Home  »  Volume XIV: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part Two The Nineteenth Century, III  »  § 14. The Scottish School of Rhetoric

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 14. The Scottish School of Rhetoric

The beginning of “the Scottish school of rhetoric” was almost contemporary with the labours of Sheridan and Priestley. The earliest utterances of this school are to be found in the Essays (1742 and 1758) of David Hume, but its earliest separate publication was Elements of Rhetoric (1762) by Henry Home, lord Kames. From 1759 onwards, Hugh Blair lectured on “composition” in Edinburgh with such success that a chair of rhetoric and belles lettres was founded for him there in 1762. The professorial discourses delivered during his occupancy of this chair were published in the year of his retirement as Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783). The mark of this Scottish school is the attempt, not uniformly successful, to elaborate from the associational psychology of the time a doctrine of taste and rules for its expression in the arts, particularly in the art of composition. The psychology and the rules and doctrine professedly deduced from it wear a detached air in the writings of Blair and Kames; in spite of their repudiation of great names and their desire to build empirically, none of the school shakes himself quite free from Aristotle and the great literary critics. But they did good service in a period greatly inclined to an exclusive rationalism by asserting the fundamental nature of emotion and its necessary part in the production and enjoyment of all forms of art; their pupils were prepared to welcome wholeheartedly the literary principles of Wordsworth, Byron and Scott. George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric, begun in 1750 and published in 1776, succeeds best in presenting its theme systematically and without much embarrassment from its psychological groundwork; Campbell remains to this day a helpful critic of diction, though he is sometimes meticulous in cases where his own sound criterion of “reputable use” is against him. Blair’s three-volume Lectures is a magazine for reference rather than an ordered system of instruction; as tutorial work to be used in large classes, the lectures may have proved interesting and useful to attentive students, but, as a book, they are very tedious. The third volume presents in germ the general idea of literature distinguishable from its various national varieties. A secondary feature in the teaching of the Scottish school is the great importance which it attributed to the arts of public reading and speaking. In the distinct course of study proposed by Knox (Liberal Education, 1781), he included these accomplishments, on the ground that English ought to form a great part of an English gentleman’s education. Enfield’s The Speaker (1774) quickly established itself in common use and long retained its vogue as an authoritative anthology of “recitations” from Shakespeare, Sterne, Pope and more modern writers; its author, who was a tutor at the Warrington academy after Priestley’s time, expressly intended his book to be associated with the Scottish teaching of rhetoric. Its early success points to a considerable number of schools and schoolmasters in sympathy with some recognition of the vernacular as an educational instrument.