish nationality with his literature of the Celtic twilight, Yeats, according to his critics, was contributing to a London-centred literature and therefore to an English/British national identity. To someone who had largely grown up in London, and who was in the process of making a literary career there, this represented a serious challenge to Yeats’s claims to be the leader of an Irish movement in the arts. The issue, to pun on Bourdieu’s notion of “intellectual capital,” turns on where the real cultural “capital”—the real cultural resources—of Ireland’s national consciousness was to be found. Did it inhere in the Irish people—whom Yeats believed had compelled “their own imaginative writers to seek an audience across the sea” (223) by failing to read or buy their books; or does it inhere in the Irish writers struggling to maintain an Irish literature—and therefore an Irish nationality—in the marketplace of the imperial capital? Is the cultural capital of Ireland increased or diminished if Irish literature has to seek its intellectual resources in another capital city than Dublin? For Yeats, the assertion that Irish literature is identical with Irish nationality and vice versa ensures that his commitment to an Irish literature in London is indistinguishable from commitment to Irish nationality. It was not, however, a nationality recognised by his opponents, and later critics of Yeats have been just as sceptical about his right to be seen as the leader of a specifically Irish literary movement, regularly underlining the Anglo of his Anglo-Irish background as the defining literary—and, therefore, in Yeats’s terms—national provenance of his work.

2Yeats’s difficulty in meeting the challenge to his own cosmopolitan nationalism of home-grown nationalists in Dublin underlines the problematic cultural dynamics of national identity in the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century. Two models dominate the way in which the history of the union has been narrated. In one an English core attempts to subdue its peripheral neighbours and, by coercion or invitation, incorporate them into an expanded English state with a unifying English culture. “Britishness” in this context is merely the ideological mask that makes acceptance of English cultural domination tolerable in those peripheries (Nairn, Kidd). In the other model, Britishness is an overarching new national identity which the peripheral nations help create in order to subdue the dominance of an English culture whose political and economic power they cannot resist (Colley). Either model, I suggest, is too simple for a context in which the real power of “Britishness” as a “national” identity lay in its ability to be so differently inflected in each of the Union’s participating nations that it became a means not of subduing but of entrenching the national—and indeed, in the case of Ulster, the regional—differences within the Union. The identification of Britishness with Englishness is true only insofar as Britishness expressed, for the English, a surrogate English identity. The possibility of its doing so, however, made it equally capable of being the surrogate through which each of the separate national identities could continue to assert their difference within the Union. If, then, there is “no nationality without literature, no literature without nationality,” literature will be one of the key areas in which the struggles of these national identifications are played out. How the “national” literatures of the United Kingdom relate to each other will define how far those nations have been able to maintain the value of their individual cultural capital and the resources that they are able to mobilise in defence of their national identity. The focus on Yeats’s Anglo-Irish identity is symptomatic of historical and critical perspectives in which each of the cultures of the Union is seen to relate only to England, and not to each other. Equally, it is symptomatic of a perspective in which English cultural influence is the only determinant of the development of culture in Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Yeats knew better:

Ireland is between the upper and the nether millstone—between the influence of America and the influence of England, and which of the two is denationalizing us more rapidly it is hard to say. Whether we have still to face a long period of struggle, or have come to the land of promise at last, we need all our central fire, all our nationality. (223)

3If the business of the artist is to resist “denationalisation” and to promote “renationalization,” where are the resources to come from? In Scotland and Ireland, I want to suggest, the resources came from studying each other’s modes of resistance to English hegemony, and from attempting to “renationalize” English literature to maintain the cultural capital of their own literary traditions.

4According to the Proposals For Carrying on Certain Public Works in the City of Edinburgh which, in 1752, inaugurated fundraising for the construction of Edinburgh’s New Town, Scotland’s future depends in overcoming “the meanness of Edinburgh [which] has been too long an obstruction to our improvement, and a reproach to Scotland “by “a project for enlarging and beautifying this city” (Proposals 24); thereby bringing Edinburgh up to a condition similar to that of London or Dublin, where, the Proposals note, Ireland’s advances “in manufactures and commerce” have encouraged the nobility to “go more rarely to London, and reside more at Dublin.” This not only adds “vigour to their manufactures,” but allows Dublin a theatre that “even rivals that of London” (33-4). The nation’s (commercial) capital will be stimulated by and reflected in the culture of the nation’s (urban) capital:

The national advantages which a populous capital must necessarily produce, are obvious. A great concourse of people brought within a small compass, occasions a much greater consumption than the same number would do dispersed over a wide country. As the consumption is greater, so is it quicker and more discernible. Hence follows a more rapid circulation of money and other commodities, the great spring which gives motion to general industry and improvement. (32)

5In recognition of the value to culture of the national capital and of the value to capital of the national culture, the Proposals combine two principal aims—the building of a new exchange as “proper accommodations for our merchants” (25) and a new Register Office and Advocates Library “which may be justly styled The great charter-room of the nation” (29). The security of the recorded heritage of the nation is the requirement for the improvement of its capital, in both senses of that word.

6The success of the Proposal of 1752 was signalled precisely by the mobilisation of the new wealth of Scotland to create the “Athens of the North” that would allow Edinburgh, despite its size, to claim an equality with London that mirrored the fact of Scotland’s equal status with England in the Union of 1707. As Blackwood’s Magazine argued when envisaging in 1819 the construction of a “National Monument,”

while London must always eclipse [Edinburgh] in all that depends on wealth, power, or fashionable elegance, nature has given to it the means of establishing a superiority of a higher and more permanent kind. The matchless beauty of its situation, the superb cliffs by which it is surrounded, the magnificent prospects of the bay, which it commands, have given to Edinburgh the means of becoming the most beautiful town that exists in the world... And thus while London is the Rome of the empire, to which the young, and the ambitious, and the gay, resort for the pursuit of pleasure, of fortune, or of ambition, Edinburgh might become another Athens, in which the arts and the sciences flourished, under the shade of her ancient flame, and established a dominion over the minds of men more permanent even that that which the Roman arms were able to effect. (“On the Proposed National Monument” 385)

7Edinburgh’s real capital was its culture, and Scotland’s capital could claim to be not merely a temporary “hot-bed of genius” (Smollett 269) but one of the abiding cultural forces of civilization. The basis of this claim was not simply the historical parallel of ancient and modern worlds but the fact that, in the poems of Ossian, published in Edinburgh in the 1760s, Scotland encompassed them both, being graced not just by an outstanding modern culture, but being inheritor also to a culture more ancient, and therefore even more noble and poetic, than Homeric Greece. In a world where, in the words of Hugh Blair, “poetry, which is the child of the imagination, is frequently most glowing and animated in the first stages of society” (346), Homer is a mere “modern” in comparison with the truly ancient poetry of Ossian, whose work is imbued with “the fire and enthusiasm of the most early times, combined with an amazing degree of regularity and art” (349). What the Macpherson/Blair Ossian allowed Scotland to claim was a cultural origin more ancient and more significant than that of England, and implying that the real cultural capital of the Union derived from Scottish rather than English culture. Current disparities in wealth and power between Scotland and England are reversed by revealing in Scotland’s literary heritage the true sources of a properly British national identity which is older than and has priority over English national identity.

8Through Ossian, Unionism in Scotland could find a cultural origin which did not commit itself simply to submission to English cultural values; rather, English culture would have to recognise itself as the inheritor of the values of a more ancient and more significant cultural formation. This claim in relation to England implied, however, an equivalent claim against Ireland, since it required that the Ossianic materials were native to Scotland, rather than to Ireland, and that the Irish legends of Oisin were derivatives of Scottish originals. The Unionist claim of equality with England thus becomes a nationalist claim of superiority over Ireland. The lengthy arguments conducted by Irish historians and Celticists to prove, in opposition to Macpherson’s assertions, that Ireland, and not Scotland, was the true home of the Ossianic poems, was shot through, as Clare O’Halloran has shown, with a profound ambiguity. The northern equivalent of the “South Sea Bubble” that was Macpherson’s cultural investment had to be punctured, but had to be punctured without producing a crash in the cultural capital of the ancient Gaelic sources from which he claimed his work derived. That original cultural capital had to be preserved for reinvestment in the Irish nation’s future, no matter how risky it had become as a result of Macpherson’s speculation in it. Reassembling the cultural capital of the nation required the renationalising of Macpherson’s recuperative efforts, a relationship ironically signalled when the society established in Dublin in 1852 to collect and publish the ancient Gaelic texts decided to adopt Macpherson’s name for the ancient bard rather than the Irish one and called itself the “Ossianic Society of Dublin.” The gesture towards dependence on Macpherson’s example underlined the perceived bankruptcy of the nation’s cultural capital, a bankruptcy that could only be overcome by re-collecting the original Irish materials so that they could form part of the recollection of modern Irish people. By re-enacting Macpherson’s quest to assemble the remnants of their culture, but by doing so authentically rather than inauthentically, could the Irish enter into equal nationhood with the other nations of the British state.

9Such repatriations of the Ossianic material, as well as the increasing doubts about Macpherson’s real achievement, meant that Scotland, in turn, needed rapidly to reinvest in alternative cultural capital. As a consequence, the bardic mantle passed from the primitive poet to a modern equivalent, Robert Burns, whose most emotive poetry, as Marilyn Butler has noted (111), was steeped in recollection of the nation’s heroic past; and then passed on to the grand fabricator of the national past, that “second Macpherson,” Walter Scott (Walter Scott 14). Through Burns and Scott, Scotland redefined itself as a nation whose cultural tradition was primarily that of the Scots language. In the latter part of the nineteenth century the Scottish Text Society, founded to encourage “the Publication of Works illustrative of the Scottish Language, Literature and History prior to the Union” (Law 1), sought to do for Scotland what the Ossianic Society had hoped to do in Ireland, except that the materials that would now allow Scotland’s real intellectual capital to be recuperated were not its Celtic origins, but the writings in Scots of the medieval Makars, often miscalled the Scottish Chaucerians. In both countries the cultural capital that had been threatened by the insubstantiality of Macpherson’s Ossianic discoveries had to be redeemed and reinvested in a symbolic structure whose cultural value could be more assured. The success of the Scots in the period between 1780 and 1830 could be measured by their domination of the journals—the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine—which were to be the arbiters of taste and the main medium for new writing throughout the British Empire. While Gaelic declined in Ireland as in Scotland, Scots flourished as the second language of the Empire, and it is symptomatic of the domination of Scottish culture in the period that the first publications of Sir Samuel Ferguson, a seminal figure of the Irish Celtic revivals of the nineteenth century, were in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, and that it is to Blackwood himself, in a letter of 1834, that he indicates that he had “accumulated a great quantity of matter on Irish history & antiquities” which he hopes to turn into poetic form (Denman 15).

10Accounts of Irish and Scottish culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that assume each is defined only over against England have negated these complex transactions of competition and emulation. When Declan Kiberd, for instance, at the commencement of Inventing Ireland, sets England and Ireland as mutually defining binaries, in which “Ireland was soon patented as not-England, a place whose peoples were, in many important ways, the very antitheses of the new rulers from overseas” (Kiberd, Inventing Ireland 9), he immediately excludes Ireland’s relations with Scotland and with Wales as relevant parts of the Irish experience. As a consequence, James Macpherson is not mentioned, despite the provocation and inspiration he offered to Irish Gaelic scholars, and a poet of a Scottish background, such as Sir Samuel Ferguson, is mentioned only as a sidenote to a discussion of one of Yeats’s poems (446). Scots and Scots-speaking Ireland is erased along with Ireland’s cultural interactions with Scotland. Similarly, when Gerry Smyth uses Kiberd’s assertion that Celticism is a fiction “created by the rulers of England in response to specific needs at a precise moment in British history” (Kiberd, “Anglo-Irish Attitudes” 83), and assimilates Macpherson as an example of “English cultural leadership” (Smyth 63), a complex cultural interchange involving several countries, the rulers and the ruled, is being reshaped to the utilitarian needs of a later ideology.

11The struggle between the Scots and the Irish over the cultural value and cultural ownership of the Ossianic materials from 1760 to the mid-Victorian period was profoundly to shape the emerging discipline of English Literature. It was a discipline, of course, whose origins Robert Crawford has claimed to be entirely Scottish—a matter to which I shall return—and Chris Baldick, in his The Social Mission of English Literature, has emphasised the extent to which Scottish influences shaped the first literary courses in England in the 1820s and 1830s. As a consequence, the issues raised by the Ossianic controversy shaped not only the ways in which the history of English literature was seen, but, through literature, provided a model for the nature of the nation to which the British people actually belonged. The most famous intervention in this debate was, of course, Matthew Arnold’s in The Celtic Element in English Literature (1865, republished in 1867 as part of The Study of Celtic Literature), a work regularly excoriated for its lack of any substantial knowledge of the Celtic literatures he claims to be addressing. It is a text, however, that has to be read alongside the crisis of English cultural values Arnold charted shortly afterwards in Culture and Anarchy. In the near bankruptcy of English culture, divided between the Barbarians, the Philistines and the Populace, each accumulating capital without culture, Culture and Anarchy struggles to find any ground for the development of the “sweetness and light” that Arnold proposes as the solution to society’s problems. Below ground, however, is a spirit that infuses English literature with its alternative possibilities, since English literature is in fact “a vast obscure Cymric base with a vast visible Teutonic superstructure.” The fructifying symbolic capital of English literature has to be mined from its Celtic substratum:

Its chord of penetrating passion and melancholy, again, its Titanism as we see it in Byron,—what other European poetry possesses that like the English, and where do we get it from? The Celts, with their vehement reaction against the despotism of fact, with their sensuous nature, their manifold striving, their adverse destiny, their immense calamities, the Celts are the prime authors of this vein of piercing regret and passion,—of this Titanism in poetry. A famous book, Macpherson’s Ossian, carried in the last century this vein like a flood of lava through Europe. (Study of Celtic Literature 71)

12Arnold’s purpose was to ensure that the Celts recognise that their real cultural value in the modern world is dependent on the English language and that their own languages are only relevant to a past now as dead as the classical cultures of Greek or Latin. His presentation of the transfusion of Celtic value into English culture, however, means that this “English” culture will always be a recuperation and reactivation of Celtic origins. Arnold’s superstructural metaphor may imply that the Celtic is an underground seam to be mined for the benefit of those on the surface, who will, of course, be English. Nonetheless, real national creativity, for Arnold, can only be achieved by continually returning underground to plunder the resources of a Celticism which can never, therefore, be displaced as the very core of an English national literature.

13If we might describe Arnold’s theory of the relation of the Celtic to English culture as “transfusionist,” then that of Henry Morley is transcendentalist. Morley’s English Writers: an attempt towards a history of English literature, treats the name “English” as mere historical accident, though one whose longevity should be respected: “Let the tribe that was barely named by Tacitus, and from which not a tithe of the First English were descended, still furnish the name for our great brotherhood now spread over the world, one in affect, one in power, one in aim” (Morley I: 164). English culture is not the descendant of the “the old tribe of Angli” who have given its name to it, but the product of the combination of all who have participated in the great civilising project that is British-English culture: “We are of sundry races, but one people, within bounds of what the world calls England. A fair sketch of our literature must needs tell how there were from the beginning wits at work in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as in England east of the Severn and south of the Tweed. The genius of a great nation is our theme, and it is no theme to be discussed in a provincial spirit” (I: 164). For Morley, English literature stands on several pillars, the most ancient of which is Celtic, since “the story of our literature begins with the Gael; for there is preserved in Ireland a great mass of ancient copies of more ancient writings that reproduce most interesting traces of historic tale and song in the remotest epoch of our common history” (I: 165). The cultural capital of Gaeldom provides English literature with the earliest origins of our “common history” in those “fragments of old Gaelic verse..., few in number, which belong to or are connected by remote tradition with Fionn, Oisin and the Fenians” (I: 180), and which were first brought to public notice in English by James Macpherson. English is not, for Morley, simply the medium into which Gaelic culture can be translated; nor is it the infusion of Celtic imagination into an alien tongue; rather, English is the combination of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French roots in a language in which all are equally represented:

But for early, frequent, and various contact with the race that in its half-barbarous days invented Oisin’s dialogues with St Patrick and that quickened afterwards the Northmen’s blood in France, Germanic England would not have produced a Shakespeare. The recollections of the past on which we are now dwelling are not to be taken as mere antiquarian details. They contribute to our full sense of more than the history of the formation of the English language. They are an essential chapter in the more interesting tale of the formation of the English character, the right of which is the most vital part of any study of the English written mind. (I: 189-90)

14As a consequence, Scottish literature of the medieval period is portrayed neither as a sub-English variant nor as an alien formation, but as the vital continuation of the literature of “liberty” which is the characteristic of all of British-English history:

Our North gained vigour by a war for independence, and had, in the fifteenth century, poets and historians who led the way on to a golden time of Scottish Literature. Our South, at the same time, lost vigour by the blight of foreign and domestic wars... From Chaucer’s time till the beginning of the sixteenth century our Literature of the North sweeps upward. (Morley VI: 1)

15Scotland is not a separate country but “our North,” as England is only its South. And just as Scotland is provided with this degree of equality, so, for Morley, any of the “races” and linguistic groups who have contributed to the Anglophone empire are equally a part of its story. Morley’s is a history of English writers precisely to the extent that it treats all writers in English as part of the spiritual progress of a set of civilisational values. The other cultures which participate in this spiritual journey are not incorporated by the national formation of English culture; rather, English culture can only be understood as a pan-national phenomenon, as something quite over and above the culture of the English themselves.

16Morley’s vastly ambitious and unfinished effort at a history of English literature was to be fulfilled some twenty years later in the multi-volume, multi-author Cambridge History of English Literature, which commenced publication in 1907 and which has become the model for many other histories of literature. Despite giving substantial attention to Scottish and Irish contributions, the Cambridge History reveals a fundamental shift towards the reestablishment of an English national reading of the history of English literature. Despite its acknowledgment of a valuable “celtic” transfusion, the Cambridge History invokes as the origin of English literature “the gleemen or minstrels who played on the harp and chanted heroic songs while the ale-mug or mead-cup was passed round” (Ward and Waller I: 3) and who produced the Widsith and Beowulf. The continuity of English literature is clear to the Cambridge editors from the fact that “from those days to our own, in spite of periods of decadence, of apparent death, of great superficial change, the chief constituents of English literature—a reflective spirit, attachment to nature, a certain carelessness of ‘art’, love of home and country and an ever present consciousness that there are things worse than death—these have, in the main, continued unaltered” (I: 1). And the status of English literature is attested by the fact that “Beowulf— romance, history and epic—is the oldest poem on a great scale, and in the grand manner, that exists in any Teutonic language. It is full of incident and good fights, simple in aim and clear in execution; its characters bear comparison with those of the Odyssey and, like them, linger in the memory; its style is dignified and heroic” (I: 3-4). The characteristics of Beowulf, in other words, are precisely those which Hugh Blair invoked for Ossian. The general acceptance of the ffaudulence of Macpherson’s work allowed English critics to set aside the Celtic foundations of British culture and to focus on a pure “English” line of development, despite the fact that this significant origin was unknown before 1799 and unavailable as a coherent text before 1815; and that its recovery was the work of an Icelandic scholar—Grim J. Thorkelin—supported by a Danish government which was in search of the equivalent of the Ossianic origins of their own culture (Morley I: 311ff.). So intense was the drive towards a pure English source for English literature that scholars throughout the nineteenth century competed to find evidence that Beowulf was actually set in English territory and about English history (Morley I: 326-7).

17From a Scottish perspective, however, the Cambridge History provided an equally nationalist claim, since the independent evolution of “Scots” from Anglo-Saxon justified the whole Scots tradition that culminated in Burns and Scott. Significantly, the main aim of the Scottish Text Society other than the re-publication of Scotland’s pre-Union literature was the establishment of a chair of Anglo-Saxon in the Scottish universities (Law 8). English Literature and Scottish Literature were co-equals in the founding of a Unionist British culture whose roots were Anglo-Saxon—leaving Ireland and Wales on the (Celtic) peripheries.

18From Ireland in the 1880s, W. B. Yeats could look to the Scottish tradition as the exemplar of the cultural capital which he was seeking in Ireland, and as the equal of the English tradition:

When once a country has given perfect expression to itself in literature, has carried to maturity its literary tradition, its writers, no matter what they write of, carry its influence about with them, just as Carlyle remained a Scotsman when he wrote of German kings or French revolutionists, and Shakespeare an Elizabethan Englishman when he told of Coriolanus or of Cressida. Englishmen and Scotsmen forget how much they owe to mature traditions of all kinds—traditions of feeling, traditions of thought, traditions of expression—for they have never dreamed of a life without these things. They write or paint or think or feel, and believe they do so to please no taste but their own, while in reality they obey rules and instincts which have been accumulating for centuries; their wine of life has been mellowed in ancient cellars, and they see but the ruby light in the glass. (Yeats, “Irish National Literature I” 360)

19The “cultural capital” of such nations has “been accumulating” for centuries, whereas Ireland—English-speaking Ireland—is a “very new” country, bereft of the memory upon which cultural capital is founded. For Yeats, Ireland had become a place without a memory: in the loss of its Celtic mythology even Yeats’s home landscape in the West of Ireland, dominated by Ben Bulben, “the great mountain that showed itself before me every day through all my childhood” had become “unpeopled” (“Of Gods and Fighting Men” 28-9). Only the recollection of the ancient Gaelic past would transform the blank landscape back into a place rich in memories, and the route to an Ireland that would be again “populous with memories” had been pointed by Sir Samuel Ferguson, whose work, like that of yet another Macpherson,

went back to the Irish cycle, finding it, in truth, a fountain that, in the passage of centuries, was overgrown with weeds and grass, so that the very way to it was forgotten of the poets; but now that his feet have worn the pathway, many others will follow, and bring thence living waters for the healing of our nation, helping us to live the larger life of the Spirit, and lifting our souls away from their selfish joys and sorrows to be the companions of those who lived greatly among the woods and hills when the world was young. (“Poetry of Sir Samuel Ferguson” 82)

20The Irish Revival that Yeats led was profoundly shaped by the example of Scotland’s acquisition of cultural capital a century before. The collection and translation of Gaelic epic, the creation of a communal memory of a forgotten past, the peopling of the landscape with the tales of a heroic history were all elements in which first Ferguson and then Yeats followed in the footsteps of their Scottish predecessors in order, as Yeats put it in his obituary of Ferguson, to restore “to our hills and rivers their epic interest” (Denman 175). The link with Scottish Celticism was continued in the 1890s through Yeats’s engagement with the spiritual successor of the first Celtic revival in Scotland, Fiona Macleod, the fictional alter-ego of William Sharp, whose influence was so contagious that Yeats suggested, in the unpublished draft of his Autobiography, that “we were all under the shadow of the Fiona myth” (Yeats, Memoirs 105).

21In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all the nations of the Union were engaged in a complex struggle to define a literature that justified their own nation’s unique origins as well as its continuing centrality to the common literature of an anglophone Empire whose territory was rapidly being enlarged by the expansion of the influence of the United States. Critical perspectives that insist on seeing Scotland and Ireland as inevitably bound in individual and unique cultural relationships with England fail to grasp the interaction of nationalist, unionist and imperialist crosscurrents with which Irish as well as Scottish writers are struggling. Even Colin Graham, in one of the few interesting discussions of Sir Samuel Ferguson’s place in nineteenth-century literature, describes the “monologism” of Ferguson’s work as the consequence of the fact that for Ferguson, “Irish history and literature needs to be written in an analogous way to English history and literature to become’adequate’” (Graham 92). Ferguson’s indebtedness to the models of Scottish history and literature—the homeland, after all, of his own ancestors—disappear, despite the fact that Graham quotes from Ferguson’s poem, “The Widow’s Cloak,” the following lines in which he criticises Victoria for her lack of attention to Ireland:

She loves the Highland nature; and, the Dalriad deeps beyond,
To every pressure of her palm the Irish hearts respond.
What though we seldom see her St Patrick’s hall within,
The Gael her presence yearly cheers
Are kith and kin.

22Victoria’s attention to Scotland can, for Ferguson, stand as surrogate for her attention to Ireland because Scotland’s “Gael” who are graced by “her presence” are nothing less than “kith and kin.” Ferguson’s combination of nationalist commitment to Irish culture and such monarchical, unionist politics—often a puzzle to those endeavouring to understand the “Anglo-Irish” involvement in the creation of nationalist Ireland—makes perfect sense when seen from a Scottish perspective. “Unionist nationalism” was precisely the ideology which infused the cultural world of nineteenth-century Scotland (Morton 189-201); a nationalism in which the Union, far from being a threat to Scottish culture, was in fact, through the special place guaranteed in the Treaty to Scotland’s national institutions, the guarantor of Scotland’s independent identity. Scotland’s “nationalism” expressed itself in a legalistic commitment to the terms of the Union; as W. E. Aytoun, holder, a century later, of the same professorial post as Hugh Blair, put it, “We have no intention whatever,... of demanding a repeal of the Union—on the contrary, our demand resolves itself into this, that the spirit of the treaty should be observed” (Aytoun 19). For Aytoun,

The Union neither did nor could denationalise us. It left us in undisturbed possession of our national laws and our national religion; and it further provided, as well as could be done at the period, and most anxiously, for the future maintenance of those institutions which the State is bound to foster and preserve. If it had been intended that in all time coming the Imperial Parliament of Britain was to have full liberty to deal as it pleased with the internal affairs of Scotland, certainly there would not have been inserted in the treaty those stringent clauses which, while they maintain the institutions of the past, lay down rules for their regulation in the future. These were, to all intents and purposes, fundamental conditions of the treaty; and to that treaty, both in word and spirit, we look and appeal (19)

23Such “unionist nationalism” is precisely the politics that Ferguson sought for Ireland, one that would make Ireland an equal partner in the Empire by acknowledging its right to its own independent cultural capital.

24Events, of course, were to take a very different turn and, ironically, the very success of the Irish Revival movement in establishing an independent national culture was to provoke a profound crisis in Scotland. While the young Yeats could look to Scotland as the exemplar of a nation that was “mature” in its “traditions of feeling, traditions of thought, traditions of expression,” by the 1930s Scottish writers were looking to Ireland as the exemplar of a nation which had managed to create an authentic anglophone culture with a distinct national identity, and presenting Scotland as a country whose cultural capital—like the last days of its iconic hero, Walter Scott—was bankrupt. Edwin Muir’s famous description of Scott’s literary bankruptcy was symptomatic of the collapse of the cultural investment that Scotland had made in the Scots language:

... men of Scott’s enormous genius have rarely Scott’s faults; they may have others but not these particular ones; and so I was forced to account for the hiatus in Scott’s endowment by considering the environment in which he lived, by invoking the fact—if the reader will agree it is one—that he spent most of his days in a hiatus, in a country, that is to say which was neither a nation nor a province, and had, instead of a centre, a blank, an Edinburgh, in the middle of it But this Nothing in which Scott wrote was not merely a spatial one; it was a temporal Nothing as well, dotted with a few disconnected figures arranged at abrupt intervals: Henryson, Dunbar, Allan Ramsay and Burns, with a rude buttress of ballads and folk songs to shore them up and keep them from falling. (Muir 11-12)

25The nation that had established itself as a fount of ancient memory had become amnesiac, its tradition reduced to “a few disconnected figures,” its re-collected culture since the eighteenth century nothing more than “a rude buttress of ballads and folk songs.” The investment in Burns and Scott had run out of steam and no longer made any returns to Scotland’s cultural capital. The memory which Bums and Scott represented was to be as fraudulent to a twentiethcentury Scotland as Macpherson’s had been to the nineteenth century.

26The Scottish response was to follow Ireland’s example and concentrate on those aspects of its culture which had, like the Irish tradition from Joyce and Beckett to Heaney and Muldoon, a cosmopolitan internationality—a recognisably local identity which nonetheless meshed with the requirements of the international culture of English studies as it was taught across the globe as the cultural hinterland of American imperialism. Unnamed till W. R. Scott’s biography of Francis Hutcheson in 1900, almost unacknowledged as in any real sense Scottish until the 1960s, the Scottish Enlightenment—once seen as crucial to the disastrous anglicisation of Scotland—has become the glory of the nation and symbol of the its pre-eminence in the formation of the modern world, as attested in Arthur Herman’s The Scottish Enlightenment The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World. Scotland’s reclaimed desire to see itself as the first of modern nations has its literary equivalent in Robert Crawford’s The Scottish Invention of English Literature, which makes Scotland, for so long seen as the victim of anglicisation, the very fount and origin of the literature which marks England’s claim to cultural pre-eminence. Indeed, for Crawford, the characteristic features of the dominant anglophone literature of the modern world, US literature, can be traced directly back to Scottish roots, since the founding moment of modern American writing, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, is a belated combination of characteristic features of Scottish literature:

Leaves of Grass is a composition of a quasi-Carlylean eclecticism, an anthology of grass-roots American verse, all of whose parts have to be invented before they can be collected. Part of Scott’s Minstrelsy (the part containing the modern imitations) had been like that. But Whitman’s collection is entirely invented and obsessively eclectic. A vital component of it, as of American and Scottish literature as a whole, is an in-built pleasure in eclecticism and juxtaposition... If Scotland was a collection of dialects, languages, and cultures, then it was one which had much to offer the anthological urges to be seen in American writing and in the literary upheavals of Modernism. (Crawford, Scottish Invention 214)

27The first British Empire that was lost in the eighteenth century is reclaimed as a Scottish cultural empire, a Scottish empire whose influence continues to flow through the new anglophone empire of the United States. English Literature, in its whole world-wide efflorescence, is the product of Scotland’s eighteenth-century refusal to submit itself to English cultural norms.

28In Ireland, on the other hand, cultural debate has been focused around the issue of Ireland’s paradigmatic postcoloniality. There has been hardly any critical discussion of postcoloniality in Scotland, whereas hardly any contemporary criticism in Ireland can avoid the issue. If Scotland has supplanted England as the origin of English literature, then Ireland has made the antithetic claim, declaring itself to be the fount and origin of all those literatures of the postcolonial which oppose English literature in and through the English language. While the Scots have gone by the route of discovering a continuity equivalent to that of France or England, the Irish have gone by the route of identifying their cultural discontinuities and the artifices of their nationalism as paradigmatic of the discontinuities of the colonised. As David Lloyd puts it in Anomalous States, “the nationalism of a colonised people requires that its history be seen as a series of unnatural ruptures and discontinuities imposed by an alien power while its reconstruction must necessarily pass by way of deliberate artifice” (Lloyd 89). For Declan Kiberd, the apparently founding figure of an English political tradition, Edmund Burke, is actually the prophetic origin of postcoloniality:

His disillusionment with policies in Ireland and India led him to prophesy the end of empire even before it had fully formed. That makes him the somewhat surprising precursor of today’s “Third World” theorists, who offer critiques of cultural imperialism in the years of its slow decline. Ireland provided him, as it would provide many others, with a metaphor for the world beyond Dover, affording points of comparison which helped to explain events in places as far-flung as India or the Americas. (Kiberd, Inventing Ireland 19)

29And if Burke prefigures modern postcolonial theorists, the Ireland that formed him is both the first of England’s colonies and the first modern postcolonial culture. For Kiberd, “postcolonial writing, in a strict sense, began in Ireland when Seathrún Céitinn took pen in hand to rebut the occupier’s claims” (Inventing Ireland 13)—i.e. in the 1630s—and this justifies reading Irish literature as a whole in terms of “the more recent theories of Frantz Fanon and Ashis Nandy” which cast “retrospective illumination” (5) on an Ireland which is the paradigm of all later colonial resistance. In this postcolonised Ireland the issue of cultural continuity and national identity is addressed by discarding the language of the “nationalist” search for unity and adopting the postcolonial necessity of “hybridity” : Ireland, as Deane puts it, is “a culture neither wholly national nor colonial but a hybrid of both” (Deane 11); and though some of its political leaders might still struggle with notions of “a pure, unitary race,” its artists, Kiberd insists, recognised the Irish as “a hybrid people,... exponents of multiple selfhood and modern authenticity” (Inventing Ireland 7).

30If Scotland, in its Enlightenment prefiguration of modernity and its creation of English literature, has reclaimed its role as the cultural capital of modernity, Ireland has created itself as the cultural capital of resistance to the imposition of that modernity. What were once the margins of the British State have, in effect, remade themselves as the cultural capitals of the modern anglophone empire that their near neighbour thought she had created. United in the common literature of international English, and yet profoundly divided in how they read that literature and position themselves within it, Scotland and Ireland attest to the fact that Union was never a one-way imposition of English culture on its peripheries. In a continual interchange of cultural strategies they learned from each other how to resist incorporation into a Greater English, ensuring that if there were, indeed, “no nationality without literature,” then the continuing independence of their literary traditions would maintain their distinctive nationalities.



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1 A longer version of Professor Craig’s argument is to appear in Scotland and Ireland: Culture and Society since 1707, eds. Ray Ryan and Liam Mcllvanney (forthcoming).


University of Edinburgh
Professor of Scottish and Modem Literature at the University of Edinburgh, where he has taught since 1979. He was general editor of the four-volume History of Scottish Literature (Aberdeen, 1987-9) and is an editor of Canongate Classics. His books on Scottish issues include Out of History (Edinburgh, 1996) and The Modern Scottish Novel (Edinburgh, 1999). He has also written extensively on modernist literature, most notably in Yeats, Eliot, Pound and the Politics of Poetry (London, 1982)

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