The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought
This review of one of F.R. Leavis’s last books was written some time before his death in April.
“Eliot is the great poet of the century; Leavis is the great critic,” Michael Black said in Universities Quarterly for Winter 1975. If you prefer to put some other name in place of Leavis’s the argument would at least lead to the heart of the matter. His work is in the line that makes criticism a vital part of the body of literature, not peripheral or parasitical; it is not reviewing, not “belles lettres,” not an attempt to impose socio-political convictions, nor is it scholarly exhumation for monumental reinterment, or exercises in the literary gymnasium. Facile labeling has called him, with limiting intention, a “moral” critic. In one sense, not limiting, he is highly moral: his tacit ideal is that all criticism, all reading, should be backed by beliefs and values to which the reader is fully committed.
But Leavis is not a moralist critic who brings to literature an external yardstick of precepts and prohibitions formulated independently of the work. The directness of his relation to what he reads, his complete exposure to it, is well illustrated in “Judgment and Analysis,” the middle section of this book, which brings together earlier work (from Scrutiny) and in which we find the same methods he worked out when he taught at Cambridge. The section in fact offers a good introduction to Leavis’s basic method and his outlook as a critic.
Leavis’s greatest strength lies in his perceptive reading of a concrete example, with abstract statement strictly subordinated to the material that suggests it. In a chapter called “Imagery and Movement” he characteristically declines to define either term of its title, and says why:
The important thing is to be as aware as possible of the ways in which life in verse may manifest itself—life, or that vital organization which makes collections of words poetry. Terms must be made means to the necessary precision by careful use in relation to the concrete; their use is justified in so far as it is shown to favor sensitive perception; and the precision in analysis aimed at is not to be attained by seeking formal definitions as its tools. It is as pointers for use—in use—in the direct discussion of pieces of poetry that our terms and definitions have to be judged; and one thing the analyst has to beware of is the positiveness of expectation (not necessarily, even where fixed in a definition, a matter of full consciousness) that may make him obtuse to the novelties and subtleties of the concrete.
In fact as soon as he tries to apply the notion of movement, in Wordsworth’s sonnet “Surprised by joy,” he sees that it will have to include “the shifts of tone, emphasis, modulation, tempo, and so on, that the voice is required to register.”
It would be a loose definition that included all this …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.