Picking Up the Thread

Much could be said about threads, apart from their use as material for nest-building.  We can, for example, get so wet that we haven’t a dry thread on us; there is the thread of life which Lachesis, her cloak encrusted with stars, snips with her shears when the time’s up, so that our lives can be said to hang by a thread, and our fortunes too; there is the thread of an argument which is always more tenuous than we hoped it would be; and there is the thread that led Theseus out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur, the thread having been laid out from inside information by his lover Ariadne.  Any of these threads could serve my purpose, but it’s the last one I have especially in mind – not for Ariadne’s sake (though I think she deserved better from Theseus than she got on the island of Naxos) but because of the labyrinth; and not because the thread would lead us out of the labyrinth as it did Theseus, but because it could lead us back into the labyrinth where we belong.  We may take heart from reliable witnesses who tell us that there is not always a voracious Minotaur at the heart of the labyrinth.  I wonder whether the Delphic Oracle (who knew a thing or two about double-talk) had something labyrinthine in mind when she caused to be carved over the entrance to her cave the command “Know thyself.”  At least Coleridge and Yeats guessed that it might be so.

Three or four years ago a fashionable phrase emerged – “The Survival of Literacy.”  It was put round, I suppose, by those exponents of envious egalitarianism who make it their business to accelerate the decline of any aspect of life that cannot be shown to contribute directly to the gross national product.  Although it’s always a mistake to meet the enemy on his own terms, a conference of teachers of English from schools and universities met – our composure a little ruffled – to discuss this theme and its implied conclusion:  that “literacy” is holding on by the skin of its teeth for the moment but probably won’t last long.  It is difficult to accept this phrase “The Survival of Literacy” very seriously, recognising it as belonging to the same rhetorical family as “The Death of God” and “The Two Cultures”, whose poor relations are “The Pursuit of Knowledge”, “The Just Society” and “Peace with Honour”.  But there we were, members of a vanishing species, fellows of the duck-billed platypus, the whooping crane, the sperm whale, and those delicately poised pelagic birds of the Pacific Islands that were driven from their own natural homes by pigs and rats.  We addressed ourselves to the theme on the supposition that – at least for purposes of serious discussion – it was not a trendy catch-phrase, loaded and equivocal, beloved of weekend journalism and debating-societies; we tried in all charity to see if we could make some sense of it, and quickly came to the conclusion that the phrase was meant to imply something of this sort:  “The age of authorized misrepresentation has dawned.  ‘Communications’ and ‘the super-8 revolution’ have taken over.  Let there be noise above the threshold of pain.  To discriminate is to be economically anti-social.  Verbal is out, visual is in.  Literature is not ‘relevant’.”

We are inclined to bridle a little at such a declaration:  we had thought that, since “literature” is our business, “literacy” was perhaps our peculiar business.  If “literacy” goes, our business goes.  (Note the subtle but familiar shift in the word “business”.)  The more resolute among us could say, “Professional survival matters very little.  The ‘great work’ is all.  I can, like the deposed leader Zatopek, drive a junk-cart and be content – nobody can stop me humming.”  The more wary among us might be puzzled that in societies allegedly civilised the ear should suddenly be superseded by that abstractive organ the eye.  Reflecting a little (which is difficult to do without words), the rather limited intellectual and emotional life of the dragonfly and the owl might suggest that to be able to see well may not be quite enough; we might even wonder whether the waters prophetically described by McLuhan are more muddy than profound, and whether the confident declarations that go with the discovery may be more collusive than illuminating.  Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the threat is aimed at us, and I think it would be well to consider whether there is any substance to the threat, and also what connection there is between “English” and “literacy”.  What with aggressiveness on the one side and a saintly ineptitude on the other, idle rhetoric could produce an actual killing.  If it did, the killing would be a suicide.

To begin with, “literacy” is not identical with either “the teaching of English” or “the study of English”.  I should like to move in two directions.  First to look at the term “literacy” in the hope of bringing the word to some agreeable definition. Then, if the only purpose of “English” is to make students “literate” (as seems to be assumed in most schools and universities), I should like to affirm the traditional view – never more poignantly relevant than it is now – that the purpose of “English” is not simply to provide a “literating” regimen, but to fulfill a civilizing-function that has been renounced by virtually every other “subject”.

The evolution of the word “literacy” shows an interesting shift in emphasis:  it began by referring to a quality to be admired, and has ended by becoming a low-order fact to be entered in census statistics.  “Literate” – from Latin litteratus (lettered) – was used in mediaeval times to refer to a person who not merely knew the letters of the alphabet but particularly who made good use of that knowledge:  it meant “learned” or “educated”.  “Illiterate”, also directly from Latin, was originally the negative form of “literate”, meaning a person who was unlearned, uneducated.  The positive and negative forms of the same word often follow different semantic paths.  By the middle of the sixteenth century “illiterate” was sometimes used of a person who could not read or write; not until 1894 do we find “literate” – the opposite of the negative word “illiterate” in its new sense – used of a person who could read and write: it took about 250 years for that particular meaning of “literate” to develop out of a special and limited meaning of the word “illiterate”.  The history of the nouns formed from those adjectives endorses the history of the adjectives.  The noun “illiteracy” occurs in 1660, referring to the state of being unlearned or uneducated, and in the late seventeenth century only occasionally in the special sense of the state of one who could neither read nor write; “literacy” first occurs in 1883 as the state of being literate, presumably in all senses, but particularly in the sense of being learned or educated.

It is worth noticing that the word “literate”, coloured from its earliest use by the respect and reverence paid to those who (through being able to read and write) were learned or educated, carried over into the abstract noun “literacy” (when it came to be coined) assumptions about the potential implied in the ability to read and write rather than the mere fact of being able to manage the letters of the alphabet intelligibly.  Yet the word “illiterate” is now seldom used except to refer to a person who either cannot in fact read or write, or else is so grotesquely uncivilized that you can’t believe that he can do either.  The abstract noun “literacy”, however, suffered no such reversal of meaning:  it was coined at a time when the assumed benefits of universal education were first being advocated on a national scale in most civilizing countries.[1]  The undefined emotive word provided a convenient rallying-point – a procedure now well known to us from the propaganda- and advertising-industries.  It is melancholy to reflect that the self-sell that drew tens of thousands of guileless but bemused young people into universities in the sixties said nothing about literacy or civilisation, but much about economic self-improvement and the gross national product; the word “education” (equally undefined and emotive) promised a painless initiation into the mysteries of “the good life”, as specified in full colour with the molar grin of confident affluence.

Unfortunately high-mindedness does not always go hand-in-hand with a profound sense of reality.  To be able to read is indeed something worth attaining; but we all know that there are different levels of reading, as there are different levels of writing; we also know that to be able to voice printed or written characters in a semblance of intelligible speech, or to be able to job together written or printed characters into a semblance of coherent writing, is a rather compassionate test of literacy.  Those who say, “I only want you to teach my people how to write simple plain English”, never seem to understand that that is precisely what any serious writer would give his eye-teeth to be able to do.

If we place the test of literacy (of being learned or educated) at a rather high level, as I am sure we should insist, the definition of “literacy” can be seen to vary according to the size and homogeneity of the group that can be called learned or educated. If the group is homogeneous and sizable, a knowledge of certain authors and writings can serve as indications of how learned or educated any individual is. In the first half of the eighteenth century, for example, we could assume for a literate person a reading-knowledge of Horace, Cicero, Vergil and Ovid, and some Martial or Juvenal (according to taste); Greek would be desirable but not imperative; in English, Milton and Shakespeare could be assumed, with perhaps a little Spenser.  Prose fiction (as far as it existed) would be regarded as a pleasant diversion but not worthy of serious regard, yet a literate person would probably know that very civilised and dotty book Tristram Shandy.  Certain contemporary English poets would be well known – Dryden, Pope (not least his ingenious translation of Homer) and, when they came along, Gray, Collins, James Thomson and the like.  But there would also be included certain philosophers, preachers, essayists, historians, and biographers, and much literature of travel.  The locus of literacy was limited pretty much to capital cities and the few university towns.  The very strictness of definition and uniformity of taste gave a peculiar blend of zest and urbanity to the literate class – what Coleridge, about the time of the Reform Bill, was to call “the clerisy”, by which he meant all educated professionals.  The zest of that literate complex was transplanted to North America in the early years with a sense of responsibility; unhappily little of the urbanity has survived, and not much of the zest.

In the Canadian House of Commons it is a long time since anybody quoted Horace or Martial – or even Milton or Clarendon or Swift or Harrington.  I am not aware that in the last twenty-five years our elected representatives have ever quoted anything except each other’s more hasty and exploitable utterances, though it is true that Mr. Trudeau, a very cultivated man, has once or twice chosen phrases from Desiderata – which was a comfortingly democratic thing to do.  In 200 years circumstances have altered in many ways, not only in the House of Commons.  The number who can read and write has increased immensely in this century, and the number who can read well and write well must be rather larger than it was a century ago.  Yet journalism, becoming increasingly pervasive, has on the whole set a rather low and uniform level for staple reading and everyday speech; the bestseller market (already lively 200 years ago) has turned into an organized industry that circulates a large volume of commodities of variable quality that are sometimes read and usually, for a short time, talked about.  The Reader’s Digest has, I suppose, taken the place of the Quarterly Review, and Andrew Tooke’s Pantheon has been superseded by the comic strips; distinctions of class, in speech as well as in dress and deportment, have been heavily eroded; for some years the schools have been teaching methods of reading that ensure shallowness of impression.  All these considerations (and many more) prevent us from conceiving of “literacy” with the precision that could have been achieved even as late as the onset of the Second World War.

Whatever “literacy” means now, we are forced to recognize that we must look for it under a number of different manifestations, with a large variety of indicators, and in a much more heterogeneous group that even before – not least among those who are self-taught.  The concept of literacy is now very difficult to define, and statistical surveys won’t help much with a definition because we don’t know what questions to ask to identify a quality.  But that does not mean that “literacy” itself has declined or that it has been dissipated or even that it is in danger of disappearing.  A term that was in the first place very imprecise, though for a short time stable enough to be definable, has become much more fugitive in the ninety years since it was coined.  But the blurring of the field of search need not affect the fineness of the search.  If we are looking for garlic in a pig-sty we can still know quite clearly what garlic looks like and smells like.  It may be difficult to find a needle in a haystack, but the difficulty doesn’t prevent us from knowing what a needle is and what it is used for; and, if it’s a needle we want, it would be more intelligent to look for one in a pin-cushion than in a haystack.

The word “literacy” was never intended to imply anything but a desirable or admirable quality of intellectual cultivation.  The word was coined and borne aloft by the assumption (now largely disappointed) that given the means – to be able to read and write – the quality would naturally follow; that a person who was “lettered” (knew his letters) would tend (other things being equal) to become literate, learned, educated.  But the process can work very slowly.  John Berryman, when he was a brash young American undergraduate before the Second World War, discovered a curious instance of provinciality in Cambridge – Cambridge being, one would have thought, a fairly civilised place, and its undergraduates moderately literate.

These men don’t know our poets.

I’m asked to read:  I read Wallace Stevens & Hart Crane

in Sidney Sussex & Cat’s

The worthy young gentlemen are baffled.  I explain


But the idiom is too much for them.

The Dilettante Society here in Clare

asked me to lecture to them on Yeats

& misspelt his name on the invitations.

This refers to a matter of elementary literacy that we run into more and more as more and more students come from a relatively unlearned background – and some teachers too.  It can of course happen to anybody.  How could anybody be expected to know by instinct that the name Bagehot is pronounced ‘Bajut’, or that Elia is pronounced “ElÄ«a’.  Louis Arnaud Reid, studying aesthetics at Oxford about sixty years ago, thought for a whole undergraduate year that Bosanquet was two people – Bowes and Kett – like Liddell and Scott, or Lewis and Short, or Samson and Delilah.  (I have met students who thought that ‘jesting Pilate’ was a seafaring-metaphor).  I usually think it advisable at the end of a course in literature to say, “These are some of the names we have been bandying about.  This is how they are spelled; this is how they are pronounced.  I can’t insist that you read them all; but if you want to give the air of having read them, it is well to get the spelling right, and the pronunciation.  It goes ill in a billiard saloon to chalk the wrong end of the cue.”  But we must be patient.  Some of my students still say “Colleridge” even though I point again and again to Coleridge’s own epigram on the various mispronunciations of his name (including this one).  We must indeed be patient.

“Literacy”, in the historical view, means to have read or heard or seen some things that made the heart leap up because they seemed to have been made especially for you; to have encountered some things that “with the swift composure of a fish” (Virginia Woolf’s phrase) entered the fibre of the mind and stayed there; to have some feeling that literature is a living tissue spread out in time, a spider’s web that can, at a light touch, tremble right back to the beginnings of recorded speech or far below the levels of individual memory or experience.  Literacy in that sense cannot be taught; but the possibility of it can be made available.  To teach children – a little roughly if need be – to be read and write and do sums has always been the staple of schools; this is how it all begins and this is how it all should begin, and the sooner the better.

But the formal study of “English” in universities is a quite recent development, which began, roughly speaking, when classical studies ceased to be the central humanist discipline and the torch was handed to “English”.  Until that time – say the first quarter of the twentieth century – it seems always to have been assumed (in England at least) that a firm acquaintance with the literature of one’s own language was what – given a salutary shove at school – civilised people achieved, somehow, in the dog-watches, when nobody was looking.  You didn’t have to “take courses”; you were taught your own language at school and made to read a certain amount of “what everybody reads”; after that you were on your own.  (Those who clamour for a strong diet of courses in “Canadian literature” should give a little thought to this.)  Oxford considered “English” hardly a matter worthy of serious study, compared with the classics; and when an English School was eventually established late in the nineteenth century, the emphasis was placed on philology and Anglo-Saxon (a foreign language), and after Anglo-Saxon the advance towards Milton was tentative and grudging.  It was not supposed that in such a study you were meant to enjoy English:  that was your own affair, not the University’s.  Cambridge was a little less stuffy, and recognized that there might have been some writing in English after 1800 that would, in educational terms, reward study.

When classics was finally edged out of its commanding position, through the neglect of those who could best have profited from those studies, “English” found itself landed with the responsibility that classics had borne ever since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  Such arrangements are never made formally and are never openly acknowledged; after a decorous delay professors of English found themselves carrying the ball.  But to have to turn the study of language and literature into a prime civilizing-instrument is rather a tall order, and nobody knew quite how to do it; and anyway matters of this sort seem to go better when there is no apocalyptic purpose openly in mind.  The New Criticism, begun in Cambridge and turned into a paedagogic technique in the United States, threw the emphasis very firmly upon the integrity of literature and single works of literature; this greatly extended the precision, depth and comprehensiveness of literary studies, and seemed for a while to have provided a way of “teaching English” that would engage a fine range of discernment appropriate to the heart of humane studies.  That was in the thirties and forties.  But by about the time the last veterans of the wars had left the University and Cleanth Brooks was beginning to look theoretically a little thin and Ivor Richard’s hope of a psychological calculus for literature looked more like a piece of science fiction than a real possibility, signs of fragmentation began to appear, mostly in the promotion of broad dogmatic schemes of interpretation and the representation of literature as a form of social history.

It seems to me that, at present, “English” is not in general carrying out the function of a central humane discipline.  I speak of the run-of-the-mill work both in schools and in universities – which I suppose is what most “teaching” is.

The backwash of the New Criticism, reinforced by the nihilistic abstractions of behaviourism and scientific analysis, and fostered by a desperate desire to get in on the power-game, is to be seen in the wanhope of short cuts and technical gimmicks.  There is talk of teaching “skills” and “techniques” (rather than of making people skilful); of the “tools of research” and the “tools of criticism”; of identifying “approaches” and “views” and “problems”; faculties of education and institutes of education (which seem in an odd way to be busy with something other than education) refer confidently to “the learning-experience” and “the educational process” as though those actually existed, and urge us to establish “objectives” and “goals” and “to evaluate performance by objective criteria” or by “behavioural output”, and to “quantify the results”.  This is a godforsaken and desolate zone, as deadly as uranium 235, to be avoided at all costs if what we have in mind is the civilised study of “English”.

Yet I suppose this sort of thing is inevitable in times of desperation.  Our minds are by nature idle; faced with a taxing circumstance we hope for a simple solution, an easy answer, and clutch at anything that looks “viable”; with the instinct of a cat burglar we try the back door first; we look for a key that can be turned in one motion of the fingers rather than a clue to be followed or a thread to be patiently unraveled; and, if we can manufacture some high-sounding jargon to cover the case, rationalization and self-deception go decorously hand-in-hand.  We insist that we must understand, and so avoid the grace of showing that touch of respect that would make us determined not to misunderstand.  To insist on understanding is to be most unreasonable.  Not that all that loose jargon, with its crude analogies and empty abstractions, is utterly useless; but it doesn’t happen to serve our central purpose, which is to illuminate, to come upon the vigorous complex reality of language and literature and grasp it for what it is.  Yet, with all the beating of drums about innovation and audio-visual technology and “communications” and Canadianism, the noise can get a little confusing, and the urge to conform can become almost compulsive if we get nervous and are afraid that we might miss a trend or a new vogue and be thought old-fashioned – and think that we might wake one morning to find that for a whole generation most people had been talking in Arabic and we hadn’t even noticed.

Thinking of language and jargon and the wide uncritical currency of catch-phrases, I should say that in my view there is no such thing as a language of film, or a language of music, or a language of dance or painting, even though, as loose metaphors, those phrases may not be utterly useless.  The only language is the language of what we call “words”.  A true language has a grammar – that is, a description of intrinsic functions; music, painting, film and the like have only syntax – that is, principles of putting together.  Anybody who has ever attempted criticism of music or painting or film will know what I mean.  Words alone have intrinsic “meaning” (as we call it for lack of a better word); and words alone have the intrinsic functions that shape syntax.  Visual images can have quite strong implications:  a smiling face is not usually an unhappy face (though it may be an empty one); a male and a female figure disposed in a certain configuration can imply an amatory, erotic, or filial relation; but not everybody finds a toad ugly, or a mouse frightening, or a snake repulsive; and not all of us “read” the bee or the goldfinch as a symbol of chastity.  The minor mode seems to close a sad relay in our emotional circuitry; a descending interval or scale is less elevating than an ascending figure.  But these emotional resources, although they can in context be controlled with fine and intricate precision, cannot be articulated with the specific definition that words at a much lower level of accomplishment are capable of.

I say that words have ‘intrinsic’ meaning and function in order to make the point that language is not a “medium”; it is not simply a neutral “carrier-wave” (although under certain conditions it can be); we can push it only so far; it plays on us as much as we play on it; language even affects the physical structure of our faces.  We have somehow to come to terms with it, because language – no matter how conventional it sometimes seems – is not merely a conventional notation in which we record thoughts, wishes and feelings.  We spend several of the early years of our lives trying to find out how, in a rudimentary way, to use language; and since language in its very nature is always complex we often do quite well at the beginning even though we may get clumsier as we go on.  Some of us spend the whole of our lives trying to use language, and only in occasional moments of elation are we confident that it is possible to advance much beyond the level of finger-pointing and vague gestures.

The implied threat to literacy is the barbarous assumption that language has decayed to such an extent that it is no longer useful for human purposes, and that a substitute must be found – anything visual or noisy (it seems) will do:  film, artificial fog, fluorescent plastics, disorienting confusion of indiscriminate sound.  Which brings me back to “literacy”.  The word bears in its bones the implication of “letters”, the record of what is spoken or written; it may even carry with it some feeling for the unfathomable gap between what is written and what needed to get said.  As far as “literacy” means being learned or cultivated, we should want to extend the word to include some acquaintance with (say) music, painting, sculpture, architecture, dancing, acting; but the indissoluble element of “literacy” is language, and the use of language, and some recognition of the manifold and variable functions of language.  We need to pay attention to what is written, but even that is difficult to pick out because of the bond between the what and the how in any writing other than semi-mathematical discursive prose.  A “literate” person is, I think, what we mean by an “educated” person (however he comes by it).  I think not of expert knowledge but rather of the honest and comprehensive appreciation of the keen amateur who has a reasonably well-developed and well-informed taste.  His mind is not so much “filled” or “stocked” as ready, alert, responsive, having something to respond with.

Particularly, to be literate is to be sensitive to language in all its manifestations.  Reading – that is, actually reading lots of books – is perhaps a specialized activity, like skiing or rock-climbing or engraving on glass; for writing there is no other way of “Studying monuments of its own magnificence”.  Short of that – but not really a substitute for it – is to speak articulately, preferably with a touch of rough and improvised eloquence; and to be able to listen to speech attentively, grasping it as the dramatic unfolding of a necessary improvisation.  The breaking-up of isolated social groups, and the pressure to conform to “standard speech” may now have deprived us almost completely of dialects, and so of impromptu virtuosity in language.  But the old instinct quickly returns if we decline to ape the formulated patterns.

This, I suppose, is the keystone or knot or nucleus of my argument – if it is an argument:  that “literacy” is radically to do with language, and that the heart of any genuinely educative activity is to be found in language; not language as a phenomenon, nor as an object of inquiry; not language considered merely for what it says or “means” or contains, nor even literature as examples of the use of language and ways of living; but everything that is engaged by language and in language – the thinking, the feeling, the activity of mind, the reality of experience that, in the wording of it, can be as solid as an inconsolable grief; the reality that language constantly confronts us with, of making as a necessary and natural human activity; language as an inventive mode of inquiry that can disclose ourselves to ourselves, discovering to us what we wanted to say; above all the language that allows us to make and utter things that are not simply extensions or expressions of ourselves.

It is conceivable that the sense of language may go on decaying, that the finely articulate and modulated poetic speech that English is capable of could collapse into a mutter-tongue.  But language is always decaying; and also language is always renewing itself.  The renewal is brought about not by tight-lipped academicians standing pale (and almost speechless) at the barricades, nor by the stern schoolteacher who has a ruler for every knuckle; it occurs through the sheer exuberance of invention and delight in invention.  For language is not only the specific and distinctive mark of man, but his most naturally inventive resource.  Nobody knows how we do it; and probably nobody ever will.[2]

Literacy, whether arising from formal or private study, is a by-product rather than a definable end, a spin-off rather than a product, a responsive and discerning habit of mind rather than a possession or an accomplishment.  If, in our teaching, our concern is to encourage literacy, we might to well not to assume that it will come only to the most talented students.  The most talented will find it anyway, somehow or other.  Our concern should be to provide at every level a starting-point from which individual development and vitality can begin to discover and affirm the gift of language.  Yet the literate will always be a minority because literacy depends upon a gift for language; there is no law that says that everybody must be fascinated by language (though I wish there were a law, particularly among people in positions of influence or authority, about using language in a responsible manner).  The only mistake is to suppose that it could be otherwise.  The ideal of teaching everybody to read and write was probably inevitable; but the risk almost outbalances the blessing.  It is now very clear that universal literacy (in the elementary sense) is in danger of producing universal illiteracy (in the qualitative sense), by breeding disrespect for language and whatever can be finely spoken or written; by submerging our sense of wonder at the most remarkable of our endowments, the gift of inventive speech; by throwing doubt upon our discriminate perception of the why of anything that is spoken or written.

I can’t remember when I last met a person who could not read printed words – except for very small children and perhaps a few psychopaths.  That disability is surely much rarer now than to have only one leg, or two eyes of different colours, or to bear scars of incontinent motor-driving.  Speech is a marvel enough in itself; we are perhaps most often reminded of it when we hear a five-year-old child speak fluently in a language not our own – Dutch, Hungarian, Russian.  To be able to convert written characters, is yet another and different marvel; it demands a flair for imaginative projection more studied and artificial than the act of speaking.  One ideal of written language is that it should sound as though spoken, even though a direct transcript of actual speech will seldom do the trick.  Yet many who have “done well at school” are (we find) utterly deaf when they read; content to “get the message” or to “pick up the information”, they fail to hear in the writing the very qualities that in speech they would welcome and even rejoice in.

We know that in real life if we do not listen we miss not only what is said but also why it was said.  Yet, for reasons mysterious to me, children have for many years been taught in school to “read by eye”, thereby systematically suppressing the ability to listen to what is written.  This may explain why we find so many students – even some “good” university students – who stiffen at the sight of a pen, the hand scrunching up like an arthritic old bird’s claw; the writing then goes clumsily enough, often with a deadly pedantry or uncouth pretentiousness that we never hear in their speech (unless they are trying to talk like an article in a learned journal or are engaged in student politics).  No doubt it’s a good thing to have a quick way of getting through large quantities of printed material that “isn’t worth listening to”; but if that is our only way of reading we ensure that nothing we read will be worth listening to – that is, worth reading.

A large part of my energy and ingenuity as an instructor of English in a university goes into encouraging people to read attentively and to write as well as they can.  The first is not too difficult because some have survived their early training scot-free and few have suffered irreparable damage; the second is more taxing because few are endowed to write as well as they speak, and even fewer are willing to accept the risk of discovering that language is not so much a “medium of expression” as an instrument of inquiry.

To direct students towards competence in writing is a laborious and discouraging task.  No wonder most instructors find that they have so much else to do that they have no time for it.  Yet there is no substitute for learning to write.  Speech will not do as a substitute because it lets us off the hook too easily – both speaker and listener – through the persuasive shorthand of gesture, facial expression, and intonation, and every bêtise in public tends to be endearing even if not always pardonable.  Hence the great importance traditionally (and correctly) placed in humane education upon writing.  There really is no other way of coming to terms seriously with language than by trying to write well.  To accept the proposition that writing is outmoded, that society is no longer “verbal” enough for the skilful conduct of writing to be “relevant” is to arrest the development of those who – though confident that they can in some sense “read” – are unaware how easily – by “reading badly” – they can be made mute victims of cynical manipulation (social, commercial and political), and could become emotional cripples and intellectual dwarfs.

To be not-illiterate is to be able to recognize the unity of the what, the how and the why of anything that is spoken or written.  If we cannot recognize by the ring of it that an argument is specious, or that it is no argument at all, being merely a reiteration of emotional catchwords and sophisms; if we cannot tell by the ear the peculiar timbre of a third-rate mind fumbling with matters that he neither understands nor respects; if we cannot sniff out the shiftiness of doublespeak, of gross dishonesty and bland self-deception dressed up in jargonish togs of the latest design; if we cannot by ear detect the poverty of dull earnestness or the ponderous tautologies of degenerate abstraction; if we can do none of these things, then we are indeed illiterate, no matter how extensive our vocabulary, no matter how many improving magazines we subscribe to.  Illiteracy of that sort thrives, I regret to say, not only among students who might (at their risk) be momentarily pardoned, but also among many who profess to “teach”.

We must recognize that there are now, and long have been, forces in society that make it their business to induce illiteracy, and that strive to persuade us (often in the name of “truth”, “objectivity” and the benefits of programmed conformity) that there is no point in listening while we read, or in judging while we listen.  It is the duty of schools and universities to keep alive these capacities and to nourish them as fully as may be in every individual who will let us.  We can do this by reminding ourselves continuously of something that we know perfectly well and that we live by every hour of the day:  that we can tell what people are saying to us and that we can usually judge pretty accurately why they are saying it.  To fulfil this duty is of course to be subversive:  by seeking to establish the autonomous discrimination of the individual (within reason), we threaten to undermine the programmes of power, authority and abstraction that at present dominate our society.  To be subversive in a “free” society is always sternly punished sooner or later, partly by having a submissive claque called “the public” organized against us, partly by the betrayal of waverers and opportunists from within.  William Tyndale, the first translator of the Bible into English, was exiled from his country and was eventually strangled and burned; there were complex grounds for Henry VIII’s displeasure, but treason was not one of them.  We no longer burn people in public; we roast them in private – by withholding essential funds, by intrusive legislation, by demanding so much reporting-in-detail that no honest work can be done, by putting about misleading propaganda, in short by cutting off telephones (the approved method of destruction in big business).  It is strange that in our society we tenaciously insist upon preserving the authorized conspiracy of trade unions, yet spend much effort in trying quietly to destroy the benign conspiracy of education that we ourselves have authorized by choice.

Human nature being what it is, the direction of wilful human ambition is always degenerate.  Yet there is a certain wisdom of the body that can secure our integrity against all the sly tricks from without – and even from the sloth from within that would make us complacent, unwatchful, destitute of delight.  Long after the last polar bear has been driven from the last garbage-tip, we shall go on listening, unless we destroy our ability to do so.  It is of our nature, a habit of growth and preservation, a source of responsive power and refining attention – to listen, not for the sounds of danger only, nor only for the sounds of delight (birdsong, running water, music), but for voices:  voices speaking, voices that speak intently to us, one by one, voices that we can recognize and put a name to.[3] This is not a matter of policy, and is therefore unassailable.  As instructors, our business is not salvation or programmes for salvation, but simply with helping people to discover their capacities, their intrinsic nature, their selves.

Now for the “thread” – the bond, that is, between the formal study of “English” and the quality of “literacy”.  What is the thread we suppose ourselves to be unraveling or following – deliberately or absent-mindedly – and where does it lead us?  Let us recognize two things.  (1) Our discussion so far has taken the work of school and university as a single continuum, but I have spoken perhaps as though the emphasis fell mostly on the university.  As we trace the thread we shall need to pay closer attention to different levels of function, to make some distinctions between the work of primary school, high school and university.  (2) In schools, and also (but to a lesser extent) in university, education is not directed exclusively towards the training of experts or the cultivation of highly endowed intelligences.  We need to recognize that (for a number of various reasons) a certain number of people are uneducable beyond a very modest level.  Nevertheless, we hold as an aim that each individual should ideally be trained to a high level of his own capacity, whatever that may be; and we also wish to arrange the quality of our work in such a way that (as with some artists) the “picture” in a real sense is complete at every stage; if a person has to stop before reaching the end of a programme (say grade nine or grade thirteen or an honours BA) his education to that point will be coherent and at that level self-consistent.  Education is not only for “experts”; a literate or educated person is not an expert, but he does approach in some way the ideal of the “generally educated person”.  Intense and specialized training can assail the integrity of that ideal, and pedantry or the closed mind can destroy it.

If “English” is to assume from Classics the function of the central humane discipline, it must be not only learned but substantial, earthly, physical, subtle and far-ranging.  The earthiness, subtlety and range are to be found by concentrating on language.  And “English”, though certainly not devoid of “content”, is to be regarded not as a “subject” but as a discipline in the true sense:  a certain way of mind, a habit of mind, a quality of perception – from which all other kinds of study can radiate and in which they can be seen to be rooted.  This is an axiom, not an argument.  In no other terms could “English” take on the general educational responsibility that classics traditionally held.  Classics had always been a study, not a language and literature only, but of the history, philosophy and social institutions of two complete, highly developed, closely related, and strongly contrasted cultures; a study not only (say) of comparative philosophy and history, but of the origins and growth to civilised stature of philosophy itself, and of historiography; a study not of two foreign languages but of two languages representing two contrasting mentalities, each very different from our own mentality, despite the profound effect both languages have had on our own.

Lacking that complex perspective, and lacking the strong intrinsication or inward pull exerted by the study of such flowering-at-the-source, and deprived of the otherness, the sheer strangeness of those two languages and cultures, “English” has always had to make a deliberate effort not to relapse into a narrow and myopic study of “English language and literature” as a “subject”.  In my view such a relapse has largely occurred; and I applaud the challenging proposition of my learned colleague Felp Priestley that perhaps English has become an obsolete industry – that is (I take it), that English has become obsolete by being turned into an industry; that “English” has become a worn-out shorthand omnibus term, an omnibus (to change the image) in which we long ago stopped checking the oil and haven’t noticed that rust has afflicted the steering-mechanism.

It is not enough, I suggest, to say that we are going to each people to read and write and gain a knowledge of literature; nor is it enough to say that literature embraces just about any study you can think of – history, philosophy, politics, psychology, semantics, etc., etc., etc.  We need to be continually following a thread that leads us back into the origins of all these special kinds of study – even our own; to be finding in the ways of language, and in literature (as language superlatively realised in any form of expression or in any subject), a continuous discovery and affirmation of the nature of language and of the inventive and integral activities of the whole person that we call “mind”.

We need to take into account, though, that – as teachers – we are thinking of a continuous process covering usually (without much serious interruption) a span of sixteen to twenty years in the life of a potentially literate person; and also that within such a span, and within the working-span of any single teacher, the vision will be blurred from time to time and that declared purposes will be deflected by waves of irrational fashion, by ignorant intervention, and by crass methodological doctrine.  Therefore, in a matter at once complex and elusive, subject to erosion from within by fatigue and languor – or simply by losing the thread – we need some strong and single focus of attention.

We need to recognize that within the field of “English” there is an almost infinite number of things that we can “do with” literature, but that not all – or even many – of these have much to do with the central paedagogic value of studying literature.  There is a very small nucleus of activity where the going is very hard indeed because what is sought is of the utmost simplicity; and there are a host of peripheral activities that grow up from using literature and language as evidential material for quite other interests.  Much of the time and attention of our students is consumed with these peripheral interests.  Those interests are legitimate enough in their own way; but, in comparison with what a central educational discipline can be expected to do to us, they offer little more nourishment than lists of irregular verbs or columns of stock-exchange quotations.  The nucleus I speak of is not, of course, the exclusive prerogative of “English”; it is the nucleus of all humane study.  But literature and language give a peculiarly direct and penetrating entry to that nucleus, and, although the chances of deflection are abundant and debilitating, it is usually easier in the study of English than in other humane studies to tell (if we are honest with ourselves) whether we are being deflected or not.

I suggest that the nucleus is accessible along a single thread that is composed of two strands – as is the case (I suppose) for all things and states imaginative.  These strands are a sense of wonder and a sense of language.  Plato said that wonder was the beginning of philosophy – and by “philosophy” he meant the affectionate pursuit of wisdom.  Without a sense of wonder the mind remains closed, or irritably aggressive, or morosely fear-ridden.  Wonder is a respectful way of mind, a grace that we seem to be born with; by discipline we can nourish it; it brings with it the exhilarating release, the sheer delight, of discovering living things that are not projections of our selves, and that liberate us by their exuberant vitality, their unaccountable otherness and rightness.  By “a sense of language” I mean a feeling for the physique, the nerves and muscles of words, and for their textures; a feeling for what language is doing almost more than what it is saying or “meaning”, for what it is tracing out, acting out, gesturing forth, embodying; a feeling for the intrinsic qualities of words, their origins and transformations, their minute particularities as they establish themselves by context, by location, by rhythm; a feeling for their ability to declare, in precise configuration and ordered hierarchy, multiple meanings, often contrary; a feeling for the inner shaping energy that comes to the ear as shapely rhythm, as a tune often so subtle that it might seem to be on the fringes of silence.  To follow this thread – a thread that leads back into the mind and into the source of our most inventive endowment – is to move toward the centre of articulation and initiative both in ourselves and in what we are studying.

We can pick up the thread at any time, as long as the last vestiges of innocence and candour have not been destroyed, and as long as we are not finally convinced that the mind is a clockword orange constructed on the principles of Newtonian physics; but the earlier we pick it up the better, while the sense of wonder still naturally supervenes upon the fascinating effort of learning to speak.  To discover the transfiguration that language is capable of, to come upon the imperishable substance of things-made-in-language that are no more sounds on the air or marks on paper yet are sometimes as deep as life, often as commanding as a presence – this is to experience the synthesis that language flows out of and can bring us to.  So to concentrate on dynamics, dynamis, energy, the originating and shaping forces that are carried in the bones and nerves of anything well made, is to find a nuclear centre of a minute critical mass.  The rest depends upon what, individually, we can do with it.

There is not time, nor is this the occasion, to specify in detail what can be done by picking up this thread and taking the courage to go back into the labyrinth.  But I can make a few hints.  At the very beginning, writing is making shapes that will evoke sounds; the correlation of sound to shape is seldom very exact, but the letters have shapes interesting in their own right, and they have histories; and, when it comes to spelling, that is a good way of beginning to get a feel for the shapes of words as physical entities.  (It is recorded that J. A. Smith, a Wynfleet Professor of Moral and Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, came to breakfast after a sleepless night saying what a dreadful thing it would be for a learned Chinese to go blind:  some of the ideograms that make Chinese so beautiful when written have no sounds attached to them and can therefore only be read by eye.)  The study of grammar, essential I should have thought, but now, I understand, largely neglected in the school as a matter of policy, is to study the intrinsic functions of words, how they “work”, what they have to be to “work” at all – the static noun that for an adorning or refining touch calls adjectives to itself but won’t have more than one at a time (usually) or they will quarrel; the range of functions of the verb from passive and impersonal inaction and neutrality to the vigorous forward thrust in search of an object that imparts such impetus to an utterance that the words have to fall into place because they haven’t time to do anything else.  Syntax is another matter – the way words actually go together in utterances; and given the terms of identification we can find out by analysis (that is, by unraveling) how in actual cases the words do work together.

Here it is that considerations of “style”, the unique “thisness” of anything, come to conscious attention, though we had long ago caught the tune of it; under the spell of wonder we may well have taken it for granted.  Here we come upon the peculiar nature of language – the fact that we discover our meaning in the wording of it; for it is persons, not words, that mean.  In matters of spelling, in identifying parts of speech, and even in classifying figures of speech, we may be able to speak of “right” and “wrong” (i.e. correct and incorrect), but as soon as we are dealing with syntax and style we are dealing with the judgement of what “works”, what is “exactly right”, in an actual context.  There are many grammatical difficulties that are insoluble except by complete reconstruction; “rules” are indications, navigational instruments, not immutable imperatives.  Here the only test is whether in fact a certain wording “works”, whether it is the best words in the best order – and perhaps nobody can say that for sure except the writer.  Hence in “teaching” writing – if we want to encourage a sense of the dynamics of the language – it is important to reserve “right” and “wrong” for the few cases where “correct” or “incorrect” can be determined beyond question; elsewhere a scale runs from “right” to “not quite right” to “not right at all” – but neither of the last two is “wrong” in the sense of “incorrect”; when we say “no” to the choice of word, the position of a phrase, a grammatical construction, we have located a symptom that something has gone adrift, slightly or seriously.  What has “gone wrong” has still to be discovered; it is usually in the conceiving of it.  What we have to do is not usually to tinker with the words but to reconceive the exact mental action or gesture that we had in mind.  I don’t know how anybody who does not have a refined sense of language and the patience to weigh minute verbal values in other people’s writing can ever hope either to write well or to induce anybody else to write well.[4]

All this places an almost intolerable burden upon the teacher, not least because little of it can be learned by rote.  To teach the minutiae of grammar and syntax is a rigorous and exacting matter, yet it is refreshed and reinforced by reading works of literature, to begin with – and perhaps always – for the sheer enjoyment of it, deliberately looking for a spell to fall under; as teachers, explaining as little as possible (because explaining is almost invariably explaining away), and yet encouraging our students as best we can to grasp the multiple activity that goes on in good writing, the many implications that are set in motion and sustained with fine precision.  When we are studying literature as a way of finding out how to write well, “criticism”, “explication” and all the alleged “tools of research” are to be handled with the utmost delicacy and restraint; if they are really used as “tools” they will certainly dismember what we seek to grasp whole and intact.  And so for all the fascinating details of prosody and versification, the principles by which, in verse, the words have in fact been set in the right order so that they resonate and are transfigured – we need to conceive these principles in dynamic terms, as the disposition of energy in relation to chosen constraints and limits; for a study of prosody can immensely heighten the sense of verbal drama – exactly what the words are doing, how they are acting (as actors act).

And if, with the advance of self-consciousness, students suspect that the sense of wonder was only a paedagogic trick, it can be restored by examining how poets and artists actually work, how they deal with their need to go to the labour of making things in words, what the relations are between the historic person of the poet and what ends up in his poem.  This needs to be handled delicately too, and is probably slippery ground except for those who have practiced the art of poetry a bit and are familiar with its forthright and craftsmanlike axioms.  A study of artistic making will not explain much, but it can restore wonder by clearing away inappropriate assumptions about “communication” and “information” and “messages” and “media” and “audience-appeal” and “the poet’s Philosophy” and “motivation” and “social commitment”.  These drift into the background as too crude to help us, or as totally irrelevant to the poetic matter in hand.  There are also questions about “fact” and “value”, about the alleged “subjectivity” (unreliability?) of all personal judgements – as though any judgements were anything but personal; about ways of knowing and recognizing; about seeing and observing, describing and symbolising and naming; about the enclosed integrity that some poems have and how others are more discursive and open; about the distinction between what is merely actual and what is actually real (the two being concentric); about the relation of feeling to thinking; about the poetic ordonnance that works through metaphor, and how this is different from “logic”, though more intricate, and yet embracing logic (as language must); about the peculiar reality of fictions over against the unreality of descriptions of the actual.  Above all we should choose carefully works of such strength and complexity that they force our attention into the symbolic mode and hold it there.  Lesser works do not deserve our full attention:  they will cheat us by letting us have our own way too easily.  Acquaintance is easy enough to arrange, yet the shock of personal discovery must somehow never be destroyed.

This is really a labyrinth, but that’s where the thread leads.  In such a pass, at the present time, I’m not sure what sort of results we could guarantee – if any; except that we can be reasonably sure that there will always be a few innocents and crackpots to follow Tom Piper’s whistle.  As instructors we can at least take stock of our individual resources and decide up to what level we can work with confidence, without doing serious (i.e. erosive) damage, making sure that if we are deflecting we are doing so deliberately, and say so.  There is of course no one “answer”, in “technique”:  the work under inquiry commands the method of inquiry – which is what “method” means; we need to make that clear too.

Whether it is possible for any one person to achieve what I am talking about I am not sure; but I am confident that, given some vital sense of direction, some sense of the nucleus that will energise whatever we undertake – no matter how minute or even (on the face of it) detached from the nucleus – we can conduct our work at all levels with success, leaving deposits of the solid verbal footing from which a person cannot easily be dislodged.  I often wish that there had never been “the New Criticism”, splendid, rich, and penetrating though its best results have been; I wish it were issued with instructions, not on how, but on when and how much; it offers possibilities, it does not provide answers, and it can lead to barren ends.  Indeed, in tracing this thread – or even if we are prepared to go no further than to hand on – our concern must be for fruitful questions, not for answers.  When literary studies propose only formulated answers, routine “techniques” and judgements that are expected to be repeated by those who have not discovered and shaped them for themselves, the thread has indeed been lost and the study of letters has come to a dead end.

[NOTE: This essay was published in In the Name of Language, edited by Joseph Gold (Toronto:  Macmillan, 1975), 46-70. Originally, George Whalley read this essay at the ACE/ACTE Conference at Glendon College, Toronto on May 15, 1973. The essay is reprinted in Studies in Literature and the Humanities: Innocence of Intent, edited by Brian Crick and John Ferns (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1985), 122-144.]


[1] Since writing this essay I have noticed in the writing of educationists a sudden eruption of the word “numeracy” – which, I suppose, by loose analogy means the ability to add and subtract (a mystery that even navigators by tradition seldom master). In such grand vestments now creep the three Rs, under a new name, with added bleach.

[2] Cf. The Letters of Mercurius (London, 1970) p. 46: “Dr Chadwick is held by all to be a man of sense and learning… as also an excellent preacher, able to put together an English sentence, with subject, verb and syntax, which is rare enough in these illiterate days, and would doubtless do much good to the young, were they not artfully discouraged from hearing him.”

[3] In my family, my mother was fond of reading aloud to us when we were children. In the summer, on an island on Devil Lake, a favourite place to read was a little glade by the water. Sometimes an old groundhog who lived at the edge of the glade would clamber out of his burrow and listen “motionless and still” as though, even in a world haunted by the white-throated sparrow, the whiskey-jack and the loon, the sound of my mother’s voice reading was a marvel not to be missed.

[4] A pianist can learn agility at the keyboard by practicing scales and arpeggios with increasing precision and velocity; he can work at etudes, preferably those of Chopin, Brahms and Bartok, which combine musical interest with concentrated technical difficulty; he can work at compositions of high musical quality and sort out the technical difficulties as they turn up. In writing (except in some kinds of verse) we cannot “practice” in so direct a way, and it is very difficult to contrive technical exercises that will develop a competence in writing. Probably the nearest we can get is in a patient study of the dynamics of any writing we admire, and an attempt to match the quality of it. But writing will come to life only if the writer cares about what he is writing; and parody is too subtle a matter for weak heads.