James Reaney, 'Scrutumnus' and the Critics: An Individual Response

by W.J. Keith


     The death of the eminent English critic F.R. Leavis (April, 1978) immediately recalled (for me) James Reaney's premature burial of Scrutumnus in the August eclogue of A Suit of Nettles, and prompts me to offer a reconsideration of that vigorous but (again, for me) curiously dissatisfying incident. Since my own response is closely bound up with my personal experience, I had better describe this at the outset. I came to Reaney's Ontario from Leavis's Cambridge in 1958,the year in which A Suit of Nettles first appeared, and I read the poem shortly thereafter. My immediate reaction to the August eclogue was that Reaney obviously knew very little about Leavis and his work, and I presumed (naively, as I now realise) that the reviewers and literary commentators would soon set the record straight. But, twenty years later, they have not yet done so — a fact that seems to me to be of considerable literary-critical significance in itself.

     In the August eclogue, it will be remembered, Raymond "chances upon amous critic-goose's funeral."1  In a parody of traditional pastoral elegy, three songs are sung, and we are then told that, according to his wont, Scrutumnus had evaluated them shortly before his death. Terpsichore, use of lyric poetry, challenges the judgments and is viciously attacked by the critic's followers. Finally, the shade of Scrutumnus arises from a sulphurous hell to bark like a watch-dog at the whole proceedings. What are we to make of all this? Is it a display of iconoclastic youthful high spirits? Or is Reaney righteously indignant? Is it offered as humorous, or satiric, or both? I have called the incident dissatisfying because I am frankly uncertain what effect Reaney is trying to achieve. I have to state that personally find it neither funny nor satirically compelling.2

     Be that as it may, Reaney makes his identification perfectly clear. In his prefatory address to the reader he writes: "Scrutumnus stands for Scrutiny, the famous critical quarterly edited by Dr. F.R. Leavis which ceased to be published some years ago" (p. 145). At this point, then, Scrutumnus is supposed to represent the journal rather than its editor, and as a consequence his death refers to the cessation of Scrutiny in 1953. However, a long note appended to the eclogue can only refer to the writings of Leavis himself.

     Personally, I doubt whether Reaney had made an extended study of   Scrutiny by the time he wrote A Suit of Nettles. The August eclogue certainly does not offer any evidence of familiarity with the critical principles of the journal, and in fact Reaney's allusions seem to derive from certain passages in Leavis's Revaluation (1936) and The Common Pursuit (1952), and Eric Bentley's anthology, The Importance of Scrutiny (1948). I assume that the reference to Scrutumnus's dismissal of "a great marble palace of exquisite beauty" (p.170n) alludes to Leavis's well-known essay "Milton's Verse" in Revaluation. In the eclogue, Scrutumnus criticizes one of the songs as "a farrago / Of bad English and worse Latin lingo" (p.169), which represents a selective but still recognizable parody of an argument in the best-known section of that essay. Furthermore, Leavis's reference there to "a use of language in the spirit of Spenser — incantatory, remote from speech"3 is likely to have raised the hackles of a poet in the process of imitating Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar. Reaney makes clear in his preface that references to God's Universe and God's Tiger allude to comments on Finnegans Wake and Blake's Tyger. The first of these occurs in a review article, "Joyce and 'the Revolution of the Word'," reprinted by Bentley; the second may be found in an essay on "Literature and Society" in The Common Pursuit. (The reference to the Princes in the Tower, if intended at all specifically, eludes me; there is no entry for Richard III in the index to the reprinted Scrutiny, and I can recall no discussion of the play in Leavis's own work.)

     Leavis's attitude to Milton is well-known but has frequently been distorted and exaggerated. It is important to remember that the essay is discriminating rather than dismissive; in the course of it Leavis praises the "Shakespearian life" of a passage from Comus (p.48), refers to "the consummate art of Lycidas" (p.56), and even grants that the verse of Paradise Lost, though deficient in many respects, is still "brilliant" (p.54). His strictures, as the essay's title suggests, are primarily levelled against the quality of the poetry: its rhythms, cadences and movement. Indeed, Leavis is specifically protesting against Allen Tate's assumption "that if we don't like Milton it is because of a prejudice against myth and fable and a preference for the fragmentary" (p.43). These are close to Reaney's charges, but Leavis denies them. Tate presents Milton as creating "one of those immensely remote, highly sensuous and perfectly make-believe worlds that rise above our scattered notions of process" (a description that might well be applied to Reaney's poetic aims). Leavis's retort is that "in such verse no 'highly sensuous and perfectly make-believe world' could be evoked" (p.43). We are at liberty to disagree with Leavis here, but we have an obligation to be clear about what he is saying. In addition, there are some shrewd criticisms of the consistency of Milton's poetic thought; these Leavis developed later in "Mr. Eliot and Milton," the essay that opens The Common Pursuit.4

     His complaints about Finnegans Wake (or those parts of it available at the time of writing as Work in Progress) similarly focus on language, and emphasize what Leavis considered a decline from Ulysses, a book which he praised warmly and through which he got into trouble from "the establishment" when he lectured on it in the late 1920s. As for Blake's Tyger readers of A Suit of Nettles may be surprised to learn that Leavis's reference to this poem (while noting the syntactical blur in the third stanza) is not only positive in itself but offered within a context of high praise: "Full consciousness is genius, and manifests itself in technical achievement, the new use of words. In the seventeen-eighties it is William Blake."5  Leavis's more vigorous championing of Blake — one of his later books is entitled Nor Shall My Sword — developed after the publication of A Suit of Nettles, but the seed was clearly there from the beginning. Whatever Reaney may think, Leavis like Blake is on the side of "Life."

     So much for specific references. The more general attack presented within the text of the eclogue is strangely off-target. Busto, one of the followers of Scrutumnus, offers the following statement of the late critic's preferences:

The language of the common sparrow,
The music of the untaught farrow
Held he sweeter far than thrushes
Whistling silver trills and rushes.
Pigs and sparrows sing 'We copulate,'
And mean exactly what they state. (pp. 167-8)

Here, though references to Language," "music," etc. suggest emphasis upon the words on the page, in fact the passage establishes a scale of values indicative of a supposed prejudice in favour of "low" subjects and unimaginative speech: it is better to sing "We copulate" with pigs and sparrows than to aspire to the "silver trills and rushes" of the thrush. Anyone who relied on Reaney for his knowledge of Leavis's literary-critical position would never guess that he had written in high praise of, for example, Shakespeare, Keats and Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is especially odd that a critic so often pilloried for his excessive moralism should be presented here as one who advocates a naturalistic directness. The charge is similar to one brought by E.M.W. Tillyard, which Leavis explicitly denies in an essay entitled (interestingly enough) "In Defence of Milton" and one that Reaney doubtless knew: "I had better add finally that I have nowhere com plained 'that Milton did not write Paradise Lost in the style of Shakespeare', . . . or (what seems to me a different thing) 'in a conversational style' or 'the tone of ordinary speech'; and that I have never, I think, given any excuse for supposing that I hold the 'language of small talk' to be 'the basis of all good poetry"' (Common Pursuit, p.41).

Similarly, Terpsichore's protest makes no sense in terms of the habitual procedures of Scrutiny:

                 But you and Scrutumnus, sir, do not
                 Understand these songs. One ought
                 To see that each has a different purpose
                 And therefore a different word choice,
                 You do not laugh at a cat or a frog
                 Because they cannot act like a hog.    (p.169)

The offering of critical discriminations without reference to context and in tension obviously runs counter to the principles of Leavis and his followers, and the last-quoted extract from The Common Pursuit answers this charge also. The suggestion that purpose and (above all) the appropriateness of word choice are ignored in Scrutiny is simply false.

     One might reasonably expect that Reaney's commentators would have felt the responsibility to discuss these inaccuracies. Instead, however, they accept Reaney's assumptions and attitudes without question. Here is Northrop Frye reviewing A Suit of Nettles in 1959: "August introduces a third emasculate, a literary critic who has mastered the easy trick of giving the illusion of raising his standards by limiting his sympathies."6 Alvin Lee, Reaney's most detailed commentator, follows suit by summarizing the eclogue as "laying bare some of the mental habits of literary critics who bring death to the art of literary criticism."7  He accepts Reaney's presentation as "a neat satirical commentary of Leavisite criticism" and continues: "The Leavisite comments on Finnegans Wake and The Tyger suggest that for all his prizing of erotic literature [!] the great critic is basically a kind of Anti-creativity figure, rather like Antichrist": (p.80). "Emasculate"; "Antichrist": character assassination has replaced critical discussion. I can only state that I am appalled by these "evaluations" and by the critical assumptions that lie behind them.

     Ross Woodman is a little more circumspect, inserting the phrase "according to Reaney" into his digest of the eclogue;8 but he goes on, in discussing the July eclogue, to observe that "progressive education, like the Scrutiny school and Canadian history, is ruled by Ookpik's God of Death" (p.45). And Germaine Warkentin, in her introduction to a recent reprint of A Suit of Nettles, offers the mixture as before: "Part of Reaney's mischief in the poem is to point out that the civilized community is not necessarily to be found among those who think they are civilized, like the literary critic Scrutumnus in the August eclogue."9 None of Reaney's specialist commentators, then, seems to have checked his sources. Only Munro Beattie, in a chapter in the Literary History of Canada, refuses to join the chorus: "Certainly, the inanities on birth control, on some species of education not identified in the poem, and on the critical methods of Dr. Leavis (or so we are informed by the gloss) do not fulfill any current definition of 'satire'."10 Otherwise the acceptance appears to have been total.


     I emphasize this depressing critical record because it seems to me representative of the academic response to Canadian poetry (not to mention Canadian literature in general), and because Reaney's attempt to discredit the Leavisite approach may well have inhibited the development of a much needed literary-critical method. The concentration on thematics, on the patterning and categorizing of content, itself discourages any detailed consideration of the creative use of language. Moreover, Reaney's binary classifications (life against death, innocence against experience, fertility against sterility, heaven against hell) allow no scale of critical discrimination. Thus, if Leavis makes any stricture against Milton, Joyce or Blake he is automatically classified as totally hostile to these writers. To Reaney and to his admiring commentators, apparently, a laudable intention on the part of a poet is all that matters; to criticize a writer who champions the imagination, even if the quality of the writing is negligible, is to align one self with Antichrist. This is a dangerous procedure because it leads to the construction of protective barriers around certain works of literature which thereby become impervious to criticism. In Reaney's case, one can see the process at work in the commentary of Ross Woodman. At one point he quotes some of Michael Tait's reservations about Reaney as a play wright and comments: "Much of this criticism reflects the views of Scrutumnus and his cohorts in A Suit of Nettles" (p.48). What more needs to be said? This, surely, is a kind of critical Calvinism: only if one accepts the sacrosanct attitudes can one be saved. I realize that, for many of Reaney's admirers who have read as far as this, I am already damned.

     And here, perhaps, I can return to my personal response. Over the last twenty years I have gone back to A Suit of Nettles again and again. It both intrigued and irritated me at first reading, and it still does. As I have learned more about Canada and Canadian history and literature, more of its pieces have fallen into place. But I am still left with doubts, mainly about the quality of the intellectual position offered in the poem and the stylistic success of individual passages; on turning to the critics, who have limited themselves to exposition and exegesis and avoided any evaluative commentary on the achievement of the poem, I have found little help.

     I can make my point briefly, if somewhat unkindly, if I state my suspicion that Reaney's attack on Leavis (out of all proportion, surely, to its place within the poem) derives from an instinctive sense that his own poetry might prove vulnerable if approached from a Leavisite viewpoint. While discussing Milton, Leavis observed: "I hope Miss [Maud] Bodkin's Archetypal Patterns are not going to become a part of the 'modern critic's' outfit" (Common Pursuit, p.38n). Neither Leavis nor the "Scrutiny school" is likely to respond sympathetically to Reaney's characteristic interests, especially if a preoccupation with archetypal patterns threatens to replace what they recognize as the more central concerns of literary criticism. Reaney's commentators, by accepting his dismissal of "Leavisite" methods, thereby limit themselves to critical approaches that, for those of us outside the charmed circle, are unable to deal with the challenging issues that need to be raised.

     My first difficulty involves the whole cast of Reaney's thought. In the August eclogue he makes Scrutumnus criticize a passage of verse as "Immoral in its basic avoidance of simplicity" (p.169). In fact, Leavis never advocated simplicity as an unambiguous virtue, but in any case, since Wood man assures us that Reaney adheres to the notion that "the simpler art is — the richer it is" (pp.53-4), it is hard to see the basis for disagreement. Ironically enough, however, I find myself failing to relate to Reaney's thought when it appears, in my opinion, not so much simple as simplistic. The attack on Scrutumnus is itself a case in point; the issues, as I hope to have demonstrated, are far more complex than Reaney suggests. The May eclogue is even more difficult to accept in its own terms. His condemnation of "those insistent life devourers" (p.162) who attempt to introduce methods of contraception into the farmyard is amusing in a rather obvious and slapstick sort of way, but, even if one sympathizes with Reaney's position (as, in this instance, I do), one must surely acknowledge that we are being offered a grossly simplified travesty of an extremely complex matter. Lee comments rather desperately: "the real answer is not artificially to limit childbirth, but to improve the standard of living of poor people" (p.75), but this, while doubtless a fair summary of Reaney's viewpoint, ignores so many vital and obvious issues that it cannot be taken seriously. Germaine Warkentin's summary is no more satisfactory: "in his contempt for the birth-control ladies of 'May' or the awful Scrutumnus of 'August,' [he] calls up our buried desire to give life rather than despair of it, to make the world intelligible rather than submit to its apparent disorder" (Poems, p.xiii). These may be noble sentiments, but the poet must convince us that he is offering more than a naive hope. He must convince us by a power of language that reflects a profundity of imaginative thought. I have been unable to discover this in Reaney's work, and no critic has persuaded me that it exists. The possible retort that Reaney is concerned with an imaginative world as distinct from a real one I cannot accept. The forces of creativity and "life" have to be presented more persuasively than this; if I am required to make a choice, I must be condemned with Scrutumnus.

     But even more crucial is the related question of standards in verse. Reaney consistently opposes — indeed, ridicules — literary evaluation; Scrutumnus is twitted for "putting poems in order of merit" (p. 167) and in a recent play, The Dismissal; a professor of literature is actually presented as weighing books on a pair of scales. The absurdity of such procedures is supposedly demonstrated within the eclogue when Scrutumnus judges the three songs, but anyone who has read Leavis's criticism with any attention will know that Leavis (as distinct from his parody) would never have made such arbitrary value-judgments.11  Reaney has created a grotesquely inadequate straw-man, and his critics have tacitly accepted it as a credible portrait. By so doing, he has discouraged any detailed and systematic discussion of poetic technique. With the exception of a passage in Woodman's booklet (pp.34-5), where he compares the early and late versions of "Antichrist as a Child" and discovers (oddly but, I am convinced, rightly) that the revised text is poetically inferior to the original, I know of no piece of sustained textual analysis in the work of Reaney's commentators.12  For them, what he says is all-important; how he says it is never considered.

Here I must be specific.  What are we to make, for instance, of the following speech as poetry?

Scrutumnus! Scrutumnus! Scrutumnus!
We lay this wreath on thy tumulus!
A wreath of thy favourite pigsweed
And lambsquarters gone to seed.
Bring on the songs and we will play
His favourite game upon this day.      (p.168)

Parody? Colloquial speech? A deliberate imitation of bad verse? Doggerel? Or, if it be objected that Lobo is a follower of Scrutumnus and therefore must be lacking in poetic sensitivity, here is a speech of Raymond, who represents Reaney's fellow Ontario poet Raymond Knister and appears as a more positive character throughout the poem:

Fortunately noons can kill a Muse
Unless their own to kill they choose.
To kill his own genius is all he can do
What is this unmelodious hullabaloo . . .? (p, 170)

And the speech by Terpsichore that I quoted earlier hardly seems worthy of the muse of lyric poetry. I do not think that "imitation of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar" is an adequate answer to the complaint that, in terms of poetic technique, these verses are at best undistinguished.

     I would also like to see a convincing defense of, say, Branwell's song in the October ecloeue. This song, it may be remembered, begins:

GREEN grove wall toward me,
       Around me with
              That which
 Trembles heartsmith,

 Currant tinkle bobbob
       Pheasant leap whir
 A pink mushroom, sir!

      And it ends:

Did I touch her?

All pulse-wage since
      And this place
Holds my heart in a bottle
      Of pathpace.     (pp.178-9)

I find this obscure, indulgent, and uninteresting as verse; the fragmented syntax has no obvious raison d'être, and the stanzas seem rhythmically unimpressive. By contrast Lee, without further demonstration, risks a value-judgment and describes it as "lovely" (p.109). It is just possible that Lee is right (I have no wish to insist on a negative response), but I should like to see the positive case argued.

     I must emphasize at this point that, despite all that I have said here, I am by no means unsympathetic to Reaney's work. I am prepared to admire his dazzling imagery, his capacity to make us look at familiar objects from a new, startling, transforming perspective. There is much wit, pathos and even insight in parts of A Suit of Nettles. As Leavis says of Milton, "every one will agree at any rate that there are places where the verse glows with an unusual life" (Revaluation, p.44). But there are, as it seems to me, passages of embarassing flatness as well — and I have never read a critic who has noticed them (or, at any rate, is prepared to admit that they exist). We hear of "the poet's technical skill" (Lee, p.66), and so on, but this generally means that he is trying his hand at a variety of verse-forms. Rarely do we find any discussion (let alone demonstration) of his success with these forms or any serious exploration of the unique and characteristic qualities of his poetic language.

     This flatness is not confined to A Suit of Nettles (where the "dramatic" nature of the speeches makes criticism of general application difficult). For my part, I sense a technical uncertainty at all stages of Reaney's poetic career. Indeed, the most serious criticism to be levelled against him as a poet may be that he does not take his poetic craft seriously enough. In The Red Heart, for example, individual lines often sound impressive in themselves but do not easily flow one with another:

He is as charming and good-mannered
As the President of France,
But his kitchen floor he's scrubbing
With a tub of blood.
So that wherever I go,
Wherever I wander
I never find
What I should like to find . . .       (p.49)

Here the rhythm of the last four lines is difficult to fit in with those of the first four. Invariably I stumble at the fifth line, unable to adjust to a slightly different accentual beat. By contrast, the regularity of the verse form in The Dance of Death at London, Ontario comes to reflect what Leavis calls "the inescapable monotony of the ritual" (Revaluation, p.44).

The Painter
Eye am the I of the world.
       I ravish the unravishable bridle.
Infernoes & Sunday Mornings
       I produce with pardonable pride.

My brush is never half so fine.
        In fact it's a three-pronged club.
Although you've made my visage shine
        I now will thy skull engrave & rub. (p. 248)

At this stage, late in the poem, we have become accustomed to the basic pattern: four lines from a representative figure, then four from Death who entraps him by means of his own imagery. Personally, I find my interest flagging well before the end of the poem; there is little in the ballad-quatrains to hold one's attention. The first of the quoted lines is witty; the last seems to me clumsy, its inversion unjustified by the context. Once again the critics provide no assistance. I do not need to be told that "the theme is palpably a universal one, the democratic leveling activities of death in any structured society" (Lee, p. 116) nor that it combines "the childlike and the aroque."13   What I do need is help to read the lines as what they purport to be: that is to say, as poetry. Am I right, for example, in maintaining that they are technically far less subtle, in rhythm and ultimately in meaning, than the opening poem of Twelve Letters to a Small Town (which unquestionably deserves all the praise that it has received)? If so, am I not justified in preferring the latter to the former?

     That the previous paragraph should close with two questions is appropriate. This essay must end on an inconclusive note. I have raised a number of queries but have never claimed that I knew the answers. I have offered my own tentative responses to some of Reaney's poetry, and these inevitably involve evaluation because I firmly believe that no useful discussion of poetry can proceed without it. I am not offering my evaluations as definitive (nor, it should be emphasized, did Leavis: "This is so, isn't it?" "Yes, but . . ."); if someone can establish that verses which have failed to impress me are in fact excellent, I shall be the first to applaud. This is, surely, one of the main functions of a literary critic, just as the making of term adverse judgments, when such are necessary, is another. To under take such a challenge is to risk being ridiculed with Scrutumnus, but it is certainly in Reaney's best interests that his committed admirers should be prepared to take such risks. They will hardly be able to convert the unregenerate in any other way. It is high time we stopped being scared (to use one of Reaney's favourite words) of this bugaboo of evaluation. Such critics, if there are any, will merit high praise rather than the unjustified abuse that Reausy meted out to Scrutumnus.


  1. James Reaney, Poems, ed. Germaine Warkentin (Toronto: New Press, 1972), p.l67. Subsequent references to Reaney's poems are incorporated into the text and refer to this edition.[back]

  2. In case it be thought that I am unable to appreciate any humorous or satiric presentation of Leavis, I recommend a comparison between Reaney's treatment of Scrutumnus here and John Heath-Stubb's presentation of Phyllidulus in his long poem Artorius (London: Enitharmon Press, 1973). Heath-Stubbs's parody of Leavis and his followers is far subtler than Reaney's and is based on a more accurate understanding of the principles of Scrutiny.[back]

  3. F.R. Leavis, Revaluation (1936; rpt. New York: Norton, 1963), p.56. Subsequent references are incorporated into the text.[back]

  4. This is not the place to get involved in the continuing critical debate over Milton's stature. The interested reader may be referred to John Peter, "Reflections on the Milton Controversy" (Scrutiny, XIX [October 1952], 2-15), reprinted in F.R. Leavis, ea., A Selection from Scrutiny (2 vole. Cambridge: University Press, 1968), I, 196-210, Paul J. Alpers, "The Milton Controversy," in Reuben A. Brower, ed., Twentieth-Century Literature in Retrospect (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp.269-98; and C.Q. Drummond, "An Anti-Miltonist Reprise: The Milton Controversy," Compass (Edmonton), No. 2 (December 1977), 28-45.[back]

  5. F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (1952, rpt. Hardmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962), p.186. Subsequent references are incorporated into the text.[back]

  6. Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden (Toronto: Anansi, 1971), p.87.[back]

  7. Alvin A. Lee, James Reaney (New York: Twayne, 1968), p.79. Subsequent references are incorporated into the text.[back]

  8. Ross G. Woodman, James Reaney (Toronto: McClelland &c Stewart, 1971), p.44. Subsequent references are incorporated into the text.[back]

  9. Germaine Warkentin, Introduction to A Suit of Nettles (Erie, Ont.: Press Porcepic, 1975), p.vi.[back]

  10. Munro Beattie, "Poetry 1950-60," in Carl F. Klinck et al., Literary History of Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), p.788 (II, 300 in the 1976 three-volume reprint).[back]

  11. The passage should be compared with Leavis's essay "'Thought' and Emotional Quality" (Scrutiny, XIII [Spring 1945], 53-71), reprinted in A Selection from Scrutiny, I, 211-31. Here specific poems are compared and evaluated, but the delicacy and intelligence with which Leavis presents his discriminations makes the essay a model of judicious literary criticism. The crudity of Reaney's parody becomes evident in such a comparison.[back]

  12. John Sutherland came to similar conclusions about Reaney's revisions in his review of The Red Heart in Northern Review, conveniently reprinted in Miriam Waddington, ea., John Sutherland: Essays, Controversies and Poems (New Canadian Library. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1972), pp.147-53.[back]

  13. Germaine Warkentin, Introduction to James Reaney, Selected Longer Poems (Erie, Ont.: Press Porcépic, 1976), p.10[back]