F. R. Leavis Stephen Spender - Essay

Stephen Spender

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are obvious dangers attendant on any criticism which assumes that there are absolute standards of perfection against which we can measure works of art. The critic who starts off with this assumption is driven as he proceeds to elaborate and define his measuring rod of what art should be. Before long he is in danger of usurping the creative function: we find that he has unconsciously invented a schematic poetry of his own, which is simply the kind of poetry he might have written had he been poet instead of critic. Instead of remaining a student with limited but sensitive reactions to poetry, he has become an unconscious creator with a highly developed sense not of what poetry is but of what it ought to be….

Dr. Leavis seems not so much an example of the poet turned critic because he cannot write poetry as of the critic turned lecturer and don because he cannot write criticism. His mental habitation is a world not of what poetry but of what criticism ought to be. Poetry is his excuse for approving, attacking or reconstructing the judgments of other critics; above all for elaborating a world in which the existence of all values in poetry is made to depend on what is said about it. (p. 350)

Dr. Leavis really seems to have an almost Berkleyan view of poetry, assuming, that is, that criticism is God. Poetry, one would gather, exists simply in the minds of the critics, and poets become 'dislodged' or 'unreadable' (Shelley) if Dr. Leavis and his colleagues think badly about them. It is certainly a disquieting reflection that Messrs. Eliot, Richards or Leavis might have an unpleasant thought about, say, Shakespeare late one night which would cause him to become irreplaceably 'dislodged', even though no one else knew about it.

One reviewer has accused Dr. Leavis of having the attitude of a bookie towards literature, who gives the odds. This seems to me unfair. At all events, in [Revaluation, Tradition and Development in English Poetry] his attitude is quite clearly stated as that of a sub-contractor to other critics, who undertakes excavation, demolition and works of minor reconstruction to order. If one accepts this as Dr. Leavis's...

(The entire section is 905 words.)