The leading figures in all these books are well-known, and are located in a period of conspicuous intellectual activity in the Scotland of the mid and late 18th century. This was the time when the modern social sciences were created as areas of legitimate study, much of their content for the use of teenage university students. There was also a modest literary revival. The great men of the Scottish Enlightenment, if they wrote at all, for some of them suffered from the academic disease of inability to put pen to paper, wrote in distinguished prose. Boswell was a literary innovator and knew it. Professor Daiches, in his small book, links the poetry acceptable in this period with the rise of genteel expression and shows how, in the pursuit of a language capable of wider circulation than the old vernacular, much of the traditional Scottish poetic inheritance was pushed aside. English English came naturally to Boswell, less naturally but effectively in the sentences of Adam Smith and David Hume, but at the cost of the reservation of the Scottish tongue for casual, domestic or low-life use. Yet, as Daiches reminds us, with an exceptionally happy choice of quotations, the literary endeavours of the upper class were accompanied by a genuine achievement in the vernacular by Fergusson and Burns, even though the prosodic forms available were by then restricted.
LRB 19 April 1984 | PDF Download