George Walford: Canon to the Left of Them…

The inaugural lecture of Marilyn Butler, the new King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at the University of Cambridge, has appeared in TLS (4-10 Dec 87) under the title “Revising the Canon.”
It opens by pointing out that however far Britain may have sunk in importance, the dominance of the United States assures literature written in English a place in world culture. Some British academics have the task of studying this literature and recommending to the rest of us the books we ought to read. What guides their selection? The answer, Professor Butler says, is that they do not make a selection at all; it has been made for them by the Victorians. She speaks almost wholly of poetry, and it was around the 1820s that there was established a single, almost unbroken line of English poets from Chaucer to Tennyson. The effect was to establish a class-distinction among writers, and it tends to be self-confirming, because ‘by the mid-twentieth century, if you are a dead author and not in the canon you are probably not in print.’ The canon is constantly being refined, the number both of authors and of works that must be studied steadily reduced, and the effect is to threaten evaluation: ‘how can you operate the techniques for telling who a major writer is, if you don’t know what a minor one looks like?’ Condemning one proposed revision of the canon as ‘Eurocentric and intimidatingly learned,’ and mentioning others without finding them satisfactory, Professor Butler says that time and consultation will be needed to reach a satisfactory result; in the meantime she proposes to include some of the poets, respected in their time, who have since been dropped, her own candidate being a former Poet Laureate, Robert Southey.

In 1802 Francis Jeffrey, premier critic of the time, recognised Southey as leader of a sect of literary dissenters, Wordsworth being merely a member. Their positions came to be reversed because Southey was contentious, common, international, and engaged with his contemporaries, while Wordsworth displayed the contrary tendencies. Southey, in short, behaved as an eidodynamic, a reformer or revolutionary while Wordsworth, after a short burst of youthful enthusiasm for the French Revolution, settled down as an eidostatic establishment figure.

Relying largely on Southey’s longĀ narrative poems “Thalaba” and “Kehama.” and his influence upon Shelley, Byron and the younger Romantics, Professor Butler claims a place for him alongside the acknowledged greats: ‘It helps our modern questioning if we stand ready to readmit to the canon the little sects of dissenters, the awkward squad.’

Her lecture is another demonstration, one we hardly needed, of the enduring absorptive power of the eidostatic ideologies, of the Establishment. The canon is not to be thrown open to all comers, and most certainly it is not to be dismantled. A few more names are to be added to it. It is the process that turned Darwin, Newton, Galileo and Copernicus, each of them a revolutionary in his time, into heroes of orthodoxy, the process that is not far from having done the same with Freud and is starting to operate even on Marx as he gains academic respectability. Whatever ground the revolutionaries think they have won gets taken over by their opponents, their achievements built in to the established structure and their leaders captured. The paper carries a suggestion that Marilyn Butler sees herself as attacking the academic ivory castle, opening a breach for the people and their spokesmen to go storming in. But acceptance of the extended canon proposed, or of any alternative that the academics might conceivably recognise, is a long way from being enough to bridge the distance between academia and the people. To bring these two into contact a great deal more would be required than acceptance of a few litterateurs with radical leanings. To begin with, we might have serious acceptance of the SUN newspaper, and a reasoned comparison of it with SUNDAY SPORT, a rationale for the presentation of tits and bums (complete with apparatus scholasticus) and an argued theory for the exposure or concealment of the female nipple.

It is of course nonsense. Academia is inescapably distinct from the general body of the people, rich or poor, on one hand and from the revolutionaries on the other. Trying to get it to behave differently is like using an elephant to run mazes.

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GOD MAY be dead, but 50,000 social workers have taken his place. (A graffito)

from Ideological Commentary 32, March 1988.