Tuesday, May 25, 2010

F.R. Leavis at Gregynog, Wales, 1969

"By the close of the 17th century the conditions of Shakespeare's kind of greatness had vanished for good. Shakespeare could be at one and the same time the supreme Renaissance poet and draw as no one since has ever done on the resources of human experience, the diverse continuities, behind and implicit in a rich and robustly creative vernacular. By 1700 a transformation as momentous as any associated with the development of modern civilization had taken place, never to be reversed. The new Augustan culture represented by Pope and The Tatler entailed an unprecedented insulation of the 'polite' from the popular. There could be no reversal: the industrial revolution, which by the end of the 18th century was well advanced, worked and went on working inevitable destruction upon the inherited civilization of the people. Dickens was the last great writer to enjoy something of the Shakespearian advantage....What has been achieved in our time is the complete destruction of that general diffused creativity which maintains the life and continuity of a culture. For the industrial masses their work has no human meaning in itself and offers no satisfying interest; they save their living for their leisure, of which they have very much more than their predecessors of the Dickensian world had, but don't know how to use it, except inertly....But it is fatal to let the cultural inertness of the technological age spread and prevail till everything else is forgotten and incredible....What we are rapidly heading for is the hopelessness of America."

Dr. David Craig, Lecturer at the University of Lancaster and a Marxist theoretician, asked Dr. Leavis "how can the man in the street be helped to appreciate literature?" Dr. Leavis' answer was that he did not believe that they could. The days are gone, he said, when Shakespeare was both an author esteemed by the intellectuals of the day, and the great national entertainment as well....The study of English literature, he said, should give people a sense of the continuity of our literature and this sense should be instilled through a whole range of studies in which mediaeval ideas and mediaeval texts should be as freely discussed as the moderns, so that in studying the mediaeval period we should become aware of of the mediaeval tradition behind the development of Shakespeare. It was only towards the end of the seventeenth century that the break came between popular and sophisticated literature.