F. R. Leavis

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Frank Raymond "F. R." Leavis, CH (14 July 1895 – 14 April 1978) was an influential British literary critic of the early-to-mid-twentieth century. He taught for much of his career at Downing College, Cambridge but often latterly at the University of York.

Early life[edit]

Frank Raymond Leavis was born in Cambridge, in 1895, about a decade after T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and Ezra Pound, literary figures whose reputations he would later contribute to enhancing. His father, Harry Leavis, a cultured man, ran a small shop in Cambridge which sold pianos and other musical instruments (Hayman 1), and his son was to retain a respect for him throughout his life. Frank Leavis was educated at a local fee-paying independent school, The Perse School, whose headmaster at the time was Dr. W. H. D. Rouse. Rouse was a classicist and known for his "direct method," a practice which required teachers to carry on classroom conversations with their pupils in Latin and classical Greek. Though he had some fluency in foreign languages, Leavis felt that his native language was the only one on which he was able to speak with authority. His extensive reading in the classical languages is not therefore strongly evident in his critical publications (Bell 3).

Leavis was nineteen when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. Not wishing for a military role, he joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit, FAU, working in France immediately behind the Western Front, and carrying a copy of Milton's poems with him. On the introduction of conscription in 1916, he benefited from the blanket recognition of FAU members as conscientious objectors. His wartime experiences had a lasting effect on Leavis; mentally, he was prone to insomnia, while exposure to poison gas is often believed to have damaged his physical health[citation needed], primarily his digestive system.

Leavis was slow to recover from the war, and he was later to refer to it as "the great hiatus." He had won a scholarship from the Perse School to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and in 1919 began to read for a degree in History. In his second year, he changed to English and became a pupil at the newly founded English School at Cambridge. Despite graduating with first-class honours, Leavis was not seen as a strong candidate for a research fellowship and instead embarked on a PhD, then a lowly career move for an aspiring academic. In 1924, Leavis presented a thesis on ‘The Relationship of Journalism to Literature', which 'studied the rise and earlier development of the press in England’ (Bell 4). This work contributed to his lifelong concern with the way in which the ethos of a periodical can both reflect and mould the cultural aspirations of a wider public (Greenwood 8). In 1927, Leavis was appointed as a probationary lecturer for the university, and, when his first substantial publications began to appear a few years later, their style was very much influenced by the demands of teaching.

Later life and career[edit]

In 1929 Leavis married one of his students, Queenie Roth, and this union resulted in a productive collaboration which yielded many great critical works culminating with their annus mirabilis in 1932 when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry, his wife published Fiction and the Reading Public, and the quarterly periodical Scrutiny was founded (Greenwood 9). A small publishing house, The Minority Press, was founded by Gordon Fraser, another of Leavis' students, in 1930, and served for several years as an additional outlet for the work of Leavis and some of his students. Also in this year Leavis was appointed director of studies in English at Downing College where he was to teach for the next thirty years. He soon founded Scrutiny, the critical quarterly that he edited until 1953, using it as a vehicle for the new Cambridge criticism, upholding rigorous intellectual standards and attacking the dilettante elitism he believed to characterise the Bloomsbury Group. Scrutiny provided a forum for (on occasion) identifying important contemporary work and (more commonly) reviewing the traditional canon by serious criteria (Bell 6). This criticism was informed by a teacher’s concern to present the essential to students, taking into consideration time constraints and a limited range of experience.

New Bearings in English Poetry was the first major volume of criticism Leavis was to publish, and it provides insight into his own critical positions. He has been frequently (but often erroneously) associated with the American school of New Critics, a group which advocated close reading and detailed textual analysis of poetry over, or even instead of, an interest in the mind and personality of the poet, sources, the history of ideas and political and social implications. Although there are undoubtedly similarities between Leavis's approach to criticism and that of the New Critics (most particularly in that both take the work of art itself as the primary focus of critical discussion), Leavis is ultimately distinguishable from them, since he never adopted (and was explicitly hostile to) a theory of the poem as a self-contained and self-sufficient aesthetic and formal artefact, isolated from the society, culture and tradition from which it emerged. New Bearings, devoted principally to Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, was an attempt to identify the essential new achievements in modern poetry (Bell 6). It also discussed at length and praised the work of Ronald Bottrall, whose importance was not to be confirmed by readers and critics.

In 1933 Leavis published For Continuity, which was a selection of Scrutiny essays. This publication, along with Culture and the Environment (a joint effort with Denys Thompson), stressed the importance of an informed and discriminating, highly trained intellectual elite whose existence within university English departments would help preserve the cultural continuity of English life and literature. In Education and the University (1943), Leavis argued that ‘there is a prior cultural achievement of language; language is not a detachable instrument of thought and communication. It is the historical embodiment of its community’s assumptions and aspirations at levels which are so subliminal much of the time that language is their only index’ (Bell 9).

In 1948, Leavis focused his attention on fiction and made his general statement about the English novel in The Great Tradition where he traced this claimed tradition through Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. Contentiously, Leavis, and his followers, excluded major authors such as Charles Dickens, Laurence Sterne and Thomas Hardy from his canon, but eventually he changed his position on Dickens, publishing Dickens the Novelist in 1970. The Leavisites' downgrading of Hardy for a time damaged the novelist's reputation, but eventually may have damaged Leavis's own authority.

In 1950, in the introduction to Mill on Bentham and Coleridge, a publication he edited, Leavis set out the historical importance of utilitarian thought. Leavis found Bentham to epitomize the scientific drift of culture and social thinking, which was in his view the enemy of the holistic, humane understanding he championed (Bell 9).

The Common Pursuit, another collection of his essays from Scrutiny, was published in 1952. Outside of his work on English poetry and the novel, this is Leavis’s best-known and most influential work. A decade later Leavis was to earn much notoriety when he delivered his Richmond lecture, Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow at Downing College.[1] Leavis vigorously attacked Snow's suggestion, from a 1959 lecture and book by C. P. Snow (see The Two Cultures), that practitioners of the scientific and humanistic disciplines should have some significant understanding of each other, and that a lack of knowledge of twentieth-century physics was comparable to an ignorance of Shakespeare.[2] Leavis's ad hominem attacks on Snow's intelligence and abilities were widely decried in the British press by public figures such as Lord Boothby and Lionel Trilling.[3] Leavis introduced the idea of the 'third realm' as a name for the method of existence of literature; works which are not private like a dream or public in the sense of something that can be tripped over, but exist in human minds as a work of collaborative re-constitution (Greenwood 11).

In 1964 he resigned his fellowship at Downing; however, he took up visiting professorships at the University of Bristol, the University of Wales and the University of York. His final volumes of criticism were Nor Shall My Sword (1972), The Living Principle (1975) and Thought, Words and Creativity (1976). These later works are notable for their more discursive treatment of the issues he had debated with René Wellek in the 1930s.

Leavis died in 1978, at the age of 82,[4] having been made a Companion of Honour in the previous New Year Honours. His wife, Queenie D. Leavis, died in 1981. He features as a main character, played by Sir Ian Holm, in the 1991 BBC TV feature, The Last Romantics. The story focuses on his relationship with his mentor, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and the students. More recently, in a revival of interest in his work, he has been the subject of a series of conferences at the University of York and at Downing College, Cambridge.


Leavis' uncompromising zeal in promoting his views of literature drew mockery from quarters of the literary world involved in imaginative writing. In a letter that Edith Sitwell wrote to Pamela Hansford Johnson in 1959 she described Leavis as a tiresome, whining, pettyfogging little pipsqueak.[5] Leavis (as Simon Lacerous) and Scrutiny (as Thumbscrew) were satirized by Frederick Crews in the chapter Another Book to Cross off your List of his lampoon of literary criticism theory The Pooh Perplex A Student Casebook. In her novel Possession, A. S. Byatt wrote of one of her characters (Blackadder) "Leavis did to Blackadder what he did to serious students: he showed him the terrible, the magnificent importance and urgency of English literature and simultaneously deprived him of any confidence in his own capacity to contribute to or change it." Tom Sharpe, in his novel The Great Pursuit, depicts a ludicrous series of events ending in the hero teaching Leavisite criticism as a religion in the American Bible Belt. Leavis also appears as "Looseleaf" in Clive James's Peregrine Prykke.


Leavis' proponents claimed that he introduced a "seriousness" into English studies, and some English and American university departments were shaped very much by Leavis’s example and ideas. Leavis appeared to possess a very clear idea of literary criticism and he was well known for his decisive and often provocative, and idiosyncratic, judgements. Leavis insisted that valuation was the principal concern of criticism, and that it must ensure that English literature should be a living reality operating as an informing spirit in society, and that criticism should involve the shaping of contemporary sensibility (Bilan 61).

Leavis's criticism is difficult to directly classify, but it can be grouped into four chronological stages. The first is that of his early publications and essays including New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and Revaluation (1936). Here he was concerned primarily with reexamining poetry from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, and this was accomplished under the strong influence of T. S. Eliot. Also during this early period Leavis sketched out his views about university education.

He then turned his attention to fiction and the novel, producing The Great Tradition (1948) and D. H. Lawrence, Novelist (1955). Following this period Leavis pursued an increasingly complex treatment of literary, educational and social issues. Though the hub of his work remained literature, his perspective for commentary was noticeably broadening, and this was most visible in Nor Shall my Sword (1972).

Two of his last publications embodied the critical sentiments of his final years; The Living Principle: ‘English’ as a Discipline of Thought (1975), and Thought, Words and Creativity: Art and Thought in Lawrence (1976). Although these later works have been sometimes called "philosophy", it has been argued that there is no abstract or theoretical context to justify such a description. In discussing the nature of language and value, Leavis implicitly treats the sceptical questioning that philosophical reflection starts from as an irrelevance from his standpoint as a literary critic - a position set out in his famous[citation needed] early exchange with René Wellek. Others, however, have argued that although Leavis's thinking in these later works is hard to classify - itself an important datum - it provides valuable insights into the nature of a language.[6]

On poetry[edit]

Though his achievements as a critic of fiction were impressive, Leavis is often viewed as having been a better critic of poetry than of the novel.[7] In New Bearings in English Poetry Leavis attacked the Victorian poetical ideal, suggesting that nineteenth-century poetry sought the consciously ‘poetical’ and showed a separation of thought and feeling and a divorce from the real world. The influence of T. S. Eliot is easily identifiable in his criticism of Victorian poetry, and Leavis acknowledged this, saying in The Common Pursuit that, ‘It was Mr. Eliot who made us fully conscious of the weakness of that tradition’ (Leavis 31). In his later publication Revaluation, the dependence on Eliot was still very much present, but Leavis demonstrated an individual critical sense operating in such a way as to place him among the distinguished modern critics.

The early reception of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound's poetry, and also the reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins, were considerably enhanced by Leavis's proclamation of their greatness. His criticism of John Milton, on the other hand, had no great impact on Milton's popular esteem. Many of his finest analyses of poems were reprinted in the late work, The Living Principle.

On the novel[edit]

As a critic of the novel, Leavis’s main tenet stated that great novelists show an intense moral interest in life, and that this moral interest determines the nature of their form in fiction (Bilan 115). Authors within this "tradition" were all characterised by a serious or responsible attitude to the moral complexity of life and included Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence, but excluded Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. In The Great Tradition Leavis attempted to set out his conception of the proper relation between form/composition and moral interest/art and life. This proved to be a contentious issue in the critical world, as Leavis refused to separate art from life, or the aesthetic or formal from the moral. He insisted that the great novelist’s preoccupation with form was a matter of responsibility towards a rich moral interest, and that works of art with a limited formal concern would always be of lesser quality.

On the BBC[edit]

Leavis was one of the earliest detractors of the BBC. He accused the Corporation's coverage of English literature of lacking impartiality, and of vulgarising the literary taste of British society.[8] In 1931, Leavis took issue with a BBC series of book discussions presented by Harold Nicolson, claiming that Nicolson's programmes lacked the "sensitiveness of intelligence" which Leavis believed good literary criticism required.[9] Throughout his career, Leavis constantly took issue with the BBC's motives and actions, even once jokingly referring to his "anti-BBC complex".[8]


  1. ^ Gerhardi, William (1962). "Sir Charles Snow, Dr. F. R. Leavis and the Two Cultures," The Spectator, 16 March, p. 9.
  2. ^ Ortolano, Guy (2009). The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain, Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ Kimball, Roger (1994). “'The Two Cultures' Today: On the C. P. Snow–F. R. Leavis Controversy”, The New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 6, p. 10.
  4. ^ Ezard, John (1978). "Obituary: Frank Raymond Leavis," The Guardian, April 18.
  5. ^ Wendy Pollard Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Work and Times (Shepeard-Walwyn, UK, 2014) ISBN 978-0-85683-298-7. Page 280.
  6. ^ Stotesbury/Robinson/Joyce
  7. ^ "I now see that he is at his best as a critic of poetry"--Howard Jacobson. See his article, "Howard Jacobson on being taught by F.R. Leavis," The Telegraph, April 23, 2011. Accessed online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/8466388/Howard-Jacobson-on-being-taught-by-FRLeavis.html
  8. ^ a b Christopher Hilliard, English as a Vocation: The 'Scrutiny' Movement. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2012 ISBN 0199695172. (p. 96)
  9. ^ Todd Avery, Radio Modernism: Literature, Ethics, and the BBC, 1922-1938. Farnham Ashgate Publishing, 2006 ISBN 0754655172 (p. 39-40)


  • Bell, Michael. F. R. Leavis, Routledge (1988)
  • Bilan, R. P. The Literary Criticism of F. R. Leavis, Cambridge University Press (1979)
  • Day, Gary. Re-Reading Leavis: Culture and Literary Criticism, Palgrave Macmillan (1996)
  • Greenwood, Edward, F. R. Leavis, Longman Group: London, (1978)
  • Leavis, F. R. The Common Pursuit, Chatto & Windus: London; Clarke, Irwin: Toronto, 1952.
  • Kimball, Roger. "The Two Cultures Today", in The New Criterion, Vol. 12, No. 6, February 1994.
  • Mulhern, Francis. The Moment of Scrutiny, London: New Left Books, 1979.
  • Ortolano, Guy. "F. R. Leavis, Science, and the Abiding Crisis of Modern Civilization", History of Science, 43: 161–85 (2005).
  • Podhoretz, Norman. "F. R. Leavis: A Revaluation", The New Criterion, Vol. 1, September 1982.
  • Robinson, Ian. "The English Prophets", The Brynmill Press Ltd (2001).
  • Singh, G. (1998). "The Achievement of F.R. Leavis," Modern Age, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 397–405.
  • Storer, Richard. F. R Leavis, Routledge (2010)
  • Stotesbury, Richard; Robinson, Ian; Joyce, Chris "Theory", Philosophy and F. R. Leavis, in Words in Edgeways 18-19, October 2006 & January 2007

External links[edit]