Arnold, Matthew

Assigned: Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (684-703); from Culture and Anarchy, from Chapter 1. “Sweetness and Light” (703-10). Also read the editors’ introduction (681-84).

“The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864/1875)

1. On 684-85 (“Many objections have been made…”), according to Matthew Arnold, what sort of “critical effort” (684) is developing in mid-nineteenth-century France, Germany, and Europe more broadly? By contrast, what seems to be the attitude towards that effort in Great Britain? Arnold invokes the celebrated Romantic poet William Wordsworth as an opponent with respect to the value of criticism—what examples drawn from English criticism does he offer by way of countering Wordsworth’s reportedly low opinion of that activity?

2. On 685-86 (“The critical power is of lower rank…”), Arnold freely admits that “the exercise of a creative power […] is the highest function of man” (685), and says we can know this because it generates “true happiness” in those who exercise it. All the same, what two things does he suggest should be “kept in mind” (685) when a person makes this admission? How broad is the scope of the creative power in terms of the activities wherein it may be seen to operate, and what social and intellectual conditions are required for it to thrive? What service must the “critical power” perform for artists if the latter are to create in a favorable environment—that is, what vital relationship does Arnold assert between the critical and creative powers?

3. On 686-88 (“Or, to narrow our range…”), while Arnold continues to set forth his ideas about the creative and critical powers and the relationship between them, how does he use the English Romantic poets of the preceding generation as an example of what can go wrong with the untimely exercise of the creative power, or “genius”? In what sense might it be said, at least from Arnold’s timebound perspective, that Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley and other Romantics “did not know enough” (687) to produce works of lasting value? What was supposedly lacking in their social and intellectual environment that would make such durability possible, and that was available to Shakespeare and Sophocles in their respective times? Finally, how does Arnold construe the significant achievement of Goethe in Germany, even though there was no “glow of national life” (687) in that country to carry the great artist along while he lived?

4. On 688-89 (“At first sight it seems strange…”), Arnold offers measured but considerable praise for the French Revolution of 1789. Why, according to him, did the Revolutionary Era in France (and Britain) fail to produce the creative ferment of, say, Classical Athens or Elizabethan England? (688) Even so, what was the Revolution’s greatest and most admirable strength? In this regard, how does Arnold contrast it with England’s own Civil War Period of the 1640s, so that the French uprising deserves to be called “the greatest, the most animating event in history” (689)?

5. On 689-90 (“But the mania for giving an immediate…”), having praised the French Revolution, Arnold now offers trenchant criticism of it. In his view, what proved “fatal” (689) to its viability in the long run? How does Joseph Joubert’s phrase (translated), “Force till right is ready” (689) encapsulate Arnold’s understanding of where the Revolution went wrong and made its “grand error,” which, he says, “created, in opposition to itself […] an epoch of concentration” (690), a term that refers to the conservative and military response on the part of Europe against Revolutionary France. How did France, according to Arnold, bring these troubles upon itself?

6. On 690-91 (“But Burke is so great because…”), Arnold follows up on his prior statement that conservative English philosopher Edmund Burke was “the great voice of the epoch of concentration” (690) brought on by the excesses of the French Revolution. What main quality does he now praise in this philosopher—a quality that he says distinguished Burke sharply from the majority of his fellow English citizens? What most impresses Arnold about Burke’s reflection on genuine progress in human affairs (691 top), as opposed to the pace and quality of transformation precipitated by the French Revolution? How should we relate this analysis of Burke on the French Revolution to Arnold’s persistent claims about the role that intellectual criticism, fueled by the “critical power,” ought to be playing in Great Britain during the Victorian Era (1837-1901)?

7. On 691-92 (“For the Englishman in general is like…”), Arnold turns back to consideration of his own Victorian Era. In his opinion, what vital conception—one prevalent in Europe—“hardly enters into an Englishman’s thoughts” (691)? Why is this missing notion or conception essential to genuine criticism? To what extent does Arnold apparently feel hopeful that in his time, an “epoch of expansion” is beginning to take hold in England—what factors in this possible change does he identify? (692) How much faith does he put in the notion that Great Britain’s commercial success will contribute to a change in that nation’s receptivity to new ideas?

8. On 692-93 (“It is of the last importance that…”), Arnold introduces a key term in his critical vocabulary: “disinterestedness” (692). What does it mean to approach a topic in a spirit of disinterestedness (as distinguished from being “uninterested” in that topic)? How, according to Arnold, can critics achieve this spirit or stance of disinterested contemplation of affairs? What main activity should they pursue in this spirit, and what will be the most important benefit in the public sphere when they do so?

9. On 693-95 (“It is because criticism has so little…”), by way of identifying the attitudes and forces in Victorian life that are getting in the way of Great Britain’s intellectual progress, Arnold refers us to what he considers the unwise pronouncements of Sir Charles Adderley and John A. Roebuck. What does he find objectionable in their optimistic statements about England’s current condition? Arnold contrasts their optimism with a reference to a lamentable story about a woman named Elizabeth Wragg who stood accused of killing her newborn child out of desperation (the trial is covered in the London Times, March 15, 1865; their online archive allows you to view the article). What is Arnold’s complaint about the newspaper headline “Wragg is in custody” (695)?

10. On 695-97 (“It will be said that…”), what key objection does Arnold anticipate against his view of British society’s need for disinterested critical activity instead of heavy engagement on the part of critics and intellectuals in the political and social sphere? (695 bottom) How does he counter this objection, which, as he acknowledges, holds sway in mid-Victorian England? (695-96) Why can’t popular writers and public figures such as William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle, or John Ruskin convincingly make the case for disinterested pursuit of culture? (696) What rather equivocal pronouncement does Arnold offer middle-class “Philistines” who insist that to deal with ideas in a highly motivated and even political manner is the right path to progress? (696 bottom) How does he sum up the views of the Philistine supporters of the Liberal Party? (697)

11. On 697-700 (“How serious a matter it is…”), how does Arnold use his tussle over interpretation of Bishop John Colenso’s biblical commentaries as an example of what happens when a culture critic gets involved in the daily back-and-forth of intellectual affairs? Which faction became upset with Arnold over his remarks about the Bishop (a fellow liberal), and why did they take offense? (698) What is his response to such critics? What problem does Arnold have with Bishop Colenso’s way of bringing scientific research to bear upon religious texts? (698-99) Similarly, what objection does Arnold apparently have with “updaters” of religion such as Frances Power Cobbe? (698-700) 

12. On 700-01 (“For criticism, these are elementary…”), Arnold discusses the sort of “dissatisfaction” (700) that should go along with the “disinterestedness” he has already praised and declared necessary to the work of the critical project he advocates. In what sense should English critics and intellectuals, in his view, be willing to show their dissatisfaction with the solutions proposed by others, and indeed with those ever-“practical” institutions and ideas by which England lives? As an instance, what criticism does Arnold level against the contemporary divorce court proceedings as covered by British newspapers? (700) At the same time, at what points must criticism be “patient” (700) in its handling of such imperfect institutions and ideas, and why should it remain resolutely “disinterested” in its “mode of seeing them” (701)?

13. On 701-03 (“If I have insisted so much…”), Arnold addresses the need for English critics to reach out to the literatures of Europe (past and present), and not to remain so closely focused upon native literary texts. How does he justify this advice, and as a reply to those who insist otherwise, what general assessment does he make of the state of contemporary English literature? (701-02) Finally, what vision of Britain and the European Continent does Arnold set forth as the proper sphere for a truly productive critical effort? What should this broadly conceived Continent take as its own province of knowledge? (702-03)

14. On 703 (“There is so much inviting us…”), what concluding thoughts does Arnold offer regarding the critical project he has been advocating, and on the measure of genuine creativity that may be enjoyed even by the critic? For those involved in this critical project, what is most likely to prove “the best distinction among contemporaries” and most certainly “the best title to esteem with posterity”? Does Arnold seem hopeful that his program of disinterested attempts to know the world’s best thoughts will, in fact, make a difference in the real lives of ordinary English people? Provide evidence from the text to back up your view.

15. General question: What would a cultural studies, post-colonial or other similarly “engaged” modern critic most likely say about Matthew Arnold’s insistence in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” upon disinterestedness, a term that connotes staying objective and above the fray of everyday politics and social strife? Try to build up a critique of Arnold’s master concept—how might it be criticized as escapist or irresponsible in the face of the many pressing social and political problems besetting even the wealthier countries of the world? (A good way to spark such a critique is to ask oneself, “what would Marx, based on his own ideas about how art relates to the socioeconomic order, say about Arnold’s refusal to engage directly with politics, the economic system, and so forth?”) What final assessment do you yourself arrive at with regard to a brand of criticism that remains studiously aloof from political and social issues?

16. General question: Towards the end of “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” Matthew Arnold describes his notions of a modern nation’s intellectual life and the educated individual’s place within it. For those who have read T. S. Eliot’s claims about poetry and criticism in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” how might Arnold’s ideas be a source for Eliot’s ideas about judging the merits of past literary efforts and advocating what is needed in contemporary art and criticism?

17. General question: In this course, we may be reading twentieth-century proponents of critical formalism such as American New Critics (John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, and others) who advocate a variety of criticism that treats literary texts as more or less isolated, independent “objects” of study, and refuses to draw heavily upon external fields such as biography, history, philosophy, or “the world outside” more generally in its attempts to arrive at the meaning of the text in question. To what extent does modern formalism seem indebted to Matthew Arnold’s notion of critical “disinterestedness” in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”? Is that a strength for the New Critics, or does it open them up to some of the same criticisms that have been leveled against Arnold? Explain.

From Culture and Anarchy

From Chapter 1. Sweetness and Light (1867/1882)

1. On 703-04 (“The disparagers of culture make…”), how does Matthew Arnold redeem the word “curiosity” (703) from what he considers the misguided putdowns of those who do not mean culture in England well, or who fundamentally misunderstand what it is? How does he redefine the term to make it more descriptive and appropriate as a means of approaching what culture truly is? (704)

2. On 704-06 (“But there is of culture another…”), how does Arnold move beyond defining culture as stemming from “curiosity” (704) even though he has already somewhat recovered that term from misinterpretation? What, then, is his more accurate and expansive statement about the driving forces that underpin culture and account for its good effects on those who dedicate themselves to it? In responding, be aware that Arnold tends to offer definitions not in a single burst but instead by successive and fuller statements.

3. On 706-07 (“And religion, the greatest and…”), what similarities does Arnold assert regarding the workings and motives of religion and culture? (706) What animates and drives them both, and connects people who live in accordance with their imperatives? In what one important sense, however, does culture, according to Arnold, outstrip religion in its aims and good effects with regard to human development? (706 bottom-707)

4. On 707-09 (“If culture, then, is a study of…”), Arnold, having already said much about the nature and operation of culture in the life of Great Britain, identifies a number of the forces that make the study of culture there not only necessary but urgently so. What does Arnold apparently mean by his repeated terms “mechanical” and “machinery” (707 and following)? What are some of the things that middle-class Philistines tend to think of as all-sufficient when those things are, in Arnold’s view, merely machinery, or mindless mechanical possessions and pursuits, instances of quantity over quality? How, according to Arnold, does culture breed a healthy dissatisfaction with overreliance on such “machinery”?

5. On 709-10 (“But bodily health and vigour…”), Arnold borrows Jonathan Swift’s terms “sweetness and light” (710) from that author’s satirical work, The Battle of the Books, to indicate the ideal state towards which culture drives humanity. How do you interpret these two terms “sweetness and light”? Moreover, how does Arnold’s classicism come to the fore towards the end of our selection? How does Arnold define the Stoic Greek term εὐφυής (710, euphuēs), and how does it encapsulate the role he believes the classics should play in fostering the pursuit of culture?

6. General question: Arnold first published Culture and Anarchy in 1867, three years after his essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time.” Arnold acknowledged in the earlier essay that many of his readers might fairly consider the work of “criticism” to be frustratingly slow in delivering practical benefits to society. Do you think his remarks in our selection from the later text, Culture and Anarchy, are in part a response to such a critique? Or, on the contrary, does his account of culture as “a study of perfection” (707 and elsewhere) in that volume make more or less the same claim as the earlier essay? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake