F. R. Leavis H. M. McLUHAN

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 principle of its own. Genuinely new work is thus like a new development in a play. It tells us something about the preceding events of the play which we could not have seen before, and it alters the relations and tensions between the events which have already occurred. At the same time the new event must be seen as inherent in the earlier dramatic movement. How profoundly Mr. Eliot has since interpreted this dramatic vision of history the reader of Four Quartets need not be told.

The entire effort of Mr. Leavis has been to realize by detailed judgments of selected poems this insight in such a way as to make it available for general recognition and experience among intelligent readers. It represents not only a major critical effort but the extension and refinement of sensibility as the very mode of critical activity and of discriminatory reading and response.

There are further implications of importance for poetry in this position. All poetry, past and present, as forming a simultaneous order, becomes equally available for contemplation, and for the extension and ordering of sensibility. The perception of the traditional in modern poetry is thus an inevitable feature of enjoying the contemporaneity of past poetry. It is clear, however,...

(The entire section is 795 words.)