F. R. Leavis D. W. Harding

Start Your Free Trial

D. W. Harding

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Download F. R. Leavis Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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, incurring danger both of crudity and impertinence.' But the danger only shows the need in the critic for fine insight and complete seriousness. And these qualities Mr. Leavis undoubtedly possesses.

Though New Bearings contains some excellent exegesis and detailed criticism of poems by T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Ezra Pound, Mr. Leavis's main concern with separate poems is to relate them to the rest of the poet's work; just as, in turn, the whole of the poet's work is related to the state of culture in which it was produced. His argument is, in brief, that poetry in the nineteenth century became established in a tradition of remoteness from other human activities, not merely from industrialism, but also from pursuits demanding fine intelligence, such as research and speculation in science. He then proceeds to an admirable summary of 'The Situation at the End of the War,' a chapter distinguished by extremely skilful compression and generalisation combined with scrupulous care for exceptions from the general statement. The study of W. B. Yeats is an outstanding example of this capacity for making comprehensive statement without distorting or neglecting any of the facts.

Having demonstrated the unsatisfactory state of poetry at the end of the war (and, implicitly, of most of it still) Mr. Leavis looks for a way out. He looks for an attitude to poetry that will allow it to become not merely the poet's comment on his life...

(The entire section is 935 words.)