English Prophets

The English Prophets: A Critical Defence of English Criticism
Ian Robinson
Edgeways, 2001
336pp.  demy 8vo  hardback      978 0 907839 66 8      £30


The writers who make up Ian Robinson’s subject are the great literary and social critics of the nineteenth century and after: Coleridge, Newman, Carlyle, Arnold, Lawrence, Eliot, Leavis and others—what is often, in universities nowadays, patronizingly called “the English tradition”. The suggestion the title makes is, “What if we think of their importance in English life as comparable with that of the prophets in Old Testament Judah?” The book argues for the indispensability of the English critics and also defines a consistent flaw running through them which needs to be mended if, as they must, they are to go on contributing to our own judgement of ourselves.



  © 2002 The Editors, The Cambridge Quarterly; Vol. 31, No. 3, all rights reserved. Re-produced here by permission. The Cambridge Quarterly ISSN 0008-199X is produced and distributed by Oxford University Press and can be ordered from Oxford Journals Subscription Department, Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP.  

IAN ROBINSON’S BOOK, as its title suggests, relates not just to literary criticism, but to criticism in a more encompassing sense, where society as much as literature is taken as the writer’s domain. In English letters, of course, the twin modes of reflection have often been splendidly united. One need only think of a writer like Johnson. But the author is also interested in discussing certain thinkers, who, while they definitely belong to literature, were not literary critics as such. Thus, to take two related examples, Thomas Carlyle (who figures prominently) was by profession a historian, while Ruskin’s polymathy tended to be focused, as we know, on art and on architecture. What all Robinson’s chosen writers have in common is a moral intelligence that he chooses to call “prophetic”.
     In this book he wishes to rescue the word from a premature burial. A prophetic criticism of society is in some sense religious: it judges the success and failure of institutions by other criteria than the merely secular. With the older writers—Johnson, say, or Coleridge—the position is relatively unproblematic: they, at least, are believing Christians, and their utterance issues from within the boundaries of a long-established tradition. Yet how true is it to say that Carly1e and Ruskin (for example) were “believers”? The Victorians were famous for their agnosticism. Ruskin’s contemporary Matthew Arnold is characteristic of the epoch in lamenting the “melancholy long withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Faith—which “once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore / Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.” In one sense, the whole history of thought since the Enlightenment has relied for its legitimacy on the progressive shedding of a supernatural scaffolding, so that when a writer such as T. S. Eliot comes forward with the claim that he, actually, is a Christian, the objections are liable to be legion.
     It is a piety of this age too that religion is more or less a spent force. So the book under review takes the reader aback by the candour and the boldness with which it advocates the desirability of the religious premise. For Robinson, all intelligent thinking about the meaning and purpose of society has a religious dimension to it. And as it is with society, so it is with art. “Without religion, art is weightless”, Robinson says at one point, echoing Wittgenstein. Thus, while he is full of admiration for the contribution of writers such as Leavis and Lawrence to English social thought, elucidating their respective positions brilliantly (and, just as he claims, from within), part of that elucidation rests on the argument that they would have been even better critics, both of life and of letters, had they been less hostile to or indifferent towards the traditional wisdom of the Church.
     One stresses wisdom here rather than authority, because although it is plain that Robinson, like Eliot before him, is alive to the meaning of orthodoxy, and believes it may be respectably defended, his main concern is with the ethical teaching of the Bible as it has moved into English culture, and thus with concepts such as patience, forgiveness, charity and love. As with his preceptor Leavis, a perception of the shallowness of Malthusianism and of the '“technico[logico]-Benthamite” tradition of social thought towards all matters concerned with the spirit is the single connecting thread that binds together his chosen literary voices.
     Yet the flavour of The English Prophets is not preachy; it is not even essentially theological. The main body of the text consists of a reading of the English critics that succeeds (with a wonderful freshness) in drawing them together and making them seem to be part of a single extended dialogue—historical in one sense, then, but in another sense vivid, alert and contemporary. An establishing chapter discusses the crucial contribution of Cranmer to the forging of English moral prose. Thereafter, Robinson’s narrative tapestry weaves together Johnson with Coleridge, Coleridge with Arnold, and Arnold, forward into the twentieth century, with Eliot, Leavis and Lawrence. These, at least, are the leading players in the drama; but on the way—and to provide the discussion with all essential complexity—there are extended passages of transition about Newman, Dickens, Carlyle and Ruskin, plus a host of other nineteenth-century thinkers, including some of the utilitarians—Bentham, Marx, Mill and Hardy—who might roughly be categorised as the enemy.
     I casually call this exercise a reading; maybe the word, in its modern academic sense, is inherently too partial, or else too revisionist. For, though Robinson’s writing abounds at each stage of the journey with unusual and provocative observation, one feels that the main effort is a conservative one: he believes in the canon, just as he unfashionably asks us to go along with the idea of greatness. The depth and range of Robinson’s interests is evident everywhere, but perhaps best demonstrated in his subtle approach to Matthew Arnold, whom he criticises when necessary—for muddying the proper discrimination between poetry and religion—but whom on the other hand he honours for inspiring the successive nineteenth-century Education Acts, as well as the pathbreaking 1921 Newbolt Report (The Teaching of English in England), measures which ensured that the universal education inherited by a reformed twentieth-century electorate would actually issue in something civilised and valuable.
     In these discriminations we observe Robinson’s serious political intelligence—his delicate scrupulousness in negotiating transitions between the written word and the wider integument of society. But how does all this attach itself to prophecy? A prophetic voice is one that urges the path of righteousness. This can be heard (as it is in Carlyle and Ruskin) as a high and poetic rhetoric, driven by passion and irony. Historically, such thinkers were scourges of the decadence and the thoughtlessness of their age. At other times, however, prophecy may be quieter and softer—it may even be tender, as it is in Dickens (a beautiful chapter of the book discusses “Dickens’s Christian correction of Carlyle”). Overall, however, Robinson’s originality in placing together all these disparate voices under the prophetic banner is in the emphasis thereby placed on the truth or the non-truth of a writer’s discourse. He wants to say, in his bold and idiosyncratic way, that just as certain writers in our tradition have weight and authority, so there are many other things said or written—in academe mainly, but also in other forms of public debate—that are simply wrong or foolish. Thus, as there are prophets so there are false prophets in plenty. Mill and the utilitarians have been cited. Yet these writers at least engaged in debate at a certain level of educated seriousness. Moving into the present time, a long and vividly entertaining chapter is devoted to anatomising various “heretics” in the postmodernist galaxy of thinkers. Robinson has taken on this task before in a little-known book called My Native English (co-edited with Roger Knight; Brynmill Press, 1988), where he delivered his verdict on Derrida, Foucault and other sacred monsters. I very much liked the vigorous polemic of that essay. His pre-eminent skill is a magnificent command of quotation. There is something impressively honest, as well as brilliant, about his terrific virtuosity in this area—I think only Christopher Ricks, among modern critics, is his equal. For to quote an opponent’s words is to pay attention to his argument, even as one is intent on demolishing it. Abuse is vulgar; but mockery is legitimate and bracing. And it seems to me that, among other literary qualities, Robinson has a matchless sense of tone.
     The mockery, so trenchant and fearless, which I admire in Robinson’s prose (and which I am adducing as a literary indication of his essential rightness), would perhaps be understood differently if I weren't more or less disposed to agree with his argument. Yet is modern academic discourse really as barbaric as Robinson claims it is ? Maybe it is not so much barbaric as fissiparous. In the age of the internet, we are all, in some sense, culture critics. And as everyone is speaking, no one is particularly listening. Discourse itself loses “weight”. Nothing seems to matter any more except cleverness. Robinson’s book is indeed clever; but, more than this, it is imbued down to the last footnote (for, incidentally, he writes wonderful footnotes) with qualities which are more important than mere verbal agility: I mean thoughtfulness, kindness and wisdom.
     The heretics whom Robinson gently exposes with his agile and witty pen are this time round English rather than French: Easthope, Eagleton, Belsey, Baldick, Sinfield—history will determine whether they are significant writers or simply loquacious controversialists. In meditating their awfulness, Robinson asks interesting questions about the meaning of England and also about the adjective “English”. His own view of England is refracted through the special lens of the university discipline of English: more precisely still, of that very particular distillation, Cambridge English. I think some centrality may still be granted without too much difficulty in Cambridge: any account of England which focuses on Shakespeare, the poets, the Bible and the moralists—and, through these great conduits, on the common language—cannot be accused of irrelevance. Yet the thought remains that, though Robinson’s constituency of culture is in many ways extraordinarily wide, from another perspective it is not quite wide enough. Robinson writes so well about the figures he does write about that one wants him to take on board other representatives of Englishness who seem to have a place in the equation. I am thinking in particular of the reading of England that is given by the great historians, from Clarendon onwards: something as simple, even, as the constitutive clash between Whiggism and Toryism, which also has its moral dimension. As Johnson is heard, so also I want to hear the voices of Hume, and of Burke and of Macaulay. But then I also want to hear what Robinson thinks about Geoffrey Hill and about C. H. Sisson and about E. P. Thompson! A historian who knows Shakespeare (but also Carlyle, and Ruskin, and Leavis); at the same time, a “graduate of English” who is literate in political and social history: that is the ideal. Yet Robinson, I have to say, comes pretty close to it.
     Why this truly cultivated author is so little known nationally is a mystery. In a writing career stretching over thirty years, he has published a large number of essays, along with major books on Chaucer, on the Anglican liturgy, and on the development of modern English prose. A superb study on the recent reforms in higher education came out a couple of years ago: I think a serious claim could be made that it is the single most important essay published on the university system in the past twenty years ([with Duke Maskell] The New Idea of a University, Haven Books, 2001). Despite these achievements—and I would say they are public achievements, all of them—honours and recognition have not come his way. A general tone of suavity, combined with a total lack of class animosity, are two of the most admirable things about Robinson’s writing: he is absolutely not a sectarian. And yet he is passionate, as prophets must be. So practically nobody knows about him—but he is one of our most important contemporary social thinkers. Far more than many better-known journalists and commentators, he exemplifies the tradition he is elucidating.


Mark Le Fanu


The writer of the following report for a university press kindly allows us to use it but retains copyright. The book as published took some account of the criticisms.

I read this once, fast, and then went back over most of it, slowly. Let me say at once that the first reading was exhilarating. Being, on Robinson's view, an old-fashioned liberal agnostic, there were a lot of places where I said to myself, as if addressing the author, “Oh, come now.” Others might well have jumped to their feet and paced about the room before going on. I recognised the Ian Robinson of The Survival of English (CUP, 1973)—a very punchy book on the state of the English language as reflecting the state of the culture: a state of decline. That book was short. It took representative aspects (the language of contemporary journalism, of politics, of religion, of love-poetry) and in a succession of essays took snapshots of these parts of the larger landscape. Robinson came across as a radical of some sort, highly critical of the state England was then in; but if you asked where he was coming from, what was the ground of his dissatisfaction, the answer would have to be: from the best part of the liberal tradition itself, from its habit of criticism, of dissent.
     Two things have changed, affecting the new book. First, it is not synchronic, like The Survival of English, but diachronic. It traces the main trend of English cultural life from the romantic poets to the death of Eliot and Leavis. This is obviously an enormously ambitious enterprise, which might be done in many volumes, yet threatens to be over-familiar. Robinson focuses on what he calls the “prophets”. These are the critics who were not just literary critics in a narrow sense: Coleridge, Carlyle, Arnold, Lawrence, Eliot and Leavis. A great many other writers get mentioned on the way; there is for instance brief treatment of Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, Conrad, Forster; and Robinson reveres Collingwood and Wittgenstein. But the main contributors to his argument are the critics, whom he appropriately renames prophets because they were in effect saying to their contemporaries “Thus saith the Lord”. They were not exactly prophesying in the sense of telling the future, though they felt the future bearing on them: it was more that they had to tell their people a painful set of truths about the way their lives were being lived.
     The second thing is what has happened to Robinson himself since 1973. He has become an Anglican of a bracingly traditional kin. This gives him specific advantages. He is a literary historian with a comprehensive scope. He sees our literature as the reflection of and in some sense a determinant of the culture. We all think that, but he points out that since the Reformation at least, the English Church as by law established has had a close connection with national life and literature, and it would be a rash person who said this is over. It is an advantage to see this from within, so to speak, and not to treat the religious basis as dead or meaningless. Second, it gives Robinson a specific ground for his critical enterprise, and enables him to escape from some of the clichés of the liberal tradition—its unexamined assumptions. From Arnold to, say, Trilling it has been an established pattern to write in an increasingly post-Christian mode, on the assumption that Christian doctrines can’t now be adhered to, or not literally; and hence that culture (or specifically poetry) has become our substitute for religion. Yet one also wants to remain in the tradition itself, somehow. This produces an effect as of boring from within, undermining what one values, or indeed leaving the substance behind and going off with the shell. Robinson is now even more upsetting than he used to be because he presents the figure of an extremely intelligent Anglican, still radical if conservatively so, who is able to rattle one’s rather limp because ungrounded liberalism, one’s religion of substitutes. He is extremely tough on utilitarianism as either crass or liberally muddled, but able to point out that some kind of utilitarianism is what most people are reduced to. He prefers the crass sort, as being self-consistent.
     The main upshot in the book is that where one thinks one is going to get a re-run of the standard history of the critical tradition, with Arnold et al getting their due once more, one has instead a sharp new light. The tradition comes out looking different, and the heroes change somewhat. Carlyle gets upgraded, for instance, and Eliot gets his due.
     I am, as it were, commenting on the book which I descry in the present manuscript. One of Robinson’s great virtues is his width of reference, and he has something interesting, surprising, and sometimes wrong to say about almost everybody. He can’t write this book as a formal historical treatise, or it would get dull in the mere effort to cover the ground. He has to do it more impressionistically, darting here and there. He can’t, however, quite resist the tendency to say everything he thinks about everything, or at any rate to point in every direction. The result is a typescript of some 500 pages. (Back to my opening sentences ... .)
     If this book is to have its effect it must appear as a reasonably-priced not more than 300-printed-page book, preferably paperbacked. It has to be pruned. My suggestions are these:
     1. Delete the opening and closing pages about Milton. Robinson has an Anglican thesis to the effect that Milton should be recognised once more as the epic poet of our nation and church. It’s too sketchily outlined here: do it in a separate book.
     2. The novel tradition can’t be ignored altogether, but the attempt to deal with it is unsatisfactory. There are some very suggestive pages on Dickens, Hardy, Conrad, Forster and others. But it can’t be done at this length: the allusiveness of the treatment is extreme, and daunting to readers who don’t know the books as well as he does. It also interrupts the flow of the historical argument, in that this thread is followed through to Passage to India, and the historical argument has then to go back to 1867 and the Second Reform Act. This is disconcerting. Again, another book.
     3. There is a swingeing attack on the present state of University English in its current theory-oriented phase. This is a bit parochial in that the people it demolishes (very satisfactorily) are Belsey and Eagleton, who are not international figures. Indeed Belsey is a nonentity. The effect on the structure of the book is that there is a sharp and bathetic descent from Eliot, Lawrence and Leavis to these minor sciolists. Actually, Robinson is good at this, since he has had, since the 1960s, a better grasp of Saussure and linguistic theory than these recent uncritical adoptionists. Nonetheless, it should be done somewhere else, and, as in the other cases above, can then be done at the natural length.
     This would save some 150 typescript pages.
     One small point. Robinson has been conducting his campaigns for 25 years, in various mostly out-of-the-way places, including self-publishing. He wants to refer readers to his own and his colleagues’ related work, but I think it is a bad tactic to have frequent little notes of the kind “As I said in my article in ... ” It produces an Ancient Mariner effect. He should have a bibliographical appendix in which he list these sources. Actually, the ordinary reader can't follow them up, not having access to them; but in due course some historian may be glad of a guide to these mostly recondite writings.
     I think this is potentially an interesting and important book. Robinson is a very thoughtful and principled man with a polemical gift of the highest kind. He prolongs the tradition of high-minded but tough addresses to the nation that is his subject. I am impressed to find that after all these years he is still so full of life and fire, with a width of reference and depth of understanding which is rare. He makes you think.
     Don't publish it unless you are prepared to back it by giving it a “general books” price. Expect some sniffy reviews from liberal smarties. But I think there is a constituency here, still.


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