English literature, a Scot’s invention

Hugh Blair, considered one of the first great theorists of written discourse
Hugh Blair, considered one of the first great theorists of written discourse
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Just over a century ago, neither Oxford nor Cambridge offered degrees in English literature, but Scotland has been studying the subject since the 18th century, largely thanks to one man, Hugh Blair

When I was growing up we had that kitsch patriotic tea-towel, “The average Englishman in the home he calls his castle…” that detailed the entrepreneurial innovation of the Scots from breech-loading rifles and chloroform to Mackintoshes and the television. I didn’t realise it at the time but the subject which I would go on to study at university – English literature – could well have been added to the list.

Scotland offered literature degrees before Oxford (above) and Cambridge universities

Scotland offered literature degrees before Oxford (above) and Cambridge universities

Ironic though it might seem, the idea of English literature was a valid field of academic enquiry was a Scottish invention. This year is the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Regius Professorship of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres at the University of Edinburgh, the precursor to “Eng lit” as we know it; although the story behind it is more complex, and peculiar, than simply the founding of a new scholarly discipline.

The first person to hold the chair was the Rev Hugh Blair. The son of a merchant, Blair was born in Edinburgh on 7 April, 1718. He graduated in moral philosophy, and became a minister in 1741, serving briefly in Collessie in Fife, before returning to Edinburgh to hold charges in the Canongate, Lady Yester’s Kirk and finally St Giles Cathedral.

David Hume described him in his letters as a “vain, timid, fussy, kind-hearted man that everybody liked”. While at Edinburgh, Blair studied under the professor of logic, John Stevenson, who lectured on literary style using English as well as classical sources. He wrote an essay “On The Beautiful” for Stevenson, which his tutor said displayed “a power of discrimination, and a correctness of feeling beyond what could have been expected of a youth but sixteen years of age”. Blair actually started teaching his class in Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres in 1759, and they proved so popular that George III endowed the chair (held today by Greg Walker).

Blair was not the first person to discuss vernacular literature in a university: Adam Smith, before he wrote on economics or the theory of moral sentiments had taught a similar class in Glasgow in 1751; although it was a “private” course and not part of the university’s official curriculum. Nevertheless, the creation of the professorship formally institutionalised literary studies not in a foreign or dead language. Glasgow had a professor of English by 1862. By comparison, Oxford did not start teaching English literature until 1894 (and even then it was heavily weighted towards philology and Anglo-Saxon, the fear being that a literary degree would be “mere chatter about Shelley” – an attitude that still existed when I was there: one don referred to English literature as “what you read in the bath”). Cambridge held out until 1919 before creating an English faculty.

Why did Edinburgh and Scotland ignite the idea of studying English? Professor Robert Crawford of St Andrews University has convincingly argued in Devolving English Literature that the impetus lay in the new commercial and political opportunities available to Scots as a result of the Act of Union in 1707. There is evidence of what the Australian critic AA Philips christened the “cultural cringe” in Enlightenment Edinburgh. David Hume complained that he and his countrymen were “unhappy in our Accent and Pronunciation” and spoke “a very corrupt Dialect of the Tongue”. He asked English friends to “correct” his English and appended a list of “Scotticisms” to his works. James Beattie wrote A List Of Two Hundred Scotticisms in 1779, and in the preface to it said: “We handle English, as a person who cannot fence handles a sword; continually afraid of hurting ourselves with it, or letting it fall, or making some awkward motion that shall betray our ignorance.” It was followed by Hugh Mitchell’s Scotticisms, Vulgar Anglicisms, and Grammatical Improprieties in 1799 and Scotticisms by “Cleishbotham the Younger” in 1858.

There is ample evidence that ambitious Scots thought their language would put them at a disadvantage in Westminster or the Court; and many of the great Enlightenment figures expressed their concerns about “Scottish English”: it was a “vicious form of speech” according to William Robertson the historian. The playwright Sheridan, famous for The School For Scandal, earned a living as a tutor in elocution, and wrote, concerning “court English” that “all other dialects, are sure marks, either of a provincial, rustic, pedantic or mechanical education, and therefore have some degree of disgrace annexed to them”. To an extent, the reason the Scots created the study of English literature was that, to them, it was akin to a foreign language.

Blair eventually published his course as Lectures On Rhetoric And Belles-Lettres in 1783. He was keen to have a definitive version in print as copies were circulating in the form of students’ notes (which is all we have of Adam Smith’s lectures), but such was the prestige of his course that the publisher paid him £1500 for the book – the equivalent, in today’s money, of about £94,000. Not many academics receive an advance like that nowadays. Although Blair did, in the words of one contemporary “form the taste of the rising generation”, the Lectures are much more than just a primer to stop Scots saying “the broth are very good” or “hinder to do” rather than “hinder from doing”. As well as discussing the idea of the sublime and sketching out a history of language, he lectures on metaphor, sentence structure and the idea of taste. Five of the lectures are what we would now call “practical criticism” or “close reading”: Blair takes four issues of Addison and Steele’s The Spectator and Jonathan Swift’s A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue and forensically dissects the style. Throughout the lectures, he gives examples from the canon of English literature – Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and Pope.

Although Edinburgh University is putting on a series of public lectures to commemorate the anniversary and Blair’s achievement, his standing in the public imagination is not as high as one might expect. The reason for this is his unfortunate engagement with the literature of his own day, rather than his pioneering work on the literature of the past. Blair’s other best known work was the Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal of 1763.

A young Highlander, James Macpherson, had showed Blair some “fragments” of Gaelic poetry he had translated, and Blair’s response was ecstatic. He funded Macpherson to search for a literary work that he hoped might exist – a genuine Gaelic epic comparable to the work of Homer and Virgil. Macpherson duly obliged with Fingal by “Ossian”.

Although we no longer refer to “Ossian” as a hoax, it is certainly true that Macpherson took a small number of Gaelic originals and recast them as exactly the kind of epic poem the professor presumed must have existed. Macpherson, in all likelihood, based some of his own inventions on Blair’s ideas, which Blair then unwittingly validated. Dr Johnson famously quarrelled with the idea that Ossian was a genuine work and came up with some withering put-downs about it (my favourite is, that when asked “Dr Johnson, do you really believe that any man today could write such poetry?” he replied “Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children”). Johnson called Blair “wonderfully cheap” for authenticating them.

Blair’s over-eagerness dented his credibility with future scholars and occluded his more important and significant contributions. It does not help that among the other writers of his generation he admired, Blair counted the rightfully forgotten William Wilkie and John Home, the playwright who wrote Douglas (the play which, on its first night, received the embarrassing accolade of an audience member shouting “Whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?”) In fact, Douglas is not as bad as it has been painted. Equally, Blair’s dismissal of Allan Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd counts against him: he wrote that it was “so entirely formed on the rural manners of Scotland, that none but a native of that country can thoroughly understand or relish it”. Although Blair appreciated the poetry of Burns, he was less than enamoured of the poet Burns. He “thought of Burns as a great and noble poet who had, unfortunately, the morals of the stable and the politics of the smithy”. Burns wrote a decidedly ambivalent piece about Blair in turn: “With Dr. Blair I am more at ease. I never respect him with humble veneration; but when he kindly interests himself in my welfare, or, still more, when he descends from his pinnacle and meets me on equal ground, my heart overflows with what is called liking… when his eye measures the difference of our points of elevation, I say to myself with scarely an emotion, what do I care for him or his pomp either? It is not easy forming an exact judgement of any one, but in my opinion Dr. Blair is merely an astonishing proof of what industry and application can do… He has a heart not of the finest water, but far from being an ordinary one. In short, he is a truly worthy and most respectable character”.

I doubt that Blair would recognise much of the material that flows from English literature faculties nowadays – all those papers with titles like “Reader, I marr(i)ed him: the revenge of phallogocentrism in Jane Eyre”. But he might see a glimmer of what he initiated in the sense that learning to read well is a precursor to learning to write well, and that literature written in our own language might still have moral significance and intrinsic beauties. And I am sure he would be delighted that his deep agenda – to make Scots successful outside of Scotland – has become an indisputable fact.