Literature and Society: F R Leavis Summary and Analysis

Literature and Society is an essay by F.R.Leavis. During the Matrixing decade, Leavis was once invited to ‘Union of the London School of Economics and Politics’ where he addressed students on discourse on Literature and Society. He shared his view on how literature and society are interdependent. Leavis showed great interest towards literature, tradition, education and society. He was inspired by writers and poet like T.S.Eliot, D.H.Lawrence William Blake, Bunyan and others. As a result he has contributed many books like The Great Tradition, The Common Pursuit, New Bearings In English, Dickens The Novelist, Education and University etc.

Before looking into his essay, Literature and Society, we should recall his two prominent quotes:

  • ” Literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness”
  • ” Literature is the store house of the recorded values”.
    The above quotes assure us the significance of literature in one’s life and it’s need. Leavis always believed that literature should be closely related to criticism of life. In the essay he informs readers about the
    ‘duty of writer to identify himself with working class, the duty of the critic to evaluate works of literature in terms of the degree in which they seemed calculated to further (or otherwise) for proper and pre- destined outcome of the class struggle, and the duty of the literary historian to explain literary history as the reflection of changing economic and material realities’.

Here he connects every profession of the society to literature and their combination developing into a contribution back to society. Thus, it means literature is connected to society through various fields.

F.R Leavis conception of literature


Initially, Leavis focuses on working class and the literature that conjugates their life. Taking up the instance of D.H Lawrence, he opines that Lawrence had failed to reach bourgeois as he misrepresented reality. He ‘shared the life of a social class which has passed it’s prime’.

Marxist’s theory

‘Marxist’s approach to literature seems to me unprofitable’ he says and he admits literature as a matter of isolated works of art and thinks that individuals with specific creative gifts produce such works. Marxist theory emphasizes on economic and material determinants of society.

T.S Eliot’s theory of Tradition

The failure of Critical work of T.S.Eliot to have stock taken was ‘conscious rejection of the Romantic critical tradition’ ‘and directed against Romantic tradition’ Romantic period laid it’s die stress inspiration and the individual genius. In order to understand the achievement of art, individual talent and original impulses must be taken into account. Eliot’s idea represents a new emphasis on the social nature of artistic achievement. Instead of the word ‘social’ he uses ‘impersonal’. Eliot writes, ‘ He must be aware that the mind of Europe the mind of his own country a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind is a mind which changes…’
A masterpiece is produced when a gifted individual borns, he sets his inspiration and that leads to it’s creation. A individual writer must be aware of his work of the literature to which it belongs. Literature has an organic form and an organic order. This approach to literature stresses on intectual and spiritual than Marxist theory. The study of literature is an intimate study of complexities, potentialities and essentials of condition of human nature. The difference between Marxist and Tradition theory is that Tradition stresses on social aspect of creative achievement and yet allows individual aspect. ‘Without individual talent there is no creation’.
Leavis opines that ‘ only in individuals that society lives’. He concentrates on the point that ‘ you can’t contemplate the nature of literature without acquiring some inhibition in respect of that antithesis’. The justification he gives to his statement by referring to the diversity among Romantic writers. They themselves do not exemplify any common Romanticism. The common feature that unites them is their age and the negative: the absence of anything to replace a very positive tradition.

Augustan age

Augustan age laid greater stress on social. Their convention, standards and idiom of maturity has been proved in Tattler and Spectator. According to Leavis, an age in which tradition itself gets established is clearly an age in which writer feels one at society. Augustan Heyday and Queen Anne period were the period of confident and flourishing cultural health.

William Blake

William Blake has applied his full consciousness which is genius and manifested technical achievement, the new use of words. Blake says ‘ It is I who see And fed. I see only what I see and feel what I feel. My experience is mine, and in its specific quality lies it’s significance’. Leavis opines Blake uses English language and not his invention. The mind and sensibility that he uses to express are of the language. It is sad that Blake did not receive a nurturing environment for his genius art. Blake serves to bring out the significance of Wordsworth’s kind of interest in rustic life.

Idea of Popular and Sophisticated Culture

The best example for true real culture is Dryden’s contemporary, Bunyan. The masterpiece work of Bunyan, ‘The Pilgrims Progress’. He belonged to the civilization of his time, a Mechanick participating in a rich traditional culture. An extract from By- End is discussed to uphold Bunyan’s popular culture. Behind literature, there is a social culture and an art of living. Instance from Cecil Sharp’s Introduction to English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians show that a civilization or the ‘way of life’s that was truly an art of social living. The mountaineers were descended from settlers who had left the country in the eighteenth century. Their speech is English, not American! They are leisurely, cheery people in their quiet way, in whom social instinct is very highly developed, they know their Bible intimately, are austere creed but majority were illiterate. The illiterate may nevertheless reach a high level of culture will surprise only those who imagine that education and cultivation are convertible terms.

From Shakespeare till Marvel we can feel the refined Sophisticated, European, and courtly urban culture in literature. Leavis puts up a comparison between Dryden and Halifax, where Halifax is easy, urbane, natural and master of spoken tone and movement. He holds the true spirits of Restoration yet seems similar to Bunyan in his raciness and idiomatic life. Dryden gets lively and presents polite idiomatic ease of that new organ of metropolitan culture which is not similar to Banyan’s.In Augustan verse, the verse of polite are seen in Pope and Addison’s work.

The Modern literature shifted from the rustic life to mechanical after the death of Wordsworth. The one who concludes that contemporary would include the Marxking or Wellsian kind of relation to social, political and economic problems, but for literary tradition, history would have been lost and existence of popular culture would be questionable.
Leavis, advising to the students of politics and society that ‘ literature will yield to the sociologist, or anyone else, what it has to give, only if it is approached as literature’. It is important to focus more on responding appropriately and appreciatively an artist’s use of language and his complexities of organization rather than explicit valuation. A critic’s experience and understanding plays an essential role. The hints from the Gilbert Murray’s Rise of fa Greek Epic, Dame Bertha Phillpott’s WA and Saga are referred.
To conclude, Leavis says that ‘without the sensitizing familiarity with the subtleties of language, and the insight into the relations between abstract or generalising thought and the concrete of human experience, that the trained frequentation of literature alone can bring, the thinking that attends social and political studies will not have the edge and force it should’. Thus, Leavis makes an attempt to exhibit various approaches of literature that governed in different period and ages. We also find the major classes of literature. At the end, readers recognise the importance of literature to life and it’s influence on society.

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