Poetry, History and Myth: the Case of F. R. Leavis

TitlePoetry, History and Myth: the Case of F. R. Leavis
Publication TypeConference Proceedings
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsBell, M
Conference NameLeavis and the Confrontation with Modernity
Date Published05/2017
Conference LocationCentre for Modern Studies at the University of York

Poetry, in the older sense of imaginative literature, has retained an inextricable relation with history ever since they both emerged from the unity of myth. For Leavis, great poetry leads the process of cultural-historical change and constitutes its most comprehensive and intimate record. In this respect, his understanding was close to that of Wilhelm Dilthey except that where Dilthey, as philosopher, accepted as a given the category of great art, Leavis, as literary critic, sought to discriminate the rare quality in question. In Leavis’s criticism, this ambitious conception was deployed to telling effect in affirming or rejecting ‘major’ status. Nonetheless it has problems with respect to the representative nature of the great poet whose work must be both representative and unique. Ideally, the uniqueness lies in being profoundly representative but it is not always clear how greatness relates to the more average language and sensibility which it represents. There is a further problem in the almost exclusive emphasis on poetic creativity as opposed to philosophical, scientific or social thought.

Leavis was a contemporary of the post-Nietzschean modernist generation, including Yeats, Joyce, Thomas Mann and Lawrence, who turned to self-conscious myth as a recognition of this problematic yet vital ambition in their work. In retrospect, one of the most successful myths produced by the literature of the time was the view of the Great War promoted by the small group now thought of as the ‘war poets’: principally Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg. Of course, they thought of themselves as telling historical truth and over the course of the twentieth century their initially minority view became mainstream despite the counter-case put by many historians. But Leavis, while admiring their verse, especially Rosenberg’s, denied them the ‘major’ status he was arguing for T. S. Eliot and he was not sympathetic to the self-conscious mythopoeia of contemporary writers. It may be, however, that from the viewpoint of the new century it is right to accept both the historical accounts which vindicate the necessity and conduct of the war and also the poets’ sweeping outrage at catastrophic failure of political leadership across Europe. In a longer historical perspective they can be seen as instances of the poetic crystallisation of epochal sensibility claimed by Dilthey and Leavis.

Author Biography

Michael Bell is a Fellow of the British Academy, Professor Emeritus in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick, and Associate Fellow of the Centre for Research in Philosophy, Literature and the Arts. He has written mainly on literary and philosophical themes from the European Enlightenment to modernity including several essays on Leavis. His book-length publications include Primitivism (1973), The Sentiment of Reality: Truth of Feeling in The European Novel (1983), F. R. Leavis (1988), D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being (1992), Gabriel García Márquez: Solitude and Solidarity (1994), Literature, Modernism and Myth: Belief and Responsibility in the Twentieth Century (1997), Sentimentalism, Ethics and the Culture of Feeling (2001), Open Secrets: Literature, Education and Authority from J-J Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (OUP, 2007), The Cambridge Companion to European Novelists ed. (2012).