McLuhan, who is delighted, on the one hand, by Cambridge's more advanced examination styles, is appalled, on the other hand, by the faddishness of his new academic surroundings. At Cambridge, McLuhan was to discover Joyce, Eliot and Pound-artists whose work drew attention to the cultural malaise of the twentieth century, and the importance of Symbolist art as 'anti-environment' in a Western world which was losing its traditional sources of religious consolation. G.K. Chesterton, whose "social philosophy" McLuhan much admired was also an influence, as was Thomas Nashe, the subject of McLuhan's dissertation. Nashe's penchant for parodying sixteenth-century literary styles, and his refusal to operate solely within the tradition of Aristotelian end-logic pointed to the importance of language itself as allegory/analogy of the divine logos. Among McLuhan's influences after Cambridge were Wyndham Lewis, who saw the technological urban environment as a collection of various "amputations" of the human body, and Harold Innis, whose Empire and Communication and Bias of Communication anticipated McLuhan's focus on media environments as agents of historical change.

What has been referred to as McLuhan's "aesthetic approach" has its roots in the New Criticism developed at Cambridge in the 1930s. Under the leadership of F.R. Leavis and I.A. Richards, McLuhan developed an appreciation for the formal aspects of literature -- an important precursor to his later ideas on technological forms. The New Criticism concentrated on understanding how literature achieved its effect on readers. The meanings of a poem, for instance, were derived from how the words worked together in a formal context, not from authorial intent. The New Critics considered the manipulation and use of form and structure, including language itself, of paramount importance. In other words, form had a direct correlation to the kinds of meanings -- or effects -- literature communicated to readers. This critical stance informed McLuhan's famous aphorism, "The medium is the message."

It is difficult now to imagine the shock that this book caused when it was first published in 1932. The author was a teacher at a Cambridge college, an intensely serious man who had been seriously wounded by poison gas on the Western Front, and he was not disposed to suffer foolishness gladly. His opening sentences were arresting: ‘Poetry matters little to the modern world. That is, very little of contemporary intelligence concerns itself with poetry'.

What followed was nothing less than the welcoming of a revolution in English verse, set against the moral and social crisis that followed the trauma of the First World War. It was this situation, this feeling of breakdown and disorder, that gave such force to Leavis’s dismissal of most late Romantic poetry and his welcoming of the modernists T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and of the writer who Leavis regarded as their forebear, Gerard Manley Hopkins. The tone of high moral urgency, and the message that the experience of literature could become an engagement with life that was almost a secular equivalent to religion, seemed new and abrasively refreshing.

Leavis despised the reigning dilettantism in both poetry and criticism, and in this book he threw down the gauntlet to the establishment as he understood it. In the same year he founded the journal Scrutiny, and began his long career as the most formidably serious literary critic of his time.