Richards and Havelock before 1947

I.A. Richards and Eric Havelock became colleagues at Harvard in 1947. How their personal relationship developed thereafter may be seen in the dedication Havelock (now chair of the classics department at Yale) prefaced to his contribution to the 1973 Festschrift for Richards:

For Ivor Richards, revered friend and former colleague, who in all that he has taught and written has held a lamp for us to see by. (259)

Havelock’s essay for Richards was titled ‘The Sophistication of Homer’. Originally, this was a public lecture he gave at UT on January 31, 1946 (as recorded at the time in the UT Monthly, January 1946 (Vol 46, Issue 4). While it is clear from contemporary references in the 1973 essay that it somewhat updated the lecture, a 1948 UTQ review by Havelock1 makes it equally clear that the essay must largely have reproduced the lecture — the examples used in the review to illustrate “the sophistication of Homer” are just those of the ‘later’ essay.

Part of Havelock’s purpose in contributing this early lecture to the Festschrift may have been to recall that time in 1946 when he and Richards first became acquainted.2 In that 1946 year, prior to his appointment at Harvard, Havelock was a guest lecturer there — a position which functioned both as a recruiting tool and as a test run. During this time, Havelock’s published scholarship, and some of his unpublished manuscripts like his Homer lecture, had presumably been supplied to Harvard for use in its evaluation process.

However that may be, by 1947 Havelock’s work was well enough known to Richards3  that he could observe in a BBC Third Programme radio broadcast in October of that year on ‘The Spoken and the Written Word’4:

Professor Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself. (Complementarities, 204)5 

Going back from 1947, it seems that Havelock, at least, had long studied Richards’s work, probably beginning already as a student at Cambridge. In those years, 1922-1926, Richards was a popular lecturer in the nascent English School and had published The Foundations of Aesthetics (1922), The Meaning of Meaning (1923), both with C.K. Ogden, The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Science and Poetry6 (1926).  For his part, Havelock, when he began his university studies at Cambridge in 1922, was already a practising and even published poet. As he notes in his preface to The Lyric Genius of Catullus (1939), whose first half consists of “imitations” of poems by Catullus:

If apology is needed for a book which has been a labour of love rather than learning, I may plead that the discovery of the charms of Catullan lyric has been my diversion ever since my schooldays. Some of the responsibility for this must rest with W. H. Balgarnie, of Leys School7, who as my form-master once encouraged my early attempts at imitation. I believe, indeed, that the fourteenth [poem] in this collection appeared in the school magazine…(viii)

Then, once Havelock began his teaching career in Canada in 1926 (at Acadia University, until 1929, thereafter at UT) his first publications were poems in The Canadian Forum. For a Cambridge man writing and publishing poetry in the 1920’s, Richards’s work could hardly not have been of intense interest.

In any case, there is clear evidence of Havelock’s continuing engagement with Richards. The first essay of commentary in The Lyric Genius of Catullus is titled ‘The Canons of Catullan Crititicism’ — an echo of Richards’s 1924 Principles of Literary Criticism, which Havelock would specifically reference in 1946 (as detailed below).

The Catullus book goes on to cite Poe’s poem To Helen as an “analogy” to the Catullan Lesbia (130). Havelock then returned to this same matter in 1943 in a short contribution to The Classical Weekly (Vol. 36, No. 21 , pp. 248-249) titled ‘Homer, Catullus and Poe’. Significantly, this piece begins:

Readers of [John Livingston] LowesRoad to Xanadu are aware that poets sometimes build highly imaginative structures out of miscellaneous materials recollected from the books they have read. Poe’s famous address To Helen seems to be a poem of this order.

These lines look both backwards and forwards.  Backwards, not only to Havelock’s reference to Poe in his Catullus a few years before, but also to Richards’s Imagination in Coleridge (1934) which treats Lowes’ Road to Xanadu as a rival attempt to investigate imagination in Coleridge.8 And forwards, because Havelock, in a kind of sweeping swansong to his almost two decades at UT, would publish a 3-part essay in the first volume of Phoenix, the new journal of the Ontario (later Canadian) Classical Association (of which he was the founding president). The essay was titled ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’9, clearly signaling that Lowes’ Road to Xanadu had been its inspiration.  Here, too, however, the theme had already been anticipated in the 1939 Catullus:

Virgil responded to [the novi poetae] readily, not only in his occasional pieces, but in his Ecologues and above all in the great episode of Orpheus and Eurydice which closes the Fourth Georgic. This tale of romantic regions under the sea, of passionate love and tragic separation, is too rarely recognized for what it is — an example of what the epyllion could become in Latin when handled with emotional sincerity and sure taste. Constructed on the sort of mechanical plan perfected by Callimachus, of a plot within a plot, (…), it yet manages to combine romantic mystery, prettiness, passion and pathos in a kind of literary tapestry. (172)

Havelock’s 1946-1947 Virgil essay is exactly a detailed exposition of this “tapestry” from the Fourth Georgic, using Lowes’ katabasis theme (aka the road to Xanadu) for its structure.

The Catullus book, like the 3-part Virgil essay taking off from it, would have been in the package of texts submitted by Havelock to Harvard and the word “sincerity” here would have struck Richards as a tip of the hat to his work. And, indeed, Richards’s 1924 Principles of Literary Criticism is specifically cited in the essay.10

Meanwhile, the word “epyllion” in this passage will strike the reader of McLuhan as potentially of great interest, since he reverted to the form throughout his career and sometimes gave the impression that practically anything of aesthetic value necessarily exemplified it. In fact, the “epyllion” and “little epic” are referenced several times in Havelock’s Catullus (he notes on 186,n7 that “the story-within-a-story was a device of the epyllion”) and again, repeatedly, in ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’. 

Now this essay from Havelock was published in McLuhan’s first year at UT in a new journal published by the university press.  This would already have attracted general notice. But its motivating force, the first president of the classics association publishing the journal, namely Havelock, was already at Harvard as a guest lecturer and was no doubt tipped to leave UT permanently. At a time when the classics department was already sorely depleted by the death of Charles Cochrane in 1945 and the poor health of E.T. Owen (who would die early in 1948), the prospective loss of such an energetic figure as Havelock would doubtless have aroused further comment.

Havelock’s essay would, however, have attracted McLuhan’s notice in particular. In that same year of 1946, he had published a cross-disciplinary essay of his own (‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’) in another classics periodical (The Classical Journal).  Then, when he published ‘Henry IV, A Mirror for Magistrates’ in UTQ, 1948, the Owen review by Havelock was in the same issue. Here Havelock described his ‘oral encyclopedia’ theory of illiterate culture as contrasted to the textual information storage and resulting social forms constituting a literate one. This encounter was surely an important milestone on McLuhan’s intellectual journey and one that would have sent him to other work by Havelock like the Phoenix pieces (if he had not already seen them).

For reasons to be detailed in a future post, it seems manifest that McLuhan read Havelock’s Xanadu essay at some point and was deeply influenced by it, though in a different way than he was by Havelock’s review of Owen. However, absent firm dating, especially relative to his roughly contemporaneous exposure to the work of Harold Innis (who had his own relations with Havelock) and to his rereading of Joyce with Hugh Kenner, it is not possible, or not yet possible, to judge precisely how this cloud of influences functioned to rejigger his thinking. What can be said at present is only that these influences, together with others in the late 1940’s (like his introduction to cybernetics through Sigfried Giedion, his meeting and subsequent correspondence with Ezra Pound and his introduction to management theory via Bernard Muller-Thym) melded together in these years around 1950 (McLuhan turned 40 in 1951) to prompt the new directions in his work which would gradually emerge in the 1950’s.  

This process would amount to — McLuhan’s second conversion


  1. Havelock reviewed The Story of the Iliad by his former UT colleague E.T. Owen.  For further discussion see here.
  2. Or, perhaps, this may have been when the two became better acquainted, if they had met before then — for example in their common years in Cambridge, 1922-1926.
  3. The academic community in Toronto had a similar knowledge of Havelock’s work at this time. A. John Watson has recorded an anecdote from Ernest Sirluck about a conversation he had with E.T Owen prior to March 1948 (when Owen died): “At this period there was much discussion among classicists concerning the use of epic poetry as a technique for inter-generational communication of the ‘cultural baggage’ of a non-literate people. Sirluck recalls a stimulating conversation with Owen on this subject, with (Harold) Innis as a quiet, note-taking witness.”
  4. Recorded on September 17, 1947, broadcast on October 5 that year. A transcript was published in The Listener, Vol xxxviii, Nr 977, October 16, 1947, 669-670. A slightly revised version appeared thirty years later as ‘Literature, Oral-Aural and Optical’ in Complementarities, (ed) John Paul Russo, 1976, 201-208.
  5. In The Lyric Genius of Catullus (1939), Havelock had already observed: “Plato was right when he refused metaphysical honours to poetry. It belongs to the flux, and apologists who try to explain away Plato’s doctrine concerning poetic art merely seek to disguise this essential truth. If poetry teaches anything which is permanently valid, it does so by accident, because it may happen to deal with grave ideas which could be clearly rendered in prose…” (159). Relatedly, in his 1941 review, ‘The Riddle of Plato’s Politics’: “the so-called ‘Theory of Forms’ is justly expounded as a necessary contribution to the methodology of the sciences, both physical and social, without which they could not advance beyond the stage of barren empiricism” (Canadian Forum, April 1941, 15-19, here 16). These observations should not be taken to valorize the “permanently valid” and “science” over “the flux” and “barren empiricism”, however. Havelock was himself a published poet and appreciated what he called “the impermanence of poetry” (the title of a chapter in The Lyric Genius of Catullus) as an essential aspect of its value and necessity. Furthermore, as an outspoken socialist, Havelock did not at all discount what he found in Dewey — that “man’s significance is to be discovered not in cloistered concentration of thought, but in his daily attempt to control his material environment, with plough and test tube and machine tool” (‘The Philosophy of John Dewey’, The Canadian Forum, July 1939, 121-123, here 121). Finally, looking back on his career in 1987 shortly before his death in 1988 Havelock concluded: “The gifts of Greece on which I have sought to place an accent concern technology and the social and political sciences rather than the realm of metaphysical and moral values — not on beauty, truth, and goodness of the Platonic model but on the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication” (Literacy and Orality, 19). As will be treated in detail in further posts, Havelock sought to give just weight to both orality and literacy and opposed any attempt to tip the balance in one way or the other.
  6. If ‘science and poetry’ are taken as modes of information storage, the title of this short 1926 work from Richards may be seen to capture Havelock’s life work  in nuce.
  7. Havelock studied at the Leys School in Cambridge in the school-years 1917 to 1921.
  8. In the meantime, Richards had joined Lowes in the English Department at Harvard.
  9. Virgil’s Road to Xanadu: (1) The poet of the Orpheus-fantasy, Phoenix, Vol. 1, No. 1 pp. 3-8, 1946; (2) The Laboratory of a Poet’s Mind, Phoenix, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 2-7, 1946; (3) The Waters of the Great World, Phoenix, Supplement to Volume One, pp. 9-18, 1947.
  10. In ‘(2) The Laboratory of a Poet’s Mind’, p 2, full reference above.

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