Review of Donald Davie, F.R. Leavis, Herbert Read, and R.S. Crane.

[Review of Donald Davie, Purity of Diction in English Verse, F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit, Herbert Read, The True Voice of Feeling, and R.S. Crane, Critics and Criticism. Queen's Quarterly 41. 1 (1954): 136-9.]


Purity of Diction in English Verse is an impressive and well-written book.  Seeking to rationalize his unexpected enjoyment of some later eighteenth century English verse, Mr. Davie found the focus of his enjoyment in ‘purity of diction’.  His book clarifies that concept and shows its use as an entry to poems otherwise difficult of critical access.  He is interested in diction, however, not as an ultimate or exclusive criterion, but as a value to be examined ‘where no other will meet the case, in appreciating the poetry of the past and the present.’  The greatest poets – Chaucer, Milton, Pope – do not use a diction: they create a style.  It is from such styles that later writers construct their diction when the style becomes more or less fully absorbed into the culture.  The primary distinction for diction is unity of tone; and this again is associated with the establishment of genres which to some extent match the variations in the culture from which the poem springs.  The culture from which English eighteenth century verse rises is remarkable for a stability and continuity which we have now lost.  In addition to invention, fancy, and personality, the eighteenth century poet drew excitement from deliberately cultivated taste, economy, restraint.  This established what Arnold called ‘the tone of the centre’, the affirmation of the socially rooted against the unrooted and merely personal.  A pure diction, drawing upon previous poetic usage and the usages of polite conversation, deftly resuscitates the dead current metaphors in a process which is more a metaphor of movement and emphasis than of image.  When the poet’s intention is ‘deeply and seriously metaphorical,’ even generalization can produce ‘poignant and memorable metaphor’ – and convincing examples are given.  The virtues of unobtrusive economy in metaphor, and of clear prosaic statement, are precisely the virtues of a chaste diction: and we find the pure diction, not in the great poets, but among the good ones – Parnell, Goldsmith, Johnson, Cowper, Charles Wesley.  Mr. Davie is interested in such fine discriminations because in the end he wishes to illuminate the moral fineness – or otherwise – of a writer’s perceptions.  The second part of the book – a series of detached essays on Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Hopkins, and Landor – directs these principles upon the work of some later poets, choosing unity of tone rather than individuality of style as the central test.  The results are peculiarly illuminating.  Mr. Davie’s book, written in an accomplished and incisive style, with restrained wit, and without affectation or pedantry, enriches the resources of criticism – and of self-criticism.

As a fierce but uncannily accurate evaluator of literature, Mr. Leavis needs no introduction.  The title of this collection of reviews and essays is taken from that essay in which Eliot regards criticism as ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’ in which ‘one would suppose, was a place for quiet co-operative labour’.  That Mr. Leavis is seriously engaged in the pursuit of true judgment cannot be doubted; but the opening essays lead one to wonder whether the quarry in the common pursuit is Mr. Leavis himself.  One’s final impression is of a prose Dunciad, written in a style which, despite a certain rough polemic eloquence, is seldom urbane and often tortuous.  Yet, if there is far too much tendentious matter in this volume, there are – for the reader who can swallow his revulsion – many rewarding instances of exceptional critical power.  For Leavis’s pugnacity arises not from personal prejudice or obscurantist dogmatism, but from a ferocious regard for the integrity of criticism.  His moving treatment of the isolation of Blake, Hopkins, and Henry James suggests that Mr. Leavis himself, in his critical career, has suffered cruelly from an isolation induced by his integrity of purpose and deepened by his refusal to suffer fools, reviewers, or professors gladly.  A sombre and somewhat repulsive book, The Common Pursuit has flashes of genuine critical insight of a sort that is rare in any country in any generation.

Sir Herbert Read’s The True Voice of Feeling opens with his 1951 Princeton Seminar – the main theme being ‘the discovery and evolution of “organic form” in English poetry.’  This he traces from the Schlegels, Schelling and Coleridge to Wordsworth, Keats, Hopkins, and the current psychological concept of gestalt.  This is a favourite theme of Sir Herbert’s; but in Chapters 5-8 he directs his attention upon new material – the Imagist and vers libre movement in England and the period of ferment, experiment, and positive achievement in which Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Read, Wyndham Lewis, Epstein, and Hulme played prominent rôles.  Thanks to Eliot’s reticence and Pound’s peremptory case-making, far too little is known about this period, and much of what has been written is inaccurate or legendary.  This account of the interaction of ideas, technique, and manifesti by an active participant is peculiarly interesting and valuable.  Four independent essays ‘Ancillary to the Main Theme’ have all been published before – Coleridge as Critic (1949), ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophical Faith’ (a centenary address, 1950), In Defence of Shelley (1936, revised), and Byron (a British Council pamphlet, 1951).  Like the essay on Surrealism reprinted in The Philosophy of Modern Art, the Shelley essay reads much more soberly and compellingly than one had remembered.  This psychoanalytical examination of Shelley’s narcissism might serve as a model of steady critical purpose to those who wish to venture upon the treacherous whirlpools of the psychological method.  The Byron essay is a lively and provocative introduction to a poetic anomaly.  Like most collections of work written for various purposes, this book is uneven in achievement and tone.  But Sir Herbert’s sinewy and unadorned prose is always a pleasure to read; and this book – like most of his criticism – opens fresh angles of vision and quietly uproots some tender prejudices.

Critics and Criticism was collected to represent the work of (what its detractors have called) the Neo-Aristotelean or Chicago School of Criticism.  Professor Crane’s introduction proclaims the firstfruits of the School and announces its ‘collective purposes and presuppositions’ in a surprisingly timid and indistinct voice.  The book opens with a series of butchers’ reviews which damage their own case by their sustained tone of haughty sarcasm.  There follow detailed expositions of Aristotle, Longinus, Robortello, Castelvetro, Johnson, which give one the desperate feeling of being locked into a room with an earnest, erudite, but passionless lecturer.  Most of these essays, one feels, could well have been left in the learned journals where they first appeared: the resolute enthusiast could have run them down there.  The third section – McKeon’s ‘Philosophic Bases of Art and Criticism’, Olson’s ‘Outline of Poetic Theory’ and his agreeably prim ‘Dialogue on Symbolism’ – seems to form the correct neo-Aristotelean Poetics: but they do not hold the attention very firmly.  Just before reaching the 600th page, the reader comes upon a recognizable critical preoccupation in Norman Maclean’s essay on Lear – an exciting and deft piece of work – and in Professor Crane’s rather subdued and cautious paper on Tom Jones.  One wishes there were more of the same kind: for Professor Maclean’s essay shows how powerful and illuminating the ‘Aristotelean’ method can be.