F. R. Leavis René Wellek

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René Wellek

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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I am, I fear, too much of a theorist not to feel strongly the ambiguity, shiftiness, and vagueness of Leavis's ultimate value criterion. Life. In its implications and rejections it brings out the limitations of Leavis's concept of literature and the narrow range of his sympathies. Life for Leavis is first of all simply realist art—not merely in a sense of copying or transcribing a social situation, a dramatic, objective rendering of life, of course, but as we find it in Shakespeare and the English novel of the nineteenth century. In practice, Leavis has no sympathy for stylized, conventionalized art, the art defined in Ortega's Dehumanization of the Arts. This serious ideal of Life makes Leavis also suspicious of art which is merely playful, rococo, ornamental, aesthetic, formalistic in a narrow sense, while his optimism makes him hostile to out-and-out pessimists such as Hardy or Flaubert. Leavis's taste is rooted in nineteenth-century critical realism, to which he manages to add the early poetry of T. S. Eliot and a selection from the novels of D. H. Lawrence; The Rainbow and Women in Love in particular. He is really deeply hostile to what could be called modernism or avant-garde: to Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Auden, Dylan Thomas, to almost every author who has become prominent in the last thirty years. He clings, as I suppose we all do, to the discoveries of his youth: Conrad, Lawrence, Hopkins, the early Eliot.

The emphasis on life in the sense of the concrete and immediate is connected with Leavis's concern with the English provincial rural tradition which he apparently finds in Shakespeare, in Bunyan, in Jane Austen, George Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence, all countryfolk of a sort to which the Londoners, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, provide a foil of learned urban poetry. Life means also pedagogy, the concern for his students, for the controversies of his university. It accounts also for what I cannot help calling Leavis's provinciality and insularity. Besides English and American, he seems to have no interest whatever in another literature: I can recall only a few highly laudatory references to Tolstoy and some critical remarks on Flaubert. In Scrutiny he may have left French and German literature to the specialists, Martin Turnell and D. H. Enright, Leavis's gravest failing seems to me his distrust and even hatred for theory: his resolute, complacent, nominalistic empiricism, his worship of the concrete and particular at any price. This allows him to leave his norms unexamined: the standards of life, common speech, centrality, firm grasp of the actual, impersonality, no afflatus, no emotionality, but sharp concrete realization, sensuous particularity, presentment—all terms of praise which I quote literally from Leavis's writings, though he would object (and did so) that, stated so baldly, they are "intolerably clumsy." I recognize that they assume their proper meaning only in a context, but they do represent implicit norms, an underlying scheme or pattern which is discoverable in every critic and which it is the business of a historian of criticism to describe and judge. The refusal to theorize has a paralyzing effect on Leavis's practice; it makes him reject the tools and concepts of technical analysis and be content with impressions or dogmatically stated feelings. He refers to the "complex rhythm organizing" The Rainbow without even attempting to describe it, or gropes to find terms for metrical or metaphorical effects in Donne which he can only sense...

(The entire section is 861 words.)