To begin a weekend of articles celebrating Wilfrid Mellers' ninetieth birthday, GORDON RUMSON investigates Mellers' early writings, 1936-1949
The past can instruct us, entertain us, or even chase and haunt
us. Sometimes we could wish to draw a curtain and leave the past
alone. One such case might be that of the Cambridge journal
Scrutiny which published between May 1932 and 1953.
A number of years ago I asked Wilfrid Mellers if I could reprint
one of his articles from Scrutiny. He declined saying
he suffered in those days from a 'young man-ishness' of outlook.
Well could he say that since he was a young man when he
began writing for F R Leavis' Scrutiny, a quarterly periodical
devoted to a then almost new conception of critical studies.
Mellers, who was born on 26 April 1914 and thus celebrates his ninetieth birthday
on Monday, wrote his first article in 1936 at the ripe age of
22. It was entitled Tight-ropes to Parnassus: A Note on Contemporary
Music, and appeared in the September 1936 issue.
The editorial policy, dominated by F R Leavis, was clearly
polemical and some of the comments seem extreme at the best of
times. Various authors, poets and principles come under fire
and this included some of the most sacred English masters. But
more important was Leavis' philosophical position which demanded
that literature be grounded in reality and have a moral impact
upon readers. But Leavis put it in a peculiar fashion: 'We take
it as axiomatic that concerns for standards of living implies
concern for standards in the arts.' (Scrutiny, i/1 (May
In actual fact, and if I may say, the overarching scheme of
Leavis' philosophy seems unclear (possibly muddled) to me. Perhaps
because so much ground was covered and so many contributed to
its pages, that being clear on what was aimed at is difficult.
Perhaps this is because the process was critical rather than
creative. Scrutiny's editorial board (and Mellers was
later on it) assumed the creative process underway in various
places (the past, or the present, England or America, among high,
middle or lowbrows) and thus fit subject for dissection and analysis.
But it indicates that culture seemed viewed at one step's remove,
as for example no new poetry appeared after 1937, while a few
new poems had before that. (For a detailed discussion please
see The Moment of 'Scrutiny', by Francis Mulhern. This
is an excellent book, though it passes the musical element of
the journal almost completely. Evidently there is an emphasis
of the visual over the auditory).
Copyright © 24 April 2004
Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada