F. R. Leavis: British literary critic (1895 - 1978) | Biography
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F. R. Leavis
British literary critic

F. R. Leavis

F. R. Leavis
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro British literary critic
A.K.A. Frank Raymond Leavis, F Leavis
Was Critic Paramedic Writer Literary critic
From United Kingdom
Field Healthcare Literature
Gender male
Birth 14 July 1895, Cambridge
Death 14 April 1978 (aged 82 years)
The details (from wikipedia)


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

Early life

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 shop in Cambridge which sold pianos and other musical instruments, and his son was to retain a respect for him throughout his life. Leavis was educated at a fee-paying independent school (in English terms a minor Public 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.

Leavis was nineteen when Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. He left Cambridge after his first year as an undergraduate and joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit at York in 1915. After the introduction of conscription in 1916 he benefited from the blanket recognition of the members of the Friends' Ambulance Unit as conscientious objectors. Leavis is quoted as saying: "But after the Bloody Somme there could be no question for anyone who knew what modern war was like of joining the army."

He worked in France behind the Western Front, carrying a copy of Milton's poems with him. His wartime experiences had a lasting effect on him, making him prone to insomnia. He maintained that exposure to poison gas retained in the clothes of soldiers who had been gassed damaged his physical health, particularly his digestion.

Leavis was slow to recover from the war, and he was later to refer to it as "the great hiatus." He said: "The war, to put it egotistically, was bad luck for us."

Leavis had won a scholarship from the Perse School to Emmanuel College, Cambridge to read History, and on his return from the war in 1919 he changed his field of study to English and became a pupil in 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 an unusual 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'. 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. 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

In 1929 Leavis married one of his students, Queenie Roth, and this union resulted in a productive collaboration which yielded many major critical works. 1932 was an 'annus mirabilis' for them, when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry, his wife published Fiction and the Reading Public, and the quarterly periodical Scrutiny was founded. 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. In 1931 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. 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. 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'.

Leavis is sometimes seen as having contributed to the mythos of Merrie England with his notion of the organic community, by which he seems to have meant a community with a deeply rooted and locally self-sufficient culture that he claimed to have existed in the villages of 17th and 18th century England and which was destroyed by the machine and mass culture introduced by the industrial revolution. Historians of the era have suggested that the idea was based on a misreading of history and that such communities had never existed. No historians of Early Modern Britain have supported the notion of the organic community.

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, characterising Dickens as a mere entertainer, but eventually, following the revaluation of Dickens by Edmund Wilson and George Orwell, Leavis changed his position, publishing Dickens the Novelist in 1970. The Leavisites' downgrading of Hardy 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.

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. 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. 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.

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.

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, 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 major conferences at the University of York and at Downing College, Cambridge, and of a symposium published in April 2016 by the journal Philosophy and Literature (Johns Hopkins).

Character and reputation

As Leavis continued his career he became increasingly dogmatic, belligerent and paranoid, and Martin Seymour-Smith found him (and his disciples) to be fanatic and rancid in manner. Leavis' conduct led to a breach with T S Eliot who wrote

I so strongly disagreed with Dr Leavis during the last days of Scrutiny, and objected to his attacks and innuendoes about people I knew and respected. I think it is a pity he became so intemperate in his views and was extravagant in his admirations, as I had, in the earlier stages of the magazine, felt great sympathy for its editor.

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. 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. In his autobiography The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry described Leavis as a sanctimonious prick of only parochial significance and said that Leavis had an intense suspicious propensity to explode in wrath and anathematize anyone who dared disagree with him. Fry notes:

by the time I arrived in Cambridge his influence had waned, and he and his kind had been almost entirely eclipsed... Stories of Frank Leavis and his harridan of a wife Queenie snubbing, ostracising, casting out and calumniating anyone who offended them went the round, and those English academics at the university who had been in their orbit were callously dismissed by the elite as dead Leavisites.

In The Rise and Fall of the English Man of Letters (1969), John Gross wrote of Leavis's "faintly comic air of having triumphantly demonstrated what has merely been strenuously asserted".


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.

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 early exchange with René Wellek (reprinted in 'The Common Pursuit'). 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.

On poetry

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. 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" . 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

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. 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

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. 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. Throughout his career, Leavis constantly took issue with the BBC's motives and actions, even once jokingly referring to his "anti-BBC complex".

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