pdf Download PDF

Leavis on Tragedy

Why did F. R. Leavis write so little about tragedy? Searching for an answer, this paper examines all his existing discussions in detail and sets them in the context of his lifelong study of T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence, polar opposites as artists and thinkers. Leavis sees that “impersonality” is a key term for both writers, but with crucial differences of emphasis: for Eliot a denial, for Lawrence a transcendence, of selfhood. Leavis rejected the Christianity that underpinned Eliot’s idea of tragedy, preferring the more positive approach of Lawrence, for whom tragedy never had the last word on human life.

Returning from the Great War to Cambridge in 1919, F. R. Leavis switched from studying history to studying English. It’s not hard to see why. The academic study of history must have seemed monstrously unreal to him after what he had been through, and the fledgling English School offered, as he later said, “a creative response to change—change in society and civilization that had been made unignorable by the war,”1 in contrast to the Oxford course, which reflected “the habit instilled by a classical training” (ELOT, p. 68), with its compulsory Old English and its refusal to include contemporary literature on the syllabus. Leavis’s reticence about his wartime experiences—exemplified in his well-known suppression of an anecdote about them from the published text of a lecture2—stemmed from a number of factors: distaste for what he called “1914 panache” (MacKillop, p. 45), grief for lost friends and comrades, a decent modesty about his own contribution. But also he may have felt the sheer impossibility of saying anything adequate to the experience. For the war there could be no objective correlative. When Leavis writes of Wordsworth’s experiences in revolutionary France—“He witnessed, [End Page 189] close at hand, hopes frustrated, suffering entailed upon the innocent and helpless, and diverse kinds of human deterioration, he being very young” (CAP, p. 37)—I hear in that unusually charged passage a memory of the young Leavis, also in France, between 1915 and 1919. And when in the figure of Moneta in the revised Hyperion he detects a “profound tragic impersonality,” an attitude that is “the product of tragic experience,” namely “the pain of watching helplessly the suffering of persons dear to [Keats]” and, more generally, “the contemplation of the inevitable and endless human suffering to which his more immediately personal experience leads him” (R, pp. 222–23), I detect memories not just of the war but also—not presumptuously, I hope—of the death of Leavis’s father on the first day of his final examinations in 1921, and the funeral on the day he took the examination on tragedy. According to Denys Thompson, Leavis drew on his wartime experiences of tending the fatally wounded when visiting his father in the hospital (MacKillop, pp. 68–69).

There’s a background here to Leavis’s thinking about tragedy, his sense of the element of mystery it must always contain, the dangers of the glib and formulaic when speaking about it. Quoting from a letter to him in which Leavis spoke of himself in 1914 as “having the protestant conscience without any religion,” Ian Robinson refashions this into the observation that “Leavis perceived the tragic with religious intensity but without any religion.”3

When he wrote about it (which wasn’t often), tragedy mostly meant for Leavis Shakespearean tragedy. He had studied Greek tragedy at the Perse School, and one of his last public engagements was a lecture there on tragedy, with quotations in Greek, which unfortunately does not survive (MacKillop, pp. 33–35). We know from the supervision notes taken between 1957 and 1960 by one of his pupils, Charles Winder, that he felt “we can never be fully critical about or inward with Greek Tragedy” and “We can never discuss Greek Tragedy properly as achieved, created art; we see it’s impressive but we’re too far away.”4 As for “modern tragedy,” Winder reports him as saying that “Serious drama” was “an impossibility in the twentieth century” (Winder, p. 81). He wasn’t impressed by T. S. Eliot’s attempts to remodel Aeschylus in The Family Reunion, and Euripides in The Cocktail Party.5 Winder also records him speaking of “the irrelevance of Aristotle” (Winder, p. 81). In print, Leavis advocated dispensing with the term “catharsis” altogether; “its promptings don’t seem to be at all helpful, and the exercise of refining upon, or interpreting away, Aristotle’s medical metaphor may be left to [End Page 190] the unfortunate student who knows that he may be required to ‘apply’ the Poetics to Shakespeare, Webster, Racine, Ibsen or Eugene O’Neill in the examination-room.”6

This is a sideswipe at a book by F. L. Lucas, a don at King’s, Tragedy in Relation to Aristotle’s “Poetics” (1928), which typified all that Leavis disliked about the Cambridge approach to tragedy (MacKillop, pp. 196–98), and does indeed mention the first four of those authors, among others.7 Like many other early English Faculty teachers, Lucas was originally a classicist (he was still lecturing as late as 1962), and Leavis distrusted the whole classics approach to tragedy, with its insistence on rules and its “safe” finality of judgment. He objected to the classicists’ obsession with textual minutiae, their production of editions, glosses, commentaries—all of which diverted attention from the basic question, “Is this text still worth reading, and if so, why?” The great works of the English literary past were nullified by such treatment, fenced off from being able to influence the contemporary world; while contemporary work was judged (usually adversely) by criteria that were no longer appropriate. Shakespeare couldn’t be approached as though he were Sophocles or Racine. “If … you cannot see how impossible it is to read Aeschylus (in English or Greek) as you read Shakespeare, then you cannot really read Shakespeare” (EU, p. 37). Leavis would point to what Dryden’s smug confidence in his own neoclassical training had permitted him to do to Antony and Cleopatra in All For Love.8 And notably, in his sketch of his ideal English School in Education and the University, Leavis did not include a separate paper on tragedy.

So we come to the question: why, although throughout his career Leavis taught for the compulsory Tripos paper on Tragedy, and although he clearly felt there were local bad influences to be combated—why didn’t this feed much into his writing? The anti-Bradley essay on Othello, the reply to Santayana, “Tragedy and the ‘Medium’,” his comparison of Eliot and Lawrence on Hamlet—of which more in a moment—and scattered remarks on other Shakespeare tragedies, especially Macbeth, are virtually all we can point to. Robinson, who recalls that Leavis’s teaching on tragedy showed him to be “much better on the subject than anyone else I have ever met,” surmises that “he took a decision in 1961–2 not to work out his ideas about tragedy but instead to get his prophetic work done” (Robinson, p. 231). (Robinson, however, has some severe criticism of Leavis’s published work on tragedy.) By “prophetic work” Robinson means Dickens the Novelist, Nor Shall My Sword, The Living Principle, and Thought, Words and Creativity. Dickens, Blake, Eliot, and Lawrence, the [End Page 191] focus of these books, are not considered, by Leavis anyway, mainstream tragic writers, and Wordsworth, who was to have been the subject of a further work, “is not one of the few great tragic artists” (R, p. 149). However, one place where he does bring together Eliot, Lawrence, and tragedy is in the fifth of the Clark Lectures, in which he contrasts Eliot’s essay on Hamlet with Lawrence’s discussion of the play in the chapter “The Theatre” in Twilight in Italy.

Leavis says that Eliot’s essay is marked by “confusion, fallacy and incoherence” (ELOT, p. 52),9 most obviously in the passage about the “objective correlative,” but also by a kind of pseudoclassicism that Lawrence condemned in another Eliotian context as “bunkum, but still more, cowardice.”10 This pseudoclassicism prompts Eliot to place Hamlet, “most certainly an artistic failure,” below Coriolanus, which, together with Antony and Cleopatra, Eliot judges “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success,”11 adding that both plays present tragedy as “intelligible, self-complete, in the sunlight” (SE, p. 144). Leavis objects that such criteria, which reduce the work to “a neatly and comfortably determinate significance … so that one can feel there is nothing in it that one can’t clearly and finally see,” are “arbitrary and vicious” (ELOT, p. 153).

This impatience with the idea that tragedy should be completely intelligible comes out also in his Dryden/Shakespeare comparison, where he says of Dryden’s verse, “there is never any complexity, confusion or ambiguity. When there is development, it is simple, lucid and rational” (LP, p. 152), the last three adjectives being pejorative in context. So when he attributes to Othello “a noble, ‘classical’ clarity,” and amplifies this as “firm, clear outlines, unblurred and undistracted by cloudy recessions, metaphysical aura, or richly symbolical ambiguities” (CP, p. 136), we know we are not to take that as unalloyed praise. The clarity of the play is also, for him, its simplicity—which is a limiting judgment. Leavis respected the ultimate unfathomableness of works of art; he had, as I said earlier, a sense of mystery, which his detractors simply can’t recognize. An extreme instance occurs in Charles Winder’s seminar notes, where one is brought up short by this: “‘King Lear,’ certainly there the disturbing radical attitude to life. The desperate Shakespeare is certainly there. The last turn of the screw, really disturbing. Not prepared to talk glibly about it. No one is. Not prepared to say anything about it” (Winder, p. 82).

Such a reaction is startling, to say the least. Leavis would not be the first or the last reader of King Lear to feel lost for words, but “Not prepared to say anything about it”? His Lear is tragedy unmitigated, unadulterated, reflecting Shakespeare’s own desperation—and beyond [End Page 192] comment. It is a play he never wrote about. Although he might have hated the comparison, there is something of Wittgenstein in his reaction: whereof one cannot speak. …

I turn now to Leavis’s treatment of Lawrence on Hamlet. This he presents as a triumph of the intelligence for which Eliot habitually denied Lawrence the capacity.12 Like Eliot, Lawrence finds an element of sexual disgust in the play, a combination of prurient curiosity and physical loathing concentrated in Hamlet himself; like Eliot, he suggests that Shakespeare himself found the material intractable. Where he differs is in his relating this to what Leavis calls “a great change in the European psyche” (ELOT, p. 156) from the Middle Ages to the Reformation and Renaissance. In fact, this chapter in Twilight in Italy is, one might say, Lawrence’s version of Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility.” And we note with interest that Lawrence invokes Greek tragedy, notably the Orestes, as Gilbert Murray had done in 1914 in an essay that Leavis told his pupils was “a work of genius.”13 Hamlet, says Lawrence, is “the statement of the most significant philosophic position of the Renaissance,” adding, “The whole drama is the tragedy of the convulsed reaction of the mind from the flesh, of the spirit from the self, the reaction from the great aristocratic to the great democratic principle.”14 As in Lear, the male who is both king and father is destroyed by the female who is both wife and daughter. If the King is also the State, then the State too must be destroyed, the assertion of the self being replaced by respect for the common good. For Eliot the key triangular relationship is Hamlet/Gertrude/Ophelia; for Lawrence it is Hamlet/Ghost/Claudius.

Leavis is setting Lawrence up in this fifth Clark Lecture as what he calls the “necessary opposite” to Eliot, a polarity that he had been mulling over ever since he discovered The Sacred Wood, Prufrock, and “The Prussian Officer” and Other Stories, all published between 1914 and 1920. Eliot, initially seen as championing “unacademic vitality” (VC, p. 120) against the classicists in the English School, disconcertingly labeled himself a “classicist in literature” in the preface to For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) and spent much time attacking what he took to be the heresy of Romanticism, with Lawrence among its prime exponents. Eliot implies that Lawrence had no tradition; Leavis came to see that he had considerably more tradition behind him than Eliot did, having a rootedness in a particular world that Eliot, the expatriate cosmopolitan, never achieved. For Eliot, “romanticism” meant self-indulgent self-expression, the kind of thing, in fact, for which Leavis indicts Othello. “The tragic experience,” he says in “Tragedy and the ‘Medium,’” “is certainly not anything that [End Page 193] encourages, or permits, an indulgence in the dramatization of one’s nobly-suffering self” (CP, p. 128). In that essay he praises the pages on Tragedy in I. A. Richards’s Principles of Literary Criticism, which he says “contain some of the most valuably suggestive things in the book” (CP, p. 134)—a view he never retracted despite his later disagreements with Richards, and despite Richards’s acceptance of the idea of catharsis. Yet he would presumably exclude Othello from Richards’s generalization that the tragic protagonist attains a moment of complete clarity of insight in which he sees reality (including himself) for what it is. Leavis’s Othello attains no such moment, and we have already seen how Leavis reacted to Eliot’s admiration for clarity in tragedy. I wonder too whether he would have endorsed Richards’s approving description of the tragic protagonist’s mind as “self-reliant.” Isn’t that partly also what he found wrong with Othello? The attitude that he detects in the hero’s last speech is precisely not that of someone whose mind, in Richards’s words, “does not protect itself with any illusion.”15

One way of glossing the objectivity with which the character is regarded by himself or his author is to speak of “impersonality,” a term that Lawrence, Eliot, and Leavis all used in varying senses. Eliot’s view is the Olympian one derived from Flaubert and Joyce, both suspect figures for Lawrence and Leavis alike. Its best-known formulation comes in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919), in those notorious phrases about art being “a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” “not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” and about the separation in the artist between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates” (SE, pp. 17, 21, 18). Also, notably, Eliot remarks that what the artist expresses is not a personality but “a particular medium” (SE, p. 20), a word over which, of course, Leavis worried later on.

Eliot in 1919 had good private reasons for wishing to escape from personality, which Leavis could not know; and he dissented from Eliot’s “separation” all his life, with Lawrence as his counterexample. Reviewing Nehls’s Composite Biography, in 1959, he insisted that Lawrence’s art was far from simply being “the servant of the author’s personality and devoted to ‘expressing’ it.”16 The following year, in his lecture “Lawrence after Thirty Years,” Leavis argued that Lawrence’s “undisguised directness and freedom of his use of personal experience in creation” implicitly rebukes Eliot’s kind of impersonality, which “plays down the need for the artist to be a person with the courage of life and the responsibility of his experience in its living wholeness” (VC, p. 107). Lawrence had his own [End Page 194] kind of impersonality, the paradoxical combination of disinterestedness and vivid engagement with others that struck so many who met him. It is a search for understanding and knowledge, including self-knowledge, a repeated commitment to life rather than a shrinking from it.

Leavis’s attitude to “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is equivocal. Although in New Bearings in English Poetry he praised the poetry of Eliot and Pound as impersonal with the essay clearly in mind,17 and was still calling it “classical” in 1943 (CP, p. 183), he was withering about it a decade later, in his review of On Poetry and Poets, branding it “notable for its ambiguities, its logical inconsequences, its pseudo-precisions, its fallaciousness, and the aplomb of its equivocations and its specious cogency,” and concluding: “the falsity and gratuitousness of its doctrine of impersonality are surely plain enough” (AK, p. 179). He dismissed the distinction between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates” as “a wholly arbitrary dictum” (AK, p. 180). By contrast, “Lawrence was creative genius; the man created, out of the intensity of his living.”18 To the kind of artist Lawrence was, the individual person is supremely important, but “Eliot’s doctrine of ‘impersonality’ is insidiously designed to eliminate this conception of the artist” (AK, p. 179). On another occasion Leavis wrote: “‘There is never,’ Lawrence might have said, replying to Eliot’s famous aphorism, ‘a separation between the man who lives and the mind that creates’” (VC, p. 107). The misquotation, “lives” for “suffers,” is intriguing.

When Lawrence can be found to have fallen short, it is in just this area of transmuting his experiences into art; some of his books, Leavis concedes, are not “achieved enough to be wholly impersonal works of art, containing within themselves the reason why they are so and not otherwise.”19 Whenever Leavis uses the word “impersonal” of Lawrence’s writing, he means to endorse and approve,20 as he does when he uses it of Dickens, whose “finest work has the impersonality of great art,”21 or when he speaks of George Eliot’s “power to achieve tragic art through the impersonality of imaginative insight” in the Transome episodes of Felix Holt (VC, p. 69), behind which he detected the pattern of hubris and nemesis (AK, p. 53). The phrase “tragic art” in the context of fiction rather than drama is fascinating, as is his later invocation of “the manifest influence of Greek tragic thought” and “the pondered impact of Greek religious drama” in the treatment of Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda (VC, p. 73).

It would seem from this that Leavis did think there could be such a thing as tragic fiction, although he nowhere, as far as I can see, credits [End Page 195] Lawrence with having written a tragic novel.22 Indeed, on a rare occasion where he seriously disagrees with Lawrence, over Anna Karenina, he accuses Lawrence of refusing “to see the nature of the tragedy” of Vronsky and Anna (AK, p. 23). Elsewhere he affirms that “it was not in Lawrence’s nature to rest in negation. He was acquainted with horror and a state bordering on despair, but it was not possible for him to be defeatist” (DHL, p. 32), and that “all his negatives and his critical valuations have their significance in relation to a positive” (DHL, p. 295). Every time Leavis refers to the tragic in Lawrence, it is with a sense of a misplaced stoicism, with no sense of spiritual illumination (DHL, pp. 87, 94, 350). For the same reason he remarks that Dickens, taken as a whole, is “not tragic or stoically resigned,” since his social criticism is never simply driven by negation or rejection; it’s a “profoundly creative response to Victorian civilization.”23 For Ian Robinson—who judges Women in Love to be “the only fully achieved tragic prose work in English” (Robinson, p. 181)—this emphasis on the positive is a disabling feature of Leavis’s criticism, an “untragic flaw” in his thinking (Robinson, p. 230).

Leavis’s verdict on Women in Love is very different from Robinson’s: “In Birkin’s married relations with Ursula the book invites us to localize the positive, the conceivable and due—if only with difficulty attainable—solution of the problem; the norm, in relation to which Gerald’s disaster gets its full meaning” (DHL, p. 209). Lawrence’s self-diagnosis in Birkin, undertaken with “impersonal profundity,” concludes the novel on a “tentative note” that, nonetheless, vindicates “the norm he [Birkin] proposes for the relations between man and woman in marriage” (DHL, p. 211). For Robinson, “to take Birkin as normative is to miss the tragic force of Gerald Crich”; he concludes that “Leavis just won’t see how much Birkin is only undefeated because he has gone on trying” (Robinson, p. 200). In wondering how all this would have struck Lawrence himself, one recalls his deliberate renunciation of the kind of novel he had written in Sons and Lovers, and the terms in which he defended that work in his celebrated letter of November 19, 1912, to Edward Garnett: “It is a great tragedy, and I tell you I’ve written a great book. It’s the tragedy of thousands of young men in England.”24 Leavis gives little attention to Sons and Lovers or to the two other early novels, The White Peacock and The Trespasser, all of which examine what Lawrence, again, described as a “tragic” theme, “marriage of souls … where no physical marriage is possible.”25

Now, if a degree of impersonality is essential to the status of the tragic protagonist, that means not only that the writer should explore the [End Page 196] situation impersonally (in the “good,” Laurentian, sense of the word) but that the protagonist should also see it in that way, as argued by Richards and by Leavis himself in “Tragedy and the ‘Medium’”—a word that, as I noted, he picks up from Eliot. “Tragedy and the ‘Medium’” appeared in Scrutiny in 1944 in response to Santayana’s essay of 1936, “Tragic Philosophy.” (“No such thing as ‘tragic philosophy,’” Charles Winder reports Leavis as saying! [Winder, p. 81].26) Santayana’s essay takes off from a comparison of the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech from Macbeth and a passage from the Paradiso. He attributes this comparison to Eliot, who, he says, claims that poetically the two are equal but that Dante’s is philosophically superior. (In fact, Eliot was comparing the line from the Paradiso, “la sua voluntade e nostra pace,” with two lines from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; / They kill us for their sport” [SE, p. 136]. Amazingly, Leavis did not correct Santayana’s mistake, but went on to discuss the Macbeth speech in his turn.27) Santayana is skeptical about whether Shakespeare had any “philosophy” at all, as indeed Eliot is.28 But in any case, he points out, the passages are irreconcilable even on the level of thought, since “For the mood of Macbeth, religion and philosophy are insane vapours; for the mood of Dante, Macbeth is possessed by the devil.” (“For the mood of Shakespeare too,” Leavis observes [CP, p. 122].)

Santayana then makes the statement upon which Leavis fastens: “in Shakespeare the medium is rich and thick and more important than the idea; whereas in Dante the medium is as unvarying and simple as possible, and meant to be transparent.”29 Santayana’s way of putting his point betrays the assumption that language is just a means of expressing ideas that have previously (but how?) been arrived at (a neoclassical assumption that Leavis had long resisted), whereas Leavis contends that the “philosophy” of the play “isn’t stated but enacted” (CP, p. 123), the words being the formulation of the ideas. He might have said that about Lawrence—and in fact he shortly afterward quotes an outburst from a letter of Lawrence’s, condemning all social and political movements as essentially motivated by egotism, and comments:

It is an essential part of the definition of the tragic that it breaks down, or undermines and supersedes, such attitudes. It establishes below them a kind of profound impersonality in which experience matters, not because it is mine—because it is to me it belongs or happens, or because it subserves or issues in purpose or will, but because it is what it is, the “mine” mattering only in so far as the individual sentience is the indispensable focus of experience.

(CP, p. 130) [End Page 197]


The sense of heightened life that goes with the tragic experience is conditioned by a transcending of the ego—an escape from all attitudes of self-assertion. “Escape,” perhaps, is not altogether a good word, since it might suggest something negative and irresponsible (just as “Dionysiac” carries unacceptable suggestions of the Dark Gods). Actually the experience is constructive or creative, and involves a recognizing positive value as in some way defined and vindicated by death.

(CP, pp. 131–32)

“Escape” implies a shrinking from experience, which, in Leavis’s view, damages Eliot’s art and thought, but to which Lawrence was immune because of his intellectual and moral fearlessness. (The novel in which Lawrence most openly engages with the Dionysiac, The Plumed Serpent, was judged a failure by Leavis.) But, we may well ask, why, in light of this second passage, is Lawrence not a tragic writer? A “sense of heightened life”; a “transcending of the ego—an escape from all attitudes of self-assertion”: isn’t this just the way in which Leavis repeatedly characterizes Lawrence’s personality and work? I suppose the clue is in the way the passage ends: “a recognizing positive value as in some way defined and vindicated by death” (my italics). One might say that of Gerald Crich’s death—but that wasn’t what his death meant to him.

The last aspect that I want to examine is Leavis’s attitude toward religion.30 I’ve already quoted Ian Robinson’s judgment that Leavis “perceived the tragic with religious intensity but without any religion.” It’s plain that for him the word “religious” was not a meaningless one. Take, for instance, his explicit statement in the Richmond Lecture:

In coming to terms with great literature we discover what at bottom we really believe. What for?—what ultimately for? What do men live by?—the questions work and tell at what I can only call a religious depth of thought and feeling. Perhaps, with my eye on the adjective, I may recall for you Tom Brangwen, in The Rainbow, watching by the fold in lambing-time under the night-sky: “He knew he did not belong to himself.”

(NSMS, p. 56)

In this often-repeated invocation, as in that of Blake’s “Tho’ I call them mine, I know that they are not mine” (NSMS, p. 19), Leavis associates the religious with the transcending of ego and the impersonal objectivity of inquiry, which he counts among the marks of great art. This is why Lawrence is for Leavis a religious writer, in a wholly good sense (the explicitness about religion in The Plumed Serpent being, again, the [End Page 198] exception that proves the rule). Lawrence, bearing witness against Cartesian dualism, is in the line from Dickens, who protests against the world of Mill and Bentham, and of Blake, who protests against the world of Locke and Newton—all that Leavis would label, following Aldous Huxley, “Scientism.” The affirmation of the artist’s creative responsibility in the face of Scientism is essentially religious. Leavis’s dismissal of C. P. Snow is founded on Snow’s unawareness of all this, but also, relevant to us, on Snow’s use of the adjective “tragic” to describe the mortality of each individual (“each of us dies alone”)31 and his contrast of this with “the social condition” that offers some hope (NSMS, p. 52). “Who,” Leavis asks, “can attach any value to ‘tragic’ used in that way? The word doesn’t go with the progressivist ethos” (NSMS, p. 164). The error of Scientism is in this false antithesis, the individual against an abstracted “society” conceived purely statistically (NSMS, p. 171); the solution of Scientism—compassion—Leavis startlingly brands “the progressivist religion-substitute” (NSMS, p. 190).

Leavis struggles all along to accept that the Eliot who had created the poems and criticism he so much admires could also be the man who had mixed with the Bloomsbury crowd, who had edited The Criterion, who had promoted so many second-rate writers, and so on. That notorious “separation” is decidedly imperfect—which, Leavis judges, is not the case with Lawrence (who is not a “case”). Eliot’s religion, however, as its poetical expression develops, causes him to deny the validity of human creativity, including his own. For Leavis this is a betrayal. Eliot’s early poetry, despite its obvious use of Christian allusions, offers no obstacles to Leavis’s lifelong insistence, in Eliot’s words: “When we are considering poetry we must consider it primarily as poetry and not another thing.”32 This, nevertheless, is far from being a hermetically sealed or aesthetic approach, because “the judgements the literary critic is concerned with are judgements about life” (NSMS, p. 97). Once he gets to Ash-Wednesday in New Bearings Leavis has to acknowledge that he is on trickier ground: discussion is “a delicate business, incurring danger both of crudity and impertinence” (NB, p. 117), because the religious allusions become more than just allusions: “Mr Eliot’s concern is specifically religious,” an expression of “belief in something outside himself” (NB, pp. 118–19).

So Leavis comes up with the formula—“a technique for sincerity”—that he repeatedly applies to the poem (EU, p. 89). The ritual and liturgical effects are accepted because “the spiritual discipline is one with the poetical” (NB, p. 125) registering—here’s that word again—“a positive religious impulse” (NB, p. 121; my italics). Leavis was always hostile to [End Page 199] Anglo-Catholic interpretations of Eliot, resenting what he took to be their appropriation of the poet after The Rock and Murder in the Cathedral, when he could safely be welcomed as orthodox and the radical quality of his poetry ignored, together with Leavis’s early championing of it. Thus his dislike of Elsie Duncan-Jones’s essay on Ash-Wednesday, which “turns the poetry into something like illustrations of acceptances, poetical formulations of antecedently defined attitudes and beliefs” (CP, p. 287). For him, intelligent reading of Eliot offers the experience of “an emotional and spiritual discipline. And this holds, irrespective of whether or not the reader subscribes to Christian doctrine” (CP, p. 254).

Leavis tellingly refuses ever to accept that Ash-Wednesday might come down decisively on the side of religious affirmation. But when he comes to deliver his final report on Eliot, in The Living Principle, many of the ideas I have been discussing fuse together. Leavis’s basic case against Eliot is that Eliot’s variety of Christianity (for “there is more than one Christianity” [LP, p. 207]) compels him to find the ultimate Reality in a supposed spiritual world, which is understood as being antithetical, indeed inimical, to the world of the body, a world in which “purely” human creativity is valueless. This dualism of flesh and spirit, and the associated opposition of Eternity to Time, are firmly rejected by Leavis, who is prompted to declare that “My own tribute to Eliot’s genius must be a profoundly convinced ‘No’” (LP, p. 191). He doesn’t impute insincerity to Eliot, only a failure to realize that Four Quartets does not, in fact, earn its author the right to feel that he has convincingly vindicated his claim that “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” This “emphatic theological pronouncement” (LP, p. 247) ironically ignores the etymology of “Incarnation,” and refuses to confront the possibilities opened up by the sentence of Michael Polanyi that Leavis quotes, “All thought is incarnate” (LP, pp. 233, 243). If Eliot is not being insincere, however, he can’t be said to be sincere either. Leavis puts it significantly: he can’t grant Eliot “the positive attribution of ‘sincerity’” (LP, p. 248; my italics), just as he earlier said this: “I know, of course, that doctrines, theological and religious, in which human nullity has been made a basic postulate, are to be found in western tradition. I say this recognizing for myself in Four Quartets a challenge to make, in terms explicitly relative to the sickness of the modern world, the contrary—the fiercely rebutting—positive affirmation” (LP, p. 214; my italics).

Eliot’s Christianity leads, for Leavis, to “an acceptance of defeat” (LP, p. 181), against the witness of such as Blake and Lawrence. Their artistry explored transcendence through the human, whereas Eliot could only [End Page 200] imagine transcendence of the human. Leavis reacts with revulsion to section 4 of “East Coker” (“The wounded surgeon plies the steel … ”) and to the grisly martyrdom inflicted upon Celia in The Cocktail Party (LP, p. 207) as evidence that Eliot’s belief in original sin taints his view of human nature (LP, p. 263); and he traces Eliot’s self-accusation of hubris to a Shakespearean tragic source, the figure of Coriolanus (in the play that was “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success”), who plays such a curiously insistent role in Eliot’s work (LP, pp. 183–86). Eliot’s self-identification with Coriolanus is with “the hero representative of human pride—pride that is hubris and incurs as such its overt Nemesis” (LP, p. 183).

“Eliot himself,” Leavis adds drily, “was in no danger of being a tragic hero of that kind, or a hero at all,” but he shares the “imprisonment in the enclosing self exemplified with tragic naivety by Coriolanus” (LP, p. 184). From this, Eliot strives to escape through his postulate of the Real and by what Leavis calls, with deliberate paradox, his “personal need of a true impersonality of insight into human nature” (LP, p. 184). The cluster of ideas in Four Quartets and The Family Reunion—humility, self-surrender, expiation—is seen to join those works with “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (LP, p. 186). That the spiritual life should entail physical suffering, that illumination can be reached only through suffering, is axiomatic to Eliot but abhorrent to Leavis—the Leavis of 1919, one is moved to say, as much as the Leavis of 1975, when The Living Principle came out. Eliot’s acceptance of “human nullity” as a route to spiritual wisdom prompts Leavis to make what he calls “the contrary—the fiercely rebutting—positive affirmation” that finds “the transcendent importance of spiritual values” in “human creativity” (LP, pp. 214–15).

Ian Robinson’s verdict on the treatment of Eliot in The Living Principle is severe. He finds Leavis “losing his grasp on his own first principles” and in “a muddle … about poetry and inspiration” because he is “holding fast to his positives” (Robinson, pp. 201, 203, 206). Responding to Leavis’s “there is more than one Christianity” (LP, p. 207), Robinson dismisses any idea that there can be a Christianity that does not involve taking up one’s cross, and therefore the possibility—even the necessity—of suffering. And he replies to Leavis’s statement that “there is no acceptable religious position that is not a reinforcement of human responsibility” (LP, p. 236) with the comment that the responsibility in question is not to humanity (Robinson, p. 230).

We might argue about Leavis versus Robinson on particular moments in Eliot, but here is the answer to Robinson’s own question (and mine) [End Page 201] of why Leavis wrote comparatively little about tragedy. His lifelong absorption in Lawrence and Eliot, his growing conviction that Lawrence is the greater writer and critic of the two, and his need to work this out in writing, means he has to put more emphasis on the Laurentian account of impersonality and the Laurentian understanding of religion, both of which involve assumptions about the relationship of human beings to one another and to the natural world that is quite foreign to Eliot’s. Lawrence as Leavis understands him—and we always have to make that qualification; I am not delivering a general verdict on Lawrence—in his positive acceptance of, his reverence for, body and mind as one, of life in individual, embodied lives existing in time, of the wholesomeness of creativity, is a nontragic writer. Eliot’s dualism, his commitment to doctrines that Leavis rejects as life denying, his inhibiting classical-Christian, conventional habits of mind, above which he can’t rise, outside of which he cannot stand, make of him a tragic figure—whose tragedy consists in his incapacity to confront himself with the kind of clarity I. A. Richards singles out as a mark of the tragic hero, or to see himself, as he notes Blake saw himself, “naked … from the center of his own crystal” (SE, p. 319). The Leavis who says “No” to Eliot and who is “not prepared to say anything” about King Lear is prepared to say something about tragedy: it turns out to be “Yes, but—.”

Paul Dean
Oxford, United Kingdom


1. F. R. Leavis, English Literature in Our Time and the University (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 11; hereafter abbreviated ELOT. (I resisted the temptation to abbreviate to ELIOT, which is almost too good to be true!)

2. Ian MacKillop, F. R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism (London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1995), p. 383; hereafter abbreviated MacKillop. The rest of the lecture is in Leavis, Nor Shall My Sword: Discourses on Pluralism, Compassion and Social Hope (London: Chatto and Windus, 1972), pp. 199–228; hereafter abbreviated NSMS.

3. Ian Robinson, The English Prophets: A Critical Defence of English Criticism (Denton: Edgeways Books, 2001), p. 234; hereafter abbreviated Robinson.

4. Charles Winder, “Leavis’s Downing Seminars: A Student’s Notes,” in F. R. Leavis: Essays and Documents, ed. Ian MacKillop and Richard Storer (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 81–83; hereafter abbreviated Winder.

5. Eliot himself was critical of them; see T. S. Eliot, On Poetry and Poets (London: Faber & Faber, 1957), pp. 84–85. [End Page 202]

6. F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), pp. 126–27; hereafter abbreviated CP.

7. The mention of Eugene O’Neill is a reminiscence of Alexander Meiklejohn’s Experimental College, in which students were asked to study Mourning Becomes Electra alongside Sophocles as constituting “A New House of Atreus” (F. R. Leavis, Education and the University [London: Chatto and Windus, 1943], p. 38; hereafter abbreviated EU).

8. F. R. Leavis, The Living Principle: “English” as a Discipline of Thought (London: Chatto and Windus, 1975), pp. 144–55; hereafter abbreviated LP.

9. He commented on another occasion that the essay “throws more light on [The] Family Reunion than on Shakespeare’s play” (Valuation in Criticism and Other Essays [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986], p. 123; hereafter abbreviated VC). This is borne out by Eliot’s later lecture “Poetry and Drama,” which couples some better remarks on Hamlet with a discussion of his own plays, and in which he remarks of The Family Reunion that it is hard to know whether its central theme is “the tragedy of the mother or the salvation of the son,” adding that his sympathies lie with the mother (Eliot, On Poetry and Poets, p. 84).

10. The phrase comes in a letter to John Middleton Murry, written in September 1923, after Murry had been attacked by Eliot in The Criterion for his supposed Romanticism (David Ellis, D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game, 1922–1930 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998], p. 686n33).

11. T. S. Eliot, Selected Essays, 3rd ed. (London: Faber & Faber, 1951), pp. 143–44; hereafter abbreviated SE.

12. “An incapacity for what we ordinarily call thinking” (Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy [London: Faber & Faber, 1934], p. 58). Eliot’s attempt to apologize for his denigration of Lawrence in the title essay of To Criticize the Critic (London: Faber & Faber, 1965, pp. 24–25) is painfully unconvincing.

13. According to Roy Holland, F. R. Leavis: The Gnome of Cambridge (Alloa: Diadem Books, 2011), p. 20, whose supervision notes were taken between 1954 and 1957. He also records Leavis picking out “two Northern lines,” medieval Christianity and folklore, in addition to the line from to the Greeks via Seneca (p. 22), as key backgrounds for Shakespeare.

14. D. H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy and Other Essays, ed. Paul Eggert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 144.

15. I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1926), p. 193.

16. F. R. Leavis, “Romantic and Heretic?” The Spectator, February 6, 1959; repr. in H. Coombes, ed., D. H. Lawrence: A Critical Anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 394. This piece was not reprinted in any of Leavis’s books.

17. For instance, he declares that “Gerontion” “has the impersonality of great poetry,” that in The Waste Land “the development of impersonality that Gerontion shows in comparison with Prufrock reaches an extreme limit: it would be difficult to imagine a completer transcendence of the individual self, a completer projection of awareness,” and that Hugh Selwyn Mauberley “is poignantly personal, and yet, in its technical perfection, [End Page 203] its ironical economy, impersonal and detached” (New Bearings in English Poetry, 2nd ed. [London: Chatto and Windus, 1959], pp. 83, 93, 148–49).

18. Coombes, Lawrence: A Critical Anthology, p. 394.

19. F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (London: Chatto and Windus, 1955), p. 175, echoing Coleridge; hereafter abbreviated DHL.

20. It is noteworthy that, in the proposal scene between Tom Brangwen and Lydia Lensky in The Rainbow, Lawrence himself uses the words “impersonal” and “impersonally” three times within a few lines (The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes [Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1995], p. 44). Praising Lawrence’s ability to transmute his own experiences into fiction, Leavis says, “In its use in The Rainbow the experience is wholly impersonalized (and, in being impersonalized, extended). There is nothing about it diagnostic in relation to the writer; it is experience that understands itself” (DHL, p. 156).

21. F. R. Leavis and Q. D. Leavis, Dickens the Novelist (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970), p. 292; hereafter abbreviated DN.

22. I have explored this issue in detail in “‘A Great Kick at Misery’: D. H. Lawrence’s Sense of Tragedy,” English 64 (2015): 207–21.

23. F. R. Leavis, introduction, in Peter Coveney, The Image of Childhood (1957; rev. ed., Harmondsworth: Peregrine Books, 1967), pp. 20, 23 (my italics). I was reminded of this important, unreprinted, essay by R. L. P. Jackson, “Leavis, Tragedy and the Nineteenth-Century Novel,” The Critical Review (1982): 94–107. Jackson makes a strong case that Leavis’s readings of Shakespearean tragedy were inflected by his interest in the nineteenth-century novel, and, like Robinson, detects in Leavis’s writing an insistence on the positive, which “seems to have increasingly committed him to a world of ‘concepts’ in which the tragic has no place” (97–98).

24. James T. Boulton, ed., The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Volume I: September 1901–May 1913 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 477.

25. D. H. Lawrence, Paul Morel, ed. Helen Baron (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 97.

26. Santayana’s essay “Tragic Philosophy” was reprinted in The Importance ofScrutiny,” ed. Eric Bentley (New York: George W. Stewart, 1948), pp. 203–13, from which quotations are taken.

27. Santayana may have confused this passage in his memory with one in “Dante” (1929) where Eliot compares “This castle hath a pleasant seat” from Macbeth, with the opening of the Inferno, precisely from the point of view of the “medium” of each poet (SE, p. 241).

28. “Did Shakespeare think anything at all? He was occupied with turning human actions into poetry” (SE, p. 135).

29. Bentley, Importance ofScrutiny,” p. 207.

30. Again, I have said more about this in “Leavis and Newman: Grammars of Dissent,” The Literary Criterion, nos. 1 and 2 (2016): 20–44. [End Page 204]

31. This is what Snow actually wrote, but, as he rightly says, Leavis misquoted it as “we die alone”: C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures: And a Second Look (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), pp. 6, 58–59.

32. T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood (London: Faber & Faber, 1928), p. x. [End Page 205]