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Leavis’s Way

The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought

by F.R. Leavis
Oxford University Press, 264 pp., $12.95

This review of one of F.R. Leavis’s last books was written some time before his death in April.

the Editors

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 in “movement,” yet as a pointer the term serves him well to bring out the quality of the sonnet. “Surprised,” he suggests, is the key word. “The explicit exalted surprise of the opening gives way abruptly” as the poet turns to share his joy,

Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb

Then follows a surprise for the reader (the others were for the poet too):

That spot which no vicissitude can find.

It is a surprise in the sense that one doesn’t at first know how to read it, the turn in feeling and thought being so unexpected. For the line, instead of insisting on the renewed overwhelming sense of loss, appears to offset it with a consideration on the other side of the account, as it were—there would be a suggestion of “at any rate” in the inflection. Then one discovers that the “no vicissitude” is the admonitory hint of a subtler pang and of the self-reproach that becomes explicit in the next line but one [“But how could I forget thee?”].

The self-reproach, Leavis observes, “is developed with the rhetorical emphasis of passion”; then:

The intensity of this is set off by the relapse upon quiet statement in

That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,

—quiet statement that pulls itself up with the renewed intensity (still quiet) of

Save one, one only,

where the movement is checked as by a sudden scruple, a recall to precision (particularity, intensity and emotional sincerity are critical themes that present themselves to the reader in pretty obvious relation here). The poignancy of the quiet constatation settles by way of the “forlorn”—

Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn.

—into a steady recognition of a state of loss, the state, the unending privation, being given in the flat evenness of the concluding lines, in the expressive movement of which the rime-scheme plays an important part:

   when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

Even lengthy quotation from Leavis produces some wrenching, because the interweaving of the thought is not only close but extended through a wide range of references. His account of “Surprised by joy,” for instance, is enforced by comparisons with “Upon Westminster Bridge” and “Calais Beach” (“It is a beauteous evening, calm and free”). The latter, with the decisiveness of discrimination that marks his work, Leavis totally condemns: its movement is lifeless, it has no structure, the key words all minister to the repetitious effusion of standard sentiment, and the sestet, “with its ‘Dear Child! dear Girl!’ and ‘Abraham’s bosom,’ adds saccharine to syrup and makes the sonnet positively distasteful.”

Leavis’s closely attentive reading is of course a much more familiar technique now than it was when he first published these studies in the mid-1940s. His use of the method avoids the distorting emphases and dubious reinterpretations that mar some of the later developments of “close reading” (even, here and there, in a work as good as Helen Vendler’s The Poetry of George Herbert). Leavis’s new insights remain within the perspective of the work as the author created it. For example, in his account of “After a Journey” (where Hardy in his bereavement has gone back over the failure of his relation with a woman), Leavis gives close (and to me illuminating) attention to the line “But all’s closed now, despite Time’s derision”:

The last line doesn’t mean: “All’s closed now, in spite of Time, or Time’s derision, standing in the way of its being closed.” It isn’t a simple, direct statement of fact. It conveys a quite complex attitude that entails a weighing of considerations against one another and leaves them in a kind of poise. The effect is: “Well, anyway, all that’s over now, the suffering of division, things not being firstly as lastly well—I recognize that, though what, of course, I find myself contemplating now is the mockery of time; it’s Time’s derision I’m left with.” There is certainly no simple, and no preponderant, consolation. In the “all’s closed now” there is an irony, to be registered in a kind of sigh. “All’s closed,” not only the suffering, though that, Hardy recognizes, is of course included. But the last word is with Time’s derision; and the rendering of the closing phrase, “despite Time’s derision,” makes a testing demand on the reader: the phrase must be spoken with a certain flatness of inflection—an absence of clinching effect, or of any suggestion of a sum worked out.

Leavis’s insistently careful consideration of the line still leaves it a subordinate, though now an enriched and enriching, part of the total poem’s effect.

Although Leavis’s approach is obviously literary rather than moral, it is certainly not “aesthetic” in any sense that could insulate the aesthetic from the ethical. He demands, for instance, the discipline that requires feeling to take account of fact, if possible of particularized, sharply realized, fact; and emotional “indulgence” is a familiar term of condemnation in his criticism:

it is plain that habitual indulgence of the kind represented by Tears, idle tears—indulgence not accompanied and virtually disowned by a critical placing—would be, on grounds of emotional and spiritual hygiene, something to deplore.

Again, in criticizing a couple of stanzas by A.E. Housman, he remarks that in the first “the kind of beauty offered values itself implicitly at a rate that a mature mind can’t endorse,” and that in the second Housman’s “‘indocility’ has become a violence—a violence to common experience, and the relation of the imagery to observable fact a gross and insensitive falsity.” Concepts like “emotional and spiritual hygiene,” “maturity of mind,” and “truth to experience” certainly imply ethical standards, however closely those are tied to the literary qualities in which they reveal themselves. And although “sensitiveness” to experience might seem to be a perceptual ability, its opposite, in “gross and insensitive falsity,” has unmistakable tones of moral reproach.

Leavis’s reverence for great literature, his exaltation of it, his sense of vocation in spreading appreciation of it and maintaining its standards, the note of moral indignation when he condemns impostors and false prophets, his association of literature with spiritual hygiene, all point to its having been for him what religion has been for some. That is certainly not to say that he has made literature a “substitute” for religion; a deep preoccupation with human experience contemplated and appraised in human terms is not a substitute for anything. The seriousness of his concern is, however, something that many people have been unable to achieve or justify except in religious terms.

This seriousness about literary judgments contributed to making Leavis an uncomfortable colleague at Cambridge, for instance for those many academics to whom Housman seemed indisputably great. Terms like “immaturity of mind” and “grossly insensitive falsity” were not the language of gentlemanly disagreement in a matter of taste among people engaged in making their careers together in outward harmony. At Cambridge he was kept for the greater part of his working life on the remote fringes of the English faculty, passed over in favor of people who were more amenable institutionally.

For if he brought to literature some of the attitudes that others reserve for religion, his outlook was that of the protestant reformer, often in fierce opposition to the institutions that were supposedly serving literature (though not the true literature as he saw it), institutions like university English faculties, the British Council, the now defunct Third Programme of the BBC, and reviews like the Times Literary Supplement. Similarly, the people he has attacked (C.P. Snow, for instance) have been his targets because of powerful trends they represent; he seldom attacked anyone who lacked formidable establishment backing.

The greater part of the present book is new and expresses a development of ideas only latent in Leavis’s earlier work. Although literature is of immense importance and approachable only on its own terms, it must still find its place within whatever more comprehensive view of human existence we adopt. In this book Leavis attempts to make explicit the broader system of beliefs that his literary criticism presupposes. In the 1930s, when a small number of people appreciated Scrutiny‘s concern with the serious standards that isolated it from the established academic and literary worlds, both communists and Catholic intellectuals felt that the magazine deserved and needed the aid their rival systems could offer. Leavis and his collaborators declined the intellectual corsetry of either doctrine. But now, though without sacrificing the primacy of his literary perceptions and appraisals, he seeks to show what kind of philosophical thinking is consistent with them. For this he turns to the work of Marjorie Grene, with supplementary references to Michael Polanyi and Collingwood.

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