F. R. Leavis
F. R. Leavis; drawing by David Levine

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.

I imagine these writers are fairly vulnerable to their fellow philosophers; few philosophers are not. But from them Leavis gains support for two convictions: first, that life is irreducible to inanimate matter; secondly, that it manifests itself characteristically in a forward-reaching creativity. The first seems to me of less importance for his purpose than the second, to which he relates his perception of the vital role in creative work of what he calls the nisus or ahnung, the directed groping toward something of which we have an inkling or even foreboding, something impossible to define in advance but felt to be right and inevitable when we reach it, almost “recognized” or identified as the goal we were fated to seek.

It is this forward-reaching creativity that Leavis regards as “the living principle.” For him it needs no religious sanction or validation; it is an inherent feature of being human. But of course, as he rightly insists, what we call “being human” is itself an outcome of social—of collaborative—endeavor, and each creative mind, however original and independent, depends on and in turn extends this collaboration. A language, notably, is a humanly created and constantly modified feature of being human. Taking up a phrase of Eliot’s, he writes:

It is true that humanity has depended in vital ways, and depends, on “men whom one cannot hope to emulate”—but their genius depends on their humanity. Not only is human creativity concentrated in them, so that they represent supremely the distinguishing characteristic of life, but in the exercise of their genius they are dependent on collaboratively creative human continuity in the way exemplified by Eliot’s own dependence on the English language.

But not all writers, in Leavis’s view, not even all great writers, serve this creative principle. Swift’s turning of the living principle against life itself, his “destructive creativity” produced by “hatred of life, himself and the reader,” Leavis handles in a few pages (referring back to an earlier essay) and implies it to be unquestionably a perversion.

Much more, well over a third, of The Living Principle is spent on a searching inquiry into the more complex question of Eliot’s attitude to human life and creative possibilities. There could in the first place be no easy reconciliation between Leavis’s deep conviction of the importance of Blake and D.H. Lawrence in their views of sex as part, or even the fount, of all creative vitality, and his intense admiration of Eliot’s poetry in spite of the disparagement of sexual relations, or disappointment in them, which some of it conveyed. Lawrence and Blake, though explicitly brought forward only occasionally in this book, provide reference points from which Eliot’s shortcomings are measured.

And for Leavis the task of appraising Eliot’s basic attitudes has further complications. Although an outsider in the English literary world, he has been acutely aware of it—with reason, in view of the concerted hostility that world brought to bear on his own early work. Leavis saw in Eliot someone whose quality of mind made it certain he could assay the debased literary currency at its true worth, and he was then indignant at finding Eliot to be no ally but a man of acquiescences and diplomatic noncommitment. Leavis sees him as a divided man:

The profoundest and completest sincerity, that which characterizes the work of the greatest writers, is then impossible for him. There is a limitation of self-knowledge that he can’t transcend; a courage that he hasn’t—though he can recognize it in Blake. In fact, the gift for an equivocal subtlety of formulation that exasperated one so much in the Editor of The Criterion—the talent that enabled him, in writing (for example) an obituary of Robert Bridges, to satisfy the institutionalist bien-pensants while making the undisturbed dismissive judgment plain to readers like myself, who knew that Eliot’s view of the deceased Laureate as a poet coincided with my own—went very deep. It went down to the core of the centrally divided inner being, and the attendant lack of courage in the face of life.

Others who have disappointed Leavis—I.A. Richards, for example, to whose early work he owed so much—he can sweep aside, but Eliot has been a continuing problem to him. Leavis has remained absolutely loyal to his perception of fineness in Eliot’s poetry, while condemning what he finds a central defect in it.

It is the value of human creativity that Eliot’s Christian poetry seems to Leavis to put in doubt, and this is the problem with which he wrestles tensely in his fine discussion of Four Quartets, much of it ranking with the best of his critical work. The delicate accuracy of his reading of “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker,” with his sensitive but firm discriminations, exemplifies with a more difficult work the same strength that he shows in the short critical studies, such as that of the Wordsworth sonnet, which comprise the second section of the book.

He is not concerned primarily to expound the Quartets. Although there is exegesis, tactful and illuminating, the chief aim is discriminating judgment and, as the discussion gathers way, a forcefully argued condemnation of Eliot’s inability to put his trust in human life:

What I have been offering is both a recognition of Eliot’s great importance and a severe adverse criticism. It is his using a major poet’s command of the English language to bring home to us the spiritual philistinism of our civilization that makes him important to us. The criticism regards his fear of life and contempt (which includes self-contempt) for humanity. This combination of fear and contempt commits him to a frustrating and untenable conception of the spiritual. By “untenable” I mean one that cannot without his implicitly contradicting it be served by a poet. This was the point made positively by Blake when he said: “Jesus was an artist.” When we set by this what he said about his own creative works [“Tho’ I call them Mine, I know that they are not Mine”], the nature and force of his dismissal of what we may call the Eliotic contradiction becomes plain. In demonstrating his supreme respect for his creativity, the artist demonstrates his allegiance to what he knows to be other than himself. The demonstration is the assertion of spiritual values, spiritual significance, spiritual authority; the resulting evidence their vindication. In his witness to the disastrousness of today’s triumphant philistinism Eliot performed a great service to life and humanity; in his assertion of human abjectness and nullity he denied his implicit affirmation, but the contradiction and what it reveals should be plain enough to all who are capable of recognizing his genius and showing it the true respect. Only out of life and by the living, who are of it—of the life that is inseparable from the creativity intensively manifested by the artist—can spiritual values be recognized, served, and maintained. To posit, as Eliot does, human impotence and nullity is to face oneself with the void, with emptiness, with nothingness.

The treatment of time-bound human life as something other than and less than some spiritual reality is so usual in the Christian poets (presumably crucial in their system of belief) that by itself it can hardly be what Leavis mainly objects to. They all have to balance between grateful acceptance of life on earth and a denial of its worth compared with the heavenly prospect; so Herbert:

   Man’s joy and pleasure
Rather hereafter than in present is

Not that he may not here

   Taste of the cheer; But as birds drink, and straight lift up their head, So must he sip, and think
Of better drink

He may attain to after he is dead.

It would have been helpful if Leavis had explicitly contrasted Eliot with whatever Christian poets he does find acceptable. That there are such seems to be implied by his care to condemn Eliot’s “variety” of Christianity, citing as its clearest expression the stanzas from “East Coker” beginning “The wounded surgeon plies the steel,” and quoting

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood

Leavis objects, I think, not only to the sado-masochistic element (which makes the stanzas repellent to me) but even more to the implied worthlessness of life except as a discipline of suffering.

In “The Dry Salvages” Eliot makes a greater effort to affirm the possibility of (and positive value of) some relation between human life in time and the timeless “reality” he contrasts it with. Leavis recognizes the effort but is not satisfied:

It is obviously not enough to say that Eliot in Four Quartets applies a major poet’s genius to expressing intense personal conviction. In such an undertaking, what he offers is offered as having general validity.

Leavis notably avoids the temptation to which agnostics are prone, of being patronizingly gentle toward religious beliefs; in fact his discussion of “The Dry Salvages” strikes me as spending too much of itself on argument. Important though the differences of belief obviously are, the much more striking contrast between Leavis and Eliot lies in qualities of personality. The depression and sense of guilt which color so much of Eliot’s poetry emerge from a personality antithetical to Leavis’s, with his courage, combative self-confidence, and uncompromisingly outspoken honesty.

Obviously, self-abasement and self-accusation came more readily to Eliot than they ever could have done to Leavis or Lawrence or Blake. And with his low opinion of Eliot’s “non-poetic life in which it gives him patent satisfaction to be an ’eminent man of letters,’ a social value, the distinguished Editor of The Criterion, and a successful playwright,” Leavis is far from objecting to his self-abasement, so long as it is not extrapolated to human kind in general.

In “Little Gidding,” which he treats as a collapse from the high standards of the preceding Quartets, it is only a passage of self-accusation that he can admire. He believes that the “familiar compound ghost” who discloses to the air-raid warden “the gifts reserved for age” is Eliot himself as he sees himself actually to be, not (as I had supposed) the Eliot he sees he would have become were it not for the spiritual values he reached through religion. So, for Leavis, “the solemnly intense ferocity of the admonition is that of self-accusing and avowed self-exposure.” But he thinks it beyond Eliot to sustain more than a glimpse of himself:

the unequivocal recognition of motives late revealed and of things ill done and done to others’ harm won’t be maintained. Human kind cannot bear very much burning shame, and the exercise of Eliot’s genius has entailed the intensive practice of a subtlety that makes the self-recognition now required of him peculiarly difficult.

“Little Gidding” reverts to what Leavis calls its “relaxed ethos of achieved security” in which an intersection of transient human life with a spiritual and timeless reality is conceived as possible.

Leavis can hardly wish that Eliot had continued indefinitely in self-castigation, but the concept of the real and the spiritual to which he turned after his conversion is not for Leavis:

When I say that the poem, the real and living poem, is “there” between us I think of it as the type of that collaboratively created and sustained reality, the human world, without which there could have been no significance, and no spiritual problem to be explored.

The “real” and the “spiritual” are for Leavis essentially human.

He leaves it less explicit than I should like that the values—whether usefully to be called spiritual or not—by which a work of literature is judged must be based on something more than literature itself. This is nevertheless clear from the restricted meaning he gives to the term “literature”:

How can any life that it is not deplorably and reprehensibly a misdirection to call a life of literary culture not, one exclaims, bring a sense—bring, by what it essentially is and must be, a cultivated and heightened sense—of spiritual values?

Literature in the wider, more usual sense, which would include not only Swift and Eliot but C.P. Snow and Kingsley Amis and much else that Leavis would deplore, cannot in itself provide the criteria for deciding that some parts of it don’t deserve the name. Admittedly, what we choose as good literature and explore further may then bring a cultivated and heightened sense of those very values in the light of which we chose it—there is no circularity in that.

But the initial preferences for some works rather than others, whether in the origins of a nation’s literature or the growth of an individual’s reading, must be based on standards that are brought to literature, not found in it. There must be a continuing interaction between reading and the rest of life. For Leavis to have gone further into the nature of the standards that affect literary judgments without being peculiarly literary would have meant stating more fully and systematically much that he leaves implicit in his criticism of particular works and authors, the nature for instance of maturity of mind, or the emotional and spiritual hygiene against which “Tears, idle tears” offends, or the sort of faith in human beings that Swift undermines.

It will be evident that The Living Principle is far from the assemblage of left-overs that one might have expected from an eighty-year-old critic. Much of it serves excellently as an introduction to the sort of critical work that Leavis does superbly well. It illustrates (in a brief form) his general attitude to civilization now (“outwardly cock-a-hoop and at heart despairing”) and its literary world. It shows his developing effort to identify convictions and values that his concern with literature has always presupposed. And the discussion of Eliot, sensitive and challenging, raises problems that confront everyone who reaches out toward a major author across a chasm of differences in belief and personality.

This Issue

June 1, 1978