[Leavis is here replying to an essay by the critic F. W. Bateson, who had argued the relevance of ‘social context’ to the interpretation of poetry — Ed.] … He starts from the commonplace observation that a poem is in some way related to the world in which it was written. He arrives by a jump (at least, his arrival there is not by any steps of sober reasoning) at the assumption that the way to achieve the correct reading of a poem — of, say, MarvelPs or Pope’s — is to put it back in its ‘total context’ in that world. No idea of such an undertaking troubles the reader whose attention is really and intelligently focussed upon the poem, and if the undertaking were proposed to him he would see its absurdity at once. He would see that it was gratuitous, and worse; and at the same time he would see that any achievement corresponding to it is impossible — that the aim, in fact, is illusory. What is this ‘complex of religious, political and economic factors that can be called the social context’, and the reconstruction of which enables us (according to Mr Bateson) to achieve the ‘correct reading’, ‘the object as in itself it really is, since it is the product of progressive corrections at each stage of the contextual series’.
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