Studies in Literature and the Humanities: Innocence of Intent


270 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-0535-0




Edited by Brian Crick and John Ferns
Reviewed by Bruce Whiteman

Bruce Whiteman is Head of Rare Books at the McGill University Libraries
and author of The Invisible World Is in Decline, Books II to IV.


In “On Translating Aristotle’s Poetics,” an article first published in 1970 and included in this collection, George Whalley expressed as well as anyone might the characteristics that distinguish his own superb essays, though of course he was not talking about himself: “For I hold the view that a piece of vigorous thinking is an activity of imagination, with its own peculiar spring and set, an action of discovery; and that its form, though overtly discursive, is yet imaginative. If so, the outcome could be expected to be not a group of ‘conclusions’ or doctrinal precepts, but rather the record of a feat of inventive thinking and the starting-point for fertile, elucidatory, finely controlled and energetic reflections in response to it” (p. 50). Until his death in 1983, Whalley was one of Canada’s best-known scholars. He was in particular an expert on Coleridge, and though this volume contains only one essay on that poet (“The Mariner and the Albatross”), references to Coleridge (and also to Aristotle) are prevalent throughout.

Whalley, however, was not merely a scholar in either the large sense of a polymath or the restricted sense of an antiquary or pedant. He was, to use Homer’s word for Odysseus, polutropos, myriad-minded. Perhaps his greatest and most surprising accomplishment was The Legend of John Hornby (Macmillan, 1962), a narrative of heroism and death in the Arctic with Coleridgean overtones of its own. As this selection of essays made by Professors Crick and Ferns amply demonstrates, Whalley’s interests were many (there are essays on Jane Austen and E.J. Pratt, in addition to Coleridge) and diverse (literary criticism as well as literature proper, and especially the contribution of the humanities to culture generally). His scholarship extended far beyond “Eng-Lit” to include at one end the original Greek text of Aristotle’s peri poietikes and the scholia and commentary attached to it, and at the other a sufficient knowledge of nautical affairs and terminology to allow him to pick out the very few mistakes concerning the subject committed by E.J. Pratt, who of course was himself anything but a novice.

What one values most in Innocence of Intent, however, is Whalley’s skill as a writer. He was quite simply a master — and a few there are — of a prose sufficiently discursive to encompass his wide learning, but elegant and pleasurable to read in a manner wholly uncommon among academics. This collection should appeal to all readers with any interest in language and culture, and not merely to graduate students and professors of English, for its concerns are much broader and its pleasures much greater than the usual omnium gatherum. The book deserves the Governor General’s award, and it is a great pity that Whalley did not live to see it published.



Whalley, George, “Studies in Literature and the Humanities: Innocence of Intent,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 27, 2024,