I recently reread F. R. Leavis's New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), one of the most influential books of literary criticism in the twentieth century. What impressed me on this reading -- my first since my student days at Cambridge, where Leavis, though retired, was still active.-- was the exalted treatment of Hopkins. The passionate reading of Hopkins's poems, the appreciation of his work, should stand as sufficient evidence of Leavis's critical strength. I had remembered more clearly other judgments in the book: that "The Waste Land" was the ne plus ultra of modern poetry, that Pound was at his best in "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly," that Pound's "modern interests, one feels, are for him mainly opportunities, taken or made, for verse practice." Leavis was astringent, exclusive, not to say dogmatic; he felt that great poetry was an activity of the moral imagination. Few modern poets were acceptable. "No one could be seriously interested in the great bulk of the verse that is culled and offered to us as the fine flower of modern poetry. For the most part it is not so much bad as dead -- it was never alive." There is the authentic Leavis note. Not generous; but genuine, fierce, dedicated to the critical ideal as Matthew Arnold had articulated it. He was also irate when he was not bitter, a man who radiated contempt for his foes or for disciples who veered from the orthodoxy as pronounced by the great man, his wife (herself an esteemed Cambridge don), and their literary journal Scrutiny. Stephen Fry recently called him a "sanctimonious prick," as you'll see if you read this Spectator review of the new book, Memoirs of a Leavisite by David Ellis. It was, by the way, the Spectator that published Leavis's notorious Richmond Lecture of 1962 -- and a spate of letters protesting it a week later.
"Does Anyone Care About F. R. Leavis?" There are readers who will feel that this phrase at the head of an aricle is a rhetorical question that answers itself. Leavis, a lost cause, was never all that attractive to begin with. But I bring him up not only because his ghost hovered at the bookshelves of Heffer's and G. David Bookseller on a recent visit to Cambridge -- but because the Leavis-Snow controversy of the early 1960s seems to me in retrospect even more significant than people thought at the time. In The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), C.P. Snow asserted that the sciences and the humanities were drifting ever farther apart and strongly implied that the future belonged to the sciences. At his Cambridge college (Downing) on February 28,1962, Leavis devoted the Richmond Lecture to a vitriolic attack on Snow's position (which itself originated as a Cambridge lecture -- the Rede Lecture of 1959). It was, alas, less a defense of the humanities than a contemptuous dismissal of Snow. I think that debate, if one can call it that, has foreshadowed the major intellectual story of our time, which is the utter triumph of technology, media, and gadgetry. Trilling has an excellent essay on the controversy (in Beyond Culture). It is possible that Leavis was right but his manner so offensive as to overshadow all else. When "foreshadow" is followed by "overshadow" two sentences later I figure it's time to type 30, as in ancient days. -- David Lehman