Ian Robinson and the English TraditionJohn Ferns (MA 48:1, Winter 2006) - 12/08/08
Reviewing Ian Robinson’s The English Prophets: A Critical Defence of English Criticism (2001) in The Cambridge Quarterly (2002), Mark Le Fanu writes:
Why this truly cultivated author is so little known nationally is a mystery. In a writing career stretching over thirty years, he has published a large number of essays, along with major books on Chaucer, on the Anglican liturgy, and on the development of modern English prose. A superb study on the recent reforms in higher education came out a couple of years ago . . . A general tone of suavity, combined with a total lack of class animosity, are two of the most admirable things about Robinson’s writing: he is absolutely not a sectarian. And yet he is passionate, as prophets must be. . . . Far more than better-known journalists and commentators, he exemplifies the tradition he is elucidating. 1
Duke Maskell, who collaborated with Robinson on The New Idea of a University, as well as following him as editor of The Gadfly (1984–86), makes the point that though Terry Eagleton is thought of as a radical, the real radical is Ian Robinson.2 However, if Robinson is not well known in England, it is not, perhaps, surprising that he is not well known in North America, yet he ought to be because most of what he says to England can be equally well said to the United States and Canada.
Throughout his writings, Robinson is a critic of language. Opening his best-known book, The Survival of English: Essays in Criticism of Language (1973), he writes, “My subject is the connection of the primitive human shaping activity with verbal language, the human reason as it lives in words. The book is all about different examples of the interplay between language and life.”3Another of Robinson’s books that Le Fanu does not mention is The New Grammarian’s Funeral: A Critique of Chomsky’s Linguistics (1973), which should be better known. Unlike Chomsky, Robinson has a Wittgenstinian view of the working of language. He argues that “when we think in language that’s exactly what we do: not think separately then translate the thought into language. . . . I am following Wittgenstein in arguing not for natural connection between word and idea but for identity. The word properly heard or said to oneself, is the idea. . . .”4
Also, Robinson argues that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer, anticipates Wittgenstein’s understanding of language. In his Holy Communion liturgy Cranmer shows no difference between signifier and signified; Christ is really present with us in the bread and the wine. Elsewhere, Robinson argues that “Cranmer does really differ from both Rome and Zwingli.”5 He shows that “Cranmer depends on an understanding of signs resembling the views of language I have found in Wittgenstein. . . . Cranmer’s doctrine allows the signified and the signifier to be one.”6
Robinson is the best disciple and the best critic of his mentor, F. R. Leavis (1895–1978). He was a student of Leavis’s at Downing College, Cambridge from 1955 to 1958. He published some of Leavis’s later writings in The Human World, the quarterly Robinson edited from 1970 to 1974 and which he calls, “English criticism in action.”7 Throughout his literary criticism, Robinson discusses the tradition of classic works of English literature that Leavis did so much to establish but from an increasingly different point of view. In The Survival of English Robinson wrote, “I, who am not a Christian”8 but in Prayers for the New Babel (1983) he makes clear his Christianity, which differs sharply from Leavis’s unorthodox religious sense of life. Also, Robinson sees the tradition of classic works of English literature as beginning earlier than Leavis does.
In Chaucer and the English Tradition (1972) Robinson writes, “Dr. Leavis has, I think, written about every other great poet.”9 Leavis’s quarterly Scrutiny (1932–53) did publish a critic of Chaucer, John Speirs (author of Chaucer the Maker ), who Robinson quotes: “‘The place of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—and because it is a great poem it is a central place—is in the English tradition. It belongs to the first great creative moment of (I shall dare to say) modern English Literature—the moment of the Canterbury Tales and of Piers Plowman. These three English poems, though robustly independent from each other, are not accidentally contemporary.’”10 Robinson refines Speirs’ perception as follows: “But if The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight belong together it is only because they belong to us, as well as to the fourteenth century.”11