F. R. Leavis George Steiner

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George Steiner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 inspection," or that "Shakespeare's marvelous faculty of intense local realisation is a faculty of realising the whole locally" can be parodied with fearful ease. But what matters is to understand why Leavis "writes badly," why he insists on presenting his case in a grim suet of prose.

His refusal of elegance is the expression of a deep, underlying Puritanism. Leavis detests the kind of "fine" writing which by flash of phrase or lyric surge of argument obscures thinness of meaning or unsoundness of logic. He distrusts as spurious frivolity all that would embroider on the naked march of thought. His manner is easy to parody precisely because there lies behind it so unswerving a preoccupation with the matter in hand, so constant a refusal to be distracted by grace of touch. It has a kind of noble ugliness and points a finger of Puritan scorn at the false glitter of Pater.

But the source of Leavis' style, of that bleak, hectoring, yet ultimately hypnotizing tone, may lie even deeper. One striking fact distinguishes him from all other major critics. So far as I am aware, he has never wished or striven to be a writer—a poet, novelist, or playwright. In the criticism of Dryden, Coleridge, and Arnold, there is an immediate neighborhood of art.

In Edmund Wilson there lurks a disappointed novelist. Sainte-Beuve yielded to his critical genius with rage in heart, having railed to match the fiction and lyric verse of his Romantic peers. John Crowe Ransom, R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate are poets who turned to criticism either in defense or elaboration of their own view of poetry, or when the vein of invention had run dry. In most great critics (perhaps even in Johnson) there is a writer manqué.

This has two effects. It can make of criticism a minor art, an attempt to achieve, by force of style, something like the novel or drama which the critic has failed to produce successfully. Dryden's Essay of Dramatic Poesy, Sainte-Beuve's critical portraits, Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, have in them strong relics of poetic form. Blackmur's critical essays are often poems arrested. This can produce a grace of persuasion to which Leavis hardly comes near. But he would not wish to. For it can also entail a subtle disloyalty to the critical purpose. Where it becomes a substitute for "creative writing," where it shows the scars of lost dreams, criticism tends toward rhetoric, self-revelation, shapely aphorism. It loses its grip on the objects before it and turns to an unsteady mirror held up by the critic to his own ambitions or humility.

Leavis conveys persistently the absolute conviction that criticism is a central, life-giving pursuit. It need offer no apology for not being something else. Though in a manner radically different from that of the poet, it creates possibilities of apprehension and a consensus of perceived values without which poetry could not be sustained. To see Dr. Leavis at his lectern, compact and indrawn as if wary of some inner challenge, yet richly communicative to his listeners, is to observe a man doing precisely the job he wishes to do. And it is a job he regards as immensely important. (pp. 224-25)

Leavis' reorientation of critical focus—his stress on that lineage of intelligence and realized form which goes from Shakespeare and the...

(The entire section is 2,101 words.)