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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647

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Published when he was eighty years old, The Living Principle, subtitled “English” as a Discipline of Thought, could be seen as F. R. Leavis’ final reflections on the importance for universities and society at large of the study of literature and the discipline of literary criticism. Before his death in 1978, he was to publish one other book, Thoughts, Words, and Creativity: Art and Thought in Lawrence (1976), which is essentially literary criticism, containing analyses of D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent (1926), Women in Love (1920), and The Rainbow (1915). Throughout his long career as a literary critic and an academic at the University of Cambridge, Leavis placed the study of English literature, as he conceived of it, at the core of the university and British society. These and related views embroiled him with many opponents, the most celebrated of whom was C. P. Snow. In Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow (1962), Leavis attacked Snow’s assumption in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959) that there is a culture distinct from that of the humanities, generated out of the scientist’s technical knowledge and his specialized method of acquiring this knowledge.

The Living Principle has a preface and three major sections. In the ten-page preface, Leavis announces that his book is not intended as a sketch of the requirements of university English courses or as a model syllabus. What he intends to do and hopes to achieve is much more ambitious. In his previous essays and books, he has argued that the study of English literature is an indispensable discipline in the university. In The Living Principle, he postulates that literature and literary studies are disciplines of thought, not merely of emotions, and he attempts to explore and define the nature of this “thought.”

In the first section, “Thought, Language, and Objectivity,” Leavis states and defends his thesis. His approach is less that of a literary critic than that of a philosopher. He refutes the arguments of those, such as the Wittgensteinians, who refuse to consider literary studies as a serious academic discipline, and he provides exegeses on the works of those who support his position, particularly Marjorie Grene and Michael Polanyi.

The second section, “Judgment and Analysis,” contains several critical essays which are intended as illustrations of Leavis’ claims that literary criticism is a demanding intellectual discipline. These essays, or versions of them, were originally published in Scrutiny: A Quarterly Review, the journal that Leavis coedited from 1932 to 1953, which along with his many critical books helped to promulgate his approach to literary studies.

There are five essays. In the first, “‘Thought’ and Emotional Quality: Notes in the Analysis of Poetry,” he analyzes several poems, including D. H. Lawrence’s “Piano,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Tears, Idle Tears,” and William Blake’s “The Sick Rose,” to show the complementary nature of discipline, thought, and emotion in outstanding poetry. In “Imagery and Movement,” he examines imagery, metaphor, rhythm, and movement, indicating that they do not create merely illustrative, pictorial, and aural effects but convey the author’s attitude toward the object or experience contemplated. In “Reality and Sincerity,” he examines the difference between sincere, felt emotions and shabby, sentimental poems. In “Prose,” he analyzes discursive or expository prose which effectively conveys the writer’s thought, and in “Antony and Cleopatra,” he examines two plays about Marc Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1606-1607) and John Dryden’s All for Love: Or, The World Well Lost (1677), to show how dramatic works illustrate his thesis.

The last hundred pages provide an extended analysis of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943). Each part of the poem has a section to itself: “Burnt Norton,” “East Coker,” “The Dry Salvages,” and “Little Gidding.” The major portion of the book, then, is given over to literary analyses that function as illustrations of Leavis’ philosophical ideas about the nature of his subject.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55

Bilan, R. P. The Literary Criticism of F. R. Leavis, 1979.

Hayman, Ronald. Leavis, 1976.

Jackson, R. L. D. “Leavis at Eighty,” in Quadrant. CIV (1976), p. 40.

Panichas, George A. “The Courage of Judgment,” in Modern Age. XIX (1975), pp. 316-318.

Scruton, Roger. “Sense and Security,” in The Times Literary Supplement. October 17, 1975, pp. 1231-1232.

Walsh, William. F. R. Leavis, 1980.


Critical Essays