Thursday, November 18, 2010

Herbert John Clifford Grierson

I’m not sure how things are elsewhere, but here in Ireland the collapse of the Celtic Tiger is having some all-too-predictable consequences for education, particularly at third level. On the one hand, universities with a long history of competition, if not downright hostility, are building alliances, while on the other the government debates the reintroduction of fees after a decade of a nominally free service.

Another side effect of recession is an even greater emphasis on vocational education, with both policy and public pronouncement favouring those subject areas that are seen as being most likely to facilitate recovery and future economic growth, the infamous “knowledge economy”. Inevitably, this puts pressure on such non-productive areas as the English Department with their tendency to produce social parasites like teachers and writers. What Eng Lit needs is a hero, a role model for young students to look up to. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Herbert John Clifford Grierson.

It is widely recognised that the revival of John Donne’s reputation in the early part of the last century was mainly due to his championing by T.S. Eliot, and especially to Eliot’s well-known 1921 essay on The Metaphysical Poets. What is perhaps less often remembered is that this essay was a review of Grierson’s anthology Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century, or that Eliot’s interest in Donne was initially facilitated by Grierson’s two volume Poems of John Donne which appeared in 1912 and which pretty well established the corpus of Donne’s verse for later editions.

As an aside here, it’s interesting to speculate about why Donne has been an influence on poetic innovators. The context in which Donne started writing was one in which the Petrarchan sonnet sequence was king. Tellingly, the only 14-line poem in Donne’s Songs and Sonnets is neither Petrarchan nor a sonnet in the strictest sense and the only one with sonnet in the title is 18 lines long. When he did come to write a sonnet sequence, the Holy Sonnets, his primary intention would seem to have been to systematically undermine all the technical requirements of the form. Donne’s poetry represents a move away from the smooth polished gems of the Late Elizabethans towards a rougher, more textured writing. In this light, it’s not difficult to see why he appealed to such poetic iconoclasts as Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Browning.

But back to Grierson; the sad fact is that good writers, even great writers, go out of fashion and can be forgotten unless someone sets out to recover them. It is in performing such acts of recovery that the English professor can most fruitfully contribute to the sum of our knowledge. If we are to fully value this work, we need to remind ourselves that knowledge is not just about a skills-based approach to wealth creation. The preservation and transmission of knowledge is essential to the good health of something much more important, our culture.

I like to think that the dustier corners of Irish universities are populated by a new generation of Griersons; they have had, up to recently at least, one fine example to follow. I’m thinking of J.C.C. Mays, the editor, amongst other things, of the definitive edition of Coleridge’s poetical works, a monumental act of recovery in itself. I’m sure there must be many more of these academic heroes in universities all over the world; thanks to the world’s bankers, life is bound to get harder for them.


TC said...

'Twould be pleasant to think the obscure departmental corridors of the contemporary academic world were being infiltrated by mute inglorious Griersons, but alas... one fears the abyss between the terms "academic" and "hero" yawns ever wider with the passing days.

Still, thanks for the memories. You have caused me to go and fish from the mouldy shelves, late on this gelid, dripping night, the hoary, foxed copy of "Metaphysical Poems & Lyrics of the Seventeenth Century" which has somehow survived the years.

And I find that the first poem in it is still perhaps the best:

John Donne: The good-morrow

I see that Grierson, in his notes on the closing triplet, attests first Aquinas, and then Coleridge: "Too good for mere wit. It contains a deep practical truth..."

May learning rise again some day, though to imagine the dismal ashes of Instant Theory issuing such a renascent flame is not at all easy.

hardPressed poetry said...

Very true, TC.

TC said...

So does that make us, then, electively affinite corks tossing unheroically on a post-academic ocean?