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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 1932), p2)

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).

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Copyright © 24 April 2004 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Canada


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