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Johnson: A Bit Of Irony

Scotland has historically been at the forefront of the appreciation of English literature when even the English themselves have been negligent, from the Makars of the 14th and 15th centuries' acclamation of Chaucer as "the brightest lycht of this, oure Inglische," to the present day, indicating that outward looking internationalism that can even extend to anglophilia which contrasts so vividly with the contempt that xenophobic breed typically profess towards the Scots and others. This tendency, however, has provided us with one of history's most striking ironies subsequent to the union of 1707 with the Scottish invention of English literature and literary criticism as academic disciplines.

The trail to London of Scots seeking to procure appointment to high office which inspired Johnson's jibe that "the noblest prospect a Scotsman ever sees is the high road that leads him to England," reinforced the prestige enjoyed by the English language in Scotland in the 18th century, so that simultaneous with the polite metroplitan society of Edinburgh's ongoing attempts to extirpate Gaelic from the Highlands was their attempts to eliminate the peculiarities of their own speech by means of elocution lessons, an ultimately sad industry that prospers upon cultural prostration. In this climate of high regard for English there occurred a transformation of thought typical of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Professors of rhetoric found themselves radically broadening the scope of their subject to include not only the spoken word but the written word and indeed verbal expression in all its forms. The examples they adduced to illustrate their principles of composition for the first time included not only classical sources or Petrarchan sonnets but contemporary literature in English. This was seen as conducive to the students' advancement in the prevailing conditions of cultural prostration (indeed the expediencies of advancement in these conditions are now so much a matter of second nature to Scots that many fail to recognise them as the abomination they are). In the process of broadening the scope of their discipline these professors initiatied the study of English literature at an academic level.

Most histories of literary criticism, perpetuating the ancient prejudice and conceit of the English, will accord a pivotal role to Dr. Johnson in its inauguration as a project, yet Prof. Watson of St. Andrews, who, in commenting on the breadth of scope of what had been called rhetoric, remarked that perhaps the subject should be named "criticism," the first use of the term in this context, is relegated to a mere footnote in the journals of Johnson's Scottish travels. It is amusing to note that Watson used Johnson as an example of bad writing for his students.

Johnson visited St. Andrews in 1774 and indeed met with Watson, whence the miserly footnote the latter enjoys. It is not recorded what they spoke of, other than that Johnson was greatly impressed, however one is in fact tempted to speculate in the light of Watson's role described here that the noblest prospect Dr. Johnson ever saw was the high road that led him and the language he celebrated to Scotland.


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