Homilies and Recreations

‘Sir Walter Scott’ (1924); ‘The Old and the New in Literature’ (1925); ‘The Great Captains’ (1920); ‘The Muse of History’ (1914); ‘A Note on Edmund Burke’ (1913); ‘Lord Balfour and English Thought’ (1914); ‘The Two Ordeals of Democracy’ (1925); ‘Literature and Topography’ (1926); ‘The Judicial Temperament’ (1922); ‘Style and Journalism’ (1925); ‘Certain Poets’ (1924); ‘The Literature of Tweeddale’ (1927); ‘Thoughts on a Distant Prospect of Oxford’ (1923)

‘Literature and Topography’
This essay was originally written as an address to the Working Men’s College (London, February 20, 1926). Buchan begins distinguishing between ‘a taste for topography’ as ‘not the same thing as a love of the natural world’ or ‘an interest in landscapes’. Topography is concerned with places, actual or imaginary, and above all with place-names: ‘For place-names all over the world are splendid things’, he says. Each of them is ‘a nucleus of associations’, and as such they enter into our everyday life.
After thus introducing his subject, Buchan proceeds to analyse in detail the use poets make of topography: ‘they are concerned to convey hints and gleams, to open sudden casements’. He starts with examples from the Iliad, Paradise Lost and the Border Ballads: ‘to the writers of these, local habitations are an essential of poetic thought’. (By the way, what Buchan has to say about the ballad-maker might be of special interest to those of us who study his work.) The study of such examples enables Buchan ‘to determine the precise artistic effect in poetry’ of the use of place-names, an impression of ‘the solid reality of the world of the poet’ is accompanied by ‘a sense of rest’. But, at the same time, a sense of movement and speed is achieved.
The second part of the essay studies examples from narrative in prose. Sir Walter Scott is one of the first writers mentioned, as the discoverer of ‘the twofold magic of a concrete nomenclature’. The use of topography in fiction writers of the l9th century is surveyed, briefly, but getting to the real point in all the cases mentioned. In these narratives, Buchan concludes, a sense of place usually accompanies a sense of character, although the idea of ‘homelessness’ is lurking in some of them as well.
Rosa Penna, 2001