Between vision and enquiry

August 25, 1995

John Newton recollects what it was like to be taught by the two mutually hostile giants of English literary criticism, F. R. Leavis and Harold Mason.

No man can serve two masters." A few people have certainly thought that choosing to follow either F. R. Leavis or Harold Mason was unavoidable as a result of the sudden hostility between them. Yet that hostility was partly assumed, and belonged more, in fact, to Leavis's wife Queenie, a lively thinker in her own right though without the intellectual stature or following of either this Njal or this Gunnar. The modern version of the ancient Icelandic saga may have ended in division, but it is mainly the story of an exceptionally interesting and fruitful collaboration and inheritance.

What most comes over one former pupil as he thinks back to his own arrival in Cambridge's Downing College in the early 1950s is wonder at the luck that undergraduate students of English there had in being taught by both Leavis and Mason. A "year" met in classes with Leavis almost daily, while each member of it had to himself a weekly tutorial hour with Mason. The two masters were certainly very different from each other, but this clearly helped Downing "English" be the intellectual goldmine that it was.

Leavis's contribution is almost wholly out in the world, in his books and in Scrutiny, the quarterly that had him as its leading, inspiring editor. There were, of course, things only his pupils heard, including much wonderful commentary on short passages of literature that was more rewarding than his printed analyses because, in his extraordinary gift for bringing out from a passage's words - apparently spontaneously on the spot - more and more of the full living spirit of its writer, the rare purity and zest of his literature were especially vivid. But the main thing he said to the world was the main thing his pupils learnt from him. The extra they enjoyed was a matter less of additional thought than of his presence, its compelling power (for ill as well as good for 18-year-olds) and that special beauty of spirit that a human being can have who is intense and intent with great impersonal inspiration. It is that beauty that I myself most miss from accounts of Leavis by those who have only read him.

It is not that there is no contribution from Mason out in the world. There are his books, and much uncollected writing in The Cambridge Quarterly, the magazine that has had him as its leading, inspiring editor (even beyond his death in 1993). Yet what he wrote was not so exactly what his pupils learnt from him, and it is no accident that it has not had the same impact as Leavis's writing. To many, Mason is still unknown, and many others could be startled by the description of him as an intellectual giant. Significantly, The Cambridge Quarterly has recently put together memories of his talk and teaching, and this has left other pupils like myself grateful but aware that still much more is needed if what Mason had to give to the world is finally to reach it with any completeness.

"Imaginative and moral genius" may be a better description of an outstanding literary critic than "intellectual giant". The latter phrase seems earned by the exceptional power of mind, but it is inapt in that it suggests some landmark discovery in the history of thought. The main truths about the creative arts are old ones, perpetually in need of the new creators and critics who rediscover and reaffirm them. And the qualities required for this are as much emotional and spiritual as intellectual. An original scientist doubtless needs more than intellectual qualities, but does not so clearly need that fuller life-wisdom without which there is no great art or deep understanding of it. Leavis was a great thinker because in his own time he found his own way as hardly anyone did so effectively to the profound knowledge of the sigificance of poetry that all the great poets have had. This was then a central inspiration to Mason who, with his larger mind and sympathies, might possibly without it have scattered his energies and been less productive than he was.

This helps suggest why that period of Downing "English" was unique. Leavis's genius was for vision and affirmation, Mason's for enquiry - and for inspiring appetite and confidence for enquiry. For myself, he is a standard that I hardly hope to see matched. In the records of the pages as well as in firsthand experience it is largely in vain that I have looked for anything like it. The standard was set by the quickness with which he could see any beginnings of a new idea hidden among the cliches and conventionalities of a student's essay and by the passion of the interest he took in that idea. He could so overflow in his enthusiasm that occasionally a student thought it was all some sarcastic joke. A similar mistake was sometimes made about the one figure in the historical record in whom I have found in the same extreme degree that sheer, unegotistic love of truth, extraordinarily energetic and resourceful and patient, and with the exceptional awareness that it produces in a powerful mind and spirit of truth's simultaneous indispensabiltity and difficulty. The similar mistake was made by figures Plato represents talking with Socrates.

Not that Mason was devoid of egotism. If his main contribution was to renew the ideal of disinterested thought with exceptional power and attractiveness, he was not without ordinary anxiety about winning recognition both for this and for his many more specific contributions. The occasional pupil suffered, and Mason's reader can suffer from the defensiveness that sometimes makes the subtlety and scruple of his arguments too elaborate. Another criticism is one that might be made of Leavis too. By putting all of his genius into literary criticism, each master at once did less than he might have done and tended to make literary criticism more important that it is, especially in relation to poetry.

It is, ironically, a writer with some of the gifts of a poet that Mason could now do with, to be his Plato or Boswell. The Cambridge Quarterly's reminiscences certainly help strengthen the proposition that something very unusual is in question. But they do not constitute a portrait. Perhaps the realistic thing to hope is that, given the cue, more people will find their way to Mason's writings and to reading them at the leisurely pace and with the patience and extensiveness which will reward anyhow, but which could reveal more and more - if not everything - of the genius.

John Newton is a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and a founding editor of The Cambridge Quarterly.

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