Thursday, November 18, 2010
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.