'The Ghost at the Feast: Religion and Scottish Literary Criticism', edited by Patrick Scott, 'with an essay and afterword by Crawford Gribben' (published by 'Studies in Scottish Literature')
My friend Patrick Scott, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, has for many years been the editor of the major academic journal Studies in Scottish Literature
. This book is a version of a symposium of essays published in the journal. But the book, like the symposium, owes its existence to the essay mentioned in its title: Crawford Gribben's The Literary Cultures of the Scottish Reformation
, originally published in 2006 in the Review of English Studies
Gribben's essay is a deliberately provocative and challenging work. Its thesis is that modern Scottish literary criticism has been disfigured by its failure to take adequate account of the role of religion, and of Presbyterian Calvinism in particular, in post-Reformation Scottish writing. He sees two 20th-century figures as being the source of what has become the standard view of the impact of Calvinism on Scottish society and culture: the Orcadian poet and novelist Edwin Muir and the outspoken nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid. The two normally agree very rarely, but on Calvin they are as one: Calvinism is responsible for all that is dour and dreary in Scottish life.
Calvinism is hostile to the imaginative arts in all their forms. If it appears in literature at all, it is only as the enemy to be assailed and denounced. However widely accepted this view may be, in Gribben's opinion it is utterly wrong. In 16th and 17th-century Scottish culture in particular, Calvinism is the dominating reality which demands recognition, and this is exactly what his essay sets out to do.
There's no doubt that Gribben has a point. As a graduate student at Princeton, taking a course on Chaucer, I remember coming to recognise that nearly all modern scholars of the poet were inclined to make him over in their own image. Their Chaucer was one of them, a good liberal mocking and satirising religious hypocrisy and excess. The Canterbury Tales
, including the bawdier ones, were his best work. So I agree it is all too easy to accept the Muir/MacDiarmid line and dismiss Calvinism out of hand as a wholly negative force.
Patrick Scott's Introduction
to his book makes it clear he is a great admirer of Gribben's work, and his decision to reprint his essay at its beginning, indicates how the original symposium was set up to follow through the case it makes. Scholars would be invited to submit papers on the place of religion, and Calvinism in particular, in Scottish literary history and criticism.
However, there are some oddities in the resultant book. 'The ghost at the feast' – alluding to the scene in Act III of Macbeth
when the ghost of the murdered Banquo appears before Macbeth in mid-feast – has come to mean an unwelcome presence that mars enjoyment by arousing guilt, and it certainly makes for an eye-catching title. It certainly caught my eye. But is religion really no more than a guilty presence in the rich history of Scottish literary criticism? I'm not wholly convinced.
And then there is the surprisingly slender size of the book – no more than a total of 127 pages. That title once again seems to promise something on a much grander scale. More serious is the issue of the book's relationship to Gribben's original essay. As I indicate above, his contention is that in the 16th and 17th centuries, there is in Scotland a vast outpouring of major writing in such areas as theology, philosophy, history, and religion. Some of this work is in English, much of it is in Latin. Calvinism, in all of its forms and manifestations, is often a unifying context. But traditional, established, Scottish literary history and criticism have failed to recognise, investigate or analyse this reality. Thus, what is needed is a concerted scholarly commitment to remedy this situation.
The Ghost at the Feast
does nothing to meet Gribben's demand. All nine essayists duly make reference to Professor Gribben, and generally agree that the case he makes is an accurate one, but Patrick Scott concedes that not one of their contributions focuses on the period Gribben has in mind. 'All the contributions here deal with authors after 1700,' he writes, 'and half focus on texts from the 20th century'. Rather than following, as it were, in Gribben's footsteps, the essayists simply write about the presence of religion, including of course Calvinism, in works by a range of Scottish authors. Scott does go on to acknowledge that there is much that is missing in his book, He agrees, for example, that the symposium 'fails to meet one part of Professor Gribben's challenge, that anti-Calvinist bias excluded women writers from the Scottish canon'.
Four of the nine contributors are women, but only one of the texts discussed is by a woman writer. Scott goes on to point to other major omissions, but the larger issue of the book's exclusively modern content remains unexplained. My own feeling is that it has to do with the kind of literary material Gribben is celebrating, but which literary critics feel unable to cope with. Scott suggests that 'Scottish religious expression equally includes sermons, polemic, psalms and hymns, letters and diaries,' while his contributors focus only on poetry and fiction. But surely Scottish literary critics may understandably feel equally ill-equipped to deal with the theology, philosophy, history and religion characteristic of Gribben's period – a period in which poetry and fiction are barely present.
What then are the topics actually addressed under the heading of 'Religion and Scottish Literary Criticism'? Only two essays focus on poetry. The first concerns the work of Archibald Pitcairne, an 18th-century Episcopalian Jacobite and major Latin poet, whose early work gained him a reputation as, at best, a heterodox Christian. Kelsey Jackson Williams of the University of Stirling analyses an extraordinary group of poems, written in 1712 at the very end of his life, which are built around the Episcopalian liturgical year. Williams's excellent analysis proves beyond question that the depth of Pitcairne's religious feeling and his devotion to the Scottish Episcopal church is beyond question.
Oddly, the second poetry essay again discusses work not in English. Petra Johana Poncarova of Charles University, Prague, provides an account of religion in the Gaelic poetry of Derick Thomson that is both insightful and entertaining. Born in Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in 1921, Thomson had a successful academic career becoming Professor of Celtic at the University of Glasgow. Religion is in no sense the main subject of his poetry, but rather like Pitcairne, in a late collection (Poncarova calls it a 'magnificent late sequence') Thomson focuses specifically on religion in Lewis. Brought up in a mainstream Church of Scotland household, Thomson came to see the evangelical Calvinist splinter groups, the Free Presbyterians, and the Wee Frees, in Lewis, as 'particularly narrow, indeed almost vicious' in their impact on traditional Gaelic society and culture. The poems, present here in both Gaelic and English, make the anti-Calvinist case but are not without humour and depth of thought. I found this essay the most striking in the book.
Five essays invite us to recognise the religious dimension of the following novels: John Galt's Annals of the Parish
, Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song
, A J Cronin's The Keys of the Kingdom
, Fionn Mac Colla's And the Cock Crew
, Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
, and James Robertson's The Fanatic
. (There is also an essay on Carlyle and Calvinism.) No great surprises in this selection – except perhaps in Gerrard Carruthers' choice of an A J Cronin novel.
Undoubtably best known to most readers as the author of Dr Finlay's Casebook
, Cronin has rarely gained the attention of Scottish scholars and critics. But on the basis of this novel at least, Carruthers makes a good case for him to be recognised as a significant Scottish Catholic writer. The other essays succeed in providing quite nuanced accounts of the role of 'religion' in their texts. All, as a result, reveal new aspects of familiar fictions. Yet, to my mind, anti-Calvinism remains a unifying note.
In his Afterword
, Professor Gribben suggests that in the 15 years since the publication of his original essay, good progress has been made in expanding Scottish literary criticism's recognition of the religious dimension in the Scottish literary tradition. And he is highly appreciative of the continuing expansion represented by all the essays in this book. He acknowledges that their authors assume that the argument of his essay 'can also be applied to texts from the 18th century to the present day,' but I suspect he may well have been a little surprised at the original symposium's neglect of his own 16th and 17th-century period.
The Ghost at the Feast
ends with 'suggestions for further reading' – to which I would add one item: Ronald Lyndsay Crawford's The Chair of Verity: Political preaching and pulpit censure in 18th-century Scotland
Andrew Hook is Emeritus Bradley Professor of English Literature at the University of Glasgow