F. R. Leavis Essay - Critical Essays

Leavis, F(rank) R(aymond)


F(rank) R(aymond) Leavis 1895–1978

English critic and editor.

Leavis is often cited as one of the most important and influential literary critics of his time. Fully committed to the belief that literature is an important social and moral force, Leavis argued persuasively that the study of literature should be seen as a vital pursuit. He further asserted that the critical study of literature demands a disciplined expertise. In Leavis's opinion, emotional, biographical, and historical approaches to literary criticism reveal little about a given text. Instead, he felt that literary inquiry requires a scrupulous examination of texts and a "searching critical intelligence."

Throughout his career, Leavis was partial to writers who represented a morality characteristic of rural communities prior to the Industrial Revolution. In the face of what he called the "crisis in modern culture," Leavis demanded that literature evoke a positive view of life and promote values he deemed essential to the preservation of a humanistic culture. Ultimately, Leavis judged a work by the type of moral values it affirmed. This part of his critical method is extremely vulnerable to disapproval, particularly because Leavis never offered a fully developed theory to support his views. Rather, he believed that theorizing and philosophizing serve only to distract the critic from the primary and difficult task of evaluation.

Leavis remains a seminal figure in the history of modern literary criticism. Scrutiny, the renowned literary journal which Leavis edited, is considered representative of critical writing at its best. Leavis was also a lecturer in English at Cambridge University for nearly three decades and, in the words of Eric Bentley, "one of the few people who welcomed English as a serious university subject, and welcomed it for what it is, not what you can turn it into or reduce it to."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed. and Vols. 77-80 [obituary].)

D. W. Harding

It is the distinction of [New Bearings in English Poetry] that it consistently treats poetry as one of the major products of normal human activity, and the making of poetry as being at least as responsible an occupation as, say, scientific research. In fact the quality of the book may be indicated by saying that an intelligent scientist (if he were free from conventional preconceptions about literature) could read it without getting exasperated and without a sense of lacking initiation. It is only those for whom poetry is a cult with initiates, or an archaic pursuit surviving as a pastime, like archery, who will complain that the book is esoteric. They will be puzzled by the constant implication that a poet's 'magnificent qualities of intelligence and character' are the concern of a critic of his poems. They will be irritated by the assertation that there are in the present age 'no serious standards current, no live tradition of poetry, and no public capable of informed and serious interest.'

As a consequence of his point of view much of Mr. Leavis's criticism of poetry becomes, in a certain limited sense, a criticism of the poet's personality. Not that he is a moralist or psychopathologist manqué. He sets out to confine himself 'as strictly as possible to literary criticism, and to remember that poetry is made of words.' Yet he makes it clear, for instance in condemning the bulk of Ezra Pound's poetry, that his only deep interest is in words that communicate valuable attitudes towards experience…. [Mr. Leavis's] concern with the spiritual state that poetry reflects involves no prying biography and no irrelevant probing for the poet's 'underlying experience.'… But he recognises that there must, nevertheless, be one individual who is responsible for the state of being out of which the poems have come. And this belief that the poet is morally accountable for what he writes lies behind the critical position that Mr. Leavis has taken up and consolidated in New Bearings.

No one is more aware than Mr. Leavis of the dangers of this critical approach, and of the necessity for remembering 'that poetry is made of words.' A discussion of many contemporary poems is bound to be, as he remarks of one, 'a delicate business,...

(The entire section is 935 words.)

Stephen Spender

There are obvious dangers attendant on any criticism which assumes that there are absolute standards of perfection against which we can measure works of art. The critic who starts off with this assumption is driven as he proceeds to elaborate and define his measuring rod of what art should be. Before long he is in danger of usurping the creative function: we find that he has unconsciously invented a schematic poetry of his own, which is simply the kind of poetry he might have written had he been poet instead of critic. Instead of remaining a student with limited but sensitive reactions to poetry, he has become an unconscious creator with a highly developed sense not of what poetry is but of what it ought to be….

Dr. Leavis seems not so much an example of the poet turned critic because he cannot write poetry as of the critic turned lecturer and don because he cannot write criticism. His mental habitation is a world not of what poetry but of what criticism ought to be. Poetry is his excuse for approving, attacking or reconstructing the judgments of other critics; above all for elaborating a world in which the existence of all values in poetry is made to depend on what is said about it. (p. 350)

Dr. Leavis really seems to have an almost Berkleyan view of poetry, assuming, that is, that criticism is God. Poetry, one would gather, exists simply in the minds of the critics, and poets become 'dislodged' or 'unreadable' (Shelley) if Dr. Leavis and his colleagues think badly about them. It is certainly a disquieting reflection that Messrs. Eliot, Richards or Leavis might have an unpleasant thought about, say, Shakespeare late one night which would cause him to become irreplaceably 'dislodged', even though no one else knew about it.

One reviewer has accused Dr. Leavis of having the attitude of a bookie towards literature, who gives the odds. This seems to me unfair. At all events, in [Revaluation, Tradition and Development in English Poetry] his attitude is quite clearly stated as that of a sub-contractor to other critics, who undertakes excavation, demolition and works of minor reconstruction to order. If one accepts this as Dr. Leavis's...

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[It is not] possible to arrive at a critical evaluation of a poem or an age from the point of view of rhetorical exegesis, as one can see in the work of Richards and Empson. Basically a rhetorical exegesis is concerned with indicating the "strategy" employed by a writer in bringing to bear the available means of persuasion. One can go on indefinitely describing the situation from which the strategy emerges, elaborating whole psychological and political treatises without ever reaching the point of critical evaluation.

It is impossible to survey here the critical achievement of F. R. Leavis, but it is clear on every page that his method is that of an artistic evaluation which is inseparable from the exercise of a delicately poised moral tact. He is not a critic of isolated comments as the mere titles of his works show. For example, New Bearings in English Poetry is concerned with assessing the precise changes in the poetic climate which have occurred in consequence of the impact of Yeats, Eliot, Hopkins, and Pound on our language. On the other hand, Revaluation "was planned," he tells us, "when I was writing my New Bearings in English Poetry,… indeed, the planning of one book was involved in the planning of the other."

The function of both these books is, with reference to particular poets and poems, to show what has happened to that existing order of traditional English poetry, of which Mr. Eliot speaks, once genuinely new work has arrived. For order to persist, says Mr. Eliot, "after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new." The basic implication in this statement is that the entire literature of Europe is to be viewed as a single emergent work of art, having a dramatic...

(The entire section is 795 words.)

Arthur Mizener

It would be hard to over-rate the importance of Mr. Leavis' [The Great Tradition] for the present time. The critical problem of the novel is stirring once more, and unless Mr. Leavis is simply ignored, it will be impossible again to deal with the English novel, as we have in the past, as if the great novelists of its central tradition did not exist, as if, consequently, freaks and fakes like Djuna Barnes and Ronald Firbank were serious matters, authentic minor novelists like Virginia Woolf major novelists. There is probably a real risk that Mr. Leavis will be ignored; he has all the thorniness and some of the real defects of the man who is hell-bent on doing us all good. He talks much too much about the "adult"...

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Martin Jarrett-Kerr

[What] is the immediate and total impression of [The Common Pursuit]? Dr. Leavis's criticism is nothing if not personal (the word is not meant in a depreciatory sense); my assessment of it will therefore be personal too. Re-reading, then, in one volume essays which (most of them) I had read before scattered over several years, the effect for me was—let me say frankly—one of a profound satisfaction. To describe the satisfaction a little more precisely I should say that it was the satisfaction of seeing a pavement well-laid. The individual stones one had noticed before, and they were of pleasing shape and colour; but now that they can be taken in as a whole there is the added pleasure of observing that they...

(The entire section is 1474 words.)

J. B. Priestley

There could be, no doubt, a standard of literary values so high, so icily severe, that in its sight a Virginia Woolf would possess nothing but a slender talent. But from this height a Dr. Leavis would not exist at all. His loudest screams could never be heard. His claim to write even one sentence worth reading could not be accepted. This is where the arrogantly dogmatic, absolutist critic, behaving more like the Grand Inquisitor or Calvin than a sensible man of letters, walks into a trap. For if our time is so precious that we should not waste it reading a hundred reputable authors, from Fielding to Day-Lewis, then why should we waste any time reading or listening to Dr. Leavis? This question may not occur to...

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Eliseo Vivas

Nothing will be gained by beating about the bush. To my astonishment, I found [D. H. Lawrence: Novelist] both difficult to read and unsatisfactory in several fundamental respects. At its best, Mr. Leavis's study of Lawrence is as good as, or better than, his essays in The Great Tradition or in The Common Pursuit. But one of the factors that account for its excellence, the author's strong emotional ties to his subject, tends to make him see virtues that are not there, and to overlook flaws that should have been discerned with the aid of the critical tools he employs. (p. 123)

We cannot trace, however, all the defects of Mr. Leavis's book to his reverence for Lawrence. We must go...

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John Fraser

That Dr. Leavis approaches literature with a singular intensity is presumably by now a commonplace; and the intensity is usually thought of, I imagine, as manifesting itself primarily in Dr. Leavis's insistence upon the need for making continual strenuous discriminations and in the rather rigorous kind of engagement that he has often been involved in with other critics. But what is equally important, and much less frequently remarked upon, is that the intensity derives, fundamentally, from his no less formidable willingness to respond to a literary work with a completeness and an essential humility that are, one dares to say, all too rare at the present time…. [Dr. Leavis] approaches a literary work … as...

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R. J. Kaufmann

[I mean] to recommend Leavis as a thinker, a "critical thinker" whose subject matter is the moral (not the moralistic) use of literature. The stress must fall equally on moral and literature, for it is precisely the distinction of Leavis that he has had the tact and intelligence largely to preserve this balance. (p. 248)

Seen from one perspective, Leavis's whole work is a series of wide-ranging, superlatively intelligent, violently partisan responses to the repellent and central fact of modern hugeness. Leavis joins Lawrence (whom he resembles as well as admires) in working to make it "impossible for us to ignore the nature of our loss" in our passage into the sought after privileges of life...

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J. B. Bamborough

One thing is certain: when the literary history (and for that matter, the social history) of England in the mid-twentieth century comes to be written, Leavis's influence is something which the historian will have to take into account…. [Leavis] has affected—and very often profoundly affected—the response to literature of perhaps thousands of students and readers, and if we allow 'influence' to cover every kind of effect (including violent and hostile reaction), it would be true to say that in the last thirty or more years hardly anyone seriously concerned with the study of English literature has not been influenced by him in some way. This could hardly be said of any other critic in the period except Mr. Eliot....

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William Walsh

Criticism, as Leavis conducts it, is the relevant, delicately attentive analysis of a complete response to literature; it is a commentary upon the act by which one enters into as full as possible a possession of the experience given in the words. When sensibility is made articulate there will be found in it elements of judgement and discrimination. But they are explicit in the account only because they are implicit in the response. They are distilled by the experience itself, not items carted in from outside. The method of Culture and Environment is the prolongation of this activity into the business of daily life. Culture and Environment shows a mind skilled and scrupulous in the critic's art...

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René Wellek


I am, I fear, too much of a theorist not to feel strongly the ambiguity, shiftiness, and vagueness of Leavis's ultimate value criterion. Life. In its implications and rejections it brings out the limitations of Leavis's concept of literature and the narrow range of his sympathies. Life for Leavis is first of all simply realist art—not merely in a sense of copying or transcribing a social situation, a dramatic, objective rendering of life, of course, but as we find it in Shakespeare and the English novel of the nineteenth century. In practice, Leavis has no sympathy for stylized, conventionalized art, the art defined in Ortega's Dehumanization of the Arts. This serious ideal...

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George Steiner

Like certain writers of narrow, characteristic force, Leavis has set aside from the currency of language a number of words and turns of phrase for his singular purpose…. "Close, delicate wholeness"; "pressure of intelligence"; "concrete realisation"; "achieved actuality"—are phrases which carry Leavis' signature as indelibly as "high seriousness" bears that of Matthew Arnold.

The list is worth examining. It does not rely on jargon, on the shimmering technical obscurities which mar so much of American New Criticism. It is a spiky, gray, abstract parlance, heavy with exact intent. A style which tells us that Tennyson's verse "doesn't offer, characteristically, any very interesting local life for...

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Philip Rahv

That F. R. Leavis is a first-rate critical personality is certain, but that is by no means the same thing as saying that he is a first-rate literary critic. No doubt he has at times achieved that stature; at other times not at all. (p. 289)

What I chiefly like about Leavis' work are its Johnsonian qualities: the robustness, the firmness, the downrightness. He is not one to beat around the bush, to play the diplomat, to cultivate ambiguity, or to shun controversy. A critic in the Arnoldian tradition, he aspires, in his own words, "to the highest critical standards and the observance of the most scrupulous critical discipline"—an admirable aspiration in the attainment of which, however, he has, to my...

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George A. Panichas

For the shortcomings in Leavis' criticism we have cause for regret. Magnanimity, after all, is not without its place in the humane tradition of learning. But genius, mutatis mutandis, has its failings. In the end, I think, we shall remember Leavis (and Scrutiny) not for his hardness, or his harassments, but for disciplining us in how to read; for trying to save us from that "spiritual Philistinism" with its "implicit belief that the only reality we need take account of in ordering human affairs is what can be measured, aggregated and averaged"; for helping us to travel beyond the shadow line separating what is dull and dead from what is compellingly alive in our responses to literature as it has its...

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Peter Conrad

The problem of the practical critic who has ambitions as a social moralist as well is to stretch his microscopically intricate method of analysis into a medium of prophecy; his texts have to become tablets, his readings utterances of unalterable law, the corpus of his favourites an embattled cell of opponents to 'the American blankness' or the 'technologico-Benthamite civilisation'. As F. R. Leavis has declined from a critic into a lay preacher, he has turned what used to be a style of critical argument into one of rhetorical assertion. He no longer investigates texts, but plays games of skittles with them, setting up Antony and Cleopatra against All for Love or Conrad against Marry at or Lawrence...

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Philip Hobsbaum

Up to, and more or less including, the D. H. Lawrence book of 1955, [Leavis's] work has a singular coherence. Revaluation and New Bearings mapped out the terrain of English poetry; The Great Tradition and D. H. Lawrence, Novelist did the same for the novel. Leavis's views on teaching were given in Education and the University and in his introduction to Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, and the latter also indicated his line on 19th-century English thought. Any lacunae remaining were filled by the sparkling essays of For Continuity and The Common Pursuit. Even after 1955, the discussion of prose fiction was further extended by such studies as those of individual...

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Charles Rossman

A new book by Leavis on Lawrence,… some two decades after the ground-breaking [D. H. Lawrence: Novelist], might well have been an extraordinary event. I, for example, welcomed Thought, Words and Creativity with enthusiasm and high expectations. Here would be, I hoped, the provocative after-thoughts, the final corrections and extensions of understanding, the serenely authoritative wisdom that accrues to a powerful mind which has contemplated a subject for fifty years. But judged by these expectations, Thought, Words and Creativity is a very great disappointment. Leavis offers few new insights or even fresh ideas, demonstrates a remarkable lack of awareness of the other work on Lawrence which has...

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R. P. Bilan

The extensive critique of the Four Quartets which F. R. Leavis presents in The Living Principle (1975) perhaps brings to an end the lengthy history of his increasingly ambivalent response to T. S. Eliot. Beginning, in effect, as a disciple of Eliot's criticism and as the main advocate of his early poetry, Leavis has been led, with an almost inevitable logic, to a major confrontation with his one-time mentor. This revaluation of Four Quartets is particularly revealing of Leavis's basic assumptions, for in opposing Eliot's sense of reality he is forced to bring his own view of life to a new point of explicitness. (p. 151)

When the Four Quartets originally appeared Leavis...

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Eugene Goodheart

The humanist criticism of the nineteenth century persists in the work of F. R. Leavis. As critic and teacher for over forty years and as editor of Scrutiny, Leavis has been the modern embodiment of this critical tradition. His work provides an excellent measure of its present strengths and weaknesses. Against increasing skepticism about the legitimacy of high culture, Leavis has passionately argued that at stake in the defense of what he calls the great tradition is not simply English as a discipline but the creative spirit itself. (p. 69)

Leavis's work is most interesting and most problematic when he conceives of literature and society as threatened by the same corruptive forces. Against...

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John Harvey

The greatest problem of criticism has always been to work with a sound understanding of the relationship between literary qualities and the values of life in general; the major errors have come either from treating literature too simply in terms of general ethics, or from trying to explain literary values in dissociation from other values. What Leavis developed was a language for evaluating emotion—in terms essentially of one's attitude to one's own emotions: was one nourishing them for their own sake or for the pleasure of the ego, or were they truly defined by their object? Underpinning the particular discussions he had a general account of the interdependence between fine distinctions of emotion and fine...

(The entire section is 1717 words.)