F. R. Leavis J. B. Bamborough

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J. B. Bamborough

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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. Yet despite the extent of his power, the literary historian writing in, say, fifty years' time may find it very difficult to say exactly how important Leavis was, and in precisely what way, and he may find it impossible to discriminate between Leavis's influence and that of others, to disentangle the Leavis strand in the web of our period's cultural history. The reason for this is simple and basic. From the vantage-point of the historian, Leavis will be seen (as it is less easy to see him now) as a follower and not a leader, as part of a movement and not as an originator, and what may seem to us now important and vital differences between his work and that of others may seem in fifty years' time so subtle and tenuous as to be insignificant.

The historian will have no difficulty in placing Leavis in the tradition to which he belongs. Baldly stated—and stated baldly, of course, it loses the particularly flavour and emphasis which Leavis's own expression of it gives—Leavis's central tenet, passionately and unwaveringly adhered to, is a conviction of the importance of the study of literature not only as a discipline in itself, but as a social and moral force, at once a prophylactic and a remedy for the corruption and degradation inherent in our materialistic society. This is, of course, a Victorian belief; we associate it with Matthew Arnold, but it was current well before Arnold gave it its most familiar and cogent expression. Indeed, it is essentially part of the Romantic ethos. The Romantic poet was a teacher not by virtue of repeating 'What oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed,' but because his poetry had a direct effect upon the moral sensibility; a proper response to poetry was thus a moral response, and a fortiori the study of poetry, with all this implies of devotion and discipline, was an act of moral significance. Arnold's especial contribution was to emphasise the need for an élite trained in the proper response to Great Literature, and able to maintain standards of sensibility and true morality in the face of barbarity and Philistinism; it is this kind of 'armed minority' which Leavis has consistently sought to create and maintain.

This is not to say (what has indeed been said) that Leavis is simply a belated Victorian; it is merely to point out that from the point of view of the historian he could truthfully be described as a disciple of Arnold—or, indeed, of Shelley. Similarly, Leavis's conviction, equally passionately held, that English literature can and should become the central discipline of a humane education, replacing the Classics, is also one common in the nineteenth century….

Leavis, then, will appear to the historian as an example of a way of thinking about literature which he may have modified, but did not originate or radically alter. Very much the same is true when we turn from a general attitude towards literary studies to the actual formation of taste and judgment. Once again it will be easy to place Leavis in his context, that of the revolution in literary taste which had its origins in this country in the years immediately preceding the First World War, and found its leaders in Pound and Eliot. (p. 532)

By 1932, when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry , the spadework had...

(The entire section is 2,045 words.)