F. R. Leavis Philip Hobsbaum

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Philip Hobsbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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 works by George Eliot, Mark Twain, Henry James and Joseph Conrad which are found in Anna Karenina and other essays….

Around 1963, however, a new era had begun. It heralded Leavis's retirement from lecturing at Cambridge and was marked by the publication of his Richmond Lecture on C. P. Snow and the Two Cultures. No lecture ever received more publicity. Partly it was a question of tone. One remembered the wry ironies of New Bearings and The Common Pursuit which were the results as much of the necessity for compression as of acerbity of temperament. But now one reeled before what amounted to a rhetorical onslaught. In 1963, the ironist was replaced by the prophet….

[Leavis's lecture on the so-called Two Cultures] was the first of a series of discourses gathered together in volumes entitled English Literature in Our Time and the University and Nor Shall My Sword. These discuss the tendency of present-day society to grow at the expense of what Leavis has called "the human world." What is under criticism is a quantitative view of life couched as a short-term proposition of material advantage. Ultimately it derives from Bentham's dictum, that the end of legislation is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Its modern application comes across as a belief that the problems of humanity can be settled by higher productivity, higher wages and more extensive leisure. The purposes and responsibilities involved, however, tend not to get discussed. (p. 76)

[D. H. Lawrence] acts in Leavis's world as the positive against which the world of Bentham can be set. Lawrence, along with Dickens and Blake, is an enlivening presence in what may be called Leavis's prophetic books: English Literature in Our Time and Nor Shall My Sword. Eliot occupies a median position, as a writer whose sense of life was not equal to his immense linguistic gift. And the adverse figures in the discourses collected in these volumes are Lord Snow, Lord Robbins, Lord Annan, Mr Wilson, Mr Heath and Mr Fowler. These are the materialists trafficking in politics and education, and they are invoked for their type-qualities as gurus rather than as individuals to be sorted out for criticism. (p. 77)

At first glance, Thought, Words and Creativity seems to be a revision of D. H. Lawrence, Novelist, published twenty-one years ago. But the present book takes a highly specific line on the subject. It is an answer to those—chiefly, T. S. Eliot—who found in Lawrence an incapacity for what we ordinarily call thinking. Leavis's earlier essay on "The Captain's Doll" has been considerably tightened up, and the usual argument regarding the story's male chauvinism is refuted by an appeal to mutual recognition of identity. The real triumph of the book, though, is the essay on Women in Love. Here Leavis finds the decisive answer to the Benthamite—quantitative, materialistic—view of civilisation. Leavis's earlier discussion of Women in Love explicitly recognised the book as a demonstration of insight into the declining values of the West. But that earlier discussion was rather narrowly literary, showing what this character was doing here and how that scene fitted in there, and the like. The revision in the present book is considerably more than a tidying-up of its previous self. A discussion of the character Gerald Crich winds in and out of Leavis's argument in...

(The entire section is 1,587 words.)