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R.P. BILAN F.R. Leavis's Revaluation ofT.S. Eliot The extensive critique of the Four Quartets which F.R. Leavis presents in The Living Principle (1975) perhaps brings to an end the lengthy history of his increasingly ambivalent response to T.S. Eliot. Beginning, in effect, as a disciple of Eliot's criticism and as the main advocate of his early poetry, Leavis has been led, with an almost inevitable logic, to a major confrontation with his one-time mentor. This revaluation of Four Quartets is particularly revealing of Leavis's basic assumptions, for in opposing Eliot's sense of reality he is forced to bring his own view of life to a new point of explicitness. In order to clarify the significance of Leavis's revaluation, however, it is necessary first to sketch briefly the history of his changing attitude towards Eliot's work. In the preface to his first important book of criticism, New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), Leavis obliquely describes the influence of Eliot upon its method and approach: 'How little I suppose these considerations to be original the book will make plain; it is largely an acknowledgment , vicarious as well as personal, of indebtedness to a certain critic and poet." The reference is clearly to Eliot, but New Bearings is not simply derivative; especially in its high claims for Eliot's own poetry it is an original, pioneering study. In fact, Leavis has perhaps done more than any other critic to establish Eliot as the major modern poet. While discussing Ash-Wednesday he set out the grounds on which he characteristically would commend Eliot: 'It is impossible not to see in it a process of self-scrutiny, of self-exploration; or not to feel that the poetical problem at any point was a spiritual problem, a problem in the attainment of a difficult sincerity.'2 However, almost from the outset Leavis's high praise of Eliot was counterpointed by a note of reproval that became increasingly stronger. His review of After Strange Gods (1934) indicated the lines along which his critique would develop. In that book Eliot enunciated a commitment to a type of orthodox religious position that Leavis found unsatisfactory, but it was particularly Eliot's harsh assessment of D.H. Lawrence that alerted Leavis to certain shortcomings in Eliot's own response to life, such as his negative attitude towards sex. As Lawrence came to take on a greater importance to Leavis, he focused more and more on Eliot's limitations, but at this point Leavis called into UTQ, VOLUME XLVIl. NUMBER 2 , WINTER 1977/ 8 0042.0247'78/0200-0151 $01.50/0 @ University of Toronto Press 152 R.P. BILAN question only certain aspects of Eliot's criticism; his high regard for the poetry remained unqualified. When the Four Quartets originally appeared Leavis accorded them the highest possible praise. In his review of the poems, entitled 'T.S. Eliot's Later Poetry' (1942), Leavis explicitly commended the exploration of the complexities of experience below the doctrinal or conceptual religious frame. He concluded by insisting that to Eliot 'might be adapted the tribute that he once paid to that very different genius, D.H. Lawrence; he pre-eminently has stood for the spirit in these brutal and discouraging years. And it should by now be impossible to doubt that he is among the greatest poets of the English language." Leavis was totally appreciative of Eliot's poetry here, but in a slightly later review, 'Approaches to T.S. Eliot' (1947), he returned again to the question of Eliot's limitations as a critic, especially those revealed in his predominantly negative response to Lawrence. None the less, Leavis's assessment remained generally positive. The publication of D.H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955) marks the decisive turning-point in Leavis's attitude towards Eliot. Hereafter his original acclaim of Eliot increaSingly gives way to a dissenting appraisal. In the appendix to that book he contends: 'Mr. Eliot's attitude towards Lawrence has a significance in respect of himself that, pondered, entails limiting and qualifying criticism of a kind for which the time is now very decideclly due." In answering Eliot's charges against...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 151-162
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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