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This review is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.LATE CHALLENGES
'Old men ought to be explorers'; F. R. Leavis, to the last, was a fighter. 'Reading Out Poetry' is the text of a provocative lecture he gave at the University of Belfast in 1972, when he was seventy-seven. The essentials of his position in the lecture are those which sustained him throughout his career, and the touchstones-such as Eliot's 'Ash Wednesday', Othello's final speeches, Hardy's 'After a Journey'-are also familiar. Here, however, they are given a new emphasis: the reading out, the reading aloud, of poetry.
Leavis avows that 'very little intelligence has been devoted to what should be the recognised necessity of reading poetry out'. He claims that the usual attitude is to take the public reading of poetry, or the acting of Shakespearean drama, as an opportunity for a display of 'elocutionary impressiveness'. He expresses his 'loathing' of the actor who, 'in his accomplished and trained conceit', effaces the subtle modulations of the poetry. Instead, the reader-out of poetry should aim to resemble 'the ideal executant musician . . . who . . . devotes all his trained intelligence, sensitiveness and intuition and skill to re-creating, reproducing faithfully what he divines his composer essentially conceived'. Leavis also emphasises the physicality of reading out poetry; it should be done 'with the ear and the body'.
Leavis runs into a key problem, however, in his discussion of Gerard Manley Hopkins. He asserts that what Hopkins, in contrast to Eliot, 'essentially conceived' was 'relatively simple'. Read as they should be, with ear and body, Hopkins's poems, and their supposed 'oddities' of metre and diction, seem quite natural. Here Leavis comes close to an acknowledgement which would undermine his whole critical approach; that the 'sound' of Hopkins's verse is more important than what Leavis himself has suggested is its 'relatively simple' sense. Leavis evades the contradiction by making Hopkins a special case on the ground of 'naturalness': an elusive criterion. In fact, the general implication of his treatment of Hopkins is that reading out poetry restores the importance of 'sound' in our experience and evaluation of poetry; an importance to which the readers, if not the writers of poetry have, I would suggest, become almost deaf due to the visual orientation of our culture, the aural brutality of the modern environment, and that deification of 'sense' to which Leavis himself so significantly contributed. Is this lecture a very late attempt to restore a balance? Certainly the balance needs restoring-and it would be interesting to explore how effective the numerous public poetry readings of recent years have been in this respect.
G. Singh comments, at the end of the text of the lecture, that 'apart from Pound, MacDiarmid and Montale, I have never heard anybody read out poetry with such convincing effect as Leavis . . . in a manner which itself becomes an exercise in close critical interpretation' Would it be possible to make a recording of the lecture generally available, as a vital complement to the text?
In 'Eugenio Montale: A Tribute', Leavis praises Montale highly as a major European poet, very much a modern poet, 'whose creativity is in and of the Italian language'. In particular, he commends Xenia, for its shifting and contrasting tones which nonetheless fuse into a whole, and for its evocation of Montale's late wife; this evocation is, in Leavis's view, a vital corrective to the current emphasis in European civilization on economic priorities and sexual equality. Leavis also offers some general observations on translation, asserting that 'poetry simply can't be translated' and that 'the virtue of a good translation is [that] of an intelligent and sensitive crib'-he commends G. Singh's Xenia in this respect. Translation is of course more than a 'crib', as the recent Oxford Book of Verse in English Translation authoritatively attests, but Leavis's attitude is an important reminder of the essential difficulty of translation. This all-too-brief excursion into foreign literature makes one wish that Leavis had, in later life at least, concerned himself with it more; it could have provided fresh specific insights, and irrigated his general thinking.
After Leavis's texts, the papers of the Commemorative Symposium. Sir Edward Boyle discusses the music criticism in Scrutiny which, as he points out, occupies by far the most space in the complete edition of the magazine apart from literary criticism; there is clearly much scope for future research here. The timid deference accorded to Leavis in the contributions of G. Singh and B. T. Rothwell, however, while no doubt appropriate to the commemorative occasion, seem singularly inappropriate for a man whose life was combat. Rothwell suggests that Leavis's prose is an invitation to dialogue, but in fact-it is as evident as ever in the two texts here-that prose works to compel the reader to speak with his master's voice; the 'This is so, isn't it' is coercive. Leavis issues, always, not an invitation, but a challenge. One we have yet to meet. Nicolas Tredell
This review is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.