Speaking Volumes: A History of English Literature

July 26, 1996

K. K. AZIZ on E. Legouis and L. Cazamian's A History of English Literature .

What a series of coincidences! A History of English Literature by Emile Legouis (1861-1937) and Louis Cazamian (1877-1965) first appeared in 1926. I first read it in 1946. I write this commemoration in 1996, the golden jubilee of my graduation. Under duress I had to abandon literature for other fields, but the obsession of first love is unremitting, and for 50 years the L&C as we called it has lived with me as my second wife. As a God-fearing polygamist I have loved it, visited it regularly for pleasure, and given thanks to heaven that it is still with me.

In British India English literature was taught at the postgraduate level with special care. We read many books by authors of staying power. But the basic text remained the L&C, which was the framework in which we arranged our authors and critics, the high ground from where we watched the trooping of literary colours, the centre stage on which we saw and heard the intellect and imagination of a people speaking its magnificent parts for over 1,000 years.

I experienced British imperialism first hand and English literature through French eyes, and found both impressions unerringly authentic. The onlooker saw more of the game than the player, English literature entered my consciousness untainted by English assumptions, interests and prejudices. I was not born into it, but bred into it. The doses were measured out and administered by my father (who loved it beyond reckoning) and L&C. Why was the book such a true guide? Primarily because it related literature to its political, religious and philosophical stimulants and inspirations, interwove culture with the written word, braided motif and motive, linked the fount and the spray. It excels in tapestry making. It intertwines the climate of opinion and the literary corpus, and confronts aspiration with manifestation and turbulence of mind with lucidity of expression. Culture and events mould each other. It is the miracle of entrelacement, this arabesque of self-awareness and self-expression which makes the book a living, pulsating, moving, vibrant commentary on a foreign literature.

L&C confirms that literature reflects and depicts human nature and human life in their entirety, and through it we comprehend them in harmony. Unless we accept that interplay and view it as one totality, we will never understand what the writer or poet is describing. Quiller-Couch's complaint, in his atrociously written preface of 1933, that the book over-emphasises movements and tendencies, is a reproach to himself.

A textbook which is still in print after 70 years must have enormous virtues. It illuminates controversy with insight. It recalls fiery debates in the calm of thought. It passes imperceptibly from narration to analysis, from facts to tendencies, from events to trends, from supple argument to stepping-stone deliberation. It takes soundings of social life and plumbs the depths of private despair, and relates both to the realm of letters. It combines academic precision with trenchant and lively views. Page by page it builds up a picture of a great literature embedded in national feeling and belief. The riches of age are surveyed with the freshness of youth. Carefulness never dwindles to timidity, nor enthusiasm to affectation. It is not gold-braided infallibility, but it is a remarkable example of controlled intellectual power directing an exploration of a vista of formidable range and sweep.

L&C is a classic. It is also classical in that it combines the two foundations of European thought : the flash of Greek intuition and the order of Roman logic.

K. K. Aziz is former chair of the Pakistan National Commission on Historical and Cultural Research.

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