Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Literary Imagination and the Writing of History by Hugh Trevor-Roper

from “The Romantic Movement and the Study of History” Chapter Ten, History and the Enlightenment by Trevor-Roper; Yale University Press, 2010

Every age has its historical philosophy, and such a philosophy is seldom, if ever, the work of historians alone. Historians follow each other along professional grooves, refining their predecessors' techniques; but they do not create new philosophies. These are brought in from the outside, either by the immediate impact of events or from more general intellectual revolutions. The new [political] science of Machiavelli underlay the 'civil history' of the seventeenth century. The new sociology of Montesquieu (1689 – 1755) made possible the 'philosophic history' of the eighteenth. I am concerned today with the external intellectual force which made the next great historical change: which changed the philosophy of the eighteenth-century historians – Hume, Robertson, and Gibbon – into the philosophies of their nineteenth- century successors – Macaulay, Michelet, Ranke.

I say, 'the external intellectual force', for of course there were external non-intellectual forces too. Most obvious of all was the impact of events. In the last years of the eighteenth century Enlightened Europe was convulsed, first by the French Revolution, then by the French conquest. In those convulsions the ideas of the past century were damaged beyond repair. When the goddess Reason was set up as the idol of a sanguinary dictatorship and the French 'Enlightenment' was carried over the continent, the charms of both quickly faded. In England, in Germany, in Spain, old native traditions, even superstitions, acquired a new force, a new respectability. The old, customary organs of society, the old established beliefs, which had seemed so contemptible to the rationalists of the Encyclopaedia, now acquired a new dignity .

The greatest of English whigs, Edmund Burke (1729–1797) , then became the European prophet of a new conservatism: the conservatism of a society which must protect its living organs against the frivolous surgery of fashionable or interested theorists. In his last years, Leopold von Ranke, who had never accepted the radicalism of the Encyclopaedia – for, like Burke himself, he was a disciple of Montesquieu – would hail Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution as 'an admirable medicine against the French disease. I admire his eloquence, I approve his politics, I adore his chivalry, and I can forgive his superstition, and develop his studies 'in opposition to the tyranny of Napoleonic ideas.'

But if the immediate convulsions of Europe caused men to appreciate anew the previously insulted traditions of their own society, another movement, independent in its origins, invested those traditions with a positive, romantic glow. Already, in the middle of the century, that movement had begun. It began, or at least one great stream of it began, in Scotland. In 1760 James Macpherson, a man of questionable morals both in literature and in politics, published his Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands, the precursor of his more famous fabrication, the Fingal of “Ossian'. In 1765, in England, Thomas Percy established a less brilliant but more lasting fame with his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. With these two works, a new fashion was launched: a romantic cult of primitive society, primitive literature; and it was this cult which, transformed by political events unimagined in the 1760s, would help create a new historical philosophy.

At first, the reaction of historians to this new literary or philological fashion had been cool. To a disciple of Voltaire, the Dark and Middle Ages were dark indeed. They were the ages of gothic barbarism and superstition and nothing that came out of them could have any virtue at all. Even to a disciple of Montesquieu, such literature, however interesting for the light that it shed on the society which produced it, was of no intrinsic value; and anyway, was it authentic? “Something of a doubtful mist still hangs over these Highland traditions', wrote Gibbon, 'nor can it be entirely dispelled by the most ingenious researches of modern criticism. But if we could, with safety, indulge the pleasing supposition that Fingal lived and that Ossian sung, the striking contrast of the situation and manners of the contending might amuse the philosophic mind.' David Hume was more outspoken ( in private). He would not believe in the authenticity of Ossian, he said, though fifty bare-arsed Highlanders should swear to it.

So spoke the voice of reason in 'the full light and freedom of the 18th century'. But as the full light faded and the ordered freedom dwindled, the artificial glow and the anarchical liberty of the past appeared more attractive. Ossian, that thin, tawdry figment of the Highland debacle, might excite the smile of Gibbon, the ridicule of Hume, the rage of Johnson, but abroad his fortune was fabulous. He would become the inspiration of Herder, the idol of Germany. Napoleon himself would carry the book as his bibelot on his campaigns: it was to him, he would say, as Homer had been to Alexander, Virgil to Augustus; and at Malmaisson his empress would decorate her elegant new palace with Ossianic bric-a-brac, busts of the mythical Highland poet, paintings of his ghost welcoming in Elysium the heroes of her husbands wars. Meanwhile, in a more modest way, Bishop Percy too was enjoying his posthumous triumph. His Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, having also inspired Herder in Germany, fell into the hands of a Scotsman more influential even than Macpherson: Walter Scott (1771 – 1832, portrait above).

Macpherson and Scott, the Highlander and the Lowlander, these are the makers, direct or indirect, of the new romanticism which would change the character of historical study. The same social chemistry which released, in one generation, the genius of Hume and Adam Smith [Enlightenment], formed, in the next, its secondary product, the genius of Scott [Romanticism]. Nor was Scott in any way parochial. Rooted though he was in the Scottish Border, whose every valley and stream, castle and peel-tower he knew so well, he was a cosmopolitan, a European too. We should not forget that long before he became known in Europe, years before he decided to abandon the law for literature, Scott had studied not only Ossian (who he had the taste to despise) and Percy ( who he revered), but the romantic literature of Europe; that he learned to Italian to read, every year, Ariosto and Boiardo; that he poured over Bartholin and studied Old Norse in order to read the Scandinavian sagas; and that, as a young lawyer in Edinburgh, he learned to read German in order to enjoy the poets of Sturm und Drang: that his earliest published works were translations of Burger's poems and Goethe's Goetz von Berlichingen.

It was under the influence of Percy that Scott would study the ballad literature of Northern Europe and set out, as a young lawyer, every year, on his 'raids' into Liddesdale in quest of those popular ballads which he would publish in 1802 as the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border – 'the well from which flowed one of the broadest rivers' ( Carlyle). At the same time he was exploring the Highlands too, visiting old survivors of the Jacobite days before Culloden, studying the vanishing manners of Highland society, 'wasting his great talent', collecting ancient ballads and traditional stories about fairies, ghosts and witches, and writing those original poems – so unreadable today- which gave him his first fame.

Ballad literature, to the student of it, is inseparable from history: it is the direct expression of a historical form of society which often has no other documents. In collecting the ballads of the past, Scott was re-creating and illustrating a vanished or vanishing society, and thereby, indirectly, becoming an historian. Nor was it only by such collection that he showed his historical interest. All his life he read history, re-created history, published the materials of history. Historians still use his compilations today: His Sadler State Papers, his Somer Tract, his reissues of arcane Stewart pamphlets. He founded the Nannatyne Club to publish Scottish antiquities. At one time he planned 'a corpus historiarum', a full edition of the chronicles of England. Scott's edition of Dryden, in eighteen volumes, thrown off between poetry, essays and an active life in law, was good enough to be reprinted in toto a century later- but ultimately Scott was not that kind of historian.

For all his accuracy of detail, Scott was not a scholar: he was an imaginative historian who used his evidence not to document but to re-create the past. As Carlyle wrote in his journal, on learning of Scott's death, 'he knew what history meant; this was his chief intellectual merit'; and he found his perfect medium when, after so many preliminary ventures, he produced, from 1814 onwards, his great historical novels, with their marvelous fusion of living persons and a reconstructed past; above all, Old Mortality!

The professional historians did not like it. The Rev. Thomas McCrie wrote that Old Mortality was full of 'gross partiality and injustice...disfigured with profaneness...unjustifiable in any book, but altogether inexcusable in one that is intended for popular amusement'. Even Scott's greatest historical disciple, Macaulay, would afterward present an entirely different picture of Claverhouse. But time has vindicated the novelist, not the historians. The fanatical Covenanters are fanatics still, in spite of Dr McCrie and the long dreary line of Kirk hagiographers. Macaulay's portrait of Claverhouse was exposed as a caricature by Paget and can never be restored. Scott, whose literary imagination saw past the mere literary evidence, who envisaged the whole, compact, articulated society of Scotland in its years of crisis and who looked daily on the portrait of Claverhouse, saw, here, at least, better than both.

Indeed, the whole of Mcaulay's magisterial History of England was deeply influenced by Scott – not of course in its [whiggish] intellectual direction, but in its method and incidental illustration. No modern critic, that I know of, has mentioned this intimate dependency of Macaulay on Scott; but once mentioned, it is obvious, and contemporaries, who knew Scott, quickly recognized it. After reading a copy of Macaulay's first volume Maria Edgworth only had one complaint to qualified her delight: 'there is no mention of Sir Walter Scott throughout the whole work, even in places where it seemed impossible to avoid paying so obvious a tribute.' J.W. Croker wrote “We suspect that we can trace Macaulay's design to its true source- the example and success of the author of Waverly. The historical novel, if not invented, at least first developed and illustrated by the happy genius of Scott', had taken sudden and and extensive hold on the public taste. The press, since his time, had groaned with his imitators.” We have had served up in this form the Norman conquest and the Wars of the Roses, the Gunpowder Plot and the Fire of London, Darnley, Richelieu and the 'professed romance' on Macaulay's historical villain James II. Nay, on a novel of this popular order has been conferred the office of historiographer to the Queen” (G.P. R. James).

Even if Macaulay could not resist the temptation to reiterate, every time, the vast improvement which 'whig' progress had brought to the marshes and towns of the West Country, the bogs of Ireland, and the waste Highlands of Scotland, he peopled them with their historical actors and local color. He drew from the same sources as Scott: from the neglected informal, popular culture of the time. He had no patience with those who talked of the 'dignity of history'. Like Scott, he was a browser in bookshops, a voracious reader in the byways of literature. He read comedies and farces, lampoons and satires, broadsheets and ballads. He pursued an ambition 'to reclaim for history 'those materials which the novelist has appropriated'. A dangerous ambition!

Both Ranke and Macaulay, by their romantic borrowings – the one by his almost sterilized conservatism, the other by his distorting vitality – may be said, like the romantic movement in general, to have put the clock of European thought not forward but back. Has not Ranke been accused of having, by his passive, academic 'objectivity' contributed indirectly to the rise of that German Nazism to which Carlyle, by his romantic hero worship, directly pointed the way? Did not Macaulay, by his compelling narrative, by his decorative romantic detail superimposed on a purely political study, distract historians from that profounder analysis which the disciples of Montesquieu had made possible but which was only resumed, a century later, by the disciples of Marx?

So we may say; but to what purpose? Genius is not responsible for the botcheries of its imitators, nor should we judge new ideas by their distorted consequences. No great movement is pure; advance in any one field is often purchased by retreat in another; and every new gospel introduces a train of superstitions, sometimes grosser than those which it has displaced. Ideas are to be valued not by their incidental corruptions, but by their permanence, their power to survive those corruptions.

'Scott', wrote Thomas Carlyle, 'first showed the old life of men resuscitated for us not as a dead tradition but as palpable presence, standing before us. His historical novels have taught all men this truth, which looks like a truism, and yet was as good as unknown to writers of history and others, till so taught: that the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies and abstractions of men. That surely is a permanent truth which, however it may be corrupted, historians can never forget.” [ And neither should journalists!]

1 comment:

  1. The subject is recondite. You may need to keep your Wikipedia open when reading it. It is a fabulous essay on how history informs art and art informs history. Something of an antidote to the poisonous vapors of contemporary media discourse.