25 OCTOBER 1963, Page 23


`Scrutiny': A Revaluation

By C. B. COX

DR. LEAVIS has dominated the Cambridge English school for the last thirty years. His lectures have always been crowded, and under- graduates imitate his mannerisms, affect his turns of speech, and argue, argue, argue about his opinions. His journal, Scrutiny, published quar- terly from 1932 to 1953, has become a legend. Its enemies believe it would have been better for English studies if it had never existed. They talk about its lack of scholarship, its over- emphasis on practical criticism, its arrogance, its supposed belief that Milton is a bad poet, Hard limes Dickens's only mature novel and D. H. I:awrence the saviour of the world. On the other side, the fanatical Scrutineers are like evangeli- cal preachers, testifying to conversion by Leavis. Frightened by the uncertainty and difficulty of literary judgments, they use him as an all- Powerful Authority, and have transformed Scrutiny into a fundamentalist's Bible.

Let us hope that the Cambridge University Press's decision to make a photographic reprint of the whole of Scrutiny* may do something to blow away all this poison gas that hovers around Leavis and his work, and that his achievement may be valued for what it is. To the original nineteen volumes of, text a final volume has been added, including a pugnacious retrospect by Dr. Leavis, and a very useful and comprehensive index. Scrutiny was started about a decade after the 'modern' movement had achieved its greatest triumphs in The Waste Land, Women in Love, Ulysses and the later poetry of Yeats. As usual, critics followed behind the creative artist, and Scrutiny's success was not in formulating new Concepts of criticism, but in promoting under- standing of this new 'difficult' literature. The Popular view of art as a lovely, beautiful frill was rejected in favour of the more rigorous standards of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. The Scrutineers 'took over the critical ideas of the moderns to effect a major revaluation of our literary tradition. The great essays by L. C. Knights, D. W Harding, James Smith and Leavis himself brought about a notable shift of taste, and all who practise the' craft of literary criticism must acknowledge their debt. The new bound uniform set, at £45 for the twenty volumes, is beyond most private pockets, but it is to be hoped that as many libraries as possible will buy this reprint. Although many of the famous articles have reappeared in books, there is a Wealth of material, particularly in the reviews, which is uncollected.

I attended Dr. Leavis's seminars at Downing for one term in 1950. The seminars took place in a dingy classroom-like atmosphere, and Leavis himself appeared in an old dressing-gown that revealed his bare chest. At first I was very disappointed, for he proved without the neces- sary talents to lead a seminar. He asked ques- ' SCRUTINY: VOLUMES 1-20. A photographic re- print, with minor corrections and index, and a Retrospect by F. R. Leavis. (C.U.P., £45.) tions followed by silences, and most of the hour was taken up by a feverish monologue, full of his reminiscences of past disputes. But just occasionally he mould make a point about some line in Blake or Hopkins which, now so many competent lectures have faded from my mind, I remember vividly. He forced students to aban- don received opinions, and to make a personal response to the words on the page. This highly sensitive response to words marks the unique quality of Scrutiny criticism. Today it is a scandal that a large percentage of teachers of English, at all levels, still have no personal appre- ciation of great literature. Even though they have taken good degrees in English, they never read Spenser or Ben Jonson or Pope for pleasure. Scrutiny offered real education, a living concern for the values of literature, and two generations of readers have reaped the benefit.

But one should not stay too long on one's knees. In its first year Scrutiny published articles by G. Lowes Dickinson on political conditions in Europe and Herbert Butterfield on History and the Marxian method. Its reviewers included Geoffrey Grigson, Edmund Blunden and W. H. Auden. But soon this attempt to draw in different types of writer was abandoned, and the Scrutiny attitudes hardened into a creed. The more extreme Scrutineers imposed a new form of censorship, allowing their supporters no deviations from the party line. They failed to distinguish between the abuse of enemies and the serious criticism of their well-wishers.

I have re-read most of Scrutiny this summer, and there seem to me two main weaknesses. In the original manifesto written by L. C. Knights and Donald Culver, the editors of the first issue, it was stated that Scrutiny 'will also publish original compositions.' In fact they printed some very bad verse, by writers whose names are now forgotten, and a good quantity of Ronald Bottrall, most of which lacks distinction. At the same time they vigorously attacked the 'preten- tiousness,' 'monotonous repetitions' and 'lack of real substance' in W. H. Auden, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas. Right up to the end they praised the fiction of L. H. Myers and T. F. Powys, and refused to acknowledge the superior achieve- ment of Graham Greene. Some of their criticism was justified. None of the 1930 poets can rival Eliot or Yeats; but it is not true to say, as Leavis does in his retrospect, that `thirty years after we put the case against Auden it passes as a commonplace.' An editor should demon- strate his taste by his choice of contemporary poetry, and this Scrutiny notably failed to do.

When Scrutiny writers deal with post-1930 literature, time and again their usual sensitivity is replaced by prejudice. They appear to have felt that a Fall had taken place round about the end of the 1920s. They tell us how William Empson's Some Versions of Pastoral is not so good as his Seven Types of Ambiguity, Yeats's

`Byzantium' is inferior to `Sailing to Byzantium,' I. A. Richards's book on Coleridge is a falling- away from his previous writings, Virginia Woolf's Second Common Reader is not so good as her first, the verse Empson and Richard Eberhart have written since their excellent con- tributions to Cambridge Poetry 1929 is dis- appointing, Faulkner and Auden have not fulfilled their early promise, and Eliot, above all Eliot, has betrayed the cause. In 1936 Leavis wrote sadly that `Bottrall (like all the younger talents) has exasperating faults and (like all the younger talents) has' been very disappointing in development.'

Leavis himself often escaped from this pre- judice, and he did write an admirable criticism of Four Quartets. Another bright exception was W. H. Mellers, who in the early 1940s wrote a series of brilliant music reviews, and explained with vigour and intelligence his admiration for composers such as Bartok and Mahler. Mellers responded to music with delight and enthusiasm, and, as might have been expected, some of the younger Scrutineers found this unpalatable. In 1942 Boris Ford and Stephen Reiss published in Scrutiny an attack on Mellers's enthusiasm, and noted with surprise that some of his views had changed over the years. Mellers replied with wise words which, if heeded, might have re- vitalised the later years of Scrutiny. He wrote that 'a reputation for critical rigour, if wanted, is easier to acquire negatively than positively'; that 'I never before heard that it is irresponsible to reconsider one's judgments in the light of maturer experience,' and that 'in the meantime the last thing I'm ashamed of is my enthusiasm.'

The Scrutiny prejudice against post-1930 writing stems largely from its naïve conception of the history of language and the value of rural society. In 1933 Denys Thompson wrote: `That the power age destroyed the agricultural basis of life and thereby the best soil for a satisfactory civilisation should be a generalisa- tion trite enough.' The language of the peasants was supposed to derive naturally from their en- vironment, from their daily personal contact with the earth, the plants, the trees, and this vital language was an essential nourishing force for great literature. This theory was bolstered up by the influence of Eliot. The Scrutiny writers accepted without criticism that the modern world was a waste land, and they swallowed whole his dissociation of sensibility theory. Frank Kermode has written a brilliant criticism of this view of history in his Romantic Image, and, as far as I know, there has been no satisfactory reply. Because of their idealisation of rural society, the Scrutineers were prejudiced towards the belief that their own environment was degenerate, unable to produce much great art or a large, responsive public.

The second main weakness of Scrutiny follows on from this. In the opening manifesto, the editors argued 'that there is a necessary rela- tionship between the quality of the individual's response to art and his general fitness for a humane existence.' The Scrutineers thought of themselves as a moral elite, and spoke with scorn of their opponents. There is perhaps some excuse for the bad temper of Scrutiny. In the early days Leavis and his followers were treated with much supercilious disdain, and their violent response is explicable. But the contempt Scrutiny received and served back again kills civilised conversation. It is perfectly easy to make ad- verse . criticism, sharp and pungent, without stooping to personal abuse. Let me say as firmly as I can that this tone ought never to be heard again in literary dispute. It's time for the great

tradition of Scrutiny,• its scrupulous care for intelligent standards, to be carried on without rancour and without emotional overstatement.

I have used so much space discussing Scrutiny's weaknesses because this is the best compliment I can pay its own severe standards. At its best Scrutiny combined a superbly intelli- gent discussion of literature with a profound concern for moral values. But the last word, should be for Leavis himself. He was a major critic because he combined intelligence with

passion, with love and with hate. For his sensi- tive analyses of literature he will go on being read for many generations. Let us hope that he will no longer be used as Authority, for his views of Milton, Dickens. and Bradley already seem dated. But he has had a colossal impact on habits of reading. He himself wrote that 'criticism, when it performs its function, not merely expresses and defines the contemporary sensibility; it helps to form it.'1 This was his own achievement.