Friday, 4 May 2012

Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism


The son of Thomas Arnold, the founder of Rubgy School immortalised in Tom Brown's Schooldays, Matthew Arnold, 'though no mean poet, probably achieved greatest fame as a literary critic.

His two collections of essays, published nearly 20 years apart, comprise both more general pieces, such as his seminal "The function of criticism at the present time", and sketches of individual authors, including Byron (of whom he gives a useful corrective evaluation) and Shelley (who he puts the boot into for his womanising).

Three of Arnold's benchmarks for great literature were that is should have meaty content pertaining to what he called "high seriousness", that it should function as a criticism of life and that it should convey its weighty matter in the "grand style" by attaining near perfection in form and diction.

Even those who criticise him for being unable to apply in his own work the disinterestedness that he called for in other critics appreciate the comparative method that he applied to poetic studies. Many people would also agree, at least in broad terms, with his ranking of the titans of literature, with Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Milton and Goethe to the fore. (Virgil appears not quite to have made the grade.)

Again, many would not quibble with his relegation of the likes of Shelley and Byron, even if his judgments on Shakespeare - too little high seriousness - and Keats - too many sentimental letters to his fiancee - are particularly contestable. Like almost all critics, Arnold was at his best when writing about writers he particularly admired, who in his case were often foreigners little known in Britain (for example, Joseph Joubert and Heinrich Heine).

Arnold's "big picture" approach and his penchant for the epigrammatic style make him particularly fruitful in terms of quotations.

Thus, from his "Pagan and medieval religious sentiment":
"I wish to decide nothing as of my own authority; the great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way and to let humanity decide"
which is a great soundbite even it has been rarely practised (least of all by Arnold himself).
And this on his fellow Victorian Lord Macaulay from his essay "Joubert": 
"Lord Macaulay was a born rhetorician; a splendid rhetorician doubtless, and, beyond that, an English rhetorician also, an honest rhetorician; still, beyond the apparent rhetorical truth of things he never could penetrate; for their vital truth, for what the French call the vraie vérité, he had absolutely no organ; therefore his reputation, brilliant as it is, is not secure. Rhetoric so good as his excites and gives pleasure; but by pleasure alone you cannot permanently bind men's spirits to you. Truth illuminates and gives joy, and it is by the bond of joy, not of pleasure, that men's spirits are indissolubly held."
Who would be content merely to dub a rival "the great Apostle of the Philistines" when you can write like that?

3 comments:

gunlaw said...

Poem on The Occasion of My dearly beloved and Only beloved's Somethingth Birthday

She woke to the hearing of harbour and neighbour wood

in, um, Hong Kong, whose Amalgamated Union of Hole-Borers, Pile Drivers and Metal-Bashers, should

Stop

Amen

The End

Anonymous said...

Susan Li has the best legs in town. Why cant we have a poem about that?

ulaca said...

Not from Dylan Thomas, at any rate, Nonnie. He's been dead for nearly 50 years.