What Is a Personal Essay (Personal Statement)?
Glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms.
- An Introduction to Punctuation
- Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
- M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
- B.A., English, State University of New York
A personal essay is a short work of autobiographical nonfiction characterized by a sense of intimacy and a conversational manner. Also called a personal statement .
A type of creative nonfiction , the personal essay is "all over the map," according to Annie Dillard. "There's nothing you can't do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is prescribed. You get to make up your own form every time." ("To Fashion a Text," 1998) .
Examples of Personal Essays
- An Apology for Idlers , by Robert Louis Stevenson
- On Laziness , by Christopher Morley
- Coney Island at Night, by James Huneker
- New Year's Eve , by Charles Lamb
- How It Feels to Be Colored Me , by Zora Neale Hurston
- My Wood, by E.M. Forster
- Two Ways of Seeing a River , by Mark Twain
- What I Think and Feel at 25, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The personal essay is one of the most common types of writing assignment--and not only in freshman composition courses. Many employers, as well as graduate and professional schools, will ask you to submit a personal essay (sometimes called a personal statement ) before even considering you for an interview. Being able to compose a coherent version of yourself in words is clearly an important skill.
- What qualities does a personal essay reveal about you? Here are just a few:
- Communication Skills How effective are your communication skills? Do you write clearly, concisely, and correctly? Note that many employers put communication skills at the top of the list of essential qualifications.
- Critical Thinking Skills How fresh and imaginative are you in your thinking? Is your writing cluttered with cliches , or is it obvious that you have original ideas to contribute?
- Maturity What specific lessons have you learned from experience, and are you ready to apply those lessons to the job or the academic program you're considering? Keep in mind that it's not enough to be able to recount a personal experience; you should be prepared to interpret it as well.
- Self and Subject in Personal Essays "[W]here the familiar essay is characterized by its everyday subject matter, the personal essay is defined more by the personality of its writer, which takes precedence over the subject. On the other hand, the personal essayist does not place himself firmly in center stage, as does the autobiographical essayist; the autobiographical element of the personal essay is far less calculated..."
- The Essayist's Persona "Personal essayists from Montaigne on have been fascinated with the changeableness and plasticity of the materials of human personality. Starting with self-description, they have realized they can never render all at once the entire complexity of a personality. So they have elected to follow an additive strategy, offering incomplete shards, one mask or persona after another: the eager, skeptical, amiable, tender, curmudgeonly, antic, somber. If 'we must remove the mask,' it is only to substitute another mask..."
- The "Antigenre": An Alternative to Academic Prose "[T]he more personal essay offers an escape from the confines of academic prose . By using this antigenre form that in contemporary essays embodies multiple kinds of writing, many essayists in search of democracy find a freedom for expressing in their writings spontaneity, self-reflexivity, accessibility, and a rhetoric of sincerity."
- Teaching the Personal Essay "Given the opportunity to speak their own authority as writers, given a turn in the conversation, students can claim their stories as primary source material and transform their experiences into evidence ..."
- Essay Forms "Despite the anthologists' custom of presenting essays as 'models of organization ,' it is the loose structure or apparent shapelessness of the essay that is often stressed in standard definitions. . . . Samuel Johnson famously defined the essay as 'an irregular, indigested piece, not a regular and orderly performance.' And certainly, a number of essayists (Hazlitt and Emerson, for instance, after the fashion of Montaigne) are readily identifiable by the wayward or fragmentary nature of their explorations. Yet each of these writers observes certain distinctive organizing (or disorganizing) principles of his own, thus charting the ramble and shaping the form. As Jeanette Harris observes in Expressive Discourse , 'Even in the case of a personal essay , which may appear informal and loosely structured, the writer has crafted with care this very appearance of informality' (122).
Theresa Werner, "Personal Essay." Encyclopedia of the Essay , ed. by Tracy Chevalier. Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997
E.B. White , Foreword to Essays of E.B. White . Harper and Row, 1977
Cristina Kirklighter, Traversing the Democratic Borders of the Essay . SUNY Press, 2002
Nancy Sommers, "Between the Drafts." College Composition and Communication , February 1992
Richard F. Nordquist, "Voices of the Modern Essay." Dissertation University of Georgia, 1991
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Essays in Criticism
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Discussed in biography.
…early put into currency in Essays in Criticism (First Series, 1865; Second Series, 1888) and Culture and Anarchy . The first essay in the 1865 volume, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” is an overture announcing briefly most of the themes he developed more fully in later work. It…
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English literature essays, matthew arnold as a literary critic.
by S. N. Radhika Lakshmi
Introduction: Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), the Victorian poet and critic, was 'the first modern critic' , and could be called 'the critic's critic', being a champion not only of great poetry, but of literary criticism itself. The purpose of literary criticism, in his view, was 'to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas', and he has influenced a whole school of critics including new critics such as T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, and Allen Tate. He was the founder of the sociological school of criticism, and through his touchstone method introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation by providing comparison and analysis as the two primary tools of criticism. Arnold's evaluations of the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Keats are landmarks in descriptive criticism, and as a poet-critic he occupies an eminent position in the rich galaxy of poet-critics of English literature.
T. S. Eliot praised Arnold's objective approach to critical evaluation, particularly his tools of comparison and analysis, and Allen Tate in his essay Tension in Poetry imitates Arnold's touchstone method to discover 'tension', or the proper balance between connotation and denotation, in poetry. These new critics have come a long way from the Romantic approach to poetry, and this change in attitude could be attributed to Arnold, who comes midway between the two schools.
The social role of poetry and criticism
To Arnold a critic is a social benefactor. In his view the creative artist, no matter how much of a genius, would cut a sorry figure without the critic to come to his aid. Before Arnold a literary critic cared only for the beauties and defects of works of art, but Arnold the critic chose to be the educator and guardian of public opinion and propagator of the best ideas. Cultural and critical values seem to be synonymous for Arnold. Scott James, comparing him to Aristotle, says that where Aristotle analyses the work of art, Arnold analyses the role of the critic. The one gives us the principles which govern the making of a poem, the other the principles by which the best poems should be selected and made known. Aristotle's critic owes allegiance to the artist, but Arnold's critic has a duty to society. To Arnold poetry itself was the criticism of life: 'The criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty', and in his seminal essay The Study of Poetry' 1888) he says that poetry alone can be our sustenance and stay in an era where religious beliefs are fast losing their hold. He claims that poetry is superior to philosophy, science, and religion. Religion attaches its emotion to supposed facts, and the supposed facts are failing it, but poetry attaches its emotion to ideas and ideas are infallible. And science, in his view is incomplete without poetry. He endorses Wordsworth's view that 'poetry is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science', adding 'What is a countenance without its expression?' and calls poetry 'the breath and finer spirit of knowledge'.
As a critic Arnold is essentially a moralist, and has very definite ideas about what poetry should and should not be. A poetry of revolt against moral ideas, he says, is a poetry of revolt against life, and a poetry of indifference to moral ideas is a poetry of indifference to life. Arnold even censored his own collection on moral grounds. He omitted the poem Empedocles on Etna from his volume of 1853, whereas he had included it in his collection of 1852. The reason he advances, in the Preface to his Poems of 1853 is not that the poem is too subjective, with its Hamlet-like introspection, or that it was a deviation from his classical ideals, but that the poem is too depressing in its subject matter, and would leave the reader hopeless and crushed. There is nothing in it in the way of hope or optimism, and such a poem could prove to be neither instructive nor of any delight to the reader. Aristotle says that poetry is superior to History since it bears the stamp of high seriousness and truth. If truth and seriousness are wanting in the subject matter of a poem, so will the true poetic stamp of diction and movement be found wanting in its style and manner. Hence the two, the nobility of subject matter, and the superiority of style and manner, are proportional and cannot occur independently. Arnold took up Aristotle's view, asserting that true greatness in poetry is given by the truth and seriousness of its subject matter, and by the high diction and movement in its style and manner, and although indebted to Joshua Reynolds for the expression 'grand style', Arnold gave it a new meaning when he used it in his lecture On Translating Homer (1861):
According to Arnold, Homer is the best model of a simple grand style, while Milton is the best model of severe grand style. Dante, however, is an example of both. Even Chaucer, in Arnold's view, in spite of his virtues such as benignity, largeness, and spontaneity, lacks seriousness. Burns too lacks sufficient seriousness, because he was hypocritical in that while he adopted a moral stance in some of his poems, in his private life he flouted morality.
Return to Classical values
Arnold believed that a modern writer should be aware that contemporary literature is built on the foundations of the past, and should contribute to the future by continuing a firm tradition. Quoting Goethe and Niebuhr in support of his view, he asserts that his age suffers from spiritual weakness because it thrives on self-interest and scientific materialism, and therefore cannot provide noble characters such as those found in Classical literature. He urged modern poets to look to the ancients and their great characters and themes for guidance and inspiration. Classical literature, in his view, possess pathos, moral profundity and noble simplicity, while modern themes, arising from an age of spiritual weakness, are suitable for only comic and lighter kinds of poetry, and don't possess the loftiness to support epic or heroic poetry. Arnold turns his back on the prevailing Romantic view of poetry and seeks to revive the Classical values of objectivity, urbanity, and architectonics. He denounces the Romantics for ignoring the Classical writers for the sake of novelty, and for their allusive (Arnold uses the word 'suggestive') writing which defies easy comprehension.
Preface to Poems of 1853
In the preface to his Poems (1853) Arnold asserts the importance of architectonics; ('that power of execution, which creates, forms, and constitutes') in poetry - the necessity of achieving unity by subordinating the parts to the whole, and the expression of ideas to the depiction of human action, and condemns poems which exist for the sake of single lines or passages, stray metaphors, images, and fancy expressions. Scattered images and happy turns of phrase, in his view, can only provide partial effects, and not contribute to unity. He also, continuing his anti-Romantic theme, urges, modern poets to shun allusiveness and not fall into the temptation of subjectivity. He says that even the imitation of Shakespeare is risky for a young writer, who should imitate only his excellences, and avoid his attractive accessories, tricks of style, such as quibble, conceit, circumlocution and allusiveness, which will lead him astray. Arnold commends Shakespeare's use of great plots from the past. He had what Goethe called the architectonic quality, that is his expression was matched to the action (or the subject). But at the same time Arnold quotes Hallam to show that Shakespeare's style was complex even where the press of action demanded simplicity and directness, and hence his style could not be taken as a model by young writers. Elsewhere he says that Shakespeare's 'expression tends to become a little sensuous and simple, too much intellectualised'. Shakespeare's excellences are 1)The architectonic quality of his style; the harmony between action and expression. 2) His reliance on the ancients for his themes. 3) Accurate construction of action. 4) His strong conception of action and accurate portrayal of his subject matter. 5) His intense feeling for the subjects he dramatises. His attractive accessories (or tricks of style) which a young writer should handle carefully are 1) His fondness for quibble, fancy, conceit. 2) His excessive use of imagery. 3) Circumlocution, even where the press of action demands directness. 4) His lack of simplicity (according to Hallam and Guizot). 5) His allusiveness. As an example of the danger of imitating Shakespeare he gives Keats's imitation of Shakespeare in his Isabella or the Pot of Basil . Keats uses felicitous phrases and single happy turns of phrase, yet the action is handled vaguely and so the poem does not have unity. By way of contrast, he says the Italian writer Boccaccio handled the same theme successfully in his Decameron , because he rightly subordinated expression to action. Hence Boccaccio's poem is a poetic success where Keats's is a failure. Arnold also wants the modern writer to take models from the past because they depict human actions which touch on 'the great primary human affections: to those elementary feelings which subsist permanently in the race, and which are independent of time'. Characters such as Agamemnon, Dido, Aeneas, Orestes, Merope, Alcmeon, and Clytemnestra, leave a permanent impression on our minds. Compare 'The Iliad' or 'The Aeneid' with 'The Childe Harold' or 'The Excursion' and you see the difference. A modern writer might complain that ancient subjects pose problems with regard to ancient culture, customs, manners, dress and so on which are not familiar to contemporary readers. But Arnold is of the view that a writer should not concern himself with the externals, but with the 'inward man'. The inward man is the same irrespective of clime or time.
The Function of Criticism
It is in his The Function of Criticism at the Present Time (1864) that Arnold says that criticism should be a 'dissemination of ideas, a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world'. He says that when evaluating a work the aim is 'to see the object as in itself it really is'. Psychological, historical and sociological background are irrelevant, and to dwell on such aspects is mere dilettantism. This stance was very influential with later critics. Arnold also believed that in his quest for the best a critic should not confine himself to the literature of his own country, but should draw substantially on foreign literature and ideas, because the propagation of ideas should be an objective endeavour.
The Study of Poetry
In The Study of Poetry , (1888) which opens his Essays in Criticism: Second series , in support of his plea for nobility in poetry, Arnold recalls Sainte-Beuve's reply to Napoleon, when latter said that charlatanism is found in everything. Sainte-Beuve replied that charlatanism might be found everywhere else, but not in the field of poetry, because in poetry the distinction between sound and unsound, or only half-sound, truth and untruth, or only half-truth, between the excellent and the inferior, is of paramount importance. For Arnold there is no place for charlatanism in poetry. To him poetry is the criticism of life, governed by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. It is in the criticism of life that the spirit of our race will find its stay and consolation. The extent to which the spirit of mankind finds its stay and consolation is proportional to the power of a poem's criticism of life, and the power of the criticism of life is in direct proportion to the extent to which the poem is genuine and free from charlatanism. In The Study of Poetry he also cautions the critic that in forming a genuine and disinterested estimate of the poet under consideration he should not be influenced by historical or personal judgements, historical judgements being fallacious because we regard ancient poets with excessive veneration, and personal judgements being fallacious when we are biased towards a contemporary poet. If a poet is a 'dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best . . . enjoy his work'. As examples of erroneous judgements he says that the 17th century court tragedies of the French were spoken of with exaggerated praise, until Pellisson reproached them for want of the true poetic stamp, and another critic, Charles d' Héricault, said that 17th century French poetry had received undue and undeserving veneration. Arnold says the critics seem to substitute 'a halo for physiognomy and a statue in the place where there was once a man. They give us a human personage no larger than God seated amidst his perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus.' He also condemns the French critic Vitet, who had eloquent words of praise for the epic poem Chanson de Roland by Turoldus, (which was sung by a jester, Taillefer, in William the Conqueror's army), saying that it was superior to Homer's Iliad . Arnold's view is that this poem can never be compared to Homer's work, and that we only have to compare the description of dying Roland to Helen's words about her wounded brothers Pollux and Castor and its inferiority will be clearly revealed.
The Study of Poetry: a shift in position - the touchstone method
Arnold's criticism of Vitet above illustrates his 'touchstone method'; his theory that in order to judge a poet's work properly, a critic should compare it to passages taken from works of great masters of poetry, and that these passages should be applied as touchstones to other poetry. Even a single line or selected quotation will serve the purpose. From this we see that he has shifted his position from that expressed in the preface to his Poems of 1853. In The Study of Poetry he no longer uses the acid test of action and architectonics. He became an advocate of 'touchstones'. 'Short passages even single lines,' he said, 'will serve our turn quite sufficiently'. Some of Arnold's touchstone passages are: Helen's words about her wounded brother, Zeus addressing the horses of Peleus, suppliant Achilles' words to Priam, and from Dante; Ugolino's brave words, and Beatrice's loving words to Virgil. From non-Classical writers he selects from Henry IV Part II (III, i), Henry's expostulation with sleep - 'Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast . . . '. From Hamlet (V, ii) 'Absent thee from felicity awhile . . . '. From Milton's Paradise Lost Book 1, 'Care sat on his faded cheek . . .', and 'What is else not to be overcome . . . '
The Study of Poetry: on Chaucer
The French Romance poetry of the 13th century langue d'oc and langue d'oil was extremely popular in Europe and Italy, but soon lost its popularity and now it is important only in terms of historical study. But Chaucer, who was nourished by the romance poetry of the French, and influenced by the Italian Royal rhyme stanza, still holds enduring fascination. There is an excellence of style and subject in his poetry, which is the quality the French poetry lacks. Dryden says of Chaucer's Prologue 'Here is God's plenty!' and that 'he is a perpetual fountain of good sense'. There is largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity in Chaucer's writings. 'He is the well of English undefiled'. He has divine fluidity of movement, divine liquidness of diction. He has created an epoch and founded a tradition. Some say that the fluidity of Chaucer's verse is due to licence in the use of the language, a liberty which Burns enjoyed much later. But Arnold says that the excellence of Chaucer's poetry is due to his sheer poetic talent. This liberty in the use of language was enjoyed by many poets, but we do not find the same kind of fluidity in others. Only in Shakespeare and Keats do we find the same kind of fluidity, though they wrote without the same liberty in the use of language. Arnold praises Chaucer's excellent style and manner, but says that Chaucer cannot be called a classic since, unlike Homer, Virgil and Shakespeare, his poetry does not have the high poetic seriousness which Aristotle regards as a mark of its superiority over the other arts.
The Study of Poetry: on the age of Dryden and Pope
The age of Dryden is regarded as superior to that of the others for 'sweetness of poetry'. Arnold asks whether Dryden and Pope, poets of great merit, are truly the poetical classics of the 18th century. He says Dryden's post-script to the readers in his translation of The Aeneid reveals the fact that in prose writing he is even better than Milton and Chapman. Just as the laxity in religious matters during the Restoration period was a direct outcome of the strict discipline of the Puritans, in the same way in order to control the dangerous sway of imagination found in the poetry of the Metaphysicals, to counteract 'the dangerous prevalence of imagination', the poets of the 18th century introduced certain regulations. The restrictions that were imposed on the poets were uniformity, regularity, precision, and balance. These restrictions curbed the growth of poetry, and encouraged the growth of prose. Hence we can regard Dryden as the glorious founder, and Pope as the splendid high priest, of the age of prose and reason, our indispensable 18th century. Their poetry was that of the builders of an age of prose and reason. Arnold says that Pope and Dryden are not poet classics, but the 'prose classics' of the 18th century. As for poetry, he considers Gray to be the only classic of the 18th century. Gray constantly studied and enjoyed Greek poetry and thus inherited their poetic point of view and their application of poetry to life. But he is the 'scantiest, frailest classic' since his output was small.
The Study of Poetry: on Burns
Although Burns lived close to the 19th century his poetry breathes the spirit of 18th Century life. Burns is most at home in his native language. His poems deal with Scottish dress, Scottish manner, and Scottish religion. This Scottish world is not a beautiful one, and it is an advantage if a poet deals with a beautiful world. But Burns shines whenever he triumphs over his sordid, repulsive and dull world with his poetry. Perhaps we find the true Burns only in his bacchanalian poetry, though occasionally his bacchanalian attitude was affected. For example in his Holy Fair , the lines 'Leeze me on drink! it gies us mair/ Than either school or college', may represent the bacchanalian attitude, but they are not truly bacchanalian in spirit. There is something insincere about it, smacking of bravado. When Burns moralises in some of his poems it also sounds insincere, coming from a man who disregarded morality in actual life. And sometimes his pathos is intolerable, as in Auld Lang Syne . We see the real Burns (wherein he is unsurpassable) in lines such as, 'To make a happy fire-side clime/ to weans and wife/ That's the true pathos and sublime/ Of human life' ( Ae Fond Kiss ). Here we see the genius of Burns. But, like Chaucer, Burns lacks high poetic seriousness, though his poems have poetic truth in diction and movement. Sometimes his poems are profound and heart-rending, such as in the lines, 'Had we never loved sae kindly/ had we never loved sae blindly/ never met or never parted/ we had ne'er been broken-hearted'. Also like Chaucer, Burns possesses largeness, benignity, freedom and spontaneity. But instead of Chaucer's fluidity, we find in Burns a springing bounding energy. Chaucer's benignity deepens in Burns into a sense of sympathy for both human as well as non-human things, but Chaucer's world is richer and fairer than that of Burns. Sometimes Burns's poetic genius is unmatched by anyone. He is even better than Goethe at times and he is unrivalled by anyone except Shakespeare. He has written excellent poems such as Tam O'Shanter, Whistle and I'll come to you my Lad, and Auld Lang Syne . When we compare Shelley's 'Pinnacled dim in the of intense inane' ( Prometheus Unbound III, iv) with Burns's, 'They flatter, she says, to deceive me' ( Tam Glen ), the latter is salutary.
Arnold on Shakespeare
Praising Shakespeare, Arnold says 'In England there needs a miracle of genius like Shakespeare's to produce a balance of mind'. This is not bardolatory, but praise tempered by a critical sense. In a letter he writes. 'I keep saying Shakespeare, you are as obscure as life is'. In his sonnet On Shakespeare he says; 'Others abide our question. Thou are free./ We ask and ask - Thou smilest and art still,/ Out-topping knowledge'.
For all his championing of disinterestedness, Arnold was unable to practise disinterestedness in all his essays. In his essay on Shelley particularly he displayed a lamentable lack of disinterestedness. Shelley's moral views were too much for the Victorian Arnold. In his essay on Keats too Arnold failed to be disinterested. The sentimental letters of Keats to Fanny Brawne were too much for him. Arnold sometimes became a satirist, and as a satirical critic saw things too quickly, too summarily. In spite of their charm, the essays are characterised by egotism and, as Tilotson says, 'the attention is directed, not on his object but on himself and his objects together'. Arnold makes clear his disapproval of the vagaries of some of the Romantic poets. Perhaps he would have agreed with Goethe, who saw Romanticism as disease and Classicism as health. But Arnold occasionally looked at things with jaundiced eyes, and he overlooked the positive features of Romanticism which posterity will not willingly let die, such as its humanitarianism, love of nature, love of childhood, a sense of mysticism, faith in man with all his imperfections, and faith in man's unconquerable mind. Arnold's inordinate love of classicism made him blind to the beauty of lyricism. He ignored the importance of lyrical poems, which are subjective and which express the sentiments and the personality of the poet. Judged by Arnold's standards, a large number of poets both ancient and modern are dismissed because they sang with 'Profuse strains of unpremeditated art'. It was also unfair of Arnold to compare the classical works in which figure the classical quartet, namely Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra and Dido with Heamann and Dorothea, Childe Harold, Jocelyn, and 'The Excursion'. Even the strongest advocates of Arnold would agree that it is not always profitable for poets to draw upon the past. Literature expresses the zeitgeist, the spirit of the contemporary age. Writers must choose subjects from the world of their own experience. What is ancient Greece to many of us? Historians and archaeologists are familiar with it, but the common readers delight justifiably in modern themes. To be in the company of Achilles, Prometheus, Clytemnestra and Dido is not always a pleasant experience. What a reader wants is variety, which classical mythology with all its tradition and richness cannot provide. An excessive fondness for Greek and Latin classics produces a literary diet without variety, while modern poetry and drama have branched out in innumerable directions. As we have seen, as a classicist Arnold upheld the supreme importance of the architectonic faculty, then later shifted his ground. In the lectures On Translating Homer, On the Study of Celtic Literature, and The Study of Poetry , he himself tested the greatness of poetry by single lines. Arnold the classicist presumably realised towards the end of his life that classicism was not the last word in literature. Arnold's lack of historic sense was another major failing. While he spoke authoritatively on his own century, he was sometimes groping in the dark in his assessment of earlier centuries. He used to speak at times as if ex cathedra, and this pontifical solemnity vitiated his criticism. As we have seen, later critics praise Arnold, but it is only a qualified praise. Oliver Elton calls him a 'bad great critic'. T. S. Eliot said that Arnold is a 'Propagandist and not a creator of ideas'. According to Walter Raleigh, Arnold's method is like that of a man who took a brick to the market to give the buyers an impression of the building.
In spite of his faults, Arnold's position as an eminent critic is secure. Douglas Bush says that the breadth and depth of Arnold's influence cannot be measured or even guessed at because, from his own time onward, so much of his thought and outlook became part of the general educated consciousness. He was one of those critics who, as Eliot said, arrive from time to time to set the literary house in order. Eliot named Dryden, Johnson and Arnold as some of the greatest critics of the English language. Arnold united active independent insight with the authority of the humanistic tradition. He carried on, in his more sophisticated way, the Renaissance humanistic faith in good letters as the teachers of wisdom, and in the virtue of great literature, and above all, great poetry. He saw poetry as a supremely illuminating, animating, and fortifying aid in the difficult endeavour to become or remain fully human. Arnold's method of criticism is comparative. Steeped in classical poetry, and thoroughly acquainted with continental literature, he compares English literature to French and German literature, adopting the disinterested approach he had learned from Sainte-Beuve. Arnold's objective approach to criticism and his view that historical and biographical study are unnecessary was very influential on the new criticism. His emphasis on the importance of tradition also influenced F. R. Leavis, and T. S. Eliot. Eliot is also indebted to Arnold for his classicism, and for his objective approach which paved the way for Eliot to say that poetry is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality, because it is not an expression of emotions but an escape from emotions. Although Arnold disapproved of the Romantics' approach to poetry, their propensity for allusiveness and symbolism, he also shows his appreciation the Romantics in his Essays in Criticism . He praises Wordsworth thus: 'Nature herself took the pen out of his hand and wrote with a bare, sheer penetrating power'. Arnold also valued poetry for its strong ideas, which he found to be the chief merit of Wordsworth's poetry. About Shelley he says that Shelley is 'A beautiful but ineffectual angel beating in a void his luminous wings in vain'. In an age when cheap literature caters to the taste of the common man, one might fear that the classics will fade into insignificance. But Arnold is sure that the currency and the supremacy of the classics will be preserved in the modern age, not because of conscious effort on the part of the readers, but because of the human instinct of self-preservation. In the present day with the literary tradition over-burdened with imagery, myth, symbol and abstract jargon, it is refreshing to come back to Arnold and his like to encounter central questions about literature and life as they are perceived by a mature and civilised mind.
(Original material by S. N. Radhika Lakshmi edited and revised by Ian Mackean)
- Aristotle: Poetics
- Matthew Arnold
- Margaret Atwood: Bodily Harm and The Handmaid's Tale
- Margaret Atwood 'Gertrude Talks Back'
- Jonathan Bayliss
- Lewis Carroll, Samuel Beckett
- Saul Bellow and Ken Kesey
- John Bunyan: The Pilgrim's Progress and Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales
- T S Eliot, Albert Camus
- Castiglione: The Courtier
- Kate Chopin: The Awakening
- Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness
- Charles Dickens
- John Donne: Love poetry
- John Dryden: Translation of Ovid
- T S Eliot: Four Quartets
- William Faulkner: Sartoris
- Henry Fielding
- Ibsen, Lawrence, Galsworthy
- Jonathan Swift and John Gay
- Oliver Goldsmith
- Graham Greene: Brighton Rock
- Thomas Hardy: Tess of the d'Urbervilles
- Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
- Ernest Hemingway
- Jon Jost: American independent film-maker
- James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Will McManus
- James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Ian Mackean
- James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Ben Foley
- Carl Gustav Jung
- Jamaica Kincaid, Merle Hodge, George Lamming
- Rudyard Kipling: Kim
- D. H. Lawrence: Women in Love
- Henry Lawson: 'Eureka!'
- Machiavelli: The Prince
- Jennifer Maiden: The Winter Baby
- Ian McEwan: The Cement Garden
- Toni Morrison: Beloved and Jazz
- R K Narayan's vision of life
- R K Narayan: The English Teacher
- R K Narayan: The Guide
- Brian Patten
- Harold Pinter
- Sylvia Plath and Alice Walker
- Alexander Pope: The Rape of the Lock
- Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea. Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre: Doubles
- Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea. Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre: Symbolism
- Shakespeare: Twelfth Night
- Shakespeare: Hamlet
- Shakespeare: Shakespeare's Women
- Shakespeare: Measure for Measure
- Shakespeare: Antony and Cleopatra
- Shakespeare: Coriolanus
- Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale and The Tempest
- Sir Philip Sidney: Astrophil and Stella
- Edmund Spenser: The Faerie Queene
- Tom Stoppard
- William Styron: Sophie's Choice
- William Wordsworth
- William Wordsworth and Lucy
- Studying English Literature
- The author, the text, and the reader
- What is literary writing?
- Indian women's writing
- Renaissance tragedy and investigator heroes
- Renaissance poetry
- The Age of Reason
- New York! New York!
- Alice, Harry Potter and the computer game
- The Spy in the Computer
- Photography and the New Native American Aesthetic
Matthew Arnold's Essays
[ Victorian Web Home —> Authors —> Henry James —> Matthew Arnold ]
This essay, has been adapted from the Project Gutenberg [EBook #37424] of Views and Reviews , which the Ball Publishing Company published in 1908. Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team produced the electronic version. — George P. Landow .
A review of Essays in Criticism . By Matthew Arnold, Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford. Boston: Ticknor and Fields. 1865. Originally published in North American Review , July, 1865.
Mr. Arnold's Essays in Criticism come to American readers with a reputation already made,—the reputation of a charming style, a great deal of excellent feeling, and an almost equal amount of questionable reasoning. It is for us either to confirm the verdict passed in the author's own country, or to judge his work afresh. It is often the fortune of English writers to find mitigation of sentence in the United States.
The Essays contained in this volume are on purely literary subjects; which is for us, by itself, a strong recommendation. English literature, especially contemporary literature, is, compared with that of France and Germany, very poor in collections of this sort. A great deal of criticism is written, but little of it is kept; little of it is deemed to contain any permanent application. Mr. Arnold will doubtless find in this fact—if indeed he has not already signalized it—but another proof of the inferiority of the English to the Continental school of criticism, and point to it as a baleful effect of the narrow practical spirit which animates, or, as he would probably say, paralyzes, the former. But not only is his book attractive as a whole, from its exclusively literary character; the subject of each essay is moreover particularly interesting. The first paper is on the function of Criticism at the present time; a question, if not more important, perhaps more directly pertinent here than in England. The second, discussing the literary influence of Academies, contains a great deal of valuable observation and reflection in a small compass and under an inadequate title. The other essays are upon the two De Guérins, Heinrich Heine, Pagan and Mediæval Religious Sentiment, Joubert, Spinoza, and Marcus Aurelius. The first two articles are, to our mind, much the best; the next in order of excellence is the paper on Joubert; while the others, with the exception, perhaps, of that on Spinoza, are of about equal merit.
Mr. Arnold's style has been praised at once too much and too little. Its resources are decidedly limited; but if the word had not become so cheap, we should nevertheless call it fascinating. This quality implies no especial force; it rests in this case on the fact that, whether or not you agree with the matter beneath it, the manner inspires you with a personal affection for the author. It expresses great sensibility, and at the same time great good-nature; it indicates a mind both susceptible and healthy. With the former element alone it would savour of affectation; with the latter, it would be coarse. As it stands, it represents a spirit both sensitive and generous. We can best describe it, perhaps, by the word sympathetic. It exhibits frankly, and without detriment to its national character, a decided French influence. Mr. Arnold is too wise to attempt to write French English; he probably knows that a language can only be indirectly enriched; but as nationality is eminently a matter of form, he knows too that he can really violate nothing so long as he adheres to the English letter.
His Preface is a striking example of the intelligent amiability which animates his style. His two leading Essays were, on their first appearance, made the subject of much violent contention, their moral being deemed little else than a wholesale schooling of the English press by the French programme. Nothing could have better proved the justice of Mr. Arnold's remarks upon the "provincial" character of the English critical method than the reception which they provoked. He now acknowledges this reception in a short introduction, which admirably reconciles smoothness of temper with sharpness of wit. The taste of this performance has been questioned; but wherever it may err, it is assuredly not in being provincial; it is essentially civil. Mr. Arnold's amiability is, in our eye, a strong proof of his wisdom. If he were a few degrees more short-sighted, he might have less equanimity at his command. Those who sympathise with him warmly will probably like him best as he is; but with such as are only half his friends, this freedom from party passion, from what is after all but a lawful professional emotion, will argue against his sincerity.
For ourselves, we doubt not that Mr. Arnold possesses thoroughly what the French call the courage of his opinions. When you lay down a proposition which is forthwith controverted, it is of course optional with you to take up the cudgels in its defence. If you are deeply convinced of its truth, you will perhaps be content to leave it to take care of itself; or, at all events, you will not go out of your way to push its fortunes; for you will reflect that in the long run an opinion often borrows credit from the forbearance of its patrons. In the long run, we say; it will meanwhile cost you an occasional pang to see your cherished theory turned into a football by the critics. A football is not, as such, a very respectable object, and the more numerous the players, the more ridiculous it becomes. Unless, therefore, you are very confident of your ability to rescue it from the chaos of kicks, you will best consult its interests by not mingling in the game. Such has been Mr. Arnold's choice. His opponents say that he is too much of a poet to be a critic; he is certainly too much of a poet to be a disputant. In the Preface in question he has abstained from reiterating any of the views put forth in the two offensive Essays; he has simply taken a delicate literary vengeance upon his adversaries.
For Mr. Arnold's critical feeling and observation, used independently of his judgment, we profess a keen relish. He has these qualities, at any rate, of a good critic, whether or not he have the others,—the science and the logic. It is hard to say whether the literary critic is more called upon to understand or to feel. It is certain that he will accomplish little unless he can feel acutely; although it is perhaps equally certain that he will become weak the moment that he begins to "work," as we may say, his natural sensibilities. The best critic is probably he who leaves his feelings out of account, and relies upon reason for success. If he actually possesses delicacy of feeling, his work will be delicate without detriment to its solidity. The complaint of Mr. Arnold's critics is that his arguments are too sentimental. Whether this complaint is well founded, we shall hereafter inquire; let us determine first what sentiment has done for him. It has given him, in our opinion, his greatest charm and his greatest worth. Hundreds of other critics have stronger heads; few, in England at least, have more delicate perceptions. We regret that we have not the space to confirm this assertion by extracts. We must refer the reader to the book itself, where he will find on every page an illustration of our meaning. He will find one, first of all, in the apostrophe to the University of Oxford, at the close of the Preface,—"home of lost causes and forsaken beliefs and unpopular names and impossible loyalties." This is doubtless nothing but sentiment, but it seizes a shade of truth, and conveys it with a directness which is not at the command of logical demonstration. Such a process might readily prove, with the aid of a host of facts, that the University is actually the abode of much retarding conservatism; a fine critical instinct alone, and the measure of audacity which accompanies such an instinct, could succeed in placing her on the side of progress by boldly saluting her as the Queen of Romance: romance being the deadly enemy of the commonplace; the commonplace being the fast ally of Philistinism, and Philistinism the heaviest drag upon the march of civilisation.
Mr. Arnold is very fond of quoting Goethe's eulogy upon Schiller, to the effect that his friend's greatest glory was to have left so far behind him was uns alle bändigt, das Gemeine , that bane of mankind, the common. Exactly how much the inscrutable Goethe made of this fact, it is hard at this day to determine; but it will seem to many readers that Mr. Arnold makes too much of it. Perhaps he does, for himself; but for the public in general he decidedly does not. One of the chief duties of criticism is to exalt the importance of the ideal; and Goethe's speech has a long career in prospect before we can say with the vulgar that it is "played out." Its repeated occurrence in Mr. Arnold's pages is but another instance of poetic feeling subserving the ends of criticism.
The famous comment upon the girl Wragg, over which the author's opponents made so merry, we likewise owe—we do not hesitate to declare it—to this same poetic feeling. Why cast discredit upon so valuable an instrument of truth? Why not wait at least until it is used in the service of error? The worst that can be said of the paragraph in question is, that it is a great ado about nothing. All thanks, say we, to the critic who will pick up such nothings as these; for if he neglects them, they are blindly trodden under foot. They may not be especially valuable, but they are for that very reason the critic's particular care. Great truths take care of themselves; great truths are carried aloft by philosophers and poets; the critic deals in contributions to truth.
Another illustration of the nicety of Mr. Arnold's feeling is furnished by his remarks upon the quality of distinction as exhibited in Maurice and Eugénie de Guérin, "that quality which at last inexorably corrects the world's blunders and fixes the world's ideals, [which] procures that the popular poet shall not pass for a Pindar, the popular historian for a Tacitus, nor the popular preacher for a Bossuet." Another is offered by his incidental remarks upon Coleridge, in the article on Joubert; another, by the remarkable felicity with which he has translated Maurice de Guérin's Centaur ; and another, by the whole body of citations with which, in his second Essay, he fortifies his proposition that the establishment in England of an authority answering to the French Academy would have arrested certain evil tendencies of English literature,—for to nothing more offensive than this, as far as we can see, does this argument amount.
In the first and most important of his Essays Mr. Arnold puts forth his views upon the actual duty of criticism. They may be summed up as follows. Criticism has no concern with the practical; its function is simply to get at the best thought which is current,—to see things in themselves as they are,—to be disinterested. Criticism can be disinterested, says Mr. Arnold,
by keeping from practice; by resolutely following the law of its own nature, which is to be a free play of the mind on all subjects which it touches, by steadily refusing to lend itself to any of those ulterior political, practical considerations about ideas which plenty of people will be sure to attach to them, which perhaps ought often to be attached to them, which in this country, at any rate, are certain to be attached to them, but which criticism has really nothing to do with. Its business is simply to know the best that is known and thought in the world, and, by in its turn making this known, to create a current of true and fresh ideas. Its business is to do this with inflexible honesty, with due ability; but its business is to do no more, and to leave alone all questions of practical consequences and applications,—questions which will never fail to have due prominence given to them."
We used just now a word of which Mr. Arnold is very fond,—a word of which the general reader may require an explanation, but which, when explained, he will be likely to find indispensable; we mean the word Philistine . The term is of German origin, and has no English synonyme. "At Soli," remarks Mr. Arnold, "I imagined they did not talk of solecisms; and here, at the very head-quarters of Goliath, nobody talks of Philistinism." The word épicier , used by Mr. Arnold as a French synonyme, is not so good as bourgeois , and to those who know that bourgeois means a citizen, and who reflect that a citizen is a person seriously interested in the maintenance of order, the German term may now assume a more special significance. An English review briefly defines it by saying that "it applies to the fat-headed respectable public in general." This definition must satisfy us here. The Philistine portion of the English press, by which we mean the considerably larger portion, received Mr. Arnold's novel programme of criticism with the uncompromising disapprobation which was to be expected from a literary body, the principle of whose influence, or indeed of whose being is its subservience, through its various members, to certain political and religious interests.
Mr. Arnold's general theory was offensive enough; but the conclusions drawn by him from the fact that English practice has been so long and so directly at variance with it, were such as to excite the strongest animosity. Chief among these was the conclusion that this fact has retarded the development and vulgarised the character of the English mind, as compared with the French and the German mind. This rational inference may be nothing but a poet's flight; but for ourselves, we assent to it. It reaches us too. The facts collected by Mr. Arnold on this point have long wanted a voice. It has long seemed to us that, as a nation, the English are singularly incapable of large, of high, of general views. They are indifferent to pure truth, to la verité vraie . Their views are almost exclusively practical, and it is in the nature of practical views to be narrow. They seldom indeed admit a fact but on compulsion; they demand of an idea some better recommendation, some longer pedigree, than that it is true. That this lack of spontaneity in the English intellect is caused by the tendency of English criticism, or that it is to be corrected by a diversion, or even by a complete reversion, of this tendency, neither Mr. Arnold nor ourselves suppose, nor do we look upon such a result as desirable. The part which Mr. Arnold assigns to his reformed method of criticism is a purely tributary part. Its indirect result will be to quicken the naturally irrational action of the English mind; its direct result will be to furnish that mind with a larger stock of ideas than it has enjoyed under the time-honoured Tory of Whig and Tory , High-Church and Low-Church organs.
We may here remark, that Mr. Arnold's statement of his principles is open to some misinterpretation,—an accident against which he has, perhaps, not sufficiently guarded it. For many persons the word practical is almost identical with the word useful , against which, on the other hand, they erect the word ornamental . Persons who are fond of regarding these two terms as irreconcilable, will have little patience with Mr. Arnold's scheme of criticism. They will look upon it as an organised preference of unprofitable speculation to common sense. But the great beauty of the critical movement advocated by Mr. Arnold is that in either direction its range of action is unlimited. It deals with plain facts as well as with the most exalted fancies; but it deals with them only for the sake of the truth which is in them, and not for your sake, reader, and that of your party. It takes high ground , which is the ground of theory. It does not busy itself with consequences, which are all in all to you. Do not suppose that it for this reason pretends to ignore or to undervalue consequences; on the contrary, it is because it knows that consequences are inevitable that it leaves them alone. It cannot do two things at once; it cannot serve two masters. Its business is to make truth generally accessible, and not to apply it. It is only on condition of having its hands free, that it can make truth generally accessible. We said just now that its duty was, among other things, to exalt, if possible, the importance of the ideal. We should perhaps have said the intellectual; that is, of the principle of understanding things. Its business is to urge the claims of all things to be understood. If this is its function in England, as Mr. Arnold represents, it seems to us that it is doubly its function in this country. Here is no lack of votaries of the practical, of experimentalists, of empirics. The tendencies of our civilisation are certainly not such as foster a preponderance of morbid speculation. Our national genius inclines yearly more and more to resolve itself into a vast machine for sifting, in all things, the wheat from the chaff. American society is so shrewd, that we may safely allow it to make application of the truths of the study. Only let us keep it supplied with the truths of the study, and not with the half-truths of the forum. Let criticism take the stream of truth at its source, and then practice can take it half-way down. When criticism takes it half-way down, practice will come poorly off.
If we have not touched upon the faults of Mr. Arnold's volume, it is because they are faults of detail, and because, when, as a whole, a book commands our assent, we do not incline to quarrel with its parts. Some of the parts in these Essays are weak, others are strong; but the impression which they all combine to leave is one of such beauty as to make us forget, not only their particular faults, but their particular merits. If we were asked what is the particular merit of a given essay, we should reply that it is a merit much less common at the present day than is generally supposed,—the merit which pre-eminently characterises Mr. Arnold's poems, the merit, namely, of having a subject . Each essay is about something. If a literary work now-a-days start with a certain topic, that is all that is required of it; and yet it is a work of art only on condition of ending with that topic, on condition of being written, not from it, but to it. If the average modern essay or poem were to wear its title at the close, and not at the beginning, we wonder in how many cases the reader would fail to be surprised by it. A book or an article is looked upon as a kind of Staubbach waterfall, discharging itself into infinite space.
If we were questioned as to the merit of Mr. Arnold's book as a whole, we should say that it lay in the fact that the author takes high ground. The manner of his Essays is a model of what criticisms should be. The foremost English critical journal, the Saturday Review, recently disposed of a famous writer by saying, in a parenthesis, that he had done nothing but write nonsense all his life. Mr. Arnold does not pass judgment in parenthesis. He is too much of an artist to use leading propositions for merely literary purposes. The consequence is, that he says a few things in such a way as that almost in spite of ourselves we remember them, instead of a number of things which we cannot for the life of us remember. There are many things which we wish he had said better. It is to be regretted, for instance, that, when Heine is for once in a way seriously spoken of, he should not be spoken of more as the great poet which he is, and which even in New England he will one day be admitted to be, than with reference to the great moralist which he is not, and which he never claimed to be. But here, as in other places, Mr. Arnold's excellent spirit reconciles us with his shortcomings. If he has not spoken of Heine exhaustively, he has at all events spoken of him seriously, which for an Englishman is a good deal.
Mr. Arnold's supreme virtue is that he speaks of all things seriously, or, in other words, that he is not offensively clever. The writers who are willing to resign themselves to this obscure distinction are in our opinion the only writers who understand their time. That Mr. Arnold thoroughly understands his time we do not mean to say, for this is the privilege of a very select few; but he is, at any rate, profoundly conscious of his time. This fact was clearly apparent in his poems, and it is even more apparent in these Essays. It gives them a peculiar character of melancholy,—that melancholy which arises from the spectacle of the old-fashioned instinct of enthusiasm in conflict (or at all events in contact) with the modern desire to be fair,—the melancholy of an age which not only has lost its naïveté , but which knows it has lost it.
James, Henry. Views and Reviews . Ed. Le Roy Phillips. Boston: Ball Publishing Company, 1908. Pp. 83-98.
Last modified 30 November 2012
MA English Literature Self Study
Notes for MA in English Literature, IDOL Mumbai University
Paper V – Function of Criticism – Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold (1882 – 1888) was a poet-critic and one of the most significant writers of the late Victorian period in England. He occupies a prominent place in the history of Literary Criticism. His essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” was published in his first collection of critical writings, “Essays in Criticism” in 1865. In his essay, Arnold states that criticism should be a ‘dissemination of ideas, an unprejudiced and impartial effort to study and spread the best that is known and thought of in the world’. Arnold defines the role of a critic as the one to view an object for what it really is, to bring best ideas to the masses, and to create an atmosphere that fuels the literary genius of the future. He states that the role of criticism is to make itself inherently valuable, and to rouse men from complacency to a state of achieving perfection. Arnold also likens criticism to creativity, citing how the writing of criticism gives rise to creative joy that comes from original writing. He argues that unlike Wordsworth’s opinion on criticism, it must be considered as a form of art for its vital contributions the literary world and society in general. It is a form of exercising free creativity. He also states that criticism paves the way for creativity. Arnold believes that criticism is a way to understand life and the world, and can be linked to the satisfaction derived from creative writing.
Definition of criticism by Arnold
“The Function of Criticism in the Present Time is largely made of ideas that Arnold discusses in his Study of Poetry. He defines criticism as “A disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought of in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.” The term ‘disinterest’ in the view of Arnold refers to being an impartial and just reader. A critic needs to be free from two prejudices: historical and personal. Historical prejudice is when the critic resorts to view through the lens of past and neglects the present in the work. Personal prejudice refers to a personal liking that can cloud judgment.
Arnold also believes that for the production of great literary work, the ‘power of man’ and ‘power of the moment’ (climate of great ideas) must come together. If one of them is absent, the work will not become great. To illustrate this, he takes the example of Goethe and Byron. Both had great productive power, yet Goethe’s work was more powerful because he had a rich cultural background. He also mentions how Shakespeare was not a deep reader, which affected his work. But his fame and glory were a result of his age and a climate of great ideas.
Three functions for the critic
By the definition of criticism provided by Arnold, the task of a critic is threefold.
The first task is the critic’s duty to learn, and for that he must “see things as they really are”. The second task is to hand on this idea to others, to convert the world, to make “the best ideas prevail.” The third task requires the critic to create a favourable atmosphere for the creative genius of the future, by promoting “a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power.” Without the prevalence of best ideas, there will be a cultural anarchy.
Arnold also observes that to recognize the greatness of a literary work, one has to look beyond the social ideas and influences that cast shadows and opinions. Further, he indicates that two powers must converge to create a great piece of literature: the power of man and the power of moment. In the quest to be a critic, Arnold believed that one must not confine himself to the literature if his own country, but should draw substantially on foreign literature and ideas because the propagation of ideas should be an objective endeavor. Scott-James says that Arnold places the critic “is the position of John the Baptist, preparing the ways for one whose shoe he is not worthy to unloose”. Thus, Arnold has a high conception of the vocation of a critic.
Role of Criticism
Arnold suggests that the function of criticism at the present time is to make itself inherently valuable in itself. Whether the value springs from bringing joy to the writer or from making sure that the best ideas reach society are irrespective. In this regard, Arnold mirrors Aristotle’s view of poetry while he explains that the highest function of human kind is exercising its creative power.
Criticism performs another important function as well. It rouses men out of their self-satisfaction and complacency. By shaking complacency off, criticism makes their mind dwell upon what is excellent in itself, and makes them contemplate the ideally perfect. Therefore, the critic must rise above practical considerations and have ideal perfection as his aim, in order to make others rise to it as well.
Defense on Significance of Criticism
Arnold argues that a lot of literature from European nations has been used for the purpose of criticism. But England has failed to produce and encourage significant amount of critical writing due to the attitudes of writers towards criticism. He takes the example of Wordsworth to illustrate this further. Wordsworth believed that critical writing was a waste of time for the author as well as the reader. He also states that great harm can be done through critical writing, but little harm occurs through means of creative writing. But Arnold defends these views by arguing that if a man has talent in one line of writing, he must not be forced to create original writing under the pretext that critical writing is of no value. To quote,
“It is almost too much to expect a poor human nature, that a man capable of producing some effect in one line of literature, should for the greater good of society, voluntarily doom himself to impotence and obscurity in another.”
Arnold goes on to point out the paradox of Wordsworth’s beliefs on criticism as Wordsworth had indulged himself in being a critic by writing against literary criticism.
Literary Criticism and Creativity
Arnold believed creative capacity to be more important than critical faculty.
However, his definition of criticism as “the endeavor, in all branches of knowledge, theology, philosophy, history, art, science, to see the object as in itself it really is” makes it a necessary prerequisite for valuable creation. He asserts that creation of quality is not possible if people are not provided with a current of fresh ideas. This is achieved through honest criticism. If the best ideas do not prevail, it gives rise to a cultural anarchy. Only when the power of man and power of moment come together can a good piece of literature be created.
Arnold also states that writing criticism may produce in its practitioner a sense of creative joy. He compares the emotional state of writing criticism with the emotional state of creative writing. In this, he dispels the typical censure that criticism serves no purpose.
Arnold observes that great writing emerges from great ideas, and they are manifested when these ideas reach the masses. The critic performs the important task of identifying these ideas with disinterest and impart these ideas to people. He implies that the period of great creativity and dormant creativity can be traced to lack of objective criticism and public attention as much as to creators of great work. In this argument, Arnold establishes literary criticism as an art form as high and significant as any form of creativity.
Further, Arnold argues that critical writing is an important activity of exercising free creativity. “It is undeniable, also, that men may have the sense of exercising this free creative activity in other ways than in producing great works of literature or art.” If some people were better equipped to write criticism, it would be frustrating to insist they channel their talent only for creating original writing.
Finally, criticism is necessary because Arnold thinks that creative power works with certain materials, and for the author these ideas, “the best ideas on every matter which literature touches, current at the time.” However authors do not discover these ideas, rather they synthesize them into their work of art. Therefore, if authors do not readily know these ideas, they have nothing to write about. Arnold talks about the power of man and power of the moment, in this context. The author needs to live in a society where true ideas are discussed and debated, where true thoughts are cherished and passed on, like in ancient Greece or Renaissance England. Thus he advocates that good criticism propagates good literature.
Matthew Arnold is hailed as the first ‘modern critic’ and is also called a ‘critic’s critic’ for his contribution to the meaningfulness of criticism in the realm of literature. In his work ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’ (1865), Arnold makes an effort to demonstrate that criticism in itself has several functions and should be observed as an art form that is as high and important as any other creative art form. He offered an objective method in the field of criticism, through comparison and analysis. His methods were met with disapproval from his peers. However, Arnold’s method for literary criticism was widely accepted and went on to influence the first sixty years of the 20 th century. Arnold has a high conception of the vocation of a critic and the function of criticism. His ideas are a result of the prevalence of cultural anarchy, leading him to take up the mission to bring about cultural regeneration in the literary world through means of objective criticism. His critic is a critic of life, society, religion culture, national character and all aesthetic activities.
Champion of Objective Approach
Matthew Arnold (1882 – 1888) was a poet-critic and one of the most significant writers of the late Victorian period in England. He occupies a prominent place in the history of Literary Criticism. His essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” was published in his first collection of critical writings, “Essays in Criticism” in 1865. He belongs to the Objective Approach that started in 1860s. He is hailed as the first ‘modern critic’ and is also called a ‘critic’s critic’ for his contribution to the meaningfulness of criticism in the realm of literature. He was the founder of the sociological school of criticism. Arnold defined the role of a criticism as “A disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought of in the world, and thus to establish a current of fresh and true ideas.” His Touchstone method offered scientific objectivity to literary criticism.
The Objective Approach
In the Objective Approach, the text or the artistic object is the only reality worth studying. Additionally, the text or poem has an internal structure of references that has nothing to do with the author, audience or universe. Arnold began as a romantic poet but changed in the middle of his career to become a critic of romanticism. His shift also changed the interest from feelings to that of the ideas. Arnold’s view came to be known through his work “The Function of Criticism at the present Time”.
In the Function of Criticism, Arnold states that criticism should be a dissemination of ideas, a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. He implies that while evaluating a work, the objectivity of a critic is more important than psychological, historical and social background of the work.
Through his Touchstone method published in ‘The Study of Poetry’ (1880), Arnold introduced scientific objectivity to critical evaluation. He provided comparison and analysis as the two primary tools of criticism. In this, he employed short quotations from recognized poetic masterpieces as the benchmark to gauge the value of other works. According to this method, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, Shelly fall short due to their lack of high seriousness. Shakespeare too falls short due to his emphasis on expression rather than concept. Arnold put works by Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Milton and Wordsworth in the forefront, and ranked Wordsworth as first for his “criticism of life”.
He laid great stress on ‘Disinterestedness’, which he considered to be the most important quality of criticism. He also laid emphasis on knowledge as a tool for objective criticism. Arnold’s criticism method has faced disapproval by some critics as lacking in logical and methodical aptitude. However, many critics agreed with Arnold and the first sixty years of the 20 th century in literary criticism were greatly influenced by Arnold’s work.
Difficulties Faced by Critics
Matthew Arnold (1882 – 1888) was a poet-critic and one of the most significant writers of the late Victorian period in England. He occupies a prominent place in the history of Literary Criticism. In his essay, Matthew Arnold states that British critics face difficulties due to the culture being rooted in hegemonic values. Critics are unable to transcend these values in order to see the object as it really is. He also says that society questions the modern critics on their value in the contribution of literature as an art form. People claim that critics use criticism as a means to protect their own ingrained opinion.
Hegemonic Values in Britain: Cultural Anarchy
Arnold states that people are particularly indisposed even to comprehend that without this free disinterested treatment of things, truth and the highest culture are out of the questions. With the lack of these, great literary works are not created. Arnold observes that to recognize the greatness of a literary work, one has to look beyond the social ideas and influences that cast shadows and opinions. In the quest to be a critic, Arnold believed that one must not confine himself to the literature if his own country, but should draw substantially on foreign literature and ideas because the propagation of ideas should be an objective endeavor. The critic is required to create a favourable atmosphere for the creative genius of the future, by promoting “a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power.” Without the prevalence of best ideas, there will be a cultural anarchy.
Power of Man and Power of Moment
Writers’ attitudes towards Criticism
Arnold goes on to point out the paradox of Wordsworth’s beliefs on criticism as Wordsworth had indulged himself in being a critic by writing against literary criticism. Scott-James says that Arnold places the critic “is the position of John the Baptist, preparing the ways for one whose shoe he is not worthy to unloose”. Thus, Arnold has a high conception of the vocation of a critic.
Link Between Literary Criticism and Creativity
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Literary Theory and Criticism
Home › The Literary Criticism of Matthew Arnold
The Literary Criticism of Matthew Arnold
By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on June 21, 2017 • ( 14 )
Lack of faith in church and state’s capacity to carry the momentum of transitional development is seen to result in halted progress and cul-de-sac confusion. Arnold sees his countrymen distrusting existing political and religious apparatus, while refusing to let go of their belief in the efficacy of the ‘machinery’ of external systems as a ladder out of crisis. For Arnold future hopes revolve around a change in perspective, where the individual develops an intrinsic response to culture’s untramelling truths. Regeneration at a personal level must prefigure any attempts to rearrange the weak, though workable, organs of state. ‘The culture we recommend is above all an inward operation.’ As well as being encouraged to question the value of political remonstrance, one is also alerted against placing too much hope in an immediate social recovery. Culture posits ‘immortality’ and endurance against the evanescent political platform and the unrealistic promises of salvation of new religious leaders. Arnold’s belief in the slow maturation of the human spirit through culture carries a resignation to stasis. Culture, we are told, may save the future ‘from being vulgarised’ even if it cannot ‘save the present’.
Wary of the ascendancy of Puritan values, the remote ceremony of Catholicism and the crowd-inciting rhetoric of the ‘fanatical Protestant’, Arnold sets the task of reclaiming the self-empowering language of Christian religion. Whereas organised religion presents a model of ‘incomplete perfection’, an intrinsic response to Christian teaching reveals a language of ‘Sweetness and Light’, attuned to the personal quest for integration and perfect harmony. The writings of St Paul are held up as proof of religion’s self-regulating, interiorised potential, declaring to the individual that ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. Poetry, with its capacity to ‘resolutely test’ imperfect values, and aspirations towards beauty and harmony, becomes religion’s ally within culture. Unlike religion, however, poetry has not been wrested from the individual, although its function has been weakened as its cultural bed of source and inspiration runs dry. The classical writings of Greece and Rome, and the literature of sixteenth-century England are championed as exemplary junctures, where poetry and religion meet and flourish. In nineteenth-century England poetry has a special place in culture’s agenda; as a force capable of unleashing a generative religious sensibility. Popular literature is denigrated as an imperfect partisan shadow of the classical ideal.
Arnold establishes the ‘disinterested’ role of the critic as an objective cultural commentator, giving him the power to discern, represent and rank neglected works. From his vantage point, above society’s nascent redeemers, he can categorise the opponents of true internal culture. The aristocracy, exhibitors of an ornamental ‘exterior’ culture, can no longer be looked to as exemplars of aestheticism and inspirational values. As a type he refers to them as ‘Barbarians’. The middle classes, towards whom Arnold’s attention is almost wholly drawn as a possible spawning ground for the perception and dissemination of true culture, misguidedly revere principles of action and utility, earning them their classification as ‘Philistines’. Society’s base rests uneasily on the inchoate working classes, the ‘Populace’, given to moments of foment and anarchy, in the absence of any guiding cultural light.
As an undertow to society’s transient dissatisfactions runs a perennial pattern of ascendance, dominance, and usurpation between the vying dualistic forces of ‘Hebraism’ and ‘Hellenism’. Their alternative rise and fall determines the status of culture at any given time in history. Hellenism is humanity’s primary expression of ‘spontaneity of consciousness’, evincing the reflective traits that aspire to the truest representations in literature, poetry and religion. Hebraism advocates ‘strictness of consciousness’ and manifests laws of conduct, control, duty and action, providing a necessary corollary to the premature excesses of Hellenism. Arnold perceived a series of’checks’ and countercurrent within nineteenth-century society that hindered the reemergence of a refined Hellenic perspective, gone to ground for the duration of Hebraisms prolonged rule. Culture reclaimed, recognised and acted upon is the key to betterment. A Hellenised future will be characterised by democratic harmony and the pursuit of perfection within a traditional social hegemony. The tutors in this evolutionary venture, the civilising voice of culture, so to speak, will come from a culturally empowered middle class.
Tags: Cultural Studies , Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism , Essays in Criticism , Literary Criticism , Literary Theory , Matthew Arnold
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