The Leavis Society 

Life and Work

Photograph of FR Leavis

Leavis in his garden at
12 Bulstrode Gardens, Cambridge.

FRANK RAYMOND LEAVIS was born in Cambridge on 14th July 1895 and attended the Perse School there. He went up to Emmanuel College in 1914, where (resuming studies after the Great War) he read History and English, the latter being then new as a university discipline at Cambridge. He would recall those early years of the English tripos in his 1967 Clark Lectures (published in 1969 as English Literature in our Time and the University), evoking vividly the pioneering spirit of the new venture.

He served in the war in the Friends' Ambulance Unit, carrying a pocket Milton throughout the ordeal. Though he rarely spoke of them, his wartime experiences affected him deeply and remained with him for the rest of his life. He would much later recall carrying buckets of cocoa along the roofs of ambulance trains (without corridors) 'to men who would have died without it' and 'the innumerable boy subalterns who … had climbed out and gone forward, playing their part in the attacking wave, to be mown down with the swathes that fell to the uneliminated machine guns.'

Early intellectual influences

In another autobiographical passage he remembered 'those early years after the great hiatus' when he had 'struggled to achieve the beginnings of articulate thought about literature'. The figures who 'really counted' then were George Santayana (though 'not fundamentally congenial') and Matthew Arnold, to be followed soon by T.S.Eliot: he bought The Sacred Wood when it came out in 1920. (Eliot's paradoxical distinction would preoccupy him for much of his life.) Along with these went the influence of Ford Madox Ford's (or Hueffer's) English Review to which Leavis had subscribed as a schoolboy in 1912. It was here that he first came on the writing of D. H. Lawrence ('the necessary opposite', as he would later call him, in relation to Eliot). Leavis was impressed by Ford's recognition that in the 'irreversible new conditions' of modern industrial civilisation the concern for 'the higher cultural values' must reside with a small minority, while at the same time that concern must concede nothing to 'the preciousness, fatuity or spirit of Aestheticism'. That view was to be a cornerstone of his own periodical Scrutiny (1932-53). An important aspect of the Scrutiny 'manifesto' also, in a Marxising era, would be its freedom from organised ideology: a 'space' for disinterested intellectual enquiry founded in the 'autonomy of the human spirit'.

In Mansfield Forbes, one of the early lecturers for the tripos, Leavis found an inspiring example of critical and teaching method. He also found stimulation in the early work of I.A.Richards (though he would part company with him when Richards developed interests in semiology). In 1924 he took one of the earliest PhDs in the School with a thesis on the periodical literature of the eighteenth century with particular reference to Addison's Spectator. He retained a lifelong interest in the sociology of literature and a profound concern for cultural continuity. His wife would exemplify similar interests in her classic study (which grew out of her PhD thesis), Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). He collaborated with Denys Thompson on a small primer for schools aimed at encouraging critical awareness: Culture and Environment (1933).

He also admired The Calendar of Modern Letters edited by Edgell Rickword, a quarterly which ran from 1925 to 1927. Leavis was to see its failure to win a sufficient public as an index of cultural decline. Its concern with the maintenance of critical standards was to be an important inspiration behind Scrutiny. The Calendar ran a series of intelligent deflations of what it saw as the exaggerated reputations of such contemporary figures as H.G.Wells, J.M.Barrie, G.K.Chesterton and John Galsworthy (the Galsworthy critique was written by D.H.Lawrence): these articles were later collected by Edgell Rickword under the title Scrutinies. In 1933 Leavis published a selection from The Calendar, with an appreciative introduction, under the title Towards Standards of Criticism (re-printed in 1976 with both the original and a new introduction - in effect a retrospect - by Leavis). It contains one of his most important and original formulations: a reference point for the many subsequent assaults he made on the problem of value-judgement:

Literary criticism provides the test for life and concreteness; where it degenerates, the instruments of thought degenerate too, and thinking, released from the testing and energizing contact with the full living consciousness, is debilitated, and betrayed to the academic, the abstract and the verbal. It is of little use to discuss values if the sense for value in the concrete - the experience and perception of value - is absent.

Teaching at Cambridge

By 1925 he was doing some part-time teaching at Emmanuel. D.W.Harding, who was later to be a fellow editor of Scrutiny, recalled his qualities as a teacher when, looking back fifty years in a broadcast symposium in 1975, he said:

He was really superb. I remember the feelings with which this other man and I would come away. We would be partly exhilarated and partly a bit subdued and rueful, perhaps. Exhilarated because of the new insights and the fine discriminations he had made, and sobered because he kept such extremely high standards in insight and one just realised how unskilled one was as a reader. At the same time, there was no feeling that he belittled you in any way - if you had difficulties or raised objections, then he met you on those. He could scrap what he was going to say and just meet you on whatever you were interested in.

Another pupil, William Walsh, recalled:

One always had the feeling that one wasn't simply discussing what was there on the page. This was taking place, of course, but the discussion was deeply rooted and far-reaching, dealing with all that one felt was really important in life … Leavis's teaching always seemed to engage both these facets: one's personal life, and the life of the mind - the search for the significance of life itself.

In 1929 he married the vivacious and prodigiously clever Queenie Dorothy Roth, whom he had supervised at Girton. The next few years brought a wonderful harvest of critical work culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1932 when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry (with its perceptive discussions of Yeats, Pound and Eliot), Q.D.L. published Fiction and the Reading Public, and the quarterly periodical Scrutiny was founded. It is sometimes suggested that that Scrutiny in its later years was indifferent to contemporary literature, but it is worth recalling that Leavis in his earlier years was in the vanguard. He incurred the displeasure of the public authorities by lecturing on the banned Ulysses in the mid-1920s. As to the teaching of contemporary work in the 1930s, Muriel Bradbrook recalled Leavis's interest in the poetry of I.A.Richards's pupil, the ex-student of mathematics, William Empson. She recalled: 'It cannot be very often that undergraduates are taught the poetry of a fellow undergraduate, but we were taught about some of Empson's poems by Leavis.' He was also writing on Eliot and on Lawrence in the 1920s and early '30s.

Leavis had enemies in the English Faculty, however; his outstanding abilities and the Scrutiny project did not enable him to obtain a permanent Faculty post (the latter may even have militated against him). In 1936, however, (the year in which Revaluation appeared) he was made a Lecturer (though on a part-time salary), at the age of 41, after having been a Probationary (or Assistant) Lecturer since 1927. This situation continued until 1947 when, at the age of 52, he achieved a full-time Lectureship. He had seen younger and less able candidates given precedence. All this (and the lack of academic recognition accorded his wife) was to be a source of bitterness to him both at the time and in later years: a bitterness contained by his high intelligence and powers of self-sufficiency. 'In his youth', noted The Times' obituarist, 'he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.'

Photograph of T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot: an important influence
on Leavis's early work.

Leavis moved from Emmanuel to Downing in 1931 and was elected a Fellow there in 1936. Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry, published that year, completed the anterior history suggested by New Bearings; but this was a new kind of literary history centred, as its title suggests, not in descriptive narrative but in critical evaluation, and concerned where necessary with radical reappraisals. It contained one of his most famous and controversial formulations: 'Milton's dislodgement, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss.' Eliot's influence is explicitly invoked here: his alteration of poetic expression and its relationship to his interest in early 17th century literature.

Another influence was John Middleton Murry. Leavis admired his Aspects of Literature (1920) and The Problem of Style (1922), where Murry compared Shakespeare and Milton to the latter's disadvantage. In Leavis's dealings with poetry - and with literature and culture more generally - the Shakespearean use of language was always a touchstone.

Photograph of John Middleton Murry

John Middleton Murry:
Leavis admired his
Aspects of Literature.

The prose style and the underlying intellectual tenor of Revaluation are, however, already distinctively Leavisian. The book also gave rise to an important exchange with René Wellek in Scrutiny (March and June, 1937) where Leavis showed a concern (it was to be a lifelong one) to 'vindicate literary criticism as a distinct and separate discipline'. Wellek had said he shared a number of Leavis's assumptions but would have wished them to be stated more explicitly and defended systematically. This misconception has dogged subsequent representation of Leavis's work, the more so in recent decades when 'theory' has been ascendant. The essence of Leavis's reply is contained here:

Words in poetry invite us, not to 'think about' … but to … realize a complex experience … They demand … a completer responsiveness [than an abstracting process can supply]. The critic … is indeed concerned with evaluation, but to figure him as measuring with a norm which he brings up to the object from the outside is to misrepresent the process.

Leavis could be a formidable controversialist, as F.W.Bateson discovered in the pages of Scrutiny for Spring and October 1953. Bateson had challenged Leavis's reading (in Revaluation) of Marvell's poem 'A Dialogue between the Soul and Body' (and an associated comparison with Pope) alleging deficiencies in Leavis's scholarly knowledge. He concentrated in particular on what he called Marvell's 'picture language' enlisting the Quarles emblems in support. The truth, Leavis pointed out, was the opposite. Marvell presents us with paradoxes in which a visual element is present but far from dominant:

How do we see the Soul? What visual images correspond to 'fetter'd' and manacled'? We certainly don't see manacles on the Soul's hands and feet: the Soul's hands and feet are the Body's, and it is the fact that they are the Body's that makes them 'manacles' …

Leavis does not deny that a certain amount of specialist knowledge may assist the reading of a poem but it is always the intelligent reading of the poem itself that takes priority. The historical context in which Bateson proposes to anchor the reading is something much less determinate. Leavis takes the opportunity to make a point which is especially valid today in relation to theories of 'cultural materialism' and 'new historicism':

To suggest that their purpose should be to reconstruct a postulated 'social context' that once enclosed the poem and gave it its meaning is to set the student after something that no study of history, social, economic, political, intellectual, religious, can yield. The poem … is there; but there is nothing … that can be set over against the poem, or induced to re-establish itself round it as a kind of framework or completion, and there never was anything.

Middle years

The Great Tradition, studies of George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, published in 1948, did for the English novel what Revaluation had done for English poetry: it provided literary history that possessed an essential centre of interest. Comment has been made on the narrow focus of this book: an English tradition exemplified in just three novelists, one Polish and one American by birth. In his introductory chapter, Leavis strongly justifies the need for major discriminations in so vast a field and sets his chosen subjects, with special regard to Jane Austen and D. H Lawrence, in a field of reference which illustrates his remarkable range of reading: it amounts to erudition.

The individual studies, mainly derived from Scrutiny, are finely responsive: masterpieces of Leavisian 'moral' analysis. Those on George Eliot in particular show a remarkable inwardness, almost unknown today, with the culture from which she stemmed. (Queenie Leavis's writings on the nineteenth century novel show something of the same quality, and it is here most obviously that the creative partnership between the Leavises shows itself.) In his introduction to Mill on Bentham and Coleridge (1950) Leavis illustrates how the intellectual currents which met in J. S. Mill have their imaginative counterpart in George Eliot's major novels. At the same time he sketches the nature of profitable literary study: 'the difference between the retailing of ... amassed externalities and the effort to think something out into a grasped and unified order ...'

The Common Pursuit followed in 1952, collecting many of his best articles from Scrutiny, including important pieces on Milton and his reply to Wellek on literary criticism and philosophy. Some have argued that D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955) showed a falling off in Leavis's analytical gifts, having a significantly greater amount of pure quotation and of exclamatory praise. But it is hard after half a century of academic industry devoted to Lawrence (and many others on whom Leavis wrote with originality) to recognise its pioneering nature. It is also marked by a passionate intensity rarely equalled in Leavis's ouevre:

I am not, then, [he writes in an appendix on Eliot's attitudes towards Lawrence] impressed by any superiority of religious and theological knowledge in a writer capable of exposing what is to me the shocking essential ignorance that characterizes The Cocktail Party … ignorance of the effect the play must have on a kind of reader or spectator of whose existence the author appears to be unaware: the reader who has, himself, found serious work to do in the world and is able to be unaffectedly serious about it, who knows what family life is and has helped to bring up children and who, though capable of being interested in Mr Eliot's poetry, cannot afford cocktail civilization and would reject it, with contempt and boredom, if he could afford it.

Photograph of Leavis

Leavis the teacher in the
years of his greatest influence.

For all Lawrence's diversity, which Leavis recognised, two novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love , would always for him constitute Lawrence's central achievement. With some justification, he adduced the author's own estimate of them in support of this claim. The emphasis for Leavis was always on Lawrence as a profound explorer of inner human experience, one who developed the possibilities of the novelist's art in the service of this idea.

D. H. Lawrence Novelist is grounded also in a profound sense of Lawrence 's belonging (as he felt himself to do) to the civilisation of the English people. Of the earlier novel he says:

The Lawrence who developed in the writing of it found himself compelled to another mood; he expresses in the later part of the book that sense of human problems as they were in contemporary civilization which has its profound and complete expression in Women in Love .

In spite of a sense as the novel draws on that the writer has no conclusion in view, The Rainbow has its own organic form:

And how much of England that can have no other record than the creative writer's there is in The Rainbow . The wealth of the book in this respect is such as must make it plain to any reader that, as social historian, Lawrence, among novelists, is unsurpassed ... The Rainbow shows us the transmission of the spiritual heritage in an actual society ... Where Women in Love has that astonishing comprehensiveness in the presentment of contemporary England ... The Rainbow has instead its historical depth.

'These two books,' he concluded, 'would by themselves have been enough to place Lawrence among the greatest English writers.'

A striking feature of D. H. Lawrence Novelist - contributing to one's sense of Leavis's writing as of a different order from that of the general ruck of critics - is the fiercely articulate conviction with which it attempts to right the injustices perpetrated against a great writer's reputation. Not least, Leavis takes issue with a widely held view of Lawrence as characteristically humourless. Invoking the short stories in particular, he proposes Lawrence as 'one of the great masters of comedy' - a truth exemplified in a wide range of his shorter fictions, 'tales evoking many different kinds of smile and laughter, though never the cruel, the malicious or the complacent.' This humour, Leavis suggests, is a 'natural expression of Lawrence's supremely intelligent vitality'. But 'a world that finds the quintessence of wit in Congreve and Wilde will perhaps continue to find Lawrence humourless.'

Later years

There followed a long gap until the publication of 'Anna Karenina' and Other Essays (1967), which, in addition to the title essay and further reflections on George Eliot and Conrad, included a collection of fine pieces on classic American literature. Then followed Lectures in America (1969) (with Q. D. Leavis) and Dickens the Novelist (1970), a major joint endeavour with his wife marking the centenary year of Dickens' death. Leavis would attach much significance to his essay on Little Dorrit, which he came to regard as one of the greatest works of European literature. (In this essay Leavis associates the essential spirit of Dickens' mature work with that of Blake. It is an unusual discourse for what is in some senses a work of academic criticism, being circuitous in construction and having, as his biographer, Ian MacKillop, pointed out, itself a kind of visionary quality.)

The intervening years had however seen the delivery (and subsequent publication) of a lecture to which he also attached great importance and which would lead the way to a remarkable series of 'field performances' (opportunities offered by his visiting professorships). Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P.Snow, being the Richmond Lecture at Downing for 1962, launched a fierce (but - Leavis argues - essentially impersonal) attack on Snow's characterisation of a growing rift between literary or artistic 'culture' and a contrasted scientific 'culture' (the inference being that he, Snow, personified a unification of the two). But, Leavis argued, there is a human culture (of which science forms a part) of which the paradigm is the prior creative achievement of language: the emphasis being on the imaginative creativity of which literature is a heightened form.

Snow had asked literary friends to explain the 2nd law of thermodynamics: they could not; yet, he argued, it was like asking scientists if they had read a work of Shakespeare. There was, Leavis pointed out, no scientific equivalent to the reading of Shakespeare. Leavis introduced the idea of the 'third realm' as a term for the mode of existence of works of literature. They are neither private in the sense of 'subjective' nor public in the sense that their nature is capable of empirical verification; they exist only in collaborative re-creation, through 'meeting in meaning'. The business of 'exorcising' the Cartesian dualism occupied Leavis's mind ever more intensively in his later years. In the Snow lecture, as in many other places, Leavis stated his well-known model of critical discussion: 'This is so, is it not? - Yes, but …', the 'but' standing for reservations, qualifications, etc. It is a model which consciously disallows the retort, 'So for you maybe, not for me'. In the nature of our humanness, we are committed to 'the common pursuit of true judgment'.

Here [says Leavis] we have a diagram of the collaborative-creative process in which the poem comes to be established as something 'out there' of common access in what is in some sense a common world.

The Richmond Lecture sparked heated controversy which, as Leavis drily noted, failed to advance the argument. He would comment on the impercipience of those who had been affronted: 'I am used to misrepresentation but not resigned to it.' He took heart, however, from letters of support whose general refrain had been: 'It needed saying, thank God you said it.' But the significance of the lecture lies not so much in its dismantling of Snow's reputation as a novelist and general thinker but in its positive inauguration of a new phase in Leavis's thinking.

Much of this new phase, from the mid-1960s, was spent at the University of York, to which Leavis expressed gratitude for the opportunities it afforded him as a visiting professor. It was a period which brought a remarkable new harvest. The Dickens book, the engagement with Eliot's 'Four Quartets' in The Living Principle (1975) and with Lawrence's texts in Thought , Words and Creativity (1976) showed a return to the close discussion of particular examples of prose and poetry after the engagement with matters of wider cultural concern in Nor Shall My Sword (1972) (which collected the Richmond Lecture and subsequent 'field performances'); but for Leavis the two were always intrinsically related. Indeed, these books are deeply informed by his highly original engagement with the 'relationship' between language, life and the creativity of perception.

The discussion of Eliot prompted one of his most explicit statements of general principle: 'There is no acceptable religious position which is not a reinforcement of human responsibility.' Leavis wrote more - and more forensically - on Eliot than on any other single author (writings covering nearly a fifty year period, which are regrettably scattered), preoccupied especially by the question of Christian affirmation in his later poetry and with the 'limitations attendant on the achievement'. By this he meant the co-existence in Eliot of painful sincerity and capricious judgement, and - as Leavis diagnosed it - an inveterate and paradoxical will to discredit human creativity.

In his later writing Leavis frequently characterised himself as an 'anti-philosopher', returning in a more sustained way to the matter of his exchange of the 1930s with René Wellek. He was not in fact hostile to philosophy: indeed, he saw it as one of those 'liaison' subjects he often spoke of in discussions about the idea of a university (see, for example, his Education and the University of 1943, a book he felt to have been much neglected). His later comments on philosophy in, for example, the long section on'Thought, Language and Objectivity' and the commentary on 'The Dry Salvages' in The Living Principle, suggest a sustained interest in the subject even preceding his friendship with Wittgenstein in the late 1920s (he bought Whitehead's Science and the Modern World when it came out in 1925) . He had evidently considered carefully Collingwood's The Idea of Nature (published in 1945) and his comments on Alexander and Whitehead. He adduced an affinity between his own ideas and those of the scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi. (Recent approaches to his work have also identified, variously, some commonality with Husserl, Heidegger and Dilthey.) But he wanted to find a term which drew attention to the reality of literature as a non-philosophical but heuristic mode of thought. Philosophers, he believed, were generally 'weak on language' ('or let us rather say a language ... for there is no such thing as language in general'), failing to perceive the significance of their having to use it to do philosophy.

In these years also, in a remarkable piece of autobiography (and Cambridge topography), he set down his 'Memories of Wittgenstein'. He made a number of 'forays' also at this time to universities in continental Europe, meeting (and subsequently writing on) the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale, with whom he found himself reciting from memory Valéry's 'Le Cimetière marin'.

Photograph of King's Manor, University of York

King's Manor, University of York.
Leavis was grateful for the
opportunities which his time at
York afforded him.

Leavis was made a Reader in English at Cambridge in 1959 and held this post until his retirement in 1962. He gave the Chichele Lectures at Oxford in 1964 and was Clark Lecturer at Cambridge in 1967. He was appointed Visiting Professor of English at the University of York and held this position from 1965 onwards. He subsequently also held Visiting Professorships at the Universities of Wales and of Bristol. He was awarded Doctorates of Literature by the Universities of Leeds, York, Queen's Belfast, Delhi and Aberdeen.

Leavis was made a Companion of Honour in the New Year's list for 1978 and died on 14th April that year at the age of 82. His obituary in The Times spoke of the 'mixture of asceticism and vitality' that had marked him and of the 'flame-like nimbleness of his speech and glance' which 'compelled attention'. While for many he had 'seemed a rare talent grown painfully awry', to others he 'assumed almost Socratic powers.'

In the valedictory piece for Scrutiny, in October 1953, Leavis had recalled lines from the poem by Arthur Hugh Clough:

Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.


"The modern reader is at once struck by the body of traditional lore the [Elizabethan] people must have possessed which served instead of the 'knowledge' (i.e. acquaintance with a mass of more or less unrelated facts, derived principally from an elementary school education and the newspaper) that forms the background of the modern working-man's mind."

QDL Fiction and the Reading Public

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