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Ian Robinson and the English Tradition

Winter 2006 - Vol. 48, No. 1

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 [1951]), 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

Jan Kott has called Shakespeare “our contemporary.” Robinson shows how Chaucer is our contemporary as well. His Chaucer’s Prosody (1971) and Chaucer and the English Tradition (1972) bring Chaucer close to us as I discovered, at first hand, when I tried reading Chaucer aloud to my students in the ways Robinson suggests—without hitting finale on every occasion. But Robinson raises yet more important critical questions about Chaucer. “The real question is whether Chaucer can hold a candle to Dante.”12 He concludes that while Dante’s Comedy is a voyage of discovery “there is more pure creation of what is discovered in Shakespeare or Chaucer” (258) than there is in Dante. He finds Dante “domineering over his inspiration” (258) and is “unconvinced by Dante’s vision” (259). Robinson considers Chaucer and Shakespeare more “exploratory” and “adventurous” and concludes, “I am more interested in Chaucer’s and Shakespeare’s genius for seeing God within ‘i movimenti umani’” (262).

Robinson believes that “modern Chaucer criticism makes itself weak by trying to separate Chaucer from English literature” (266).

Recently he has published a revised edition of Chaucer and the English Tradition, also, he has offered to supervise or write a book on Thomas Cranmer’s prose and promises a book on Shakespeare’s Rhythmic Descent from Chaucer.13 With his recent work on Cranmer and Milton,14he could well write a book with a title like The First Great Tradition (Chaucer, Cranmer, Shakespeare, Jonson, Milton and Bunyan). Like many readers, Robinson wishes that Leavis had written more on Shakespeare.15

He shares Leavis’s view that the first literary critical test is whether a work of literature (or literary criticism) is alive or dead.16“Life” for Leavis as for D. H. Lawrence, Robinson notes, is a necessary word.17He believes that it is essential to judge the moral nature of the “life” in literature. The relationship between Christianity and critical judgment becomes a central concern for him. He writes, “What the connection may be between Christianity and critical judgement is a question that recurs down to Eliot and Leavis. I am not sure it has yet been answered.”18Could the answer be that both require what Le Fanu calls “moral intelligence”? In the Gospels, Jesus Christ continually challenges our moral intelligence. Critical judgment of classic works of literature requires the full exercise of our moral intelligence too.

Robinson disagrees with Leavis’s judgments of Milton and Eliot in his recent Milton essay and in The English Prophets, and argues that Leavis has no time for Milton’s subject in Paradise Lost and that he misreads Four Quartets in The Living Principle. Though he bases his judgments on critical analysis, Robinson is more sympathetic to Milton and Eliot than is Leavis because he shares their Christianity. In a letter to Robinson, Leavis declared that at the time of joining the Quaker ambulance corps in 1914 he had “the protestant conscience without any religion.”19Robinson sees Arnold and Leavis as wanting “poetry” or “cultural continuity” to “stand in” for religion.20Robinson recovered his Christianity; Leavis never believed in Christianity. However, with George Eliot, both Robinson and Leavis share the strong ethical and moral perspective of protestant Christianity. This moral inheritance leads Leavis to see where D. H. Lawrence goes wrong in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.21

Robinson’s position on the relationship between Christianity and critical judgment is further elaborated towards the close of The English Prophets: “The thorny question arises of whether the literary critic in this country needs to be a Christian. I will not disguise my view that explicit commitment to the Christian way is the simplest and most effective mode of assent to the culture (it is more straightforward to declare ‘I believe . . . ’ than to talk about assent to a life-form), but I will continue to make this discussion as far as practicable a grammatical, not an evangelical, one, though I shall have no regrets if the former makes an ontological suggestion of the latter.”22 Robinson believes that religion without art is boring, art without religion weightless.23

Wrestling with Leavis in The English Prophets, Robinson tries to get his mentor’s “essential steps . . . in neat order, and, in my words not Leavis’s.” He writes:

We have in [English] literature, for those with eyes and ears, something undeniably splendid, which characterizes the language.
To form that judgement is a disciplined but not a specialist activity and not done with a special aesthetic compartment of the mind. Only those capable of non-specialist judgement, about life, can make it.
Therefore the literary critic must be able to speak outside literary criticism narrowly conceived, though that will be the centre; and literary criticism, a genuine academic discipline, must nevertheless be devoted to the best life of the whole culture.24

Robinson agrees with Leavis that far. Indeed, on the same page from which I have just quoted, after citing Leavis’s support for English literature’s educative power and exemplification of “national greatness” and “strong spiritual continuity,” he writes, “It would be improper as well as pusillanimous if I reported this opinion without recording my wholehearted agreement.”25The additional element that Robinson requires to place us further inside the English tradition is Christianity, presumably because so many classic works of English literature were written within the Christian tradition. He believes that “Nobody who cannot get on the inside of religion will be able to judge any Western cultural tradition.”26

As well as providing, in The English Prophets, a reading of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English literature that complements Leavis’s The Great Tradition (1948), Robinson shows how lively the study of great works and great writers of English literature continues to be. His revaluation of Thomas Carlyle is persuasive, and his readings of the Christianity in Dickens’s Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Great Expectations are illuminating. Robinson also provides the best antidote I know to current literary theory. He has read it and he judges it. His essay “Reconstruction” in “My Native English”: Criticisms of an Unnecessary Crisis in English Studies (1988) says most of what needs to be said, but The New Idea of the University and The English Prophets add more. In his article on Milton (2003), Robinson offers the following definition of “genuine literary criticism”: “By genuine I mean: addressing the question what significance this poem might have for us now, where it comes in life and in literature, and answering the question by serious attention to the poem.”27Robinson discloses an excellent understanding of the limitations of recent literary theory, and he judges its language. “[Eagleton] is so like the gabbling narrator of Swift’s Tale of a Tub! ‘Speaking as a hierarchical, essentialist, teleological, metahistorical, universalist humanist, I imagine I have some explaining to do.’ Well, yes. Or shut up?”28

Beginning with The Survival of English, Robinson’s defense of English literature has involved a defense of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. “Religious English” began as a letter to The Guardian criticizing the New English Bible (1961), developed into an essay in The Cambridge Quarterly (1968) to become the best known chapter in The Survival of English and, probably, the most famous piece of Robinson’s critical writing. In his original letter, he wrote of the New English Bible, “The one aim it appears to have consistently is to be journalistic, and its one consistent effect is that it cheapens.”29Robinson wonders “Why it is now so hard for even much-praised translators to render the Word of God in English and for liturgists to provide language for the worship of God.”30He compares in the King James Bible and the New English Bible the passage from St. Luke 2: 8–14 in which the shepherds are told of Christ’s nativity. He points out the failure of the N.E.B. translators to provide a clear picture of what is happening, “the shepherds are peering through the darkness over the top of the sheep and failing to see them.”31

Further criticism of language follows. Robinson quotes the New English Bible, “‘And on earth his peace for men on whom his favour rests.’ [and responds] This seems to be an acephalous long line of a poulter’s measure, with all the rigidity of the form. It could not imaginably be sung; it is stiffly and unalterably prosaic. . . . The N.E.B. is as bad as this all the way through. I haven’t read it all the way through, but make the judgement confidently: those committees were incapable of doing any better. I defy anyone to find two consecutive well-written pages in the whole thing.”32In contrast, he argues that “The greatness of the 1611 Bible style was rightly seen to lie in its weight, definiteness, irresistible rightness of rhythm, and its power to draw on Shakespearean ranges of meaning—which last is why its boldness is so far from French clarté andwhy its style can be seen as essentially English, making the language at one central place, fully itself.”33

For Robinson the style is the man. He contrasts the translators of the King James Bible with those of the N.E.B. In the case of the King James translators he asserts that “The proof of their love is in their language. . . . The English Bible was made by those great generations around the time of Shakespeare, made through the effort of disciplined and intelligent men who loved the Lord their God with heart and mind and soul and who therefore did, amongst other things, the necessary work on language. . . . The 1611 translators summed up in English the sense their sixteenth century predecessors had managed to make of the Bible. . . . The familiarity of Bible English, especially the familiarity of its rhythms, is an inestimably precious possession of our language.”34With the N.E.B., however, he discovers that “Translators who cannot show the Bible to be the word of God cannot produce a sincere translation. It is surely a sign of the times when a group of earnest Protestant scholars bent on furthering what they take to be the Kingdom of Heaven produce between them the Atheists’ Bible.”35Robinson is rightly troubled by the state of the contemporary language of religion. “It seems to me more alarming when the clergy cannot speak a religious language than when pop stars offer to fill the resulting vacuum.”36

Robinson defends Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer with the same passionate intelligence with which he defends the King James Bible. Though his defense is most fully expressed in Prayers for the New Babel (1983) and continues in articles and reviews in Faith and Worship, the publication of the English Prayer Book Society to which he is a frequent contributor, in The Establishment of Modern English Prose. . . . (1988) and The Real Common Worship (2000), it began in the “Religious English” chapter of The Survival of English. There, he sees the Book of Common Prayer as essential for the conduct of human life. “The move from birth, copulation and death to initiation, marriage and burial is from an animal to a specifically human world.”37He argues further, “When one considers the more public and ceremonial aspects of religion it is very clear that without a language for the occasions the occasions cannot be what we at present call them.”38

Through the Book of Common Prayer, Robinson writes, “we are granted . . . the capacity to see our marriages as something other than the mating of beasts and our burials as something more important than waste-disposal; without this common human possession we would all die the death of dogs. The way the 1662 Prayer Book creates the idea of marriage or burial makes available a possibility of living humanly.”39Considering, in particular, the Order for the Burial of the Dead and changes proposed for it that were included in the Alternative Service Book (1980), Robinson notes that “The new service is less sombre—but also less joyful.”40He continues, “The 1662 Burial Service begins with one of the most challengingly hopeful assertions in the world. I am surely not the only person to have been struck dumb with wonder as the minister, advancing into church followed by the very coffin shouts, ‘I am the resurrection and the life saith the Lord. . . . ’”41It is hard to find writing on religion as bold and persuasive as this, and not surprising that Robinson recovered his Christianity.

In Prayers for the New Babel (1983), he offers a thoroughgoing critique of the Alternative Service Book (1980), the book with which the Anglican hierarchy sought to replace the Book of Common Prayer. As well as exposing the crass prose and prose-verse of the A.S.B., he provides a strong and detailed defense of Thomas Cranmer’s Prayer Book of 1549 and 1552 that received conservative revisions in 1662 and 1885 and, as the Book of Common Prayer has been the “official” Anglican Prayer Book for almost 450 years until incorporated in 2000 into something called Common Worship. A full grasp of Cranmer’s accomplishment lies at the heart of Robinson’s defense of the Book of Common Prayer. His work in Prayers for the New Babel is developed further in The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment (1998). (The latter has recently been re-published by Edgeways Press as Cranmer’s Sentences.)There Robinson argues that “Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s work on liturgy created a new English prose, which was much changed in the time of Dryden.”42Robinson shows how Cranmer developed the complex sentence in English; his conclusion is that “the well-formed sentence was developed in English not as a result of the activities of the Royal Society, to purify the language and make it fit for science, but to approach God.”43

Robinson’s recovery, revaluation and reestablishment of the centrality of Thomas Cranmer seems to me his most important contribution to literary criticism, to the study of English literature as well as to the church Robinson loves and which Cranmer helped to establish. In The English Prophets Robinson quotes Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship: “‘He that can write a true Book, to persuade England, is not he the Bishop and Archbishop, the Primate of England and of All England?’”44Cranmer was quite literally that man, and the book he wrote was The Book of Common Prayer. Robinson is right to see Cranmer’s influence extending down to Coleridge; his revaluation revitalizes Cranmer’s influence now, at a time when it has never been more needed.

Robinson argues that “From the Preface to the Bible of 1540, at latest, Cranmer’s prose is consistently good, so exhibiting the first prose virtue of reliability. . . . In the last fifteen years of his life Cranmer wrote no bad prose; some knowledge of his contemporaries is necessary for appreciating the gravity of this compliment, and of course it is meant as a challenge. I do not want less faint praise for him; however, I have to dissent from [C. S.] Lewis’s judgement that More and Tyndale ‘can be loved and [Cranmer] cannot.’ That Cranmer can be loved is a fact I know from experience: I don’t even find it very difficult.”45Robinson quotes Cranmer’s letter from prison to Mrs. Wilkinson, “‘The true comforter in all distresses is onlie god thorow his sonne Jesus Christ. And whosoever hath hym, hath company enough: althoe he were in a wilderness all alone. & he that hath 20 thousand in his companye, if god be absent, he is in a miserable wilderness & desolation [?]. In hym is all comfort and without him is none. Wherefore I beseech you seke your dwelling there, as you maye trulye & rightly serve god, & dwell in him & have him ever dwelling in you.’”46Robinson’s comment is telling: “Criticism is not restricted to technicalities, and I say further that only a real man could have written this.”47For Robinson the style is, indeed, the man. Style and substance are one. Human wholeness is what great literature and literary criticism help us to perceive and, if we can, achieve because they exemplify it.

Robinson’s critique of the New English Bible and his defence of the Book of Common Prayer emerge from a concern for what, in The Survival of English, he calls “Religious English.” And what is “Religious English?” It is, Robinson writes, “the style of our common language that makes religion possible (or not, as the case may be). Religious English can only make religious seriousness possible to the individual, in whom any religion is not restricted or standardized but perpetually new, unique and his own; it could not do so, however, without the many generations whose lives have expressed themselves in our language, in its context of the many Christian languages, in their context of history and human nature.”48

The presence in our lives of such works as the New English and Good News Bibles and the Alternative Service Book need not lead to despair.49Like Leavis, Robinson is always strongly positive. At the conclusion of “Religious English” he writes, “Yet all hope need not be lost so long as we can see the situation more or less for what it is. The light by which to do so is given us by the language of the real English Bible and Prayer Book; they provide the standard in their record of a real religion which, such is their power, is always in danger of coming alive for any reader of goodwill who ventures unwarily into their pages.”50

In Robinson’s critique of culture and politics, criticism of language continues to be central. The Survival of English initiated his concern with cultural and political questions and has continued throughout his career. Robinson began his political life sympathetic to the Labour Party and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. However, his strong sense that materialism in the West has undermined cultural and spiritual values, as well as his belief that British politicians’ attempts to draw the United Kingdom into the European Community (now Union) would further material interests, has moved him from his support of the Labour Party to become an active member of the United Kingdom Independence Party. His The New Idea of the University (2001), co-written with Duke Maskell, is a further indication of his continued commitment to cultural and political criticism. The “prophetic mantle” which he describes in The English Prophets passes successively from Coleridge to Carlyle, to Arnold, to Lawrence, Eliot, Leavis, and Robinson himself.

In The Decline and Fall of Mr. Heath (1974), Robinson and co-author David Sims quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s summing up of the twentieth century: “I would go so far as to say that the spirit of Munich is the dominant one of the twentieth century . . . the usual state of those who have surrendered to materialism as the main aim of our life on earth.”51Considering Britain, Robinson and Sims speak of “our slack post-Imperial sleep.”52They note that “Our plight is that nobody will write a Volpone or an Alchemist about it.”53Apart from Leavis’s and now Robinson’s criticism, England lacks writers who diagnose her sickness. Robinson’s cultural and political criticisms are interdependent. For him the great tradition of English writing provides the best diagnosis of England’s current ills. “The assertion that the differences between England, France and Germany are ‘insignificant’ means again that only money is significant.”54In criticizing Edward Heath’s Conservative government, as well as the previous Labour governments of Harold Wilson, Robinson and Sims criticize “a policy that diminishes our links with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.A., with which countries we are felt to have less in common than with Germany and Italy. . . . We are, in this order, first economic units, secondly, Europeans, and a poor third, British. It isn’t true. If it were true, the union to which we ought to be applying for admission is the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For the postulates of the [Heath government’s] White Paper are those of the purest Marxism: that the foundation of human life is economic arrangement, and that the control of the means of production and exchange is the same as political power.”55Robinson and Sims’s estimation of Prime Minister Heath is that “He sees the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a regrettable little machine trying to switch itself into a vast machine, Europe. That is the sense of the decision, the sense Mr. Heath has made of ‘going into Europe.’”56

Ultimately, Robinson and Sims believe that the best that England has and has been judges what the United Kingdom’s present politicians are trying to force her to become:

England is the place where all believe in science, growth, prosperity, stability, security and progress, drive our cars along the motorways and pocket our automatic annual wage-increases. But there is another England, occupying exactly the same territory and created by the same people, the England of Shakespeare. There is a great England, to which some of its statesmen (Gladstone, Churchill) have belonged. . . . The great England provides the real standards. It is to what is great in this Island that politicians are responsible; and by that they will, like the rest of us, be judged, if judgement survives.57

He and Sims cite the philosopher G. E. M. Anscombe who sees accidie, or “the positive dislike of sense in human affairs,” as “a mark of our times.”58

Samuel Johnson is appropriately invoked by Robinson and Sims to judge the way in which material interests too readily govern domestic and foreign policy. Canada and the United States can surely learn as much as Britain and Europe from Johnson’s judgment that “‘A merchant’s desire is not of glory, but of gain, not of public wealth, but of private emolument; he is therefore rarely to be consulted about war and peace, or any designs of wide extent and distant consequence.’”59He and Sims conclude by judging their present situation by the standards of the best: “Our life has survived worse epidemics than the present ‘growth’ worship and will not be carried off by it. The ‘European’ movement is a suicidal hatred of the life of our civilization. But we will not believe that Mr. Heath’s language is stronger than Shakespeare.” Once again criticism of language provides the means by which cultural and political judgments are made.60

Robinson’s most recent cultural and political criticism can be found in The New Idea of a University, written with Duke Maskell. There, they argue that “Educated judgement is necessary to the nation, absolutely; without it the nation loses its mind.”61The “primary obligation” of universities should be “the pursuit of true judgement.”62The goal of education remains the Delphic oracle’s “‘Know thyself.’”63Maskell and Robinson argue that “hunger for meaning . . . is the basis of all knowledge, all understanding, all real education.”64This being so, they ask: “How has it happened . . . that we have firmly established in Britain exactly the situation we used to attribute (rightly or wrongly) to the U.S.A.?”65Throughout, Maskell and Robinson argue against the proliferation of universities in Britain, the conversion of polytechnic colleges into universities, and the spread of degrees in such subjects as Leisure Studies and Travel Agency. They question the economic and moral justification of such proliferation. “Do non-graduates benefit economically from subsidizing the education of graduates?”66The acquisition of “skills” has, they argue, replaced education as once understood. Throughout, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is appealed to, particularly the mutual education of Elizabeth and Darcy, as providing an example of a humane education.

Maskell and Robinson also protest against the reduction of courses of study into half-year modules: “Newman thought that the tree of knowledge is one, and the subjects are branches. Modularity gives us a bunch of twigs but no tree.”67They charge that “In general the present aim [of university education] is to replace judgement with system. The formal exclusion of judgement culminates in the replacement of examiners’ meetings by computer programmes.”68

Maskell and Robinson are troubled that “the idea that the university is a semi-religious institution demanding moral commitment from its members, an institution whose ‘output’ if any is the clerisy, has been hibernating for a long time.”69They would like to see university teachers recover the ideal of Chaucer’s Clerk, “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.” They find the “publish or perish” system destructive of the real university, since “the system tacitly recognises that our publications are not going to be read by anybody at all. Publication is to be taken as numbers of pages receivable into the library.”70They conclude that “The situation does ask to be made fun of, but it means that there is probably incurable corruption in our universities. It is absurdity to suppose that numbers of published pages have any direct correlation with the real work of any university. During Wittgenstein’s tenure of his Cambridge chair, when with a number of pupils he did the most important philosophical work since Plato, he published one review.”71Maskell and Robinson’s hope rests in our continued ability to read critically. “It is actually the case,” they write, “that some people can still read English poetry. While that remains true, the university is still possible.”72

Ian Robinson deserves to be more widely known in North America. His criticism of language is lively, passionate, well-written and conducted throughout with humor and irony. He concludes The Survival of English with a quotation from Chaucer in which the key word is “trouthe” (which means loyalty [as in troth] and has become our modern truth): “Hold the highway, and let thy ghost thee lead. . . . And trouthe shal delivere it is no drede.” Robinson adds, “Faithfulness to the best we know, a kind of bondage, will yet set us free. That is a faith we can and must hold on to, whatever else we lose.”73Our responsibility is, as Matthew Arnold believed, “To see the object as in itself it really is.” We learn how to do so by seeking “the best that has been thought and known.” Unlike Arnold, Robinson has recovered his Christianity and it supports his critical judgment. Near the close of The English Prophets, he re-defines Matthew Arnold’s function of criticism: “The formal critic, the person who does it in public and aspires to change or preserve judgement, is not so much a mediator (for we must all go direct to the objects) as an articulator. Criticism has to articulate the culture to itself, and for that it has to be of the culture, that is, of the commonly shared beliefs.”74We can expect Ian Robinson to articulate the English tradition to England and North America while he continues to write. The longer he writes the better.



  1. Mark Le Fanu, Review of The English Prophets, The Cambridge Quarterly, 31, 3, 2002.
  2. Duke Maskell in conversation, May 2002.
  3. The Survival of English: Essays in Criticism of Language (Cambridge, Eng., 1973), 5–6.
  4. The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment (Cambridge, Eng., 1998), 7, 8.
  5. “Thomas Cranmer and the Real Presence,” Faith and Worship 43 (Advent 1997), 9.
  6. The Establishment of Modern English Prose, 100.
  7. The English Prophets: A Critical Defense of English Criticism (Denton, Norfolk, Eng., 2001), 235.
  8. The Survival of English, 50.
  9. Chaucer and the English Tradition (Cambridge, Eng., 1972), viii.
  10. John Speirs, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Scrutiny, XVI (1949), 275, quoted in Chaucer and the English Tradition, 202.
  11. Chaucer and the English Tradition, 231.
  12. Ibid., 253.
  13. The Establishment of Modern English Prose . . . , 10.
  14. “Milton’s Justification of the Ways of God, or, The Fall into Language: A Reply to C. Q. Drummond,” The New Compass: A Critical Review 1 (June 2003)
  15. The English Prophets, 200.
  16. See The English Prophets, 35, 85, 193, 202, 292.
  17. See The English Prophets, 177, 194.
  18. Ibid., 76.
  19. Ibid., 232.
  20. See The English Prophets, passim.
  21. See Leavis’s essay on Anna Karenina in Anna Karenina and Other Essays (1967).
  22. The English Prophets, 319–320.
  23. Ibid., 46.
  24. Ibid., 187.
  25. Ibid., 187.
  26. Ibid., 93.
  27. “Milton’s Justification . . . ,” 1.
  28. The English Prophets, 276–277.
  29. The Survival of English, 22.
  30. Ibid., 23–24.
  31. Ibid., 24.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Ibid., 26–27.
  34. Ibid., 60–61.
  35. Ibid., 40.
  36. Ibid., 62.
  37. Ibid., 47.
  38. Ibid., 47.
  39. Ibid., 47–48.
  40. Ibid., 48.
  41. Ibid., 49.
  42. The Establishment . . . xiii.
  43. Ibid., 103.
  44. The English Prophets, 72.
  45. The Establishment . . . , 96.
  46. The Establishment . . . , 97.
  47. Ibid., 98.
  48. The Survival of English, 55–56.
  49. The Real Common Worship, ed. Peter Mullen (Denton, Norfolk, Eng., 2000), 115.
  50. The Survival of English, 65.
  51. The Decline and Fall of Mr. Heath: Essays in Criticism of British Politics, with David Sims (Swansea, 1974), 34.
  52. Ibid., 42.
  53. Ibid., 42.
  54. Ibid., 42.
  55. Ibid., 42–43.
  56. Ibid., 45.
  57. Ibid., 46.
  58. Ibid., 51.
  59. Ibid., 69.
  60. Ibid., 69.
  61. The New Idea of a University, with Duke Maskell (London, 2001), 185.
  62. Ibid., viii.
  63. Ibid., 53.
  64. Ibid., 53.
  65. Ibid., vii.
  66. Ibid., 7.
  67. Ibid., 99.
  68. Ibid., 106.
  69. Ibid., 107.
  70. Ibid., 110.
  71. Ibid., 113.
  72. Ibid., 176.
  73. The Survival of English, 242.
  74. The English Prophets, 301.