Dr. F. R. Leavis, a Professor and an academic critic, is regarded as one outstanding figures of New Criticism in England. Sometimes his criticism is called ‘Philosophical Criticism’ as it is the reviver of the I hilosophical criticism whose great exponents were Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Arnold. It enshrines poetry on the highest altar of Truth, and teaches to appreciate poetry as an abstract quality. But Literary Criticism to Leavis is not Philosophy. Making a distinction between the two he says in his essay ‘Literary Criticism and Philosophy’ :
The critic—the reader of poetry—is indeed concerned with evaluation, but to figure him as measuring with a norm which he brings up to the object and applies from the outside is to misrepresent the process. The critic’s aim is, first, to realize as sensitively and completely as possible this or that which claims his attention; and a certain valuing is implicitly in the realizing. As he matures in experience of the new thing he asks, explicitly and implicitly ‘Where does this come? How does it stand in relation to How relatively important does it seem?’ And the organization into which it settles as a constituent in becoming ‘placed’ is an organization of similarly ‘placed’ things, things that have found their bearings with regard to one another, and not a theoretical system or a system determined by abstract
The business of the literary critic is to attain a peculiar completeness of response and to observe a peculiarly strict relevance in developing his response into commentary; he must be on his guard against abstracting improperly from what is in front of him and against any premature or irrelevant generalizing—of it or from it. His first concern is to enter into possession of the given poem (let us say) in its concrete fulness, and his concern is never to lose his completeness of possession, but rather to increase it. In making value-judgments (and judgments as to significance), implicitly or explicitly, he does so out of that completeness of passion and with that fulness of response. He doesn’t ask, ‘How does this accord with these specifications of goodness in poetry?’; he aims to make fully conscious and articulate the immediate sense of value that ‘places’ the poem
F. R. Leavis and ‘Cultural Criticism’
F. R. Leavis is also studied as a leader of’Cultural’ criticism advocated and practised by such authentic and respectable critics as Matthew Arnold, Lionel Trilling, F. R. Leavis and Raymond Williams. The basic contention of the critics of this persuasion, according to Prof. Naresh Chandra, is that literature is the best medium for preserving and the best vehicle for the transmission of culture from generation to generation, this forming an perpetuating a tradition in culture. The function of criticism, therefore, to so interpret literature that the cultural values embalmed in it may not only become evident, but also attractive to the mind of man. This function of criticism has become all the more important in our time when cultural values are in the danger of being denigrated by hostile forces like industrialism, political factionalism and fanaticism, political and capitalistic exploitation, scientific and technological materialism, threat of war, and general deterioration in human relations. Naresh Chandra, NewCriticism (1979).
Now-a-days Cultural criticism is attempted by critics like Raymond Williams (see his Culture and Society), Edmund Burke and George Orwell who have made culture their main concern. F. R. Leavis’s English Literature and the University puts forward a strong case for the place of English literature in University studies, mainly on the ground that no other subject presents cultural values in a more forceful, persuasive and beautiful manner.
The major shortcomings of Cultural criticism are its breeziness; the concern of the critics of this school is much more with the culture as embedded in Anglo-Saxon tradition. The critic is committed to a certain concept of culture and has no values of his own, and thus this type of criticism reduces the universal to the condition of accidents. Poetry and literature are concerned with universal and abiding entities, but culture cannot claim any such attributes. It cannot be accepted as pure literary criticism as it has a tilt towards propaganda.
F. R. Leavis and the Valuation School of Criticism
Another trend in modern Criticism is what might be called ‘the correction of opinion.’ The professional art critic’s function, says Mr. R. H. Wilenski. “is solely the assessment of values.” (The Study of Art (1934), p. 167). Thus Dr. F-. R. Leavis entitles one of his published collections of literary essays, Revaluations. Sir Herbert Read is also of the opinion that te ‘science’ of literary criticism is ‘valuation by some standard, of the worth of literature’ (The Nature of Criticism). One of the most distasteful examples of this type of criticism is Ernest Boyd’s book Literary Blasphemies, which aims at revisiting downward the traditional estimates of a number of authors from Shakespeare to Hardy. The major writer of evaluative criticism is Yvor Winters.
F. R. Leavis and the Cambridge School of Criticism Or Leavis as a New Critic
This valuation school owes much inspiration and influence to I. A. Richards and has come to be recognized as the Cambridge School of Criticism, the chief exponents of which are I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, L. C. Knights and William Empson. They have offered the most ambitious and of criticism—criticism as theory and method and have raised undamental questions about the values of life. They lack wit, ease and charm of the Bloomsbury group (Viriginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, Sir Desmond, Mac Carthy, Raymond Mortiner and others). They have also given up pleasant, vivid and cultivated conversation of the Bloomsbury Group.
Dr. F. R. Leavis is the outstanding critic of the Cambridge school of criticism. He is one of the most distinguished and most influential figures among them. He writes in a quite peculiarly awkward and contorted prose, and has a manner, in rebuking other critics, of disagreeable acerbity. As a matter of fact, he too like William Empson, is the follower of I. A. Richards. He was the editor of the distinguished critical journal, Scrutiny to which a number of budding literary critics have made vital contribution. Leavis’s main works are New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), Revaluations (1947),in which he vigorously pleaded for the rehabilitation of the literary reputation of Marvell, Pope and Emile Bronte. His other notable works are The Great Tradition (1948) in which he set out the excellence of George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and The Common Pursuit (1952) which is a nice collection of the articles published from time to time in Scrutiny.
Dr. Leavis is a man of very strong tastes. He loves clarity, solidity and hardness. He does not like the romantic vagueness in criticism or creation. He is an analytical critic and does not believe in making sweeping generalisations. Except T. S. Eliot, he is the greatest contemporary critic. He is a man who would not yield since he is so sure of his being right. He has done as much to rehabilitate Pope and Marvell as any other critic. The strength of his convictions can be seen in his evaluation of Milton and Shelley. He criticises both these poets severely. You may disagree with Dr. Leavis but you cannot possibly afford to ignore him. He has done to literary criticism what Eliot has done to English poetry. Dr. Leavis wants matter of fact, precise and concrete criticism. He does not love mere jugglery of words. The criticism that indulges in such devices is likely to receive a severe blow from him. He considers Eliot to be a great critic, but he was not afraid of taking him to task when Eliot revised his opinion about Milton.
Among his followers may be named Prof. L. C. Knights and Dr. David Daiches. G. S. Fraser has admirably summed up the critical significance of Scrutiny as well as the limitations and achievement of the Canbridge group of critics in the following words :—
“The Scrutiny to-day represents an influential but isolated point of view; modernist in relation to the older academician : conservative in relation to most manifestations of’ modernity’ over the past twenty years, scrutiny exacts, however, respect even from those who disagree with it by its admirable refusal to set on three principles which are, perhaps, pretty widely diffused throughout the rest of literary journalism : the ‘group’ principle, the ‘personal’ principle, and the ‘deference’ principle. The ‘group’ principles consists, for instance, of taking Mr. Eliot’s work very seriously, knowing that Mr. Eliot takes the work of the late Charles Williams work very seriously, too. The ‘personal’ principle derives from the fact that most metropolitan authors and reviewers know each other reasonably well, like to keep on good terms with each other and therefore in reviewing each other’s work are tempted to pull their punches. The ‘deference’ principle is that, when on the whole one admires a particular author’s work very much, one should treat a book of his which is under notice, even if one feels that it does not represent his highest achievement, with a certain tender forbearance. Dr. Leavis’s great admiration for the earlier poems of pound and for very much of Mr. Eliot’s work does not, however, prevent him from being severe about the Cantos or about The Cocktail Party and much of Mr. Eliot’s later prose; the more one respects a writer, he feels, the less degerential one should be, and on the contrary the more unsparing when he feels short of his highest level. What matters is the standards of literature, not the feelings of writers.” (G. S. Fraser, The Modern Writer and His World, pp. 306—7).
Dr. Leavis who was a university teacher, yet his review, Scrutiny (1932-53), though originally intended to revalue people and things in a freelance spirit, exercised for twenty years a veritable academic dictatorship.