D. W. HARDING was taught by HS Bennett and FR Leavis at Cambridge, and took a First in the English Tripos in 1927, writes Ian McKillop. He decided to change to Moral Sciences so that he could take a Part Two in Psychology, in which he became interested after IA Richards's lectures and Principles of Literary Criticism (1924).
Among the subjectivities of literary criticism he felt trapped, as 'in a large plate of porridge', and puzzled as to how personal response to poetry could be articulated with some objective reliability. There was little specific guidance to be had at that date - Richards's Practical Criticism was two years away; FR Leavis was beginning to write; William Empson was still studying mathematics. For psychology, he was taught very successfully by RW Pickford, later professor at Glasgow.
Harding was an eminent literary critic and responsible for classic essays on Donne, Austen, Coleridge, TS Eliot, LH Myers and Isaac Rosenberg. As a young lecturer at the LSE he joined Leavis as an editor of Scrutiny (1933-47), where much of his literary criticism appeared, but also work, notably on aggression, that led to The Impulse to Dominate and Social Psychology and Individual Values. He was author of the first essay to be published in Scrutiny, 'A Note on Nostalgia'.
Harding moved away from his Cambridge mentor IA Richards, who believed that one person's poem and another person's consciousness could be evaluated in the same way. In the best life impulses were ordered, as they were in poetry. This was of great importance because poetry was the best model of impulse-ordering, and hence the civilised person was the most impulse-organised. Harding became disappointed in this theory because, while Richards genuinely liked and understood poetry (he pioneered the understanding of both Eliot and Hopkins), Harding was sceptical of a numerical account of the value of poetry, or, indeed, of people. Or rather he was sceptical of an account that would be numerical if Richards ever actually numbered the impulses of which wrote.
Harding did not stop believing that art could display some kinds of exemplary fineness. He went on meditating on the manageability of 'impulse', and searching for a more satisfying concept of balance than Richards's numerical one. In 1937 he edited the works of the the First World War writer Isaac Rosenberg. In an analytical essay in Scrutiny (March 1935), he used one of Rosenberg's favoured terms, 'robustness', to define the almost literal dispassionate quality of his poetry:
This willingness - and ability - to let himself be new-born into the new situation, not subduing his experience to his established personality, is a large part, if not the whole secret of the robustness which characterises his best work . . . It was due largely, no doubt, to his lack of conviction of the adequacy of civilian standards. In 'Troopship' and 'Louse Hunting' there is no civilian resentment at the conditions he writes of. Here, as in all the war poems, his suffering and discomfort are unusually direct; there is no secondary distress arising from the sense that these things ought not to be: he was given up to realising fully what was.
Richards's idea of balance, or the 'organisation of appetencies', was fully in tune with one poetic voice favoured by literary academe - the allusive, deprecating, ironic voice. Harding struck out in appreciating the assimilation of savagery into verse - or the domestication of savagery in prose in the essay for which he is best known, 'Regulated Hatred: an aspect of the work of Jane Austen' (Scrutiny, March 1940). It was perhaps the first time the word 'desperate' had been used in print of gentle Jane, the poised satirist, but, wrote Harding, 'she had none of the underlying didactic intention ordinarily attributed to the satirist. Her object is not missionary: it is the more desperate one of merely finding some mode of existence for her critical attitudes.'
Stylistic tension is a 20th-century literary commonplace. Harding defined some unusual austerities in prose and poetry with an astringent brevity of his own: as, in his extraordinarily pregnant review of TS Eliot's Collected Poems 1909-1935 (Scrutiny, September 1936), he defined Eliot's art as an 'an achievement in the creation of concepts'.